09/19/2016 03:56 EDT | Updated 09/19/2016 03:59 EDT

Legalize And Regulate Drugs Or Watch On As Pushers Peddle Poison

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Needle and spoon

A recent report indicated that 86 per cent of drugs tested at Insite, the safe injection sight in Vancouver, contain fentanyl, a powerful opioid that can make people sick and even kill them.

There are many reasons to end the war on drugs and to shift from criminalization to legalization and regulation. A main one is to prevent those who use drugs from being poisoned by tainted substances.

The dismal statistics on tainted drugs at Insite are by no means unique. Because recreational drug markets are illegal, they are, of course, not regulated. There are, therefore, no restrictions on what is sold and purchased. Substances can be adulterated in a variety of harmful ways. Cases of poisoning happen all too frequently. There are no safeguards against products that are tainted or are of unknown potency and no legal means of redress when damage from such drugs occurs.

Do we, as a society, take over and regulate the supply and quality of drugs or do we leave these issues to the forces of an unbridled market?

A 2015 story from Britain told of a woman who developed severe lesions on her body because her skin cells were dying. The cause was the effect of tainted cocaine that she had been using for some time. The drug was laced with levamisole, a substance used to cure worm infestations in cows and horses. One source suggests that this substance may be found in as much as 80 per cent of cocaine used in Britain.

In August 2014 two young people died as a result of drugs they had taken at an electronic dance music festival in Toronto. Their deaths were not a singular event. At that same festival, 15 other people were hospitalized (and survived). There had also been 22 hospitalizations during the Digital Dreams festival in June, and 29 at a DJ show in May. Tainted ecstasy (MDMA) is a particular culprit.

A systematic review of drug adulteration pointed to the fact that the lack of standardized forensic analysis and reporting practices has made it difficult to establish with any confidence the extent to which drugs are tainted in any way. The review concluded that drugs are often adulterated with benign substances that enhance or mimic the effects of those drugs. At the same time, it found that a lot of drugs are dangerous because of impurities often resulting from production, wrapping, etc.

One response to these issues is to claim that users should just stop -- "Stop buying drugs, stop using them. You can't get sick or die if you don't put this stuff in your body!" Some might go even farther and suggest that the possibility of harmful adulterants or infections is a useful deterrent to use. Those who aren't stopped by criminal prohibition are faced with the prospect of getting sick or dying because drugs are unregulated and trafficked in by those who have no concern for the safety and welfare of others. And there may, indeed, be some who are deterred from use because of the prospect of being poisoned by tainted substances.

Sadly, however, the opposite is also the case. Despite criminal prohibition and the prospect of becoming ill or even dying, people still do drugs. So we are faced with a wrenching dilemma: Do we, as a society, take over and regulate the supply and quality of drugs or do we leave these issues to the forces of an unbridled market operating in a dark underworld in which such poisons can be peddled?

Those are the stark choices.

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