If you remember headlines about angel dust and crack, you know that drug panics are nothing new. From time to time an intoxicating drug is rediscovered or newly synthesized, or old ones are consumed in new ways, leading to public fascination and forecasts of doom. We’ve seen that recently with widespread attention paid to fentanyl and tranq, and a recent article in The New York Times about “super meth” and “polysubstance use.”
The November 13 Times piece headlined “‘A Monster’: Super Meth and Other Drugs Push Crisis Beyond Opioids” consists of a high panic to substance ratio. As Reason‘s Jacob Sullum pointed out, “super meth” is not new, but represents a return to making methamphetamine from phenyl-2-propanone (P2P) the way the Hell’s Angels did in the past before illicit manufacturers started deriving it from pseudoephedrine. Now that allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine are strictly controlled, underground labs have returned to old techniques.
Well, of course. Black market operators always innovate to work around laws and law enforcers.
The rest of the of the article, on the simultaneous consumption of several drugs, is equally unremarkable, though outcomes remain as unfortunate as ever.
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Speedball By Another Name
“The United States is in a new and perilous period in its battle against illicit drugs,” writes the Times‘s Jan Hoffman. “The scourge is not only opioids, such as fentanyl, but a rapidly growing practice that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels ‘polysubstance use.'”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Intentional polysubstance use occurs when a person takes a drug to increase or decrease the effects of a different drug or wants to experience the effects of the combination.” If you’re wondering if this is really a new thing that never occurred to anybody before, the answer is a big, fat “no”.
John Belushi “died March 5, 1982, of an accidental overdose of heroin and cocaine — known as a ‘speedball,'” the Chicago Sun-Times observed in 2020 after the death of Cathy Smith, who injected the comedian with that asking-for-trouble cocktail.
Mixing fentanyl and meth, or downers and uppers of all sorts, or any type of mutually reinforcing intoxicants is an old practice for aficionados of the perfect high. Done with moderation, you might end up with caffè corretto—Italy’s “corrected coffee” with booze added to espresso. Done to excess, you could get a junky face down in an alley—or a famous comedian DOA in an expensive hotel room. The problem is that prohibition encourages stronger drugs which can be more easily smuggled in small packages, and illicit manufacturing produces products of unreliable purity and potency.
Iron Law of Prohibition
People who disapprove of drugs want to end their use, but consumers have never demonstrated a willingness to comply. Sellers always arise to meet their demand. Drug innovation to evade prohibitionists, and making cocktails of those drugs, is inherently more dangerous than legal markets.
“Hoffman’s report brings to mind a 2018 University of Pittsburgh study I frequently cite, showing the overdose death rate has been on a steady exponential growth trend since at least 1979, with different drugs in fashion and predominating among overdose deaths at different times,” comments Jeffrey Singer, an Arizona-based surgeon and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, in response to the Times piece.
Singer attributes endless innovation in ever-stronger drugs and the rise in resulting overdoses to the competition between prohibitionists and illicit suppliers to outwit one another.
“The iron law of prohibition — ‘the harder the law enforcement, the harder the drug’—means we can expect more potent and dangerous forms of drugs to continue to arise,” he adds.
If you blend “more potent and dangerous forms of drugs” in “polysubstance use” (or just speedball it) you’re going to add risks on top of risks. The results can be tragic, but they’re less the result of drugs than they are of restrictions and prohibitions that inevita…