Does it matter that there’s cocaine in our water supply?
Scientists from the Drinking Water Inspectorate have recently discovered benzoylecgonine in water samples at four test sites, a finding that is thought to be a result of high levels of domestic cocaine consumption. Benzoylecgonine is the metabolised form of cocaine that appears once it has passed through the body, and is the same compound that is tested for in urine-based drug tests for cocaine. It is also an ingredient in a popular muscle-rub, however, so the origins of the compound in our water are somewhat uncertain. Steve Rolles from the drug policy think tank Transform has suggested that the findings are an indication of the scale of the use of cocaine in Britain today. According to a 2010 UN report, the United Kingdom is the single largest cocaine market within Europe, followed by Spain. In contrast to the shrinking cocaine market in North America, the number of cocaine users in European countries has doubled over the last decade, from 2 million in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2007/8. Although the annual cocaine prevalence rate in Europe (1.2%) is lower than North America (2.1%), the UK prevalence rate (3.7% in Scotland and 3.0% in England and Wales) is actually higher than the US (2.6% in 2008). According to the charity DrugScope, cocaine is the second most used illegal substance in the UK after cannabis: there are around 180,000 dependent users of crack cocaine in England, and nearly 700,000 people aged 16-59 are estimated to take cocaine every year. Further, according to the government statistics, in the years 2012-13, cocaine was the only drug to show an increase in use among adults between 16-59. All this does appear to suggest a possible link between the benzoylecgonine found in the water supply and high levels of cocaine use in the UK.
Does this matter? Should the discovery of cocaine in the water supply trouble us at all? Well, we can rule out any negative effects that it may have on our health. A recent report from Public Health England found that the quantities discovered in the water were unlikely to represent a danger to the public. I would like to suggest, however, that it does matter that there is cocaine in our drinking water. We should take these findings seriously, for two other reasons: (i) they have implications in regards to considering whether our current drugs policy is effective in its aims, if use appears to be so widespread (ii) they draw attention to the sense in which the UK is playing a key role in the cocaine trade through providing demand for the drug, rendering it complicit in an industry that is devastating South America, in particular, Columbia, where 90% of our cocaine comes from. Even though it is not certain that cocaine was the source of the benzoylecgonine, other research does suggest the prevalent and increased use of the drug, and it remains that the UK is one of the world’s biggest consumers. We ought to take those wider findings seriously also, for the same two reasons outlined above, and so a discussion is still worth having. It may not be conclusive that it was cocaine in the water, but this news story has served to draw attention to a pressing issue.
On the first reason as to why it matters that there is cocaine in our water supply: drugs policy. It appears that our current policy does not actually regulate drugs on the basis of the harm they cause. If it did, then we would be reclassifying certain illegal drugs, as evidence suggests they do less harm than legal substances like tobacco and alcohol. Professor David Nutt famously drew the comparison between alcohol and ecstasy, claiming that, on average, alcohol causes 22,000 premature deaths in the UK each year, while ecstasy causes 10. Alcohol is well known to cause brain damage, whereas the same has not been shown for ecstasy. Further, Nutt argues “in contrast to alcohol, ecstasy is less toxic in overdose as it does not cause respiratory depression or block the cough reflex and it is not addictive.” It would appear, therefore, that our drugs policy is inconsistent if we are regulating on the basis of physiological harm. It may be objected, however, that the policy makes sense if the main goal is to minimise overall harm. It may be somewhat inconsistent, but we have to draw the line somewhere. As we are not in a position to criminalise alcohol, we may as well limit the harm other drugs can do by criminalising them. However, this position may be untenable for two reasons. Firstly, it is not clear that criminalising drugs has the desired effect of minimising harm – their being illegal means they are more unsafe than they need be, often cut with other harmful chemicals, something that wouldn’t happen if there was a legal and regulated market. Criminalisation also carries with it a host of other harms relating to public health, such as the use of unclean needles, and has external harmful effects related to crime and black market activity. Secondly, even if it were sound to criminalise drugs to minimise overall harm, this still doesn’t explain the apparent inconsistency in how we classify particular drugs – it is not clear, on the minimising harm view why ecstasy is classified as class A, when it is evidentially and objectively far less physiologically harmful than heroin, say.
Cocaine, unlike ecstasy, is regarded as more harmful than alcohol, however. Perhaps, therefore, there are good harm-related reasons for its criminalisation. However, what exactly are we hoping to achieve in criminalising cocaine? Are we aiming for a cocaine free society? Its widespread use, indicated by its discovery in our water supply and by a number of other research studies, suggests that this aim is not being realised. If we are aiming to minimise harm, research would suggest that a significant number of people are being exposed to cocaine’s harms despite criminalisation. It may be interjected at this point that criminalisation is reducing potential harm, as it is plausible that more people would be using it if it were it legal. This is an empirical question, however, and it is not quite clear how effective an argument this is for criminalisation if the answer is basically inaccessible, as there are too many contingent factors. Further, even if criminalisation is reducing harm by deterring people from trying the drug, it is not clear that the hypothetical harm to these people is bigger than, or even significant enough to counterbalance the actual harm occurring through criminalisation, seen in the effects of organised crime both domestically and in South America, and through the health problems generated by forcing drug use underground. Moreover, even if criminalisation is serving as a deterrent, there are still a highly significant number of people using the drug and propping up a global cocaine trade. What we do know is that criminalisation doesn’t necessarily inhibit drug use. It is perhaps time, therefore, to have a more open debate on the aims and effectiveness of our drugs policy.
This seems unlikely to happen, however. Our current approach certainly appears to be more moralised than evidence-based. Professor Nutt, after all, was fired from his position as chair of the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for criticising the government’s failure to classify drugs according to the scientific evidence of the harm they cause. He has also recently claimed that drugs laws are preventing vital research into the potential therapeutic use of certain drugs. MDMA is thought to be able to help with PTSD and depression, and could also be useful in controlling some of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, while LSD is thought to be able to treat alcohol addiction. While I am not in a position to suggest any policy reform in this blog post, I would argue that at the very least a more open discussion could be had. It would appear, however, that the government is closed to having such a debate, with David Cameron recently rejecting calls for a Royal Commission (public enquiry) to re-consider our drugs policy, claiming that current policy is working. ‘Working’ according to what standard, however? Interestingly, as leader of the opposition in 2007, David Cameron suggested that as ecstasy was less harmful than other Class A drugs such as heroine and cocaine, it might be moved to a lower class. Nutt cited this in his paper, ‘A Tale of Two Es,’ lamenting that Cameron was then castigated by anti-drugs campaigners. He went on to write,
Despite being correct in his logic Cameron was forced to backtrack on his position because of the present highly charged public view that politicians must be ‘hard on drugs.’
Now that he is in a position of increased power and is more vulnerable to public scrutiny and pressure, Cameron has adopted a harder approach to drugs. A question worth exploring, therefore, is the reason our politicians take such an uncompromising anti-drugs position, despite countervailing scientific evidence. The moral outrage surrounding drugs is something that needs to be dissected if we are to move forward in addressing the reality of drug use and the problems raised by criminalisation.
The second reason as to why I think it matters that scientists have found cocaine in our water supply, is that it reiterates to us, as a nation, that we are complicit in a global cocaine industry that is having extremely harmful effects in South America. Cocaine is likely the most ‘unethical’ drug users can consume due to its association with gruesome cartel violence as well as the exploitation of farmers and the poor who are coerced into acting as drug mules. Columbia, the world’s leading exporter of cocaine, has seen 450,000 homicides since 1990, largely due to the cocaine trade. Between 2.5 and 4 million people have left their hometowns in the search for safety and hundreds of thousands of forest acres have been cut down to grow coca and build camps for the production of cocaine. For every cultivated hectare of coca, around three hectares of forest are destroyed. The trade is also thought to have had adverse effects on Columbia’s economy due to the diminishment of infrastructure and physical capital, among other issues. The Columbian government has also had to spend inordinate amounts on public funds and defence to combat the high homicide rate, insurgencies and eradicate cocoa plantations. All this occurs while we in the UK have the highest level of cocaine use in Europe. We are implicated in this violence and devastation through our prevalent cocaine consumption. We are complicit in so far as we provide significant demand. For this reason, we also share responsibility to address the situation. Iris Marion Young has provided a compelling argument that duties of justice transcend the boundaries of the nation state, that can lend support to this concern. In her social connection model of global justice and responsibility, she argued that claims of global justice are grounded in the fact that some structural social processes connect people across the world without regard to political boundaries. All agents who contribute by their actions to the structural processes and schemes of co-operation that produce injustice have responsibility to work to remedy these injustices. In regards to the injustices perpetuated by the cocaine industry, we are part of the process that causes them. If it can be seen that an injustice (homicide, exploitation, deforestation) has social, structural causes (the cocaine industry), then it would seem that all those who participate in producing and reproducing these structures (cocaine users) are implicated. Iris Marion Young addresses the analogous case of the global apparel/sweatshop industry in her account, arguing that we, as socially connected consumers bear responsibility for the poor working conditions and for their improvement. It would appear that the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (HAC) in its inquiry into The Cocaine Trade (March 2010) concluded with a similar view. They made the following recommendation in their report:
Given the unenviable position of the UK as one of the largest consumers of cocaine worldwide, the UK has a compelling duty to support Colombia in tackling cocaine production. In this context the £1million a year spent by the UK on anti-cocaine operations in Colombia does not seem very substantial, particularly when compared to the amounts invested by the EU and US. We therefore urge the UK Government to re-examine its development budgets to see whether more could be contributed to Colombian alternative developments schemes.
I would agree with the above statement and suggest that the recent findings of cocaine in the water supply emphasise the need for further discussion and action. Even if not correlated with actual cocaine consumption, this news story has at the very least drawn attention to an important issue, that is also supported by evidence from other research into UK drug use. The reality of the global cocaine industry is inescapable; its effects on South America are clear. It would also seem that we have a part to play, and that certain responsibilities follow from this.