The New Law of Diminishing Returns

Law of diminishing returns: if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output. —Encyclopedia Britannica (Online)

The law of diminishing returns is a concept usually limited to the economic world. I was recently reminded, though, of its cruel application in the world of cocaine abuse. I’ve been around this form of abuse my entire life—in one form or another—and each experience left me searching for an answer to one fundamental question:

What makes this drug so destructive?

Drugs are a waste of time. They destroy your memory and your self-respect and everything that goes along with your self-esteem. —Kurt Cobain

Of the folks that I’ve seen using cocaine, some were able to have some fun and then put it down (not without irritating me first: “Hey, want a bump?”). The folks in this first group were rarities. Most users eventually developed a dangerous taste for the powder that led them down a lonely path laden with abusive behavior. Of the members of this latter group, few returned.

Those who did were forever scarred by their experiences with coke.

I return then to the original question: what makes this filthy white powder such a beast? After I spent many years trying to find the answer, my father finally summed it up for me with brilliant concision:

Cocaine is a perfect manifestation of the law of diminishing returns.

How’s that? I asked.

He went on to explain:

The first time we use cocaine we reach euphoric heights characterized by unbelievable energy, sensation and stamina (if we don’t overdose and get sick).

The next morning, when the nausea finally recedes—which can take longer than you think—the memory of the heights that were reached with that first line remain lucid in our minds.

And off we go to make that climb again, eagerly expecting the same euphoria that did us so good that first time around.

This time, though, it takes two lines to get there, and there isn’t what it used to be. The third time it costs three lines to get there, and there is even farther from our reach.

By the fourth, fifth and sixth times around, the merits of that first dance are distant, fast-fading memories.

Yet we the users, at this point dangerously close to physiological dependence (if not already completely immersed in it) foolishly believe that using more of the white stuff can still get us back to that place where one unit of input, so to speak, still yielded the same output. We hold on pathetically to an empty dream that we chase like a dog chases its tail.

Gradually, our rate of consumption inflates skyward while our perceived benefit (along with our physical, social and mental health) races downward into the depths. By the time we realize that we long ago passed the point of no return, it’s often too late. We’re hooked.

Thus we have the New Law of Diminishing Returns.

The purpose of this essay is to share a different way of conceptualizing cocaine use that might help current users realize what they’re doing or to prevent potential first-time users from making an ill-fated leap. I harbor no doubts as to the truth of my father’s aforementioned summation; my own experience serves as the only validation I need. Think about your own experiences, if you have them, and ask yourself if this law applies. Yet I urge you not to test the validity of this law yourself!

By the time you reach the answer, it might be too late.


Comedian George Carlin captured the essence of this struggle well in an interview with a young John Stewart. Though Carlin wasn’t talking about cocaine specifically, his description of the emotional and physical battle that occurs with addictive substances certainly underlines the truth behind the new law of diminishing returns.


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