A hit of fentanyl, anyone?

Welcome to Portland, Oregon

In case you’ve been living on another planet, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s about 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin.

Hence it enjoys booming street cred, making it a runaway marketing success. Because it’s so potent, pushers usually cut it with cheaper drugs. That lowers the street price of fentanyl, while still preserving its heroin-like effects.

All in all, one could say fentanyl gives pleasure-seekers the greatest bang for a buck, or rather three bucks, which is what American pushers typically charge for a hit. They enjoy a great deal of repeat business because fentanyl’s high potency is matched by its addictiveness. (It’s also matched by its ability to kill by overdose, the highest of all drugs.)

I’m not going to delve into the physiological and psychological nature of opioid addiction. Suffice it to say that I myself was once iatrogenically addicted to heroin (intravenous dimorphine, if you wish to be technical) for a short spell. That experience strengthened my conviction that addicts don’t quit not because they can’t but because they won’t.

Be that as it may, fentanyl is highly and quickly addictive, whether physiologically or psychologically or both – it’s immaterial for my purposes. What matters is that, instead of flushing fentanyl down the tubes, addicts send their lives in that direction.

This raises questions about the advisability of legalising fentanyl, or drugs in general. There exist many opinions on that score, but the two most salient ones are libertarian and conservative.

The two groups share many ideas and sentiments, mainly aversion to the big state. Both wish to devolve power to the lowest sensible level, both resent state involvement in private lives. The differences between them are those of degree and passion. Let’s just say that conservatives relate to libertarians the way the latter relate to anarchists.

Another difference is that libertarianism is an ideology and conservatism isn’t. That’s why conservatives are more likely to approach any issue on its merits, rather than relying on general principles, however sound.

When it comes specifically to legalising drugs, libertarians are always for it. So are liberals, the American word for lefties, who support any perversion as long as it strikes against what they call the establishment.

Conservatives – such as yours truly – tend to be against legalisation and even decriminalisation. My main concern isn’t the destroyed lives of the addicts: everyone is entitled to go to hell if he so chooses. What scares me is the unpredictable social effects.

Too many questions remain unanswered. Such as, would legalisation increase or reduce the number of addicts? If the answer is the former, then by how much?

Opioids in general don’t encourage aggressive behaviour, but cocaine and meth do. Would our streets be overrun by unsavoury and dangerous individuals whacked out of their minds? Would crowds of down-and-out addicts turn our streets into slums?

Unless we obtain satisfactory answers to such questions, we shouldn’t leap into the unknown by legalising drugs. So much more must we appreciate any empirical evidence available, no matter how scant.

The American state of Oregon is happy to oblige. In 2021, Oregon became the first state to decriminalise possession of small amounts of such drugs as LSD, cocaine, methamphetamine – and fentanyl.

Libertarians rejoiced and so did their etymological cognates, liberals – and Oregon is one of the most ‘progressive’ states in the Union. At last, the state pulled its fingers out of the drug-laden pie. People were free to make a choice, and most of them were bound to steer clear of the fruit no longer forbidden.

Over 60 per cent of the public agreed, happy that people were no longer risking imprisonment for acting on the old slogan: turn on, tune in, drop out. Surely that had to mean more people would make the right choice and there would be fewer addicts, fewer deaths from overdosing.

Alas, things haven’t quite worked out that way. Rather than solving the problem, the new law made it worse. For example, last year fentanyl caused 209 deaths in and around Portland alone.

A majority of the people now regret their support for the decriminalisation, and not just because of the overdose deaths. The number of homeless people went up by 29 per cent last year, and malodorous tent encampments have covered Portland’s pavements.

Now the people want that law repealed – they’d rather not see their cities turn into shanty towns. Overdoses they could live with, but the squalor is just too offensive.

Meanwhile, addicts are openly smoking fentanyl throughout the city centre, some of them barely conscious. Finally, Portland’s city council has had enough and issued a ban on hard drug use. Not so fast, countered the state. The ban won’t go into effect until the state has ratified it, and no one knows when that will be.

Since Oregon was the first state to decriminalise cannabis, in 1971, proponents of the slippery slope theory feel vindicated. Once cannabis becomes freely available, more people are encouraged to replace a slow spiritual and intellectual quest with a quick high.

Once their inner resources have been sufficiently depleted, and cannabis no longer has the same effect, they may well turn to the hard stuff, especially if it’s easy and, as with fentanyl, cheap. Such is the theory, and Oregon has kindly supported it with empirical evidence.

This is consistent with the experience of other places, such as Amsterdam, where so-called coffee shops have been legally selling cannabis for decades. And what do you know, studies show that 17 per cent of Amsterdam’s population also used hard drugs last year.

Proponents of legalisation argue that we might as well allow what we can’t effectively ban. True enough, whenever any government declares a war on drugs, drugs win.

Yet the same argument can be used for murder: it still happens even though it’s against the law. Does this mean murder should be decriminalised? Laws exist not only to eliminate an objectionable activity, but also to express society’s attitude to it.

Therein lies the problem, for modern societies are running out of moral arguments against drugs. Their growing use isn’t so much the reason for a social malaise as a symptom of it.  

Witness the fact that drug use in Britain was unrestricted until the 1868 Pharmacy Act and uncriminalised until the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act, yet there were nowhere near the same number of addicts as there are now. British society was healthier then, even if it was poorer.

Any criminal laws against drugs will be directed against the symptoms, not the disease. Yet anyone who has ever popped an aspirin for a bad headache will confirm that symptomatic relief is worth having.

3 thoughts on “A hit of fentanyl, anyone?”

  1. There is a movement within the counties of western Oregon (that is, away from the coast and Portland) to leave the state of Oregon and join Idaho (their neighbor to the east). It is common in many states for the large cities – New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago – to be extremely liberal while the rest of the state is somewhat conservative.

    Northern California and southern Oregon have become home to Mexican drug cartels. I don’t suppose this is linked in any way to decriminalization of drugs and lax enforcement policies of those that are still illegal?

  2. It’s not just Oregon, but a similar situation can be found many hundreds of kilometres north. Yesterday, I was on the road and had to brake hard to avoid hitting a group of barely ambulatory zombies attempting to cross the road.

    Just fifteen years ago, zombies existed only in low budget cult movies. Now they are a reality.

  3. Just google Kensington avenue Philadelphia and look at the video of which there is an abundance. That area has been ZONED in that manner to give the addicts a refuge. As with all opioids you can never enough of the drug, those druggies now only taking the fetanyl not for the euphoric high but to prevent themselves from being in pain. That hunch is referred to as “dope fiend hunch”.

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