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It's not just Colorado and Washington: The world is abandoning the US-backed drug war in favor of a more liberal approach to cannabis.

Stoned, Inc: The war on drugs' whack-a-mole problem

As governments crack down on old-school street drugs, users find cheaper, quasi-legal alternatives.

LONDON, UK — Traditionally, scoring drugs was an illicit, seedy business. The stash made its way to your body from lawless peasant hinterlands, via drug mules and cartel kingpins. And dealers were backstreet brigands who would just as likely stab or scam you as get you high.

And, as Lou Reed once sang, they were always late.

Today, for many, it’s a different proposition. The dealers wear white coats, or own online mail order companies. The deals are often done in brightly lit clinics, or with a simple mouse click. And the guaranteed high may arrive by next day delivery, or immediately, over the counter.

While the world has prosecuted a brutal war against heroin, cocaine and marijuana, it has blithely overlooked a flourishing trade in pharmaceuticals and other legally manufactured intoxicants that are now almost as popular, and arguably more harmful.

Authorities waking up to the dangers of this lucrative drug industry find themselves in an exhausting game of whack-a-mole. Attempts to beat its wily and sometimes outlandishly wealthy participants into the ground are easily dodged.

In 2008, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime raised concerns that this uncontrolled tide of “psychoactives” was leading to “substance displacement.” As an unintended consequence of prohibition on pot, coke and smack, users and suppliers were turning to stuff you could score from the local pharmacy.

Among these widely available drugs are opium-based pain relievers (or “opioids,” such as Vicodin and Oxycontin) depressants (Valium) and amphetamines (Adderall).

Their corporate manufacturers — big names such as Abbott, Pfizer, Purdue and Roche — have reaped billions of dollars thanks to a surge in prescriptions issued by doctors, apparently willing to see them as the solution to conditions that often lie beyond the drugs’ legally approved uses.

Once out in the world and beyond the control of manufacturers or medical workers, some of these pharmaceuticals, either through theft, misappropriation or misuse, also acquire new lives as party pills. Adderall lifted from family medicine cabinets, for example, is regularly traded by college students in pursuit of a study aid or an all-night bender.

“There are so many more drugs out there than there used to be,” says Professor Richard Miech, a University of Colorado sociologist who has conducted studies into how and why today’s adolescents are switching from marijuana to the medicine cabinet in pursuit of narcotic nirvana.

In the United States, 6.3 percent of the population over 12 years of age abuses prescription drugs, a rate second only to marijuana (nearly 12 percent), and more than twice that of cocaine (1.8 percent), according to the latest annual report from the UN Office of Drug Control. Prescription opioids are the most widely abused (4.8 percent), followed by tranquilizers (2.2 percent), and stimulants (1.1 percent).

According to Miech’s research, abuse by young people of these drugs is now 40 percent higher than it was for previous generations. That, he says, is partly due to increased availability. The UN reports that global quantities of oxycodone (generic Oxycontin) jumped from two to 135 tons between 1991 and 2009. It blamed the increase partly on the lack of social stigma attached to using these pharmaceuticals. 

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that about half of the 28,754 American deaths from drug overdoses in 2009 involved prescription painkillers. At least one person dies from a drug overdose every 19 minutes in the US, according to the CDC.

“Adolescents think those drugs are safe,” Miech told GlobalPost. “If they have a friend using heroin or cocaine, then they would look down on that person. If someone was using prescription drugs, they wouldn't hold it against that person so much.”

Miech and others are now warning that misuse of prescription drugs among young people — who they say are often influenced by the pharmaceutical habits of their parents — is on the brink of becoming an epidemic in the US. Other countries, such as Australia, are also at risk.

Bruce Levine, a US clinical psychologist and campaigner for mental health care reform, puts the blame for this at the hands of manufacturers who, he says, have driven profits by allowing people with no real need of medication to view painkillers, anti-depressants and even anti-psychotics as life-improving panaceas, despite a