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A Scientist's Surprising Analysis of Human Drug Use Over the Centuries

  1. Beenthere2Hippie
    Conducting an economic analysis of drug use is a particularly difficult endeavor, but for Michigan State University professor and economist Siddharth Chandra, it just meant taking a look at the history books.

    "You can't simply go to Wal-Mart and look at the sticker price, and people don't want to talk to you because drugs are illegal and they think they'll get in trouble, " Chandra said. "Our study is the first time the subject of how populations of consumers switch between drugs is being studied with data considered reliable."

    To find reliable economic data on drug use, Chandra, also the director of the Asian Studies Center at MSU, had to look back to early 20th century India, when the region was still part of the British Empire.

    "One hundred years ago these products were legal. In British India the government was actually selling these things to the public, and they kept meticulous records," Chandra said.

    In his study -- the first of its kind -- Chandra pored through stacks of 100-year-old ledgers, called Excise Administration Reports, kept by the governments of the various provinces of India. Interpreting these data, he found surprising results about the economics of drug use behaviors. Despite the stark differences in the effects of opium vs. cannabis on the human body, the study shows that users would switch between the two drugs when the price of one went up -- in economics, a phenomenon called substitution.

    "The time, place and context are different, but the phenomenon is there. You might think consumers would treat them differently," Chandra said. "But just because the two drugs used are very different, doesn't mean people won't switch."

    Opium, used legally to make the pain medicine morphine and illegally to make the drug heroin, is a highly addictive and potent depressant with potentially lethal side effects. Cannabis, also known as marijuana, is a less potent drug that produces a sense of relaxation and euphoria when used, usually through smoking or ingestion. These differences only came into consideration when analyzing cannabis in its weakest form, a drug called bhang, which consumers would not substitute for the more potent opium.

    "There are many policy implications for these results," Chandra said. "Targeting a particular drug with policies and enforcement might backfire."

    Chandra pointed to the epidemic of heroin, a product of opium that is relatively inexpensive and is devastating some communities in the United States.

    "Many people know someone who has been affected by heroin -- it is a very dangerous drug," Chandra said. "But prohibiting harmful drugs selectively can be ineffective. Consumers may switch."

    Michigan State University - Science Daily/Nov. 5, 2015
    Photo: Siddharth Chandra
    Newshawk Crew

    Author Bio

    BT2H is a retired news editor and writer from the NYC area who, for health reasons, retired to a southern US state early, and where BT2H continues to write and to post drug-related news to DF.


  1. perro-salchicha614
    This sort of thing actually did backfire when the US pressured Laos to pass a law against opium in the 70s. This law made opium much more difficult to transport, which led to an increase in heroin use, because it was more profitable relative to the increased risk. Opium remained legal in Laos far longer than anywhere in the West, so it presents a really interesting (relatively contemporary) example of the detrimental effects of switching from opium to synthetic opioids.
  2. scartissue_68
    This "Economics of Substitution" just happened AGAIN in the US. Last year about this time, the DEA pressured congress to bump Hydrocodone into Schedule II along with enhancing the guidelines that doctors had to follow to prove their allegiance to the new anti-opiate regulations in any subsequent DEA audit.

    This made many PHP docs nervous about prescribing ANY opiates, which drove patients into pain management to obtain a drug that was now in the same schedule with Morphine and Cocaine.

    Patients who had been using prescribed Hydrocodone for chronic pain management and were dependent on the drug (or suffer withdrawals) had three choices. 1) Pay the price and go to pain management 2) Obtain their drugs through nefarious means or find a doctor willing to take the risk of getting busted 3) Because black-market pills are so expensive, a more economical choice was Heroin. Smoked at first, but most always leading to the needle. A year later, we now have many who are highly addicted, have OD'd, have died or some even have committed suicide. They WERE chronic pain patients, but became Heroin addicts due to hysterical laws and the "economics of substitution".

    This trend is now making the news with politicians still blaming doctors, even though the problem began with more restrictive laws coming from legislation. The next trend seems to be homemade opiates, made from codeine (still a schedule III in the US). The stuff is called Krockodil and is full of "brewing" contaminates. I don't wish to describe what this crap does to people.
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