This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Some people claim that every line you snort, pill you swallow, or spliff you smoke is a deeply irresponsible act. Have you considered, you selfish idiot, the harms caused to humans and the environment by the dirty, violent, exploitative trade behind your stash? It's an argument that, on the surface, scuppers the classic drug-taker defense: What's the problem as long as I'm not harming anyone else?
It's true: Drugs are not the most ethical products around, as some very good articles on the wider impacts of using cocaine, weed, and ecstasy have pointed out. Cocaine—despite its traditionally sophisticated image—is maybe the least ethical of them all, and the authorities use this in an attempt to reduce the huge demand for the drug in the UK.
As the UK's National Crime Agency's #EveryLineCounts campaign puts it, cocaine users are "feeding an industry which funds the exploitation of impoverished people, which routinely uses death, violence, and destruction, and destroys and pollutes large areas of rainforest." Journalists have attacked their dinner-party friends for sucking up lines of blood-stained coke while preaching about fair-trade coffee, animal cruelty, and human rights. In their minds, there is a big difference between addicts worthy of sympathy and the "revolting hypocrites" who take drugs for mere pleasure.
But wait: To what extent are the Brits getting a little bit fucked colluding in the narco war in Mexico, the Mafia killings in Naples, and toxic pollution caused by Amazonian jungle labs in Colombia? Are they actually responsible for the worst excesses of the global drug trade? Is a British coke user really any worse than an egg-eating chicken murderer?
Blaming drug users for the harms caused by the drug trade is like blaming voters for all that's wrong with contemporary politics. Choose your scandal: Iraq, MPs' expenses, cash for questions, cronyism, or all the political parties being rubbish. After all, you voted, so it's all your fault. This logic depends on ignoring everything else that's broken in politics. Similarly, vilifying drug users for the damage caused by the illegal drug market depends on a simplistic understanding of how it works.
It's almost impossible to disentangle the harms caused by the drug business and the harms caused by the fact it's a criminalized industry. Drug production causes harm to the Amazonian rainforest, but only because the cocaine labs that ooze out such toxic chemicals are located there in order to avoid detection. Drug mules die swallowing capsules, but only because of the cat-and-mouse game played at airports. A mule can easily carry up to five kilos in a specially made surfboard or suitcase, but can only swallow around a kilo. The only reason that smugglers have been swallowing drugs again is in response to the widespread introduction of x-ray machines at airports.
The ridiculous profits to be made from producing, trafficking, and dealing drugs—entirely a construct of prohibition—means the drug trade is steeped in a toxic cocktail of weaponry, weak states, political strife, organized crime, and corruption, from Naples and Mexico City to Guinea Bissau.
The illegal drug market does not entirely operate like a legitimate one, despite some similarities. For example, drug use can be driven by the availability of drugs, not consumer demand: This can be seen in the growth of drug use in production zones and trading routes, most recently in West Africa. Consumers have little control or influence compared to legitimate markets. Would a mass cocaine boycott in the UK actually prevent the harms connected to the trade? Unlikely: The cartels would simply seek out new markets elsewhere.
The bottom line is that dealing with the problems associated with drugs is much more complex than just encouraging people to stop taking them.
But what is undeniable is that the consumer choices of individual drug users have a minimal impact compared to regulating the beast, a move that could vastly reduce the associated harms, in the same way that the end of prohibition dealt a blow to all the illegal booze runners in the US. Right now, for example, Mexican drug cartels are increasingly being hit in the pocket as the US moves to legalize cannabis markets.
The drug trade is not inherently a dirty one, anymore than coffee is. Cultivation and processing could be done in an environmentally friendly way. The coca plant grows easily, requiring little in the way of pesticides, and can be happily grown alongside food crops, making it potentially a sustainable crop.
There is no reason that fair trade cocaine can't exist, potentially even as a "green" crop connected to sustainable development and the long-term alleviation of poverty. Violence and corruption are hardly necessary for the trade to function. If the distribution of drugs was regulated, it would be removed in a large part from the hands of criminal gangs, dramatically reducing the violence and exploitation. This scenario depends on legalization, not a global boycott.
But let's be real. The end of cocaine prohibition is not going to happen in the foreseeable future. Although most people who use illegal drugs are not happy that they must buy from a corrupt and damaging trade—and are some of the most vocal campaigners for drug-law reform—they cannot use their ideal world as a crutch; they have to make a moral decision based on the here and now.
As Tom Wainwright, author of Narconomics, an investigation into the global drug industry, explained: "The current system of prohibition makes it impossible to buy drugs such as cocaine without funneling money to mass murderers. And surely under these circumstances the only morally right thing to do is not to buy them, rather than carry on sending money to El Chapo and co. Imagine paying for sex with trafficked prostitutes—'If prostitution were legal the traffickers would be put out of business, so it's not my problem.' Not very persuasive, is it? Identifying that the government's approach is wrong and in need of reform doesn't mean that consumers no longer need to think about where their money goes."
Ethical consumerism is a minefield. Virtually nothing you buy via the global economy is completely ethical, not even cashew nuts. Even our closest friends, iPhones, are forged in the pit of hell. Choosing what to do with your own cash is a personal matter.
But unlike legal markets, drug buyers have little choice when sourcing substances. Who knows, perhaps that bag of cocaine you are buying could be funding a paid cartel assassin. Perhaps it helped to pay for a week's food for a destitute family of Colombian farmers for whom growing coca is the only way of earning money. The illegality of the trade makes it completely impossible to know.
So what can a concerned drug user do if they want to use drugs in an ethical way? Unfortunately, recent waves of drug laws in the UK have made it even harder for users to access ethically-produced drugs. Magic mushrooms—potentially the ultimate organic, free-range drug—have been illegal since 2005. Most recently, nitrous oxide joined the ever-expanding banned list.
The only way to avoid exploitation, environmental damage, and corruption might be to grow your own, although growing weed is a thirsty business. Mind you, homegrown cannabis has zero food miles, and growers are even developing lower energy production. Home growing also takes away profits from those organized criminals involved in cannabis farms connected to child trafficking.
As of yet, there is no ethical cocaine, despite some claims to the contrary. If you want cocaine but feel bad about where your money is ending up, snorting it will of course help numb your guilt. Take a pill and the last thing you'll be thinking about are the chemicals dumped in forests in order to make it. Drug users who want to be ethical exist in an existential bind, forced into being hypocrites.
But forget about all the angst and the hypocritical coke snorters: The most tangible damage to people and the environment arises from criminalizing little green plants and states of mind. If we are getting down to basics, it is willfully neglectful and ultimately pointless—and hypocritical—to lay responsibility for the trail of bloodshed at the feet of drug users. Because the root cause of the human and environmental carnage is the system that created the mess in the first place.
Dr. Jennifer Fleetwood is a lecturer in criminology at the University of Leicester
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