When Latin percussion god Tito Puente died some years back, The New York Post speculated that a 40-year cocaine addiction had finally caught up with the man. This piece of gossip turned out to be of (to say the least) dubious veracity, but it stuck with us nonetheless. That’s because it got us thinking about whether or not cocaine use inevitably leads to addiction, one of the central tenets of the “Just Say No” campaign that was inescapable during our Reagan Era youth.
The issue is more salient than ever, now that skepticism about the War on Drugs appears to be reaching critical mass. With marijuana seemingly headed for decriminalized status in at least a handful of states, will there eventually be an organized movement calling for a similar rethink on cocaine?
We’re not yet convinced that the emergence of a National Organization for the Reform of Cocaine Laws (NORCL) would be a good thing, but we are curious about the evidence attesting to the true nature of coke’s addictive powers. The typical Drug Warrior stat is that three-quarters of those who try the drug will become addicts. But as with so many figures spouted by those with a vested interest in maintaining blanket prohibition, this number is never accompanied by credible sourcing. Much more believable, then, is the state cited in this New York Times piece:
According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science, 32 percent of people who try tobacco become dependent, as do 23 percent of those who try heroin, 17 percent who try cocaine, 15 percent who try alcohol and 9 percent who try marijuana.
Those stats alone aren’t enough to sway us into the NORCL camp. But another data point worth considering are the conclusions found in the World Health Organization’s 1995 report on cocaine use (PDF). The report, allegedly suppressed by the U.S., clearly doesn’t regard occasional cocaine use as any more deleterious to personal and public health than good ol’ drinking:
In all participating countries, health problems from the use of legal substances, particularly alcohol and tobacco, are greater than health problems from cocaine use. Also, in many countries, chronic problems related to poverty, hunger, infectious diseases, war and social disorder overshadow any health problems related to cocaine use. Most participating countries agree that occasional or experimental cocaine use does not typically lead to severe or even minor physical or social problems.
Yes, we’re well-aware of the downside of what the WHO describes as “intensive use”—in fact, we lost a cherished family member to the habit. But we’ll confess to having an Economist-style libertarian streak, as well as a love for scientific reason. If cocaine is, indeed, far less addictive than commonly advertised, shouldn’t we at least start having the conversation as to how it might be effectively brought aboveboard and regulated?