Updated: Aug 13
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. He reviews the new Netflix series “The Business of Drugs.”
Netflix’s new series The Business of Drugs investigates six psychoactive substances—cocaine, synthetics, heroin, cannabis, methamphetamine, and opioids—tracing them to global hot spots—from the remote villages of Colombia, to the ailing slums on Kenya’s periphery, to Myanmar’s contested regions, where ethnic strife is fueled by the factory-level output of methamphetamine (or “yaba”). Other installments are less global, and narrowly tailored for American consumers, catering to hot-button domestic issues: the causes and consequences of the opioid epidemic, MDMA’s potential as a breakthrough therapeutic, and the overregulation of California’s legal cannabis markets.
Instead, it fell into a mediocre slot of being often watchable, occasionally intriguing, but never groundbreaking or mind-blowing—television perfected for background-viewing as you scroll through Twitter. Its meh-quality stems from its inability to say anything, which is partly the result of each chapter functioning as a standalone episode rather than as a compliment to a unified whole. Even “business”—in the title—amounts to little more than a loose interpretative framework, meaning that episodes explain Econ 101 terms like “supply and demand,” “monopsony and monopoly,” “horizontal and vertical integration,” and “price inelasticity.” These explanations are often signaled by a cutaway to a credentialed dude in a button-down shirt, whitesplaining non-white poverty and economic desperation. Apart from the white-dude-explains-poverty segments, the “business” aspect of the series is comprised of souped-up, sleek infographics tallying rudimentary calculations of addition and subtraction to aggregate profits, with sometimes-instantaneous conversions of foreign currencies into US dollars.
There is a correlation between coca farming and poverty in Colombia, as Fox highlights, where many live in regions where 80 percent of the population fall below the poverty line and where 45 percent lack access to running water. Poverty and its ability to constrain choice is obvious. But it’s also true that poverty in Colombia cannot be divorced from larger structural impediments such as global trade and US military hegemony in the region. Left out is that sense of context or structural critique, capturing the relationship between the growth of illegal commodities and the impact trade deals including NAFTA, CAFTA, or other binational agreements which resulted in gutting farming in Latin America, unleashing heavily subsidized American farming products, which foreclosed any real possibility for competition in Latin America.
Vaguely hinted at is American-crafted strategies like Plan Colombia, which was military strategy disguised as humanitarian aid. With projected costs running more than $10 billion, the supposed “aid” transferred money to the Colombian government, funneling it into counterproductive avenues like equipping antinarcotics and police forces with enhanced and invasive surveillance technologies, with most funding directed toward updating weaponry, including better helicopters and armored vehicles. Reported spikes in human rights abuses and other atrocities targeting vulnerable populations were the outcome. “Aerial eradication,” an offshoot of the program, meant saturating crops with Roundup Ultra, a Monsanto product, causing skin, respiratory, and other ailments, including massive surges in cancers where the herbicide had been sprayed. Even by its own metrics, the plan did not curb coca production; instead, production reached its highest levels last year. This $10 billion could have disincentivized coca crop production had the money been used as direct payments to the farmers, or used to build roads, running water, electricity grids and schools where these things are absent. When have guns and helicopters solved poverty? However, the accounting ledger of government and money wasted in ways that could’ve help mitigate poverty are completely missing from the show’s analysis.
Fox does broach an issue we should spend more time thinking about, which are the unintended consequences of various regulation regimes. There are basically three regimes total: unregulation, overregulation, and underregulation. Unregulated markets govern illicit drugs, with consequences familiar to most people: lack of drug regulation contributes the growth of criminal organizations who swoop in and monopolize the trade, enjoying a lack of legal competitors, and allowing groups like Taliban control over 80 percent of the world’s opium supply. The revenue goes untaxed, further filling their coffers, while consumers in unregulated markets are unprotected from adulterated and poisonous goods, with legal recource unavailable. Secondary effects range from political corruption, contempt for the law, and a gradual weakening and undermining of the state’s illegitimacy.
Less serious but still consequential are instances of overregulation, with California’s legal cannabis market serving as a case in point. The show brings up some important points: “Only 20 percent of the businesses in California that are in the cannabis world are actually licensed,” while “eighty percent of it is in the black market,” says Richard Ormond, a Cannabis Business Lawyer. Start-up costs alone hover around $1 million. Federal and state laws prevent owners from using the tax code to write off expenses for employee payroll or benefits for depreciation like other businesses, while marijuana’s Schedule I status bars them from accessing the banking system. Those who enter the cannabis business cannot have outstanding loans or credit cards, leaving them running a multi-million-dollar business in cash—making them soft targets for criminals (kidnappings are now not uncommon). California’s policy over overregulation of its cannabis industry has priced out most people, even those that would prefer to enter the legal marketplace.
Overregulation can result in pricing people out of the system, but in its most extreme form, it denies access to entire categories of drugs. This usually happens through blanket bans, like when DEA classified MDMA as a Schedule I drug in 1985 before clinical studies could be done. The DEA’s justification was basically that officials thought the drug was bad so they banned it, never consulting researchers or considering the harm the ban might bring to people who could benefit from its use. “The war on drugs” Fox says, “was really a war on pharmaceutical research.”
The consequences of this war were an explosion in the creation of synthetic analogs, with over 800 substances created by underground chemists who slightly tweaked formulas to evade the scheduling system. Synthetics are derivative versions of common drugs and have often been much more dangerous with much more serious side effects. But the DEA doesn’t care whether its decisions harm people or lead to more suicides; giving in to hysteria and embracing an anti-science is what the DEA does. However, new clinical trials are proving the efficacy of MDMA therapy in treating problems like PTSD, and the results are promising, “eliminating [PTSD] in two out of three veterans and significantly reducing the symptoms in the rest.”
DEA officials are not medical experts, but we have given them the power to make medical decisions. In light of the pandemic, we’ve been bombarded with the idea that “we should listen to the scientists.” Maybe that uncontroversial fact should also be applied to the drug war: there is a certain stupidity in empowering law enforcement agencies to issue dictates on science without consulting scientists or experts in fields like psychopharmacology, psychiatry, or organic chemistry.
I am less convinced of Fox’s example of underregulating, with the “opioid epidemic” being the prime example. Her interpretation of the “opioid epidemic” reflects conventional wisdom: a black and white portrayal of the world where Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the Sackler family personify evil, and where clever advertising and financial kickbacks convinced doctors to overprescribe without realizing the consequences. This seems blatantly ridiculous. If any doctor had done even a cursory Wikipedia search, they could see the history of opioids and its reoccurring role as a panacea and demon over the last century among the medical community.
Purdue Pharmaceuticals’ “greed” resembles that every other pharmaceutical company, charging prices because of their government-backed patent monopolies. These aren’t non-profit operations, after all, or charities invested for the public good. The same profit motive became clear when Gilead recently announced they were pricing remdesivir to treat COVID at $3,000 per patient—unconcerned with those optics even amid a pandemic.
Someone should tell Netflix that the “opioid epidemic” is less about pills or overprescribing, but because we lack a “public health” infrastructure and leave individuals to fend for themselves. For-profit healthcare makes pills an easier solution, so we treat the “opioid epidemic” as a matter of controlling pills. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of people who want substance use treatment or MAT get it—because profit supersedes public health. Netflix has already green-lit The Business of Drugs for a second season, so maybe some of these criticisms will be addressed and hopefully, after what appears to be a fairly generic first season, the show will take its economic emphasis into other areas of exploration.