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5 Things We Now Know After 5 Years of Legal Marijuana in Colorado [FEATURE]

Wed, 01/16/2019 - 19:32

It's been five years since the era of legal marijuana sales began in Colorado, and that's been enough time to begin to be able to see what sorts of impact the freeing of the weed has had on the Rocky Mountain State. From the economy and the fiscal health of the state government to law enforcement and public safety, legalizing marijuana has consequences.

[image:1 align:right caption:true]Thanks to marijuana sales reports and tax revenue reports from the state Department of Revenue, as well as a legislatively mandated biennial report from the Division of Criminal Justice, we can see what some of those consequences are.

1. They sure buy a lot of weed in Colorado, and the state's coffers are filling up with marijuana tax revenues. Total marijuana sales in the state were more than $683 million in 2014—the year legal sales began—and have since more than doubled to more than $1.4 billion last year. Since legalization, the amount of legal weed sold in the state has now topped $6 billion. That's created nearly 20,000 jobs, and it has also generated more than $900 million for the state government in marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees. Tax revenues have increased every year since legalization and those dollars help fund public school projects, as well as human services, public affairs, agriculture, labor and employment, judicial affairs, health care policy, transportation and regulatory affairs. Pot revenues still only account for one percent of state revenues, but every $900 million helps.

2. Marijuana arrests are way down, but black people are still getting busted disproportionately. Even though pot is legalized, there are still ways to get arrested on a marijuana charge, such as possessing more than an ounce or selling or growing unlicensed weed. Still, arrests have declined dramatically, dropping by 56 percent during the legalization era. Both possession and sales offenses declined, but arrests for unlawful production were up markedly, reflecting the state's continuing fight to eliminate the black market. The age group most likely to get busted was 18-20-year-olds, who can only legally use or possess marijuana if they have a medical card. They are getting busted at a rate 30 times that of adults. Arrests are way down among all ethnic/racial groups, but black people are still getting arrested for pot at a rate nearly twice that of whites.

3. Legalization has not led to more traffic fatalities. While the number of car drivers in fatal wrecks had marijuana in their systems has increased dramatically, the report notes that “detection of cannabinoid in blood is not an indicator of impairment but only indicates presence in the system.” Marijuana DUIs were up three percent, but fatal traffic accidents involving marijuana-impaired drivers actually decreased by five percent.

4. Use rates are up slightly among adults, but not among teens. The number of adults who reported using marijuana in the past 30 days has increased by 2 percent, with nearly one-fifth of men reporting past month use. That's almost double the number of women reporting past month use. These are high rates of use compared to the nation as a whole, but the state has always had relatively high use rates, even dating back before legalization. (There is a chicken and egg question here: Do Coloradans like to smoke pot because weed is legal or is weed legal because Coloradans like to smoke pot?) But what about the kids? Well, the kids are alright. Marijuana use rates among middle and high school students have been unchanged since legalization, and so have graduation rates.

5. Emergency room visits linked to marijuana increased. Some 575 people presented to hospitals with marijuana-related problems back in 2000, but that number jumped to more than 3,500 by 2016. Emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers were both up. It's important to note, however, that the vast majority of marijuana-related ER visits are related to panic or anxiety reactions and end with the patient eventually calming down and going home. Marijuana ER visits are not life-The rise is also likely a function of new, naive users, especially of edibles, biting off more than they can chew.

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Does Kratom Kill? [FEATURE]

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 21:48

Kratom, an herbal drug derived from a Southeast Asian tree that acts somewhat like an opioid, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Hundreds of thousands of people use it for energy and pain relief in small doses and as a substitute for or to get off of opioids such as heroin or prescription pain pills in larger doses.

[image:1 align:right caption:true]It is legal under federal law, although even though the DEA announced in 2016 it planned to criminalize it by placing it on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act -- a move it was forced to walk back following a loud public outcry. It is currently available online, as well as retail outlets across the country -- except in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, all of which have criminalized it at the state or municipal level.

With the DEA out of the way, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took up the regulatory mantle, issuing various recalls for contaminated kratom products and attempting to rein in the booming kratom market. In November 2017, the FDA issued a hair-on-fire press release about the "deadly risks" of kratom use, warning that some 36 deaths nationwide were "associated" with the Southeast Asian herb. In March 2018, the FDA revised the number of deaths "associated" with kratom to 44.

Those numbers were savaged by the American Kratom Association, representing both users and sellers, in a policy report released in response to the FDA claims. That report examined the 33 cases for which information was available and found that the vast majority of them involved the use of multiple drugs, and in none of the cases was kratom shown to actually be responsible for the death.

For example, one case cited by the FDA involved an individual who drank alcohol, smoked heroin and took Xanax and Narco as well as kratom on the evening of his death. In another case cited by the FDA, the cause of death was not even an overdose but the suicide by hanging by a person with alcohol and benzodiazepines in his system, as well as a history of mental health issues.

In yet another case the FDA called kratom-related, the victim was a 300-pound man who died of pulmonary thromboemboli caused by deep vein thrombosis, who, in addition to having kratom in his system, had also consumed opioids, benzodiazepines, cannabinoids, oxycodone, fluoxetine, norfluxoetine, trazodone, alprazolam, nordiazepan, and gabapentin.

"None of the case reports released to date support the evidentiary standard required by the CSA to prove there is a risk to the public health that relies primarily on the FDA claim of ‘numerous deaths associated with kratom,'" concluded report author Jane Babin.

Now, new research reported in a January 2 letter in the New England Journal of Medicine casts further doubt on the FDA's contentions about dangerousness. In that study, researchers at the University of Colorado examined 15 kratom-related deaths in the state and found that in all but one other opioids were present.

"When cases are considered kratom-only deaths, there really should be additional testing done, because in all of the cases we examined, we found other drugs involved when we did more comprehensive testing," said lead researcher Dr. Andrew Monte, an associate professor of emergency medicine.

Although the evidence that kratom is a killer is weak, Monte told it likely increases the risk of overdose when mixed with other drugs, but not when used alone. That led him to support a ban on the drug, although he acknowledged it could help people trying to get off opioids.

"It's probably worth examining what therapeutic role this may have," he said. "This may be a very good, reasonable option for opioid withdrawal for some patients."

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Americans are deciding for themselves that it works for them.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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The Year in Drugs II: Good, Bad, and Ugly Global Drug Policy in 2018 [FEATURE]

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 19:31

(See our Top Domestic Drug Stories of 2018 piece here.)

It's been a year we couldn't wait to put behind us, but as 2018 comes to an end, we can look back on some advances on the international drug policy front, as well as continued brutal and regressive responses from some quarters. Here are 10 of the global drug policy stories that shaped the year, for better or worse:

[image:1 align:left caption:true]1. Drug Death Penalty Reforms Cause Massive Drop in Executions

Early this year, it became official: Iran had reformed its death penalty statutes to radically reduce the number of people facing execution for drug offenses, and it had done so retroactively, saving the lives of thousands already on death row. By mid-year, it was clear that the move was having an impact, as human rights observers reported a 99% reduction in drug executions, with only one person being executed for drugs as of June, compared to more than a hundred during the same period in 2017.

2. Canada Becomes the First G8 Country to Legalize Marijuana

Justin Trudeau pledged that he was elected prime minister, his government would legalize marijuana. It didn't happen as fast as he would have liked, but the Liberals' legalization bill passed parliament in June and went into effect on October 17. So far, the sky has not fallen.

3. Medical Marijuana Earns Growing Acceptance

The year began with Thailand announcing a plan to allow medical marijuana and ended with Thailand approving it and becoming the first Southeast Asian country to do so. But in the meantime, Israeli pharmacies began selling medical marijuana in April, Zimbabwe legalized it in May, and Portugal and Luxembourg followed suit in June. In November, Great Britain joined the club, and Greece issued its first medical marijuana production licenses. Late in the year, in South Korea, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the country's drug laws that will pave the way for the use of medical marijuana by prescription, and New Zealand also approved it in December Not a bad year for medical marijuana.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]4. The Philippines Drug War Continues, But Pressures Mount…

The bloody drug war of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte continued apace in 2018, with a death toll now put at 12, 000 (20,000 by some estimates), but Duterte has come under increasing pressure both domestically and internationally. In February, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch aimed broadsides at the Philippines even as the International Criminal Court began "preliminary examinations" of whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a case before the court. In March, activists called out drug war human rights abuses at the embassy in Washington, DC. By July, an unbowed Duterte was vowing to continue a "relentless and chilling" drug war even as national human rights groups said he was using it as a cover for assassinating political opponents. In September, he unleashed an attack on a second drug war critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes, after last year imprisoning critic Senator Leila de Lima on trumped up drug charges. She is still imprisoned.

5.. ...and the Rot Spreads in the Region

Following the lead of the Philippines, other countries in the region have also embraced drug war thuggery and human rights abuses. In May, the Bangladeshi opposition warned of a wave of police killings of drug suspects, and within weeks, more than a hundred were killed and 20,000 arrested, even as evidence emerged that the crackdown was being used to hide political assassinations. The situation was fraught enough that the UN human rights head and even the US State Department expressed concern. Drug war killings were also reported in Indonesia, although there were mixed signals about moves toward reforms there, and Sri Lanka vowed to begin hanging drug dealers. Paradoxically though, a Malaysian court's imposition of a death sentence on a man for providing cannabis oil to patients now appears to have resulted in a moratorium on the death sentence and could end the death penalty in its entirety in the county.

6. The US President Aligns Himself With Global Drug War Authoritarians

President Donald Trump was a baleful presence on the global drug policy stage this past year, sympathizing with drug war authoritarians such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, as well as drug death penalty countries such as China and Singapore. He said early in the year he wants to execute all drug dealers and admires the Singapore approach (mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking), a statement that moved more than 150 organizations to condemn his call. At year's end, he was singing a similar tune with a ghoulish call for more Chinese drug executions. In between, he went to the United Nations to try to gin up a reinvigorated global drug war.

[image:3 align:left caption:true]7. South Africa Legalizes Marijuana

In a case brought by three marijuana users, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that the private possession, cultivation, and consumption of marijuana is legal. "It will not be a criminal offense for an adult person to use or be in possession of cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption," Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo wrote in his ruling. It will, however, remain illegal to use cannabis in public and to sell and supply it. The ruling did not set allowable quantities, with the court saying parliament had two years to come up with a new law that reflected the ruling.

8. Glimmers of Hope in Mexico

then-President Felipe Calderon unleashed the latest chapter of the country's drug wars, bringing violence to levels not seen before in the country, Mexico is showing signs it is ready for change. The death toll from prohibition-related violence is higher than ever, and that is impelling a psh for change, most notably with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is very open to finding exits from the drug war, whether it's legalized opium production in Guerrero, granting amnesty for non-violent drug trafficking offenders, or legalizing marijuana. And speaking of legalizing marijuana, the Mexican Supreme Court in November struck down the ban on marijuana possession, cultivation, and use. Now, Lopez Obrador's governing MORENA Party has filed a bill to legalize marijuana sales. Tackling the violence, may be a bit more difficult.

9. Colombia Sees a Record Coca Crop as US Cocaine Deaths Rise

Efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production in the country after the peace agreement with the FARC rebels have not gone well, and that's causing rising worry in Washington. In June, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that 2017 production was at an all-time high, prompting expressions of concern from the drug czar's office and support from President Trump for new rightist Colombian President Ivan Duque's "head-on fight against drug trafficking." That could include a renewed resort to aerial fumigation, even drones, as well as forced eradication of coca crops, leading to renewed conflict in cultivation zones. Meanwhile, cocaine is now the third leading cause of drug overdose deaths, trailing only fentanyl and heroin.

[image:4 align:right caption:true]10. Historic UN Cannabis Review Hits Last-Minute Procedural Delay

In June and again in November, the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) of the World Health Organization (WHO) met to consider the evidence on cannabis (marijuana) and its placement in the UN drug scheduling system, which determines whether or what level of control the UN drug conventions mandate that countries maintain for the substance. The conventions specify that substances should receive such an evaluation before being scheduled, but that never happened for marijuana. Observers believe the process should lead to marijuana being moved to a less restrictive schedule than it is in currently -- if the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) votes to adopt such a recommendation from ECDD.

That didn't happen when, earlier this month, WHO voted to delay release of ECDD's recommendations until January, for unexplained reasons. That may mean they get taken up at the main annual CND meeting in Vienna in March, rather than December's intersessional. The delay seems unusual, and probably political, but its intent is unclear.

The next few months may tell. In the meanwhile, ECDD says that CBD shouldn't be scheduled at all. But that didn't stop the US FDA from saying that treaties require it be scheduled, even though they also think it shouldn't be.

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In Rare Show of Bipartisanship, Senate Passes Prison and Sentencing Reform Bill [FEATURE]

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 06:31

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate on Tuesday approved a major prison and sentencing reform bill, the First Step Act (S.3649) on a vote of 87-12. The bill now goes back to the House, which is expected to pass it easily, and then to the desk of President Trump, who has vowed to sign it.

[image:1 align:right caption:true]Introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the bill added significant sentencing reform provisions to a prison reform bill passed earlier by the House.

"The First Step Act will help keep our streets safe and it offers a fresh start to those who've put in the work to get right with the law while paying their debt to society," Grassley said on the Senate floor after the vote. "It also addresses unfairness in prison sentencing and revises policies that have led to overcrowded prisons and ballooning taxpayer expenses."

"I think we showed something which most American people wouldn't have believed -- that a bipartisan group of Senators from across the political spectrum could tackle one of the toughest political issues of our day, assemble an array of support -- left, right, and center -- from members of the Senate as well as organizations devoted to law enforcement as well as civil rights, and at the end of it have something we all felt was a fair product to send over to the House, which I hope will act on this very quickly," Durbin said. "It is, however, the first step. We've got to start thinking about the second step. And we need the help of all of our colleagues when shaping that."

In addition to the prison reform language, the bill's key sentencing provisions include:

  • Retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people;
  • Expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences;
  • Reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years;
  • Eliminate "stacking" for firearm offenses, meaning that prosecutors cannot add sentencing enhancements to individuals who may possess a firearm while committing their first federal offense.

"Passing these reforms has been a team effort years in the making," Grassley continued. "It couldn't have been done without the stalwart commitment by a somewhat unlikely cadre of colleagues and advocates. We've had to compromise to make this possible, to seek to understand the other's point of view. In doing so, I think we made the bill better. And we accomplished something of historic significance that will reduce crime, make our system more just, and improve lives for generations to come."

The First Step Act was backed by a number of law enforcement groups, including the nation's largest police group, as well as 172 former federal prosecutors and sheriffs from 34 states across the country. The National Governors Association, which represents the governors of all 50 states, praised the bill. A broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups along with a host of business leaders and faith-based organizations also support the First Step Act.

For progressives and drug reformers, though, the bill is indeed only a first step. It does nothing, for example, to address the plight of people sentenced to life in prison for drug offenses, and that leaves reformers offering only qualified praise.

"The Senate's version of the legislation, while far from perfect, includes crucial sentencing reforms that safely reduce the footprint of the federal criminal justice system from the front end," said Ed Chung, vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. "Additionally, the Senate added important checks on the US Department of Justice as it creates a risk and needs assessment and a system of programs and education in the Bureau of Prisons."

"This is a bittersweet moment," said Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "The bill represents progress and we should celebrate the release of thousands of people serving disproportionately long sentences, but at the same time the bill leaves far too many people behind. It's a tough compromise for us and we must keep fighting for much deeper systemic changes."

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The Year in Drugs I: The Top Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2018 [FEATURE]

Thu, 12/20/2018 - 05:22

This is a year that just about everybody is eager to see come to an end, but when it comes to drug policy, 2018 hasn't been half-bad, at least in the US. (Check back next week for our Top International Drug Policy Stories.)

We've seen marijuana legalization spread further, we're on the verge of seeing Congress pass major sentencing reform legislation, and the ban on domestic hemp cultivation is coming to an end, among other things.

A lot went on in drug policy in 2018. Here are eight stories that helped define the year:

1. Overdose Deaths Remain Unconscionably High But Appear to Have Leveled Off

[image:1 align:left caption:true]The nation's fatal drug overdose crisis is far from over, but it now looks like it at least didn't get any worse this year. Driven in large part by the rise of fentanyl, overdose deaths reached a stunning 72,000 in 2017, a figure ten times the number in 1980 and double that of only a decade ago.

But preliminary reports on the 2018 overdose numbers suggest that this may be the year the crisis began to ease. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional data showing that overdose deaths had declined for six straight months, dropping 2.8 percent from their 2017 peak. That report also found that opioid overdose deaths had declined by 2.3 percent.

With both heroin and prescription opioid deaths declining, fentanyl has emerged as the most common drug involved in overdoses, being implicated in about a quarter of all drug overdose deaths. While the apparent decline in opioid overdose deaths this year is good news, the recent increases in cocaine and methamphetamine overdose deaths is not. And while any break in a years-long climb in overdose deaths is certainly welcome, another 70,000 or so Americans will still have died from them this year. We have a long, long way to go.

2. Safe Injection Sites Draw Nearer, But Feds Fire Warning Shots

Safe injection sites -- also known as supervised consumption sites, among other names -- where drug users can consume their doses under medical supervision and with an opportunity to engage with social services are a proven harm reduction intervention. More than a hundred cities around the world, mainly in Europe, Canada, and Australia have resorted to such facilities as a means of providing better outcomes, not only for drug users but also for the communities in which they live.

There are no legally permitted safe injection sites in the United States (although some underground ones are reportedly operating in Seattle, and there may be more in hiding), but this year saw mounting pressure and serious efforts to get them up and running in a number of American states and cities. It also saw mounting resistance from federal officials.

At the state level, California, Colorado, Missouri, and New York all saw safe injection site bills filed. Only the bill in California made it out of the legislature, but to the great frustration of reformers, it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who cited long outdated beliefs about substance use in his veto message. Still, the fact that bills are being filed shows the issue is gaining momentum.

The momentum is even stronger among a handful of major cities. Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle have all taken steps to clear the way for safe injection sites this year, although none are yet in place.

While like California's Gov. Brown, some state and local level political figures are hesitant to embrace them, a major reason none is yet in place is federal hostility. As the clamor for the facilities grows louder, so does opposition from the Trump administration. As Denver publicly pondered opening one, the local DEA and the US Attorney loudly warned they would be illegal, and the Philadelphia US Attorney did the same thing. Early in the year, the DEA in Washington issued a warning against safe injection sites, and in August, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein authored an op-ed in the New York Times issuing similar dire threats.

3. A Major Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Is Set to Pass

[image:2 align:right caption:true]The first major federal sentencing reform bill in eight years is now one vote away from passing Congress. The bill, known as the First Step Act (S.3649), is the culmination of years of work by the likes of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and includes prison reform language as well as provisions that would reduce sentences for certain drug offenses. It very nearly died earlier this month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced he would not bring it to a Senate floor vote, but under broad pressure, including from President Trump, McConnell relented, and the bill passed the Senate Tuesday

The sentencing reforms include retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people; expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences; reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years.

The late word is that the bill will pass the House easily, but that hasn't happened as of this writing. If and when it does, the country will have taken a significant step toward a more just and humane federal criminal justice system. The passage has also drawn major media attention as a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington today.

4. Marijuana Legalization Advances in the States

At the beginning of the year, marijuana for adult recreational use was legal in eight states, all in the West or New England and all thanks to the initiative process. As 2018 comes to a close, that number has jumped to ten, with Vermont in January becoming the first state to legalize it through the legislature and Michigan in November becoming the first Midwest state to legalize it.

The initiative process is available in only half the states, and when it comes to legalizing weed, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. A legalization initiative in conservative Nebraska went down to defeat this year, and remaining initiative states like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Arkansas are among the most socially conservative and least likely to free the weed. But prospects are rosier in initiative states Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio. We are likely to see pot on the ballot in all three in 2020.

Vermont remains the sole state to legalize it legislatively, but a handful of states edged ever closer close this year. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wanted pot legalized in his first 100 days. That didn't happen, and legalization hasn't gotten through the legislature yet, but there is a small chance it could still happen this year and a very good chance it will be a done deal by early next year. Legislatures throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and Northeast grappled with the issue, laying the groundwork for next year and the year beyond, and just this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called for legalization next year. The long march continues.

5. Marijuana Is Still Federally Illegal, But the Crackdown Never Came

As the year comes to end, legal weed is still here and Jeff Sessions isn't. President Trump's first attorney general was an avowed foe of marijuana (as well as drug and criminal justice reform in general), but despite rescinding the Obama-era Cole memo, which basically told federal prosecutors to leave state law-abiding pot businesses alone, the much-feared crackdown on the industry never came.

Federal prosecutors, for the most part, continue to view legal marijuana businesses as a low priority, especially when faced with much more serious drug problems, such as the opioid overdose epidemic. But Sessions was also undercut by his own boss, who in April arranged a deal with Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in which he agreed to support a bill protecting states that have broken with federal pot prohibition in return for Gardner's allowing Justice department appointments to move forward.

This year saw a plethora of federal marijuana reform bills, but with Republican leadership in both houses firmly opposed, the Capitol was where marijuana reform went to die. With Democrats in control of the House next year, things promise to be different next year, although the GOP-led Senate will remain an obstacle. But with pot consistently polling in the 60s, those Republican senators may grudgingly start coming on board.

6. Marijuana Legalization is Nice, But We Need Social Justice, Too

This year saw social justice concerns around marijuana legalization move front and center in two distinct ways: demands for the expungement of marijuana arrest records for people whose offenses are no longer crimes and demands for restorative racial justice from communities that have suffered the brunt of the war on drugs.

The year started with two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, leading the way on expungement. The, in September, California became the first state to put state-level automatic expungement into effect. Delaware and Rhode Island, which have both decriminalized but not legalized pot, also passed expungement bills this year. Expungement is also a contentious issue in the ongoing battle to get legalization passed in New Jersey.

After a half-dozen years of legalization and well-heeled white guys making bank off legal weed, the call for racial justice, whether in terms of set-asides to guarantee minority participation in the industry or for funding streams aimed at restoring drug war-ravaged communities, is growing too loud to be ignored. This is an ongoing struggle now being played out not only in pot-legal states, but especially in states on the cusp of legalization. Moving forward, it's likely that every successful state legalization bill is going to have to address issues of social and racial justice. As they should.

7. Industrial Hemp Becomes Federally Legal

[image:3 align:left caption:true]Finally, the absolutely most ridiculous aspect of federal marijuana prohibition is dead. Recreational marijuana's country cousin, hemp can't get anyone high, but is extremely useful in a broad range of industries, from foods to textiles and beyond. Thanks to a lawsuit from hemp interests more than a decade ago, hemp could be imported for American firms to use in their products, but because the DEA refused to recognize any distinction between hemp and recreational marijuana, American farmers were forced to stand on the sidelines as their competitors in China, Canada, and other countries raked in the rewards.

But having a hemp-friendly senator from a hemp-friendly state allowed hemp legalization to move this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) actually fought for the hemp bill, shepherding it into the must-pass farm appropriations bill and keeping it in there through negotiations with the House. President Trump has signed the farm bill, including the hemp provision, into law.

8. Here Come the 'Shrooms

Initiative campaigns to legalize or decriminalize the use and possession of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms began popping up in 2018. Actually, the first state-level initiative came last year in California, but this past summer it failed to qualify for the fall ballot.

Right now, there are two psilocybin initiatives in the signature-gathering phase, a municipal initiative in Denver that would decriminalize the use, possession, and cultivation of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and the statewide Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would decriminalize possession of psilocybin, allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin. The Denver initiative would go before voters in May 2019, while the Oregon initiative aims at the 2020 election.

If psilocybin initiatives follow the pattern set by marijuana legalization initiatives, the first time may not be the charm. But more will follow.

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What's Killing Us: The Ten Drugs Most Implicated in Overdose Deaths [FEATURE]

Wed, 12/19/2018 - 23:25

While there are signs that the country's drug overdose crisis may have plateaued, the number of people dying from drug overdoses continues to be unconscionably high. Shockingly, the number of overdose deaths has increased tenfold since 1980 when there were only 6,000 nationwide and nearly doubled just in the past decade to more than 72,000 last year.

[image:1 align:right caption:true]Now, in a new report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sheds some new light on precisely which drugs are most implicated in these deaths. While the report examines overdose deaths from 2011 to 2016, we're going to zero in on the 2016 data to get as close as possible to the present.

Three drug classes are involved: prescription and non-prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants. Often, fatal overdoses involve more than one drug, whether it is drugs in the same class (heroin and fentanyl) or combinations of drug classes (heroin and benzos or fentanyl and cocaine.

Before we get into the number-crunching, it's worth taking a moment to consider that each single overdose death is a tragedy. A human life has been lost prematurely, the potential snuffed out, and friends and family members suffer greatly. It doesn't have to be that way. While we're going to look at deadly drugs, it behooves us to remember that many of these deaths are a function not just of the drugs themselves, but of drug prohibition.

People overdose on fentanyl, for example, because in a black market there is no packaging, no quality control, no dosage information to inform them of just how powerful is that powder they're snorting or injecting. Added to heroin or crafted into counterfeit prescription opioids by unscrupulous black market operators, fentanyl kills people who didn't even know they were taking it. Even more insidiously, fentanyl is turning up in black market cocaine and methamphetamine, whose users aren't even looking for an opioid high and haven't developed any tolerance to them (although some may be speedballing, that is, taking both an upper and a downer at the same time.

That said, here are the drugs making the greatest contributions to the 63,352 overdose deaths in 2016. (The numbers add up to more than that figure because in some overdoses, more than one drug is mentioned.)

1. Fentanyl -- 18,335

In 2016, fentanyl vaulted into first place in the deadly drug sweepstakes. As recently as 2011, the synthetic opioid was in 10th place, with some 1,660 overdose deaths attributed to it, but the death toll has increased more than tenfold in just five years. More than two-thirds of fentanyl overdose deaths also involved other drugs, and fentanyl is involved in more than a quarter (28.5 percent) of all overdose deaths, including 40 percent of cocaine overdose deaths and nearly a third (32 percent) of heroin deaths.

2. Heroin -- 15,961

At the tail end of the prescription opioid phase of the current overdose crisis in 2011, more people died from oxycodone than heroin, but between 2012 and 2015, heroin resumed its role as the leading opioid linked to fatal overdoses, only to be overtaken by fentanyl in 2016. The vast majority -- 70 percent -- of people who died from heroin were also using other drugs. More than a third were also using fentanyl, while nearly a quarter (23.8 percent) were also using cocaine. As prescription opioids became more difficult to obtain, the number of people dying from heroin skyrocketed, nearly tripling in the five years ending in 2016.

3. Cocaine -- 11,316

Cocaine deaths rose dramatically beginning in 2015 and by 2016 the annual death toll was double what it had been five years earlier. With bumper crops in Colombia in recent years, cocaine is cheap and plentiful. It is also increasingly being cut with fentanyl, which is implicated in 40 percent of cocaine deaths, and mixed with heroin, which is implicated in a third of them. Cocaine is named in 17.8 percent of all overdose deaths.

4. Methamphetamine -- 6,762

Meth-related overdose deaths tripled between 2011 and 2016, a dramatic increase in what has become America's forgotten drug problem. In 2016, slightly more than one out of ten drug overdose deaths involved meth. Of the top ten overdose drugs, meth is by far the one most likely to have been the sole drug implicated in the death, but even so, fentanyl was implicated in one out five meth deaths and heroin in one out of ten.

5. Alprazolam -- 6,209You know it as Xanax. This short-acting benzodiazepine is a favorite of stimulant users seeking to take the edge off, but also often forms part of a sedative cocktail with opioids or other benzos. About three-quarters of Xanax overdose deaths involve other drugs, with fentanyl, heroin, and oxycodone each involved in about one-quarter of Xanax deaths. Xanax deaths increased by about 50 percent over the five year period.

6. Oxycodone -- 6,199

It's most infamous formulation is OxyContin, but it is also sold as Roxicodone, Xtampza ER, and Oxaydo. It may have been the primary killer opioid a decade ago, but has chugged along at around 5,000 deaths a year before going over 6,000 in 2016. Four out of five people who overdose on oxycodone were also using another drug, most often Xanax (25.3 percent), followed by fentanyl (18.6 percent).

7. Morphine -- 5,014

The granddaddy of opioids. Morphine deaths increased slowly beginning in 2011, but have still increased by about 40 percent since then. More than eight out of 10 morphine deaths involve other drugs as well, particularly fentanyl, which is involved in one out three morphine deaths. Cocaine (16.9 percent) and heroin (13.7 percent) are also frequent contributors to morphine ODs.

8. Methadone -- 3,493

Prescribed as an opioid maintenance drug, methadone is one of the few drugs on this list to have seen the number of deaths decline between 2011 and 2016. They've dropped from more than 4,500 a year down to less than 3,500, a drop of roughly a quarter. Nearly three-fourths of all methadone deaths implicate other drugs, with Xanax being most common (21.5 percent), followed by fentanyl (15.1) and heroin (13.8).

9. Hydrocodone -- 3,199

This semi-synthetic opioid is sold under a variety of brand names, including Vicodin and Norco, and has proven remarkably stable in its overdose numbers. Between 2011 and 2016, it never killed fewer than 3,000 or more than 4,000, almost always (85 percent of the time) in concert with other drugs. Xanax was implicated in one-quarter of all hydrocodone overdoses, followed by oxycodone (17.2 percent) and fentanyl (14.9 percent).

10. Diazepam -- 2,022

The most well-known diazepam is Valium. Like Xanax, this anti-anxiety drug can be used to take the edge off a stimulant binge, but it's not coke heads and speed freaks who are dying from it. In more than nine out of 10 fatal Valium overdoses, other drugs are involved, most commonly the opioids oxycodone and fentanyl, each implicated in about a quarter of the deaths, and heroin, implicated in a fifth.

Using these drugs is dangerous. Using them under a prohibition regime is even more so. Users don't always know what they're getting, and that lack of knowledge can be fatal. If you're going to be messing with these substances, be extremely cautious. Try a test dose first. And don't do it alone. Stay safe out there.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Here Comes Hemp: Congress Votes to Unchain a Billion-Dollar Industry [FEATURE]

Sat, 12/15/2018 - 07:30

The Senate on Tuesday and the House on Wednesday gave final approval to the massive 2018 Farm Bill, including a provision that will end an eight-decade ban on industrial hemp, that non-psychoactive but extremely useful member of the cannabis family. President Trump is expected to sign the bill into law.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]Even though you could smoke a hemp joint the size of a telephone pole and get nothing more than a cough and a headache, for decades the DEA has refused to recognize any distinction between hemp and marijuana that gets you high. That meant that American farmers could not legally produce hemp for a hemp products industry worth $820 million last year and expected to break the billion-dollar mark this year.

That's right: Thanks to a federal court case brought against the DEA more than a decade ago, farmers in countries where hemp is legal can export it to the US, and companies in the U.S. can turn that hemp into a variety of products ranging from foods to clothing to auto body parts to building materials and beyond, but US farmers can't grow it. That's about to change.

"For too long, the outrageous and outdated ban on growing hemp has hamstrung farmers in Oregon and across the country," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). "Hemp products are made in America, sold in America, and consumed in America. Now, hemp will be able to be legally grown in America, to the economic benefit of consumers and farmers in Oregon and nationwide."

Wyden and fellow Oregonian Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) teamed up with Kentucky Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell to sponsor the bill and guide it through Congress. McConnell's role as Senate Majority Leader certainly didn't hurt the bill's prospects.

As well as guiding the bill forward, McConnell took to the Senate floor on various occasions to support it. In his statement on the passage of the farm bill, he touted "the new opportunities available with the full legalization of industrial hemp."

"Finally we are recognizing industrial hemp for the agricultural product it is," Merkley said. "This is a cash crop that hasn't been allowed to meet its full economic potential because of outdated restrictions. When I visited a hemp farm mid-harvest, I saw firsthand the enormous potential of this diverse crop under the limited 2014 farm bill. This full legalization provides economic opportunity for farmers across rural Oregon and rural America -- good for jobs, good for our communities, and just good common sense."

The bill defines hemp as cannabis with 0.3 percent THC or less by dry weight and removes it from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Regulatory authority over hemp moves from the DEA to the Agriculture Department. The definition of hemp in the bill includes all parts of the plant and specifically lists cannabinoids, including CBD, that are removed from control of the CSA. The bill also includes funding and authorization for research and authorizes crop insurance for hemp farmers.

The inclusion of CBD has the potential of greatly expanding the size of the legal hemp industry. Hemp-based CBD wellness products -- a category that didn't exist five years ago -- already account for nearly a quarter of the domestic hemp market, and the Hemp Business Journal predicts they will account for nearly $650 million worth of sales by 2022, becoming the single largest sector of the hemp market.

It's been more than 40 years since Jack Herer ignited the marijuana movement's interest in hemp with The Emperor Wears No Clothes: Hemp and the Marijuana Conspiracy. Herer is long gone -- he died at age 70 in 2010 -- but the movement he launched has now reached the promised land. The single most ridiculously unjustifiable aspect of federal marijuana prohibition has been killed; now it's time to finish the job by ending federal marijuana prohibition.

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Oregon Initiative Would Decriminalize Psilocybin [FEATURE]

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 07:25

An initiative that would decriminalize most psilocybin offenses and open the door to regulated production and therapeutic use of the psychedelic substance in Oregon is moving forward.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]Late last month, the secretary of state approved ballot title language for the Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative. The next step is a signature-gathering drive to qualify the measure for the 2020 ballot. Some 117,578 valid voter signatures are required, and petitioners have until next July to obtain them.

Under the initiative, anyone possessing up to 50 grams of dried magic mushrooms or 10 doses of psilocybin would not be charged with a crime, but with a violation similar to a speeding ticket. The only punishment would be a fine. Similarly, distribution of up to 50 grams or 10 doses without a license would be a violation -- unless that person has two or more prior felony convictions, in which case, he would be hit with a misdemeanor.

As quantities possessed increase, so do the potential penalties. Possession of more than 50 but less than 100 grams would still be a violation, except for the two prior felony folks, who would then face a misdemeanor. Possession of more than 100 grams but less than 500 would still be a violation, except for people with one or more previous felonies, who again would face a misdemeanor. Possession of more than 500 grams but less than a kilogram would be a misdemeanor for all. It would take possessing more than two kilograms to earn a felony charge for all.

Similarly, unlicensed sales of up to 50 grams or 10 doses would not be a crime but a violation punishable only by a fine-- unless that person has two or more prior felony convictions, in which case, he would be hit with a misdemeanor. Penalties gradually stiffen, but under the initiative, it would take the sale of more than 15 kilograms to trigger felony charges for anyone regardless of prior criminal history.

Under federal law, possession of any amount of psilocybin is a felony. Under Oregon state law, though, possession of small amounts is only a misdemeanor, although possession of "substantial amounts" (more than 60 grams) is a felony, as is distribution.

But while the changes in the state's criminal code would be significant, the primary goal of the petitioners is to clear the way for the therapeutic use of psilocybin via licensed and regulated producers, processors, and therapists.

"The intent of the 2020 Psilocybin Service Initiative of Oregon is to advance a breakthrough therapeutic model currently being perfected in research settings at top universities around the world," chief petitioners Tom and Sheri Eckert wrote on the campaign web site. "The service model involves a sequence of facilitated sessions, including assessment and preparation, psilocybin administration, and integration afterward. We envision a community-based framework where licensed providers, along with licensed producers of psilocybin mushrooms, blaze trails in Oregon in accordance with evolving practice standards."

The move comes as both the public and the scientific community are shifting their opinions on marijuana and psychedelics. Recent studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of therapeutic use, including reducing anxiety in people with cancer and as a treatment for depression and alcoholism. There is also new evidence that magic mushrooms are among the safest recreational drugs.

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Study: Crackdowns on Heroin, Pain Pills Gave Rise to Fentanyl Overdose Epidemic [FEATURE]

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 07:25

A new report on illicit US drug markets from researchers at the University of San Francisco has found that that the spread of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid implicated in nearly 29,000 overdose deaths last year alone, is tied to enforcement-driven shortages of heroin and prescription opioids, as well simple economics for drug distributors -- not because users particularly desire the drug.

[image:1 align:right caption:true]Illicit fentanyl has swept through American drug markets in waves -- the super strong "China white" heroin of the 1970s was actually a heroin-fentanyl mixture -- most recently in the past decade after rising levels of opioid addiction and the spread of "pill mills" prompted multifaceted moves to restrict opioid prescribing.

From a drug distributor's perspective, fentanyl is a most excellent substitute for heroin or prescription pain pills. Produced entirely in labs or chemical factories, it is far more powerful and cheaper to produce than heroin. Because it's more potent, it is easier to smuggle -- often coming into the US via postal and delivery service parcels, not by the semi load. And it doesn't require months of growing time and period of intense peasant labor in lawless regions of weak states.

Fentanyl is typically sold deceptively -- marketed as heroin or prescription drugs such as OxyContin or Xanax -- and users and street-level dealers often don't even know that the drugs they are using or selling contain fentanyl, the researchers found. Fentanyl is making its way into the supply chain at the wholesale, not the retail level. That, the researchers said, suggests that demand is not the key driver in the drug's spread.

"Fentanyl is rarely sold as fentanyl," said Sarah Mars, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF. "The dealers selling fentanyl directly to the users often don't know what's in it. Not only is this particularly dangerous, but it also means penalizing low-level dealers isn't going to make any difference in the fentanyl poisoning epidemic."

According to Mars, users are split on fentanyl, which produces a more sudden and powerful high than heroin, but one that fades faster. Some said fentanyl brought back the euphoria they had lost the ability to feel with long-term heroin use, but others said they feared fentanyl and found its effects too harsh.

"Whether or not they prefer fentanyl, users don't have any influence over what drugs are being sold," Mars said. "Without accurate information about these drugs, they can't make an informed choice about what they are buying. Also, very little drug slang has developed to describe fentanyl, which lends support to the notion that this is not a demand-driven epidemic."

The presence of drugs adulterated with fentanyl is uneven, Mars said.

"Most of the illicit fentanyl has been in the Northeast and Midwest," she specified. And that's where opioid overdose death rates are the highest.

Another contributing factor to the fentanyl overdose toll is that it has dozens of analogs with wildly varying potency. Some, like carfentanil, are amazingly powerful, as much as 10,000 times as potent as morphine. Some are so new they have not yet been made illegal.

"We believe it's the fluctuation in the potency of the drugs containing fentanyl that makes them so dangerous," said Daniel Ciccarone, MD, MPH, a professor of family and community medicine at UCSF and senior author of an ongoing National Institutes of Health-funded study, Heroin in Transition. "You might have one dose that had hardly any fentanyl in it or none at all. Then, you might have one with a different fentanyl analog, of different potency, or even mixtures of multiple fentanyls and heroin."

Here is the paradox of drug prohibition: Trying to crack down on drugs tends to lead not to less drug use but to more dangerous drugs, and in the case of opioids, tens of thousands of dead drug users. There is an inexorable logic at play: The more law enforcement comes down on a drug, the greater the tendency for suppliers to make it more potent and compact -- and dangerous.

Perhaps that's why we now see mainstream calls for a radically different approach, such as the one from Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle earlier this week. In her column "The Incredibly Unpopular Idea That Could Stem Heroin Deaths," McArdle argues that current drug policy is only running up the overdose death toll and that we need "to start talking about ways to make safe, reliable doses of opiates available to addicts who aren't ready to stop."

That would involve increasing access to opioid substitutes such as methadone and buprenorphine, "but lowering the death toll may require a more drastic step: legalizing prescriptions of stronger opiates," McArdle writes.

"Prescription heroin?" she continues. "Remember, I said you might not like the solution. I don't like it, either -- and frankly, neither do the drug policy researchers who told me it may be necessary. But when fentanyl took over the US illicit drug markets, it also got a lot of addicts as hostages. We'll never be able to rescue them unless we can first keep them alive long enough to be saved."

There is a better way to deal with the opioid crisis than relegating tens of thousands of American opioid users to early, preventable deaths. We know what it is. Now it's a matter of implementing smarter, more humane policies, and that's an ongoing political struggle -- one where lives are literally at stake.

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Georgia Nightmare: Jailed Four Months for Possession of Cotton Candy [FEATURE]

Wed, 11/28/2018 - 19:35

A Georgia woman has filed a federal lawsuit after she spent nearly four months in jail because a roadside drug test administered by untrained police officers falsely identified a bag of cotton candy as methamphetamine.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]Monroe County resident Dasha Fincher filed the lawsuit in mid-November against Monroe County, the two deputies who arrested her, and the company that makes the drug test. The lawsuit argues that the Monroe County Sheriff's Office was reckless and negligent and violated her civil rights.

According to the lawsuit, the car Fincher was riding in was pulled over on New Year's Eve 2016 because of a dark window tint, the deputies said, even though they later admitted the windows were legal. Deputies Cody Maples and Allen Henderson spotted a large open plastic bag inside the vehicle, and Fincher explained that it was cotton candy.

The deputies didn't believe Fincher and used a roadside field drug test which they said indicated there was meth in the bag. She was then arrested, hauled off to jail, and charged with meth trafficking and possession of meth with intent to distribute. Her bond was set at $1 million, which she was unable to come up with, so she sat in jail for the next four months.

In March 2017, Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab test results revealed that the substance was not an illegal drug, but Fincher sat in jail for another month before prosecutors finally dropped the charges.

The lawsuit says the drug test is the Nark II, manufactured by North Carolina-based Sirchie Acquisitions. That particular field drug test is known for producing errant results. In Georgia alone, police using the Nark II to field test drugs have wrongfully arrested at least 30 people, including a man with breath mints (positive for crack), a teacher with Goody's Headache Powder (positive for cocaine), and a couple with vitamins (positive for ecstasy).

In all those cases, as in Fincher's, lab test results from the Bureau of Investigation found no presence of illegal substances. But in all those cases, the exonerating results came only weeks or months later, after the harm to innocent Georgians had already been done.

The Nark II is still in wide use in Georgia. The manufacturer, Sirchie, defends itself by saying: "Our NARK presumptive drug tests are presumptive only. All samples should be sent to a crime lab for confirmation." But too many Georgia law enforcement agencies clearly don't bother to wait for confirmation before making life-changing arrests. And the state of Georgia doesn't even require police officers to be trained on how to do the tests. As a result, innocent Georgians are being wrongfully arrested and jailed. And now, perhaps, at least one of these law enforcement agencies, will have to pay for its wrongdoing.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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