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Experts push legalization of cocaine gum to wean addicts


Hearst News Service

WASHINGTON -- Quenn Victoria did it. Winston Churchill in his youth did it, and millions of peasant farmers in South America do it. So why not allow it in America?

Why not let people chew on low-potency cocaine lozenges or gum?

"Millions have used these products, and we have no evidence of harm associated with it," says Ethan Nadelmann, a professor at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs. "It may be less addictive than coffee."

Nadelmann and others who advocate changing the government's zero-tolerance approach to drugs want to create a weakened version of cocaine that could be sold over the counter as a substitute for the hard stuff.

Then potential consumers would have an alternative to crack cocaine, which is smoked, and high-purity regular cocaine, which is snorted, the way beer and wine are alternatives to high-proof vodka.

The idea of marketing cocaine-lite is not making much head-way at a time when the American public is fearful of crime and when the crime bill moving through Congress is promising more prisons and punishment for drug offenders.

But raising the possibility of such a product goes to the core of the debate over the best way to undercut criminal drug enterprises.

Nadelmann and others argue that low-potency cocaine might draw potential customers away from drug-trafficking organizations smuggling tons of cocaine from South America and violent street gangs peddling crack.

"If some people want to distill those products down to something more potent, let them," Nadelmann wrote in an editorial with Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner in the May 5 issue of the magazine. "But most people won't want to buy it."

However, Herbert Kleber, a psychiatrist and a White House anti-drug official in the Bush administration, says low-potency cocaine would not undercut criminal drug gangs because no one would use it as an alternative.

Now a vice president of Columbia University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Kleber calls the idea of a cocaine substitute "scientifically naive," adding that it "totally misunderstands the reason why people use and misuse drugs."

Kleber compares the temptation of low-potency cocaine for the uninitiated or the recovering addict with his experience in quitting smoking.

"I smoked for 25 years and if i have just one, I'm back to two packs a day," he said. "It's the same with low-dose cocaine."

Dr. Andrew Weil of the University of Arizona medical school disagrees.

He says the widespread chewing of coca leaves among Andean peasants suggests that, in low dosages, cocaine is not addictive.

Weil also says that the product is good for treating stomach ailments and motion sickness.

"It's a shame that we've made disappear from our world a form of a drug that has a whole bunch of benefits," Weil says.

Watered-down cocaine was common in turn-of-the-century America and Europe. Recently uncovered records in Scotland suggest that Queen Victoria and her young house guest, Winston Churchill, consumed cocaine-filled lozenges for sore throats and other maladies contracted while staying at Balmoral Castle.

At the same time, cocaine was an ingredient of Coca-Cola and several varieties of patent medicines sold in America. All that changed in 1914 with the Harrison Act, which banned cocaine without a prescription.

Drug-law defenders say cocaine was banned because it is dangerously addictive.

"There are some genies you can't let out of the bottle," Kleber says.

Low-potency cocaine differs from regular cocaine powder and crack in terms of its purity level, and how fast and thoroughly it alters brain chemistry.

According to Weil, the coca leaf chewed by peasant farmers in Bolivia and Peru is half of 1 percent pure cocaine. By contrast, cocaine smuggled in by traffickers is 50 percent to 60 percent pure.

The effect of crack is even more intense because it is smoked and its chemicals reach the brain in seconds. Cocaine inhaled through the nose takes 30 minutes to be fully effective. Orally ingested cocaine in lozenges or gum takes an hour, according to Kleber.

John Gregich of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy argues that "the notion you can create a safe stimulant out of something as addictive as cocaine doesn't match our experience."

Still, the University of Arizona's Weil notes that decades of tough law enforcement measures against drug traffickers and dealers have "made worse what we want to make better, destroying the peasant society of South America and creating the crack culture in American cities."

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