Suppose cocaine were legal to buy or sell without even a doctor’s prescription. What would it look like? Rat Zap Rat and Mouse Killer is a fantasy product designed as a possible answer to that question.
How We Packaged Cocaine for the Store Shelf
Looking for inspiration: currently legal drugs
We began by looking at two models of currently legal recreational drugs–alcohol and tobacco. We noticed in particular that these two drugs are readily available to adults, widely used and (for the most part) socially acceptable. Cocaine is currently none of those. One might envision legalized cocaine as something similar, but that vision overlooks the fact that alcohol and tobacco have a long history of being legal.
Though cocaine was both popular and legal for a time (most notably as a stimulant in early Coca-Cola), early 20th century smear campaigns against this particular “menace” were largely successful. Alcoholic beverages were illegal in the United States, nationwide, only between 1920 and 1933. Cocaine, by contrast, didn’t survive the sweep of prohibition fever; it has been illegal in the U.S. since 1914.
While alcohol and tobacco are demonstrative of favorable public attitudes toward addictive and unhealthy recreational drugs, it is impossible to ignore the degree to which these two legal drugs are etched into the public psyche as acceptable sources of chemical pleasure. They are seldom referred to as “drugs,” and if they are, they are usually distinguished from “hard drugs” like cocaine.
It would not be fair to assume that making cocaine legal by whatever means (it was beyond the scope of this project to speculate) would immediately erase the social stigma associated with it. Clearly, in the instance of cocaine, “legal” would not automatically translate to “safe” in the public mind. That would require a major transformation in public opinion, and we see no reason why such a transformation would occur in short time.
Granted, we see no reason why legalization itself would occur in the absence some kind of dramatic change, but nevertheless we located our hypothetical event in the current reality, as if it happened yesterday.
If we are to contemplate legal cocaine realistically we must adjust it to fit in a cultural setting where it is alleged to be powerfully addictive, possessing the ability to mentally take control of the user and become the center of a short and unproductive life. It is a setting in which public awareness campaigns might arise in response to legalization, but to further demonize the drug rather than help normalize it.
The real dangers of most recreational drugs come from frequent, excessive or long-term use, and in that sense cocaine poses no unique danger. One can die from an overdose of cocaine, but the same is true of alcohol and tobacco. (The nicotine fluid in electronic vapor cigarettes can be lethal if drank.) All are potentially lethal toxins when consumed in excess of what one is accustomed to. Nevertheless, there are important distinctions to note here which arise from public perceptions of legal versus illegal.
For example, problems stemming directly from prohibition are often attributed to the illegal drugs themselves. Thus cocaine is assumed by some to evoke criminal behavior, particularly robbery (spurred by greatly inflating the cost of an addictive product) and violence (when business disputes are settled outside the legal system). It is also associated with pushers–aggressively persistent dealers, who may even frequent playgrounds and offer free samples to children.
While such false attributions would likely diminish after legalization, public concern about the more credible dangers to users themselves would likely be amplified. For a vast majority of people the thought of children buying “nose candy” at the corner store is more horrifying than the playground pusher. In the immediate aftermath of legalization angry parents might band together and take matters into their own hands. Assaults on lone drug peddlers are a common form of “vigilante justice.” Store fronts only make for larger, more vulnerable targets.
The prospect of normally law-abiding citizens dishing out illegal street justice is not the only problem to consider. Some chronic cocaine users, no longer on the wrong side of the law, would attempt to publicly blame their source for giving them a health-damaging addiction. Likewise, some non-users would blame the cocaine makers and sellers for contributing to the untimely death of a loved one. A profusion of lawsuits, spurred by public sentiment against the once illegal drug, might eventually destroy the newly legal industry and drive cocaine back into the black market.
Whereas the health hazards of illegal drugs (including marijuana) are routinely exaggerated, the risks associated with (legal) alcohol and tobacco are paradoxically glossed over and minimized in a kind of cultural denial. Both alcohol and tobacco packages carry government-mandated warning labels which work to effectively mitigate lawsuits. Those labels on the packaging amount to a special grant of legal immunity, allowing the makers of alcohol and tobacco products to be absolved of responsibility for serious damages resulting from normal, intended use of their products.
Without such immunity cocaine manufacturers, distributors and retailers would be vulnerable to personal and class-action lawsuits. Going to trial would be a losing proposition for a company that sells cocaine indiscriminately for human consumption. It simply would not look good to a jury of twelve average people pondering whom to blame for cocaine-related deaths or disabilities.
We believe that, even in an atmosphere of legalization, to sell cocaine explicitly as a recreational drug or over-the-counter stimulant would be to invite liability on the sellers. The risks posed by cocaine are, in the public mind at least, very severe, such that a mandated warning label would be imperative for its sale as a recreational drug. However, we cannot simply assume the government would grant such a propitious regulation to the newly recognized cocaine industry.
For all the above reasons, we concluded that neither alcohol nor tobacco provides a suitable model for our hypothetical product. Current public opinion about cocaine is overwhelmingly negative, and that presents a problem that mere legalization will not overcome. What we need is a concept for product packaging that will somehow strike a balance between one minority segment’s demand for cocaine as a recreational drug, and the larger public’s revulsion at what that drug can potentially do to harm its users.
Looking again: exceptions to the rule
The currently illegal recreational drugs (like cocaine) are loosely distinguished by being mostly chemical extracts. Recreational drugs that are literally manufactured generally all have long histories of regulation or prohibition dating back to their initial surges in popularity. While their higher level of refinement is mostly an arbitrary distinction (liquor is also a refined, manufactured product), it seems to carry a lot of weight with regard to differences in social acceptability among the various recreational drugs available.
We would be remiss not to point out that there are exceptions to the above rule regarding “hard” and “soft” drugs. The most glaring is marijuana. This commonly used, naturally occurring hallucinogen (causing distortion of perception) has a legal classification in the U.S. as Schedule I–the most addictive, most dangerous. (Cocaine is a lesser Schedule II.) As an unrefined, organic substance with few ill effects, marijuana seems a logical candidate for legalization. This paradoxical aspect of U.S. drug prohibition has long been criticized.
The anomaly in the pattern of prohibition shows up in public opinion polls, where majorities support legalizing or at least decriminalizing marijuana (as some states have done). Such a change would clear up what many see as an inconsistent message that undermines warnings about the dangers of “harder” drugs. But we note here that opinion polls show virtually no support for legalizing or decriminalizing any of those other illegal drugs.
The health-damaging potential of cocaine (like that of alcohol or tobacco) contrasts starkly with that of marijuana, which is mostly myth. Since marijuana’s initial surge in popularity and subsequent backlash culminating in nationwide de facto prohibition in 1937, public hysteria about its dangers has been waning. Most available evidence now suggests it is entirely safe for recreational use, with no possibility of fatal overdose. Moreover, the use of marijuana or its psychoactive chemical, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), as medicine is a promising field, particularly in the area of cancer treatment.
For these reasons we rejected marijuana legalization as a model for legalized cocaine.
Another common recreational drug that seems to defy the rule is methamphetamine. Classified as a Schedule II controlled substance (high potential for abuse and dependence), the drug is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and chronic obesity. As with cocaine, excessive use of methamphetamine can result in stimulant psychosis. The adverse reactions to withdrawal after frequent use are actually more severe than with cocaine, rendering it more addictive.
First synthesized in in 1893, methamphetamine did not become widely popular until the 1950s when it was medically prescribed for a wide range of conditions including fatigue and unwanted weight gain (as an appetite suppressant). Fears about the drug’s addictive nature escalated, culminating in classification as a “controlled substance” in 1970. As prescription use declined, clandestine manufacturing expanded. New manufacturing methods devised in the 1990s made synthesis cheaper and easier, ensuring its continued availability despite expanded attempts by the government to control it.
Even as its popularity as a recreational drug has increased, the air of legitimacy methamphetamine once possessed has vanished in a flurry of added restrictions, which now include limits on the sale of a common decongestant, pseudoephedrine, from which methamphetamine can be synthesized. As a prescription drug (brand name Desoxyn), methamphetamine is rarely prescribed by doctors. Legal methamphetamine production is tightly controlled by the government. Packaging is required to bear a specifically-worded warning label about the dangers of addiction and heart attack.
The real paradox here involves other psychostimulant drugs which are remarkably similar in effect to methamphetamine. Methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine, most notably, are so commonly prescribed as treatment for ADHD (under the brand names Ritalin and Adderall, respectively) that daily use by children has become socially acceptable.
Methamphetamine and other amphetamine-like stimulants have a long history of use as internal medicines that continues to the present day. The “war on meth” is only a concern with its unregulated manufacture. By contrast, internal use of cocaine as a medical treatment abruptly ended when it was outlawed in 1914. For a century cocaine has been purely a recreational drug. It has no recent history, nor current alternate identity, as a widely-proscribed psychoactive pharmaceutical.
Though perhaps incidental to the natures of the drugs themselves, these different histories led us to conclude that amphetamines, while strikingly similar to cocaine, do not provide a suitable model for a legalized product.
Applying other models: a cheap, safe poison
Marketing cocaine as a local anesthetic is one possible way around the legal issue. This was a common use before synthetic substitutes like procaine (Novocain) were created. Liquid cocaine hydrochloride is still approved by the FDA for limited use as a topical anesthetic and vasoconstrictor.
Sold legally without prescription under the guise of a pain-relieving cream, our all-cocaine product could be labeled, “For topical use only. Do not ingest.”
Nevertheless, there is a big drawback to this model. We would necessarily be talking about an ointment to be applied to the skin, whereas the demand we really aim to fill is for the common powder form suitable for sufflation (administration by nasal inhalation). So there would have to be a method of conversion back to powder. But, to maintain the ruse, no instructions for the process could be included.
Although it might deter some from using the drug, labeling the powdered product as poison would seem to circumvent the liability problem entirely. The question then is, what kind of poison?
The obvious choice would seem to be an insecticide. Coca and other plants of the genus Erythroxylum synthesize complex molecules called alkaloids, one of which (chemical symbol C17H21NO7) is cocaine. This is an evolutionary adaptation by the coca plant to control insects that feed on its leaves.
In insects, cocaine acts as a reuptake inhibitor for a crucial neurotransmitter, octopamine, which regulates some vital functions. The leaves of coca plants cultivated in high elevations may be up to 10% cocaine by dry weight. Hungry insects essentially overdose on the inhibiting substance, lose those vital functions and die. This makes cocaine an effective, naturally-occurring insecticide.
Once we move beyond the realm of pharmaceutical applications, however, cost becomes an issue. One outstanding feature of cocaine is its notoriously high price. This would seem to make it impractical for use as a pesticide if much cheaper options are readily available. But in fact, the current street price of cocaine in the U.S. ($50 – $100 per gram) bears almost no relation to the actual cost to produce it. One of the aims of prohibition is to drive up the price, and in its absence cocaine would likely cost significantly less.
The extravagant price of cocaine (like that of most illegal drugs) is mostly due to costs incurred circumventing prohibition. Smuggling costs, involving large payoffs to organized crime syndicates that protect Central and South American trade routes, are a big factor driving up the price before the product is imported. Once in the U.S., additional markups in price occur during the long chain of distribution from the border to the local street corner. Domestic markups alone may total as much as 15 times the import price.
It is difficult to say what the price of cocaine would be in a world without any restrictions on it, as prohibition imposes extra costs at every level of production and distribution. Estimates vary wildly, and often presume strict government control and a high excise tax (making any such estimate ultimately arbitrary). But even factoring in the added taxes, licensing and regulatory burdens, legalized cocaine would probably be much cheaper than under prohibition.
Consider also that soon after entry into the U.S. a process of dilution normally begins. Powder cocaine coming from South and Central America is nearly 100% cocaine hydrochloride. Stateside the white powder is cut (paired) with any number of harmless substances, quite often powdered stimulants and anesthetics that not only look similar, but mimic the physical effects of the psychoactive chemical.
Most stateside cocaine is only pure in the sense that there are no hazardous foreign substances as are found in coca paste and coca base–-the partially-refined forms smuggled between clandestine refinement labs in South and Central America. As an imported product, cocaine comes fully refined, so there is virtually no risk of ingesting refinement chemicals.
Generally the purified import will be cut by half, doubling its volume. From there it will pass in diminishing bulk quantities to a multitude of dealers, all of whom will be tempted to enhance the volume even further. Hence the cocaine sold in small quantities in the U.S. (usually an eighth of an ounce, commonly called an eight-ball) is heavily cut, almost never pure.
The practice of cutting is so common that among large-scale dealers there is widely known to be a serious danger of lethal overdose from this pure cocaine as it comes from South America. Even an experienced cocaine user could accidentally administer several times his or her usual dose.
For our hypothetically legal product we are obliged to reduce the potentially lethal purity down to a safe but respectable 20%–about what one might expect when purchasing a few grams from a street dealer. We can use lactose (milk sugar)–-a common cutting material–-to make up the bulk, which we accurately label, “Inert ingredient....lactose...80%”.
With a four-to-one dilution figured in, legalized cocaine would probably be cheap enough to be marketable as a poison. The high sugar content of our product would help the water-soluble toxin cling to plant surfaces when mixed with water and sprayed on with a standard insecticide sprayer. But most importantly, it could be labeled, “Harmful or fatal if ingested.”
Again we looked to the real world for a comparable model. We found that something like this approach has been tried with a similar drug and failed. In the late 2000s a number of “designer drugs,” commonly marketed as bath salts, became so popular that authorities felt compelled to crack down. The drugs themselves are indeed hydrochloride salts in chemistry terminology, but not the Epsom salt, baking soda, borax, and other crystalline powder chemicals found in ordinary bath salts.
Sold in quantities of just half a gram, these drugs are synthetic variations on cathinone–another naturally synthesized alkaloid, this one occurring in the khat shrub. Cathinone itself (benzoylethanamine) was declared a federally-controlled substance (Schedule I) in 1993. Like cathinone, these designer drugs are similar to amphetamines. They are psychostimulants, like cocaine, and their effect on the brain is similarly to boost the level of pleasure-inducing monoamines in the synapses between brain cells.
These newly designed drugs were marketed in convenience stores and smoke shops under various brand names, but usually as a bathwater additive only. (Presumably some of the drug would absorb into the skin during a bath, giving an invigorated feeling.) They proved to be powerfully addictive when smoked, snorted or injected, and were very popular as recreational drugs for a time. But the health-damaging effects from repeated use were so appalling that most states passed laws specifically to prohibit the sale of “substituted cathinones.” Federal legislation followed suit in 2012.
It is worth noting once again that we are hypothesizing the legalization of cocaine in spite of the public bias against it. But this is not to say that that bias can be ignored. It would not be a practical answer to the question, What if cocaine were legal?, if the product being offered for sale would logically trigger the same kind of legislative backlash that “bath salts” did. Yet this is exactly the situation with our proposed cocaine insecticide product. While we are making cocaine legal hypothetically, we still need a way keep it legal realistically in the face of predictable public reactions.
A unique approach: harnessing hysteria
Insecticide may be the obvious choice of poison, but it is not the only one available to us. As emphasized above, social bias weighs heavily against this particular drug. While this may seem a hindrance to our efforts to craft a marketable cocaine product, we can actually use that bias to our advantage if we make it a credible people poison.
As mentioned above, cocaine inhibits the reuptake of octopamine in insects. In mammals, dopamine is the neurotransmitter inhibited from reuptake. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure. In humans this flooding of the brain with dopamine causes a feeling of confidence and contentment. But the feeling reverses when the drug wears off. This mood-deflating crash, combined with the learned association of the drug with pleasure, can lead to desire for and, later, dependence on the drug.
A similar effect seems to occur in other mammals. Experiments have shown that under certain laboratory conditions rats taught to self-administer cocaine will do so until it kills them. This suggests yet another use for our product: rat poison. The high sugar content would make it tasty bait and the cocaine hydrochloride would keep them coming back for more. As addiction set in, the sugar-laden blend would gradually replace their normal food source. Presumably they would die from an eventual overdose.
Realistically, the lure of cocaine is probably not strong enough to kill rats anywhere except in a laboratory. Only when completely deprived of engaging stimuli (toys, treats, other rats) do the lab rats succumb to their cocaine use. But as a model for legalized cocaine, rat poison fits the requirements better than any other examined here.
Judging from its current status as felony contraband in virtually every country in the world, cocaine is widely thought to be a killer. It is a safe bet that no government regulatory authority nor anti-drug advocacy group would risk shattering that perception by pointing out that our product is not proven to work.
Hidden in plain sight on the shelf of a local hardware store, next to other (truly deadly) poisons, our product would be a low-profile temptation that is in no sense glamorous or enticing as a drug. Of course, some naive consumers would inevitably use it on rats or mice and (we presume) have no results. But if the product failed to work as directed then a simple refund would be in order, with no one being the wiser.
© 2013 Rat Zap Tshirt
Rat Zap Tshirt is not intended to promote cocaine use, sale, or distribution, either as a recreational drug or rat poison. Nor is it intended as an argument for or against drug legalization or the War on Drugs. T-shirt and website exist solely to stimulate debate about issues involving personal responsibility and public health.
RatZapTshirt.com does not support or oppose specific laws and is not affiliated with any organizations– governments, parties, corporations, unions, cartels, gangs –that seek to legalize cocaine or, conversely, support cocaine prohibition. Nor is it affiliated with any manufacturer of pesticide or rodent control devices. Ratzap, Rat Zap, and Pure Cocaine are not trademarks of RatZapTshirt.com.