In the past ten years, we lost hope in American politics, realized we were being watched on the internet, and finally broke the gender binary (kind of). So many of the beliefs we held to be true at the beginning of the decade have since been proved to be false—or at least, much more complicated than they once seemed. The Decade of Disillusion is a series that tracks how the hell we got here.
Over the last 10 years, our narcotic landscape has been irreversibly altered. From the online drug trade opening its floodgates in 2010 to Denver decriminalizing magic mushrooms in 2019, this last decade has seen the biggest shifts in the drug trade and drug policy for half a century.
Some of these changes have been driven by science and technology, others by politics and money. Some have been positive, while others have proved deadly. But when we look back on the 2010s, we will see two forces at play: an increasingly resilient and deadly drug trade and a growing understanding that regulating it, rather than simply trying to annihilate it, could be the best way to stop it from spinning completely out of control.
Here’s how the last ten years changed drugs forever.
April 16, 2010: The U.K. Bans Mephedrone, Signaling the Rise of the Online Drug Trade and the New Synthetic Drug Era
When young people in Britain went crazy for mephedrone (a.k.a bath salts)—the new, cheap, legal high they could buy over the internet—the authorities were blind-sided. Although it was a potent drug, kids could get it legally and cheaply delivered to their doors, with no need for a drug dealer. From universities to remote villages, pretty much everyone of a certain age was on it. Still, few could have predicted that this cathinone, alongside the cannabinoid “spice,” would change the global drug trade forever. Together, they busted open the doors to a new, increasingly toxic breed of synthetic drugs often made in China, sold over the internet, and delivered not by drug dealers, but by postal carriers.
November 7, 2012: Colorado and Washington Becomes the First U.S. State to Legalize Cannabis for Recreational Use
While some states had already legalized weed for medicinal use, the legalization of just-for-fun weed was a major breakthrough. It triggered a mass social experiment— What actually happens when you legalize cannabis?—that has since been followed by eight other U.S. states, Washington D.C., and two countries (Uruguay in 2013 and Canada in 2018). Impact analysis is ongoing, but what’s certain is that the pandemonium that critics predicted —huge rises in drug use, addiction, and crime —has not played out.
June 6, 2013: Victor ‘Fat Boy’ Burgos Becomes One of the First Drug Dealers to be Charged with Selling Heroin Laced with Deadly Fentanyl
Burgos was arrested in May 2013 in Rhode Island after batches of heroin containing the synthetic opioid fentanyl, then a little-known drug on the underground narcotics scene, sparked a spate of fatal overdoses among his customers. Since then, the spread of fentanyl into America’s drug chain, on the back of a rise in opioid addiction, has led to a national opioid crisis. In 2017, synthetic opioids—mainly fentanyl—killed 28,000 of the 70,000 people who died from drug overdoses that year.
July 2, 2015: The UN Reveals a Big Jump in Cocaine Production in Colombia, Signaling a Global Resurgence of its Use
Colombia hit a record-low level of coca leaf production in 2013, seemingly symbolizing a rare moment of success for the global war on drugs. It turned out the dip was only temporary. In fact, all the money spent on eradicating coca fields and chasing down the producers and traffickers had failed to kill off the trade. Since then, coca cultivation in the country called “the world’s cocaine factory” has more than doubled, from around 70,000 hectares to 169,000 in 2018, resulting in worldwide rises in the use and purity of cocaine, as well as deaths associated with its trade.
August 28, 2015: The First Episode of Narcos Airs on Netflix, Cementing a Cultural Fixation with the Drug Crime World
Following the successes of The Wire and Breaking Bad, Narcos, a drama about the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, launched a cartel genre takeover of Netflix in the second half of the 2010s. Now in its fourth season—despite a location scout being shot dead in Mexico in 2017—the show helped fuel a drug-crime obsession among the viewing public. Meanwhile, as Americans watch safely from their couches, the region in which the show takes place has reached a record number of drug war-related killings.
May 9, 2016: Rodrigo ‘The Punisher’ Duterte is Elected President of the Philippines, Taking the War on Drugs to a New, Deadly level
As some jurisdictions in the West were legalizing drug use, Rodrigo Duterte was rising to power in the Philippines, in part on the promise that he would tackle the country’s meth problem head on. In May 2016, he carried out a massacre of drug users that he gleefully compared to the Holocaust. In the three years since he came to power, there have been an estimated 29,000 state-sponsored killings of people suspected of being drug users and sellers in the Southeast Asian nation, a “large-scale murdering exercise” including innocent victims killed in front of their children. Since, Duterte’s tactics have begun gaining favor in neighboring countries such as Indonesia and Bangladesh.
November 15, 2017: The UN Announced that Poppy Cultivation Had Reached Record Levels, Putting Another Nail in the Coffin of the Global War on Drugs
The U.S. has spent $1.5 million a day to fight the drug war in Afghanistan, causing the deaths of many civilians along the way, 16 years after US-UK forces invaded Afghanistan to pursue the Taliban and eradicate opium crops. Yet the country is still the world’s top heroin producer. In fact, the amount of opium poppy grown in Afghanistan spiraled from 74,000 hectares in 2001 to 328,000 hectares in 2017. Alongside the U.S.-led failure to stem the cocaine trade, the 2010s provided final proof that the war on the world’s biggest drug producers appears doomed.
November 15, 2017: Rapper Lil Peep Dies of an Overdose, Drawing Attention to the New, Synthetic Drug Menu Getting Gen Z High
On the same day that the UN made its opium announcement, news of another overdose rocked the music industry: Lil Peep died in Tucson at age 21 after taking fentanyl and Xanax. The tragedy sparked a backlash against Xanax in the rap community, but nevertheless marked a waypoint in the drugs we are taking. Young people are now getting high on an ever expanding array of lab drugs, from fake benzos and Mexican meth, to ketamine, GBL, and fentanyl-laced pain pills.
September 12, 2018: The FDA Declares Vaping an ‘Epidemic,’ and One of America’s Fledgling Drug Industries Takes a Nosedive
For those who weren't paying close attention (most of us), vaping appeared to come out of nowhere. Then, seemingly overnight, it was as if everybody in the country had a JUUL—or at least, way too many teenagers on the internet did. But almost just as quickly, the fallout arrived: By 2019, a spate of vaping-related illnesses and deaths—linked to vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent sometimes found in illicit THC cartridges—laid bare the mess that occurs when sales of vaping accessories are left unregulated.
May 7, 2019: Denver Decriminalizes Magic Mushrooms, the First Law Change in a Global Psychedelic Renaissance
It was only this past spring that Denver became the first U.S. city to decriminalize the possession of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms. And, as more labs carry out tests of psychedelics to treat mental health problems, the tide seems to be shifting nationwide. Oregon is considering a therapy-based legalization structure, other California cities—including the state itself—have succeeded or are pursuing decriminalization efforts, more donors are getting involved, and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland has plans to open up a new research center dedicated to psychedelics. As the decade ends, the potential of regulating—rather than prohibiting—drugs is being recognized. Yet whether this growing body of evidence can combat a century of damaging myth and propaganda about drugs? Well, we’ll find out in the next decade.