35 Fentanyl Deaths: The Cost of Prohibition

Thirty-five people in British Columbia died from fentanyl in November. Nine died on one day. The responsibility for these 35 fentanyl deaths lies with our draconian prohibition laws.

Humans have altered their consciousness with substances since before Christ. Many of us do it today with state-sanctioned drugs like alcohol or prescription pills. People like to get high, creating a demand for substances which are not provided by the state. That’s the reality that we have to live with.

Cocaine sold legally in 1885

Some portion of the population is going to use criminalized substances for recreation, just as some will abuse tobacco and alcohol, despite the widespread knowledge of their respective harms.

To the degree that we criminalize substance use with the threat of punishment, the more we create the necessary conditions for a black market. A black market is a pure market because it is unrestrained by the state. Contracts and agreements are enforced by violence, intimidation and bribery. Market share is determined by the law of the jungle. Demand is not reduced by enforcement because the black market responds to counteract all and any of those efforts.

One of the responses to drug enforcement is for producers to  deliver “more bang for the buck”. This means packaging dosages in smaller units to avoid detection, and generating higher revenues for every gram produced. This type of drug marketing is little different than how liquor is sold in retail outlets: the tiny bottles by the till are not full of beer, but rather a few ounces of scotch, rye or tequila. Marketing one or two ounce bottles promotes impulse buying, is more profitable, and can be concealed by buyers for illegal consumption in public.

Powdered cocaine morphed into crack cocaine because of the pressure applied by law enforcement on the Colombian drug cartels in the 1980s. US drug traffickers distilled crack from cocaine to make smaller units which could be sold to consumers at relatively low prices (e.g., $5-$10 per hit). The Clinton administration responded by legislating higher penalties for possession of crack relative to larger amounts of the powdered version. Crack and cocaine usage dropped as law enforcement broke up the South American cartels, only to have amphetamines and their derivatives replace that market.

Fentanyl and carfentanil are the latest responses to the globalized market conditions imposed by law enforcement. Heightened security at distribution points requires greater stealth by producers of these opioids. However, the unregulated status of these drugs creates the conditions for the kind of fatalities that we are now witnessing.

Imagine a society where medical professionals informed our responses to the natural human tendency to alter consciousness. Opiates would be available, by prescription, to those who are “clinically indicated” to benefit from the drug. The problems associated with drug addiction will not disappear, but the criminal organizations which depend upon prohibition will be put out of work.




RCMP and Hells Angels: Not as Different as We Think!

A lawyer practicing in Nanaimo once told me, “There’s only two gangs in town. One has a clubhouse and the other has a headquarters”.

The lawyer’s views were informed by what he considered to be the group’s ability to avoid convictions for breaking the law. When I later thought about what he said, the similarities between the organizations stirred my sociological imagination. As outrageous as the comparison may seem, there’s an element of truth to his comparison. Consider, for example, the following elements of these two social groups:

  • Both can be identified through their highly visible ‘uniforms’ which display paramilitary symbols and nomenclature indicating the organizational rank and status of their members.
  • The RCMP crest and Hells Angels insignia are copyright protected.
  • The RCMP and HA have fortress-style work/meeting places which exclude members of the public except on official business or by invitation.
  • Both groups elicit public deference – if not a certain element of fear.
  • Each group has a sophisticated process to screen membership. Members can be sanctioned by the group for rule infractions, up to and including banning members.
  • Both groups have a process for evicting members for breaking the rules – even if they have not broken the law.
  • The groups have public events (e.g., the RCMP Musical Ride and Nanaimo’s ‘Angels Acres’) to generate public support and funds for their respective organizations.
  • The Mounties and the HA have public relations designates who speak on behalf of their organizations.
  • Both groups have internal, specialized elite squads which protect key leaders (e.g., the ‘Nomads’ and Prime Minister Harper’s RCMP security detail).
  • Some young men aspire to members of either group, attracted to the social status and potential for upward mobility within the organizations.
  • Both groups raise money for charity (e.g., “Cops for Cancer” and participation with a Christmas “toy ride”).
  • Both organizations claim their members are generally law-abiding except for the occasional “bad apple”.
  • Both groups use force, including lethal force, to achieve their respective organizational mandates.
  • Members of each group are relatively insulated from conviction for homicides involved in the course of their activities.
  • The groups both stage ‘memorial rides’ for their ‘fallen members’.

There is something which attracts people to groups like these which offer camaraderie, public respect, and material security. The “gang”, broadly conceived, can be any identifiable status group including teachers, physicians, professors, and trades people such as mechanics and electricians (and their respective unions or professional organizations).

The sense of belonging and identity which gangs offer people can be developed to help foster a safer community. More on that topic in my next post: How compulsory military service will drive crime downward and foster healthy communities.

My apologies if I have offended members of either group with this comparison.