Party Drugs: Who's Really Paying the Ultimate Price?

Party Drugs: Who’s Really Paying the Ultimate Price?

Party drugs like ecstasy, ketamine and cocaine find their way into the pockets of festival, concert and couch-session attendees, making them as common as a can of warm beer in an Aussie summer. Hipsters, uni-students and full-timers all enjoy the occasional line, but most rarely think about the history of the drug further than their dealer’s back pocket.

Unfortunately, though, the popularity of recreational drugs is mirrored by human rights abuse, health crises and social instability in their countries of origin.

More cocaine passes through Mexico than any other country in the world. Each year, roughly 8,000 deaths occur in the country as a by-product of the thriving drug trade.

What ends up as a neat white line on top of someone’s phone has often made a messy, sometimes bloody journey to get there. Illegal drugs are produced at the expense of fragile communities in a process that disregards human rights. The massive profit margins enjoyed by cartel head-honchos hugely overshadows those who work for them, meaning that substances such as cocaine and ecstasy are far from fair trade.

Fairtrade coffee, tea, tobacco, chocolate and clothing are all part of the status quo – in fact, there are over 2,500 products on the Aussie market that sport the Fairtrade insignia.  More than one in five of us – 11.2 percent, in fact – adopt a vegetarian lifestyle to help minimise negative impacts on the environment and less-fortunate communities. So why do we lose our concern when it comes drugs? Is it because since we are already doing something that is generally considered “wrong”, so we forget about other moral standards?

Australians are no strangers to regular drug use, with almost 16 percent of people over the age of 14 admitting to using an illegal drug in the last year. Aside from marijuana, cocaine and ecstasy tie for second-most used illicit drugs. This love affair with recreational narcotics reflects many young people’s casual relationship with using, with most believing “it’s no big deal”.  We know that drugs are bad for us. But a lot of the substances that make their way into your system are seriously bad for a lot of other people too.

The United Nations has recently acknowledged that the production of illicit drugs is linked to rural poverty in developing countries. The intervention of state forces against narco-traffickers in countries like Mexico have been labelled a drug war, where an estimated over 120,000 people have perished between 2006  and 2013.  This war is not over yet, with Mexico having one of the highest rates of murder in the world.

The iron grip that cartels have over communities is not only evident in the deaths of thousands of people involved, but the destructive effect on their families. 700,000 families worldwide rely upon the drug trade for their income, meaning that with the volatile power of the cartels and desperate brutality of state forces, the potential to escape their situation is slim. Coke, arguably the most alluring of party drugs, is not as carefree as we have come to think of it.

The Netherlands is the leading producer of ecstasy, but the complex synthesis of the drug requires the importation of precursor chemicals from foreign countries. In Cambodia, so-called ‘jungle factories’ use a local endangered tree species to extract sassafras oil, one of the key ingredients in ecstasy production. Cambodia is also one of the world’s poorest countries: a quarter of its citizens live below the poverty line. Coupled with frequent flooding and other natural disasters, the promise of an income from the illegal drug trade is often the best option in financial security.

The scope of the Cambodian trade was brought to light by the recent seizure of 33 tonnes of sassafras oil, enough to make 245 million ecstasy tablets, with a street value of over $8 billion USD. A sum of that amount would be enough to send hundreds of thousands of Cambodian children to high school, a privilege currently only enjoyed by 21 per cent of secondary school-aged kids.

The inherent illegality of jungle oil factories means that people who rely on this income are constantly subject to potential government action. Aside from the risk of being jailed, the conditions of jungle factories are severely below what one would consider safe. Exposure to sassafras oil has been directly linked to liver and kidney failure, and 5mL of the stuff can kill an adult.  However destructive the production of this oil is on the environment, health of workers and their communities, the demand does not cease.

Due to the insatiable need for the oil, Cambodians living in poverty continue to turn to drug cartels for employment and are prevented from securing an income free from chemical poisoning or prosecution. In current Australian media, there is little-to-no information on the devastation of the drug trade. Instead, the majority of the debate is currently focused on the health effects of drugs and promotes fear rhetoric.

More and more of us are learning about the destructive nature of fast fashion, and the unethical production of meat. Using this information, people are able to make decisions about how to minimise their impact in the world. Organisations with a voice in the Aussie drug debate need to follow suit with countries such as Britain, who in 2015 launched their #EveryLineCounts campaign. Television series such as Narcos are pushing the horror of the drug trade into our consciousness, but most Aussies don’t have enough information make choices about their drugs that are in-line with their moral values.

The solution is still clouded in controversy and taboo. Authorities who are too afraid to stray from the well-worn slogan of, “If you take drugs, you will die!” are letting down communities in far parts of the world, for whom the drug trade is the most deadly.

Cover by Anton Khomutenko