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How Unethical Is Buying Cocaine?

Your baggie of white powder was brought to you by beheadings, torture, and deforestation in the Amazon. How bad should you feel about that?
Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Zxc

The benefits of buying cocaine are obvious: It makes you feel interesting and tingly for a few minutes, plus people will be nice to you if you give them some. The drawbacks are a bitter taste on the back of your tongue, the possibility of an overdose, or debilitating addiction, and prison if you're unlucky or careless.

Oh, and there's also the vague feeling that somebody, somewhere, got beheaded or tortured so you could feel interesting and tingly for a few minutes.


That vague feeling has been around for a while. In 1982, Harper's published an opinion piece by David Owen called "Boycott Cocaine," designed to guilt trip the Reagan-era literati about its collective cocaine habit. "Murder is as much a part of cocaine culture as tiny silver spoons and rolled-up hundred-dollar bills," Owen wrote. He cited dozens of murders in Miami in 1981, and noted that "in the first four months of 1979, 240 people died in drug feuding in the Colombian resort town of Santa Maria."

If any readers were won over by Owen's boycott idea based on a three-digit death toll, they would only be more apt to shun cocaine based on more recent reported body counts. According to a PBS report last year based on numbers released by the Mexican government, between the years 2007 and 2014, 164,000 people were murdered in the country—27,000 in 2011 alone. PBS noted that one report linked 55 percent of Mexico's murders to the cartels, but those estimates were criticized elsewhere, so it remains unclear how many deaths were tied to cocaine.

Other relevant numbers are useful in linking that violence to cocaine in particular. In 2011, the peak year for murder in Mexico, an estimated 546 metric tons of cocaine were smuggled into the US—mostly through Mexico—according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In its most recent Drug Threat Assessment report, the US Justice Department noted that "current cocaine users outnumbered heroin users by approximately 5 times in 2013," the most recent year with such data.


And cartels do more than just increase murder rates. Shockwaves from drug-related crimes reverberate throughout an entire affected country, such as the terrifying mass kidnapping of 43 Mexican college students in 2014. The slow response to that crime, which appears to have been masterminded by the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, sparked a period of civil unrest that lasted for months. Mexican citizens have so little faith in local law enforcement, a recent government survey suggests that only 10 percent of violent crime in Mexico is ever even reported.

"As a consumer, you're part of the chain," Professor David Schwartz, Randolph College ethicist, and author of the book Consuming Choices: Ethics in a Global Consumer Age, told VICE. Along with the manufacturers and distributors of a product, Schwartz explained, "consumers share in the moral culpability for such unethical practices, because in the end, they receive a tangible benefit from these practices—they receive the consumer product itself, whether that be clothing or cocaine."

According to a Los Angeles cocaine dealer in his 20s who calls himself "Ra," distributors of cocaine are only vaguely aware of the troubling fallout from the drug trade. "Random people being offed, and stuff like that? I don't know anything about that," he told VICE. He did say he knew dealers who had relatives in Mexico who had been in danger, but he'd certainly never heard of a cocaine buyer expressing any concerns. "On the consumer side right now, nobody gives a shit. They can be vegan and still blow lines. Human bloodshed is fine for you, but animal bloodshed, no. It's kinda ugly in that sense for sure."


While reports of drug-related violence more often come from Mexico these days, cocaine has had an enduring impact on the 1980s cocaine stronghold of Colombia, as well as its neighbors Peru and Bolivia, where almost all coca plants—from which cocaine is derived—are grown. Paradoxically, according to Sanho Tree, director of the drug-policy project at the Institute for Policy Studies, the farmers themselves long for the seemingly endless cycle to finally break. "It's not just a livelihood for [farmers]. It's one that many of them no longer want, because there's just too much blood and violence associated with it," Tree, who observes Colombian coca farming and cocaine production firsthand, told VICE.

But the Colombian and US governments have already tried to raise consumer awareness about the ecological impact of nose candy for years. Former Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón launched an environmentalist campaign in the UK in 2008 and in the US in 2009, attempting to spread the word about "shared responsibility," and guilt trip middle- and upper-class cocaine users to give up their precious yeyo. But given the US and Colombian culpability in the enormously destructive spraying of herbicide in the Amazon rainforest in order to choke cocaine farms to death, such past campaigns reek of Roundup and hypocrisy. "It's disingenuous to say the least," Tree said.

Related: Check out our report on Greece's problem with the drug sisa


But Schwartz remains optimistic about a cocaine boycott's chances of improving the drug's ecological and humanitarian footprint. "I think sometimes consumers sell themselves short as to what effects they might have," he offered. As an example, he pointed to the way in which outrage about the torturous deaths of the cows that became McDonald's hamburgers gave way to extensive reforms in slaughterhouses. "Obviously, nobody can change a system as one person," he said, but he added that with social media, "it's a hell of a lot easier to get something on people's radar."

But short of a laughable scenario in which some of the world's deadliest gangs adopt nonviolence and sustainable agriculture, it's tough to imagine what positive change in the cocaine world would look like. But even Ra the coke dealer would love to see improvements. He suggested that narcos could arrange with farmers to have a "grow-op that's humane." Either that, he said, or "somebody has to start doing it in America, but it's crazy. Where the fuck would you do that?"

Tree said the climate looks right in Florida, and noted that, "Hawaii had [coca] plantations back in the day," but he pointed out that those are small islands, and therefore easier to police than relatively lawless equatorial Latin America. Unlike weed, which you can grow in a small space like a closet and get a nice side business going, cocaine doesn't work that way. You need "an acre minimum" if you want to see a usable amount of white stuff according to Tree, so "the economies of scale just aren't there."


In short, don't expect to see labels on your cocaine advertising that it's made in America, or that it's "cruelty free" anytime soon (or if you see them, don't believe them).

But if you must insist on putting powder in your nose, according to Schwartz, you can do what people with guilty consciences about their carbon footprints do to sleep better at night: offset your economic sins with charitable donations. "With something like cocaine, one way to lessen one's culpability for buying a product intimately tied to such troubling practices is to financially support social welfare organizations or other groups seeking to help those who may have been harmed," he said.

For Ra, a crusade for change sounds great, but "that's not for now," he said. Ra's main worry in the meantime: "not getting my ass kicked."

If you really do want to give to an organization that helps out in Latin America—whether or not its because you feel guilty about buying cocaine—you could check out the work done in that region by ACCION International, OXFAM or Save the Children.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.