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August 6, 2004 - The San Francisco Chronicle (CA)


By Jon Carroll

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Sometimes, when my tiny head is spinning with disinfotainment and other artifacts of the mediasphere, I try to think what archaeologists and social historians 2,000 years from now might make of our particular little epoch. How, for instance, would they parse the word "drug"?

Is a "drug dealer" a pharmacist or a petty criminal? When we talk about "reasonably priced drugs for seniors," are we discussing marijuana or Lipitor? What would they make of the fact that the last four administrations have declared a "war on drugs" while taking money from drug companies?

Why is it bad when residents of Colombia build mansions from profits on the sale of drugs, but it's good when residents of Newport, R.I., do the same thing?

When one person cannot live without "lifesaving drugs," we express great sympathy, unless that person is a "drug addict," in which case we may even throw him in jail. When a mood-altering drug is sold in pill form in stores, it's called an antidepressant and hailed as a medical breakthrough.

When a mood-altering drug is sold on the streets, it's called felony drug trafficking and subject to stiff criminal penalties.

Because we are native speakers of American, we can wend our way through the contradictions. We know that the bad drugs are the ones the cause euphoria and impair judgment, unless the drug is alcohol, but that's not ever called a drug, so there's no confusion there.

We know that the good drugs are the ones that cure diseases or relieve symptoms, except sometimes the good drugs are ineffective or even counterproductive in achieving those goals. Street dealers do not finance experimental trials on the effectiveness of the drugs they sell. Drug companies do, but they fudge the results.

Street dealers have a small feedback loop because customers can tell pretty quickly whether they're loaded or not. Drug companies have a long feedback loop because human beings can't instantly tell whether their cholesterol is being lowered or their blood thinned or their insulin production stimulated.

A drug with a long feedback loop is clearly more profitable than one with a short feedback loop because the dealer can keep an ineffective drug on the shelves much longer. Interestingly, the people who sell ineffective drugs are generally said to have made "honest mistakes."

If a street dealer sold you an ineffective drug, you could take five of your friends and go back and have a brisk conversation with him. If a behind-the-counter dealer sold you an ineffective drug, you'd have to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit and maybe, maybe, 10 years later you'd get some money, although probably you'd be dead by then.

Street dealers don't have patents on their drugs, which means that they'll always have plenty of competition. Drug companies do have patents, so they can set their prices without worrying about market economics. And when their patents run out, they can put out a drug with a slightly different formulation, promote it like mad and sell the new drug in a monopolistic setting.

You have to wonder when street dealers are going to come up with Cocaine XR or LSD Reditabs.

Since the street dealer works in a competitive atmosphere, he has to keep his prices relatively low. In order to increase his profitability, he can "step on" his product, that is, dilute it.

It would be unwise for a drug company to adulterate its product, but since it owns a monopoly, it can set prices artificially high and achieve the same profitability levels.

A street dealer who knowingly poisons his clientele is called "the scum of the earth." A drug corporation that knowingly poisons its clientele is called "a tobacco company."

People who sell illegal drugs often rot in jail for 20 or 30 years. People who sell legal drugs are often forced to attend tedious daylong board meetings. People who take illegal drugs are called "losers." People who take legal drugs are called "everyone in America."

Glad I'm not an archaeologist in 4040; my brain would ache a whole lot.

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