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The Harder They Come...


new internationalist
issue 224 - October 1991

Popular myth has it that heroin and cocaine are especially harmful because they are instantly addictive. The truth is less dramatic. Like all drugs they can be dangerous, but no more so than legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco. Prohibition makes heroin and cocaine more harmful because of the violence, ignorance and fear that come with it. Here are some simple facts about these two hard drugs.

illustration by CLIVE OFFLEY HEROIN
Properties: a derivative of morphine, the classic analgesic – pain-reliever – which in turn derives from the opium poppy. A water-soluble powder, sometimes sniffed or smoked, but more often injected into the vein.

Effects: stimulates, then depresses the activity of the central nervous system. Frequently it produces an initial surge of pleasure, followed by a dream-like state that lasts for two to six hours.

Risks: addiction is often likely, but is not automatic. Only 12 per cent of GIs addicted in Vietnam had re-established the habit three years after returning to the US. Damage to health: if taken in chemically pure form, there are no adverse side effects other than mild constipation. Overdose: a large dose reduces the rate of breathing and can lead to death. But addicted people develop tolerance, making it difficult for them to overdose.

Harm: Many overdose deaths result from poor general health, rather than acute intoxication. The danger of infection, including HIV, is increased because prohibition restricts the availability of clean syringes. Harmful impurities are common because there is no control over the dilution of pure heroin. Crime and violence result from the criminal world being the source of supply. Heroin itself does not produce violence, but users may resort to crime to finance their habit.


illustration by CLIVE OFFLEY COCAINE
Properties: a stimulant extracted from the leaves of the coca bush, used in one of two forms. As cocaine hydrochloride, a white powder, it is inhaled through the nose. But cocaine can also be dissolved in water and injected, or reduced to Crack and smoked.

Effects: euphoria followed by depression.

Risks: addiction is uncommon but possible, particularly when used in the Crack form. Studies show that it is rare for moderate use to lead on to heavy use. Damage to health: Among heavy users there is increased likelihood of heart attack, brain haemorrhage, panic attack, liver damage, psychotic episodes, delusions and violent behaviour – especially when taken with other drugs. Overdose: extremely dangerous and sometimes fatal. Victims become excited and confused and subsequently undergo convulsions, depression, coma and in severe cases death from respiratory depression or heart failure.

Harm: because the expansion of the illicit cocaine market is relatively recent, knowledge remains restricted. Most moderate or recreational users experience no long-term adverse effects. The same harm from impurities, crime and violence applies as with heroin.

This account is based on Bruce K Alexander, Peaceful Measures; Canada’s Way Out of the ‘War on Drugs’, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1990; Mary H Cooper, The Business of Drugs, Congressional Quarterly Inc, Washington, 1990; UN Chronicle, May 1987; Peter Cohen, Drugs as a Social Construct, University of Amsterdam, 1990.

[image, unknown]
Illustrations: CLIVE OFFLEY

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New Internationalist issue 224 magazine cover This article is from the October 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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