The Future of the Drug War

That Ben Wallace-Wells’ opus on the drug war is essential reading should go without saying. I just want to add that futurist Peter Schwartz, one of my heroes, offered a brilliant argument as to why the “war on drugs” is unwinnable.

The model drug of the future is already here in the form of crystal methamphetamine, a drug that is sweeping the United States and making inroads abroad. It’s cheap and easy to make—little more than Sudafed doctored up with plant fertilizer. One hundred percent of the profit goes to the manufacturer; no intermediary or army of couriers is required. Made of locally acquired materials in the garage or basement, the drug’s production is nearly impossible to stop. Only the stupid and incompetent get caught.

Wallace-Wells describes the fight against methamphetamine at length, but I think he fails to hammer home its essential futility.

In October 2006, police in Guadalajara arrested an American chemist named Frederick Wells, who had moved to Mexico after losing his job at Idaho State University. An academic troublemaker who drove around campus with signs on the back of his pickup truck raging at the college administration, Wells had allegedly used his university lab to investigate new ways that Mexican traffickers could use completely legal reagents to engineer meth precursors from scratch. “Very complicated numerical modeling,” says his academic colleague Jeff Rosentreter. By the time Wells was arrested, the State Department had only just succeeded at pressuring Mexico to restrict the flow of pseudoephedrine, even though Wells had apparently been hard at work for years creating alternatives to that chemical.

There will always be a Frederick Wells, and indeed it is easy to imagine someone with his skills becoming the life of many parties. And so Schwartz predicts that

thirty-five years from now, the illicit professionals who remain in the business will be custom drug designers catering to the wealthy. Their concoctions will be finetuned to one’s own body and neural chemistry. In time, the most destructive side effects will be designed out, perhaps even addiction itself. These custom drug dealers will design the perfect chemical experience for those who can afford it. The combination of cocaine with skiing, sex, or other intense physical activities is common today; likewise for pot and making music. In the future, there will be custom drugs for meals, golf, gardening, and more. Like crystal meth today, some drugs will reach the point of home manufacturing. And they will all be designed to make their use invisible to others—no red eyes, nervous tics, or lethargy.

Custom drug experiences will just be one part of a multifaceted, explosively innovative pleasure complex. While a lot of people will surely get hurt as this process unfolds, efforts to “solve the problem” will result in something far worse: a puritanical security state.

I also strongly recommend you read this post by Brad Plumer, America’s finest democratic socialist blogger.