Over at NaPP, Burt has a post up about an utterly horrifying phenomenon (of which I knew nothing until today) occuring in Russia as a consequence of decreased heroin supply. He writes:
The war in Afghanistan (remember that one?) clearly is resulting in, at long last, a decrease in the opium poppy trade, and the concomitant decrease in the global supply of recreational heroin. Apparently, heroin has become next to impossible to obtain in Russia, not from law enforcement activity but rather because there just isn’t enough of the stuff making it out of Afghanistan.
The invisible hand works in the illegal drug market in Russia the same way it works in markets for legitimate products in Western nations. Supply and demand are the drivers, and when demand is high and supply is low, the market will find a way to return to equilibrium. In the case of Russia’s heroin market, the void left by heroin’s sudden unavailability has led chemists to manufactue substitutes. To meet the void left in the illegal narcotics market, some genius in Russia has concocted “Krokodil“.
You can learn more about Krokodil by clicking on the embedded link. In short, it’s an injectable narcotic compound created by cooking codeine (available without a prescription in Russia) and such other ingredients as lighter fluid and gasoline. The effects on the body are gruesome, as one might expect when one considers what’s being injected. There are no pictures in the linked article, but the descriptions are vivid enough. Reading the article reminded me of a particularly grisly scene in “Infinite Jest,” during which an addict shoots up heroin adulterated with drain cleaner. Krokodil doesn’t work quite so fast, but the end results seem about the same. From the article:
Injection sites turn flesh grey, green and scaly until gangrene skin peels away and bone is exposed; it can lead to amputated limbs.
Photographs of addicts are shocking, to say the least. Exposed bone from wrist to elbow, arms look more like the half-devoured limbs of a zombie than a living human.
Burt rightly notes that making heroin more difficult to obtain has had little effect on the use on injectable narcotics by addicts. In fact, successful interdiction of the comparatively safe heroin has led addicts to melt their bodies and brains away with a terrible chemical substitute. Unless Russia’s desired drug policy is for addicts to more rapidly kill themselves off (an outcome the cynic in me does not find totally implausible), making heroin unobtainable has been worse than a failure, and actually created medical problems that would not otherwise have existed for this patient population.
In my experience, the legality of a substance has been incidental to an addict’s use. Certainly people willing to inject themselves with a street drug of any kind have already crossed a threshold, and are willing to disregard personal well-being in pursuit of a high, with the law being the faintest forgotten consideration. I imagine that more people would be willing to try marijuana if it were legal (and probably also cocaine), but I also suspect that most people who avoid heroin or crystal meth do so because they are really, really bad for you, not because they’re illegal.
Conversely, most people who drink alcohol do so safely and responsibly. Some drink irresponsibly and suffer legal or social consequences. But the number of people who die of cirrhosis, or who go into delirium tremens when they stop drinking is very small compared to the vast number of people who consume the substance. Perhaps some small number of the comparatively very small number of severe alcoholics would have been spared this fate had alcohol been illegal, but it makes no sense to prohibit the majority from consuming alcohol to prevent the suffering of the minority. It’s obvious that there’s more to becoming an alcoholic than simply being able to take a drink without legal incumbrance.
People who want to use a substance will find a way to do so, as our failed national experiment with Prohibition demonstrated. People who want to do drugs recreationally find a way to obtain them. Addicts will go to whatever extreme necessary to get their fix. Were heroin to be decriminalized, I have a hard time believing that many more people would use it. By continuing our benighted war on drugs, we fail in our goal of significantly reducing addiction, and simply make the addicted more desperate.