The (Drug) War on 'Cheese'

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Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

The total failure of the Drug War to decrease drug use exemplifies this definition of insanity, and now it seems there is a new chapter. There is a new drug down in Texas. It is called "Cheese," and according to police Cheese is a combination of black tar Mexican heroin and crushed medications that contain the antihistamine diphenhydramine, found in products such as Tylenol PM. Tylenol PM is marketed as a combined analgesic and sedative, or more simply, pain reliever and sleep aid, to treat occasional headaches and minor aches and pains with accompanying sleeplessness. Heroin is an opioid, synthesized from the opium poppy, that mimics the action of endorphins, creating a sense of well-being. Cheese produces “A double whammy — you’re getting two downers at once,” says Dallas police detective Monty Moncibais. “If you take the body and you start slowing everything down, everything inside your body, eventually you’re going to slow down the heart until it stops and, when it stops, you’re dead."

The reaction to this new drug has been predictable. The DEA is "closely monitoring" the situation in Texas. According to DEA Special Agent Steve Robinson, the DEA is working with the City of Dallas to raise public awareness of the problem. Reread that last sentence. The DEA is going around Dallas telling people that there is a cheap, new drug available! Presumably this means there is a DEA-sponsored informational campaign that aims to inform the people of Dallas of a dangerous new drug and to try to prevent its spread to other cities. Only a government agency could believe that this will do anything but INCREASE the number of users.

The CNN website hosted an article about Cheese on its front page for several days. The coverage is sure to induce hysteria among parents, because Cheese is commonly being used by children in middle school. At one middle school assembly, the principal told all the kids that the United States is the world leader in youth drug use. The children cheered in response (perhaps appreciating the grand irony that is the Drug War itself).

If the United States is still the world leader in youth drug use, then we have been doing something very wrong for the last thirty-six years.

This connection is lost on policy-makers, police departments, and paranoid parents. These groups continue to propose and embrace the "total prohibition" tactic of controlling substance abuse. This tactic was a failure for alcohol in the 1920s and is a failure for drugs today. The newest propaganda campaign is called "Above the Influence." This campaign is made up of television commercials and a website that try to connect with a young, "hip" viewer with slogans like "R U Above it?" and other patronizing clichés. See it for yourself at http://www.abovetheinfluence.com.

The establishment insanity is further demonstrated by its ignorance of a simple truth: these kids probably just want to smoke pot! But because marijuana is illegal, the kids will try to get a similar high from another source that is easier to find or hide. The government ignores the basic rules of economics and tries to destroy demand by eliminating supply. This results in demand shifting to a similar (but not outlawed) drug, which is much more unpredictable and dangerous. The laws of supply and demand guarantee that someone will ALWAYS step in and find a product to satisfy this demand. The law of unintended consequences takes hold as demand shifts from pot to Cheese. Unintended consequences like demand shifting and drug binging are always the result of prohibition, yet some continue to believe that it will be different "this time," or that the drug warriors just need more money.

Prohibition yields another perverse result. In his book The Economics of Prohibition, Mark Thornton of the Mises Institute writes of the effect of prohibition on the potency of the substance that is prohibited. When a drug is prohibited, the potency of that drug rises, because the risk associated in its trade rises, and the "weaker stuff" now carries a lower benefit at the same cost. This results in the availability of a more dangerous drug than would be available if the drug were legal. The Cheese trade demonstrates this effect, as heroin is hardly a mild drug to begin with.

It is disturbing that our leaders have ignored other instances of this cycle with different drugs over the past several decades. When this writer was in high school (1997–2000), the alternate drug of choice was Ecstasy (also known as MDMA or Methylenedioxymethamphetamine). A few tabs of X could be purchased for very little. Ecstasy was legal and unregulated until May 31, 1985, when it was added to DEA Schedule I (the designation for drugs deemed to have no medical uses and a high potential for abuse). During DEA hearings to criminalize MDMA, most experts recommended DEA Schedule III prescription status for the drug, due to its beneficial usage in psychotherapy. The judge overseeing the hearings, Francis Young, made the same recommendation. Nonetheless, the DEA classified Ecstasy as Schedule I. Ecstasy was illegal when I was in high school, but the drug's relatively benign appearance, combined with the fact that its use does not result in clouds of distinctive-smelling smoke, made it an easier drug to hide. Many people ended up with lingering depression (serotonin syndrome) as the mood-boosting effects of X destroyed their brain's ability to create the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is associated with feelings of happiness and well-being. (Dunkley, E.J.C., et al., Hunter Serotonin Toxicity Criteria: a simple and accurate diagnostic decision rule for serotonin toxicity. Quarterly Journal of Medicine, 2003. 96: p. 635–642.)

Unfortunately, our leaders continue to embrace this insane policy, and the Drug War rolls on. Rather, it spends on. The modern drug war has been raging since 1971 when President Nixon declared that drugs were “public enemy number one in the United States.” Under President Nixon, the U.S. Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, on which the foundation of the modern drug war is based. Enforcement powers were given to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and then in 1973 to the newly formed Drug Enforcement Administration.

The total financial cost of the drug war was estimated at $12 billion in 2005 (pdf). Additionally, the U.S. government reported that the cost of incarcerating drug law offenders was $30.1 billion — $9.1 billion for police protection, $4.5 billion for legal adjudication, and $11.0 billion for state and federal corrections. In total, roughly $45.5 billion was spent in 2005 for these factors. The socioeconomic and individual costs of the incarceration of millions of people were not included. Also omitted were the financial and human costs of the military wars fought in the name of the “War on Drugs.” There are only two explanations for this outcome: either the drug war is a complete and utter failure, or the goal from the beginning was something other than lowering the number of people using drugs in the United States. The "War on Drugs," like all attempts at prohibition, will never accomplish the goal of eliminating drug use, and any "progress" towards that "goal" will by offset by tremendous financial and human costs in enforcement. The enormous leap in prison populations over the past 37 years demonstrates that reality. Individual drug use is none of the government's business. More importantly, the government is powerless to stop it.

Hopefully in the future the United States' Drug Policy will be based on science and common sense. Until then, we are stuck with insanity.

June 21, 2007