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The Roots of Argentina's Adulterated Cocaine Tragedy

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Argentina's adulterated cocaine tragedy is a symptom of a country in crisis

February 2022

In early February 2022, over 20 Argentines died and many others were hospitalized after taking cocaine adulterated with what is believed to be elephant anesthetic. The sad incident highlights the sad state of the Argentine state: a country in economic and social free-fall from which the adulterated cocaine is one result.

As BBC News Mundo points out, the consumption of marijuana has tripled and that of cocaine doubled in the last seven year. Argentina is the second largest consumer of cocaine in Latin America, the third largest consumer of alcohol and the largest consumer of psycopharmaceuticals.

Psychopharmaceuticals are drugs that calm the nervous system when experiencing anxiety, anguish, or muscle pain. Amongst those who use psychopharmaceuticals, studies show that over half automedicate, or take the drugs without supervision from a physician. Even if some of these drugs are legal, some may not be legal without a prescription and without the supervision of a physician many improperly use the medication or developing an addiction.

The increased use of a diverse range of substances is a way for a stressed and impoverished society to deal with life that has gotten harder year after year. Argentina is the only country in Latin America poorer now than it was 100 years ago. The poverty rate has ballooned to over 40 percent in recent years. Its inflation rate is consistently so high that restaurants will not print prices on menus but rather write the current prices in pencil, knowing they will soon change. Argentina’s dismal economic past portends a rough future. There is a severe brain drain as the best educated are leaving Argentina for more stable, developed economies. Without talented, entrepreneurial youth, rebuilding Argentina’s economy will be tough.

The affluent center of Buenos Aires masks a country in crisis

Experts have pointed to Argentina’s numerous economic crises throughout the years as contributing to increased substance abuse. Job loss and substance abuse are often correlated. Studies in the United States have found a similar relationship. Until Argentina's economic situation improves, it is unlikely its substance abuse problems will as well.

In 2016, the grave situation prompted the Argentine government to issue a state of emergency to fight substance abuse. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemia, as insecurity and anxiety in society have further increased, substance abuse has climbed in tandem.

Despite the need to treat drug abuse as a health issue, Argentina’s government has continued to criminalize users. In 2018, 37 percent of all drug-related arrests in Argentina were for consumption. Between 2019 and 2021, arrests for drug possession increased by 400 percent in Buenos Aires.

The criminalization of drug use leads to adulteration because there is no control over the composition of the substances. Dealers will cut drugs and lace them to sell more. Unfortunately, as Johann Hari points out in his book Chasing the Scream, the adulterated elements in drugs are often more harmful than the drugs themselves.

Additionally, as the news site Brasil de Fato stated regarding the February 2022 adulterated cocaine deaths, the criminalization of drugs in Argentina has driven people away from seeking medical help for addiction and overdoses.

For those brave enough to seek medical help, however, Argentina’s public health system is often insufficient to meet the demands of all. As Gonzalo Basile, director of the international health organization América Latina de Médicos del Mundo told World Diagnostic News, “there is a bottleneck [in the public health system] and overdemand for [services of the health system]. This puts up barriers to access.” In addition, due in part to Argentina’s persistent inflationary crisis, the private healthcare system has persistently faced a financing crisis which further hampers access to care.

Argentina must improve its health system to help fight its addiction crisis

Without better public finances, it will be difficult to build a better healthcare system. And without an improvement in the fight against corruption, improving Argentina’s public finances will be difficult. Millions of dollars annually are lost from public coffers due to corruption. It is estimated that only ten percent if corruption cases ever reach a court, of which not all are found guilty. Tax evasion amongst small business owners is also ripe.

Moreover, the tax structure itself is a major obstacle to providing better public services. The government does not tax personal income at high enough levels to provide better public services. It relies heavily on a regressive consumption tax, or VAT, while only getting 7 percent of its income from personal taxes and less than a percent from property taxes.

The tragedy of the adulterated cocaine in Argentina is a symptom of a society in free-fall. Its citizens deserve better both from their government and each other. A collective effort by all — taxpayers, the talented youth, government employees, and lawmakers — is critical to turning around Argentina and making it once again an economic leader in South America.

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