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Chronicle Book Review: Reefer Movie Madness

Reefer Movie Madness: The Ultimate Stoner Film Guide, by Steven Bloom and Shirley Halperin (2010, Abrams Image Press, 336 pp., $18.95 PB)

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Even the wonkiest of drug policy reformers can't spend all their time reading policy proposals, research results, and desert-dry academic treatises, but Reefer Movie Madness is much more than a mere guilty pleasure. Penned by former High Times editor and Celebstoner.com proprietor Steve Bloom and former High Times intern turned entertainment writer Shirley Halperin, Reefer Movie Madness is not only a most excellent guide to stoner filmdom, it also maps the cultural acceptance of marijuana in America through film history.

A follow-up to the pair's well-done, comprehensive compendium of all things cannabinical, Pot Culture, Reefer Movie Madness profiles more than 700 films that are about marijuana, feature marijuana in key scenes, feature other drugs, or just plain a gas to watch stoned. The films are ranked via a five-star rating system, and the authors demonstrate exquisite taste and filmic knowledge in their rankings (meaning that their tastes agreed with mine).

They begin at the beginning, going back even before 1936's anti-pot propaganda classic Reefer Madness to note such obscure films as 1924's High on the Range, in which Cowboy Dave smokes a reefer, and 1933's International House, in which jazz legend Cab Calloway performs "Reefer Man."

But in the late 1930s, as Harry Anslinger crusaded against the demon weed, so did Hollywood. In addition to Reefer Madness, the movie industry cranked out propaganda like Marijuana: The Weed with Roots in Hell (1936), Assassin of Youth (1937), and just a handful of years later, Devil's Harvest (1942). While such films helped shape American attitudes at the time, and for decades to come, they are now the stuff of nonstop laugh fests.

While marijuana and other drug use was portrayed intermittently, and occasionally, even with some sympathy for drug users, it wasn't until the cultural revolution of the 1960s, bringing us classic stoner films like Wild in the Streets (1968) and Easy Rider (1969), that pot-smoking began to be widely portrayed as anything but deviant. And it wasn't until the late 1970s that Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke gave birth to the now ubiquitous stoner comedy genre (although Bloom and Halperin give the classic Animal House, with its single hilarious pot-smoking scene partial credit for establishing the genre, too).

By now, stoner movies and depictions of pot-smoking are everywhere, most notably, but not only, in the stoner comedy genre. Films like Half-Baked, How High, Friday, and Strange Wilderness are now being produced by mainstream production companies, and the Judd Apatow franchise alone has been responsible for numerous box office hit stoner flicks, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the underrated Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Superbad, and Pineapple Express. This year's Get Him to Greek, featuring the inimitable and charismatic Russell Brand and Apatow regular Jonah Hill, was released too late for inclusion, but will certainly make the next edition.

The book is divided into sections by genre: comedy, drama, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, action, sports, music, documentaries and offers spot-on capsule reviews of more than 700 films, complete with plot summaries, star rankings, and choice quotes. Reefer Movie Madness also includes themed lists (Best Buds: Ten stony duos that take friendship to a higher level; Stoner Inventions and Innovations), celebrity Q&As, and lists of favorite stoner movies from well-known actors, directors, and musicians, including Cheech & Chong, the Trailer Park Boys, Snoop Dog, and Melissa Etheridge, among many more.

Reefer Movie Madness is a bookshelf must for pot movie fans, whether they be culture mavens or fully-baked couch potatoes. Even for veteran stoner film watchers, it contains some delicious movies you've never seen before and helps you remember long-forgotten gems. It has already vastly increased the length of my Netflix queue, and once you pick it up, the same thing is going to happen to you.

But beyond that, Reefer Movie Madness is a valuable and important contribution to charting and understanding the pop cultural role of marijuana in the past few decades. And it's a gas to read, stoned or not.

Chronicle AM -- April 3, 2014

British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson is banned from the US for admitting using coke, decrim dies for the year in Maryland, CBD medical marijuana bills continue to move, the resort to the overdose drug naloxone is spreading rapidly, Guatemala's president wants to legalize marijuana and license poppies for the medical market, and more. Let's get to it:

UK celebrity chef Nigella Lawson is too scary to allow in the US because she admitted doing coke. (Brian Minkoff via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Maryland Decriminalization Bill Killed; Task Force Will Study It Instead. Marijuana decriminalization is dead for the year in Maryland after a bill to do just that -- House Bill 879 -- died without a vote in the House Judiciary Committee. Instead, the committee, led by reform foe Rep. Joe Vallario Jr. (D-Prince Georges), chose to form a task force to study the issue.

Washington State Will Issue First Marijuana Store Licenses by July, Impose Lottery System. Colorado is the only state where you can walk into a store and legally purchase marijuana, but not for long. Washington state regulators announced Wednesday that the first retail marijuana licenses will be issued "no later than the first week of July." The state has already issued licenses to eight growers. After eliminating retail license applications that did not return required documents or were incomplete, the state still has more than a thousand applications for the 334 stores it will allow to open, so it is imposing a lottery system to determine who gets those licenses.

Northern Mariana Islands Senate Ponders Legalization. The Senate of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US protectorate, discussed the possibility of legalizing marijuana Wednesday. The Fiscal Affairs Committee touched on legalization when discussing a decriminalization bill, and committee member Sen. Pete Reyes (IN-Saipan) said members had asked the Senate legal counsel to research Colorado's legalization model. "Yes, the committee is tinkering with the idea, whether it's a good idea to legalize it or not. But nothing is final. Nothing is decided," Reyes told The Saipan Tribune.

Medical Marijuana

New Jersey Patient Sues NJ Transit for Denying Him a Job. A former New Jersey Transit worker and medical marijuana patient who was denied a new position with the agency after testing positive for marijuana is suing in hopes of seeing marijuana recognized as a legitimate medication. Charlie Davis, 57, said he was denied both safety sensitive and non-safety sensitive positions with the agency. Courts in other medical marijuana states have generally upheld the rights of employers to fire workers who use medical marijuana even if it is legal.

Illinois Senate Passes CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. A bill that would allow children to use high-CBD cannabis oil to treat epilepsy passed the Senate Wednesday. Filed by Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), Senate Bill 2636 now heads for the House.

Minnesota TV Ad Attacks Gov. Dayton for Opposing Medical Marijuana. Patients and medical marijuana advocates have unleashed an aggressive TV ad targeting Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) for standing in the way of medical marijuana legislation. The ad features a St. Paul mother and her seizure-ridden child, whom Gov. Dayton told to just find medical marijuana on the street!

South Carolina House Passes CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. The House Wednesday passed a bill allowing people suffering from severe epilepsy to legally use CBD cannabis oil to control their seizures. House Bill 4803 is less restrictive than a Senate measure passed last week. It's unclear what happens next.

Harm Reduction

Louisiana House Committee Passes Bill to Allow Overdose Reversal Drug. The House Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday passed a bill that would allow first responders to provide the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan). House Bill 754 now heads for a House floor vote.

Every Cop in New York Will Carry Overdose Reversal Drug. Under a new initiative announced today by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D), every state and local law enforcement officer in the state will be able to carry with them the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan). The Community Overdose Prevention program will provide police with kits containing two syringes filled with naloxone, two inhalers of the drug, sterile gloves and a booklet on using them. The cost of the kit is roughly $60. Each has a shelf life of about two years.

Some New Jersey Cops to Carry Overdose Reversal Drug. Police throughout Ocean and Monmouth Counties soon will be armed with a drug that can save heroin users from fatal overdose, launching a program officials hope will be adopted statewide in New Jersey. All 32 Ocean County police departments are participating in a pilot program backed by Gov. Christie, who said Wednesday that equipping police with the drug, naloxone (Narcan), would help save lives.

Sentencing

Louisiana House Passes Harsh Heroin Sentencing Bill. The House voted 96-0 Wednesday in favor of a bill that imposes mandatory minimum prison sentence for heroin possession and increases sentences for heroin dealers. But first, it amended House Bill 332 so that, in addition to prison time, heroin users would also have to undergo court-approved drug treatment. Under the bill, heroin possessors would have to do at least two years in prison, while dealers would see their mandatory minimum sentence doubled from five years to 10. The bill now goes to the Senate.

International

Mexican Drug War Victims Criticize Lack of Progress on Tens of Thousands of Cases. Families of drug war victims who were hoping to see concrete policy shifts with the change of administrations a year and a half ago are growing impatient with the lack of progress on tens of thousands of cases of murders and disappearances. An estimated 100,000 Mexicans have been killed since former President Felipe Calderon turned drug prohibition policies into a militarized offensive. The whereabouts of another 26,000 are unknown. They are Mexico's "disappeared". Some are believed to have been kidnapped by criminals, others have vanished after being taken into police custody. Click on the link for the full report.

Guatemalan President Will Present Plan to Legalize Marijuana and License Opium Production. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said Wednesday his country could present a plan before year's end to legalize the production of marijuana and opium poppies. See our news brief today for more detail.

Albanian Cops Try Persuasion in Marijuana-Growing Village. Albanian Police peacefully visited the village of Lazarati this week in a bid to get school children to persuade their parents not to grow marijuana there. Lazarati is described as "a paradise for cannabis growers and criminals," and has been a no-go zone for police for nearly two decades. Villagers in the past have created armed groups to fend off eradication efforts, and even the kids didn't seem too keen on giving up the trade. "If you tell us to convince our parents not to grow cannabis, do you guarantee us that you will provide jobs for them? This is our way of life," one student replied.

British Celebrity Chef Nigella Lawson Denied Entry to US Over Cocaine Use Admission. Nigella Lawson was stopped from boarding a flight from London to the US because of her courtroom confession that she used cocaine. Lawson was never charged with a criminal offense over her confession, but the US can deny travel to foreigners who have committed offenses without being charged.

Chronicle AM -- March 25, 2014

Richard Branson speaks out on California drug policy reforms, a leading anti-drug group gives up the ghost on fighting marijuana legalization, the Canadian government is under attack from a couple of directions, and more. Let's get to it:

Richard Branson speaks out again on drug policy reform (David Shankbone/wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Drugfree.org Gives Up on Anti-Marijuana Ad Campaign. The people who brought you "this is your brain on drugs" and similar anti-drug advertising campaigns have given up on fighting marijuana legalization. Formerly known as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the group and its CEO, Steve Pasierb, say they have rejected a request to launch a campaign against marijuana legalization because legalization "is happening in America." Here is the interview in Advertising Age where Pasierb speaks out.

Colorado Supreme Court Says Lawyers Can Work With Marijuana Businesses. The Colorado Supreme Court approved a rule change Monday that will eliminate the threat of ethics sanctions against attorneys who work with marijuana businesses. Lawyers "may assist a client in conduct that the lawyer reasonably believes is permitted by these constitutional provisions and the statutes, regulations, orders, and other state and local provisions implementing them," Chief Justice Nancy Rice wrote in the updated rule.

Delaware Poll Has Majority for Legalization, Two-Thirds for Decriminalization. A Public Policy Polling survey commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project finds that a narrow majority (51%) support legalizing marijuana, while an overwhelming majority (68%) support decriminalization of the possession of small amounts.

Illinois Decriminalization Bill Has Hearing Today. A bill to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana gets a hearing today in the House Restorative Justice Committee. The measure, House Bill 5708, was introduced by Rep. Kelley Cassidy (D-Chicago).

Medical Marijuana

Florida CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Wins Senate Committee Vote. A bill to legalize a special strain of low-dose medical marijuana passed through the Senate Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Monday. Senate Bill 1030, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island), Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach), and Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) would only allow patients to use extracts containing at least 15% CBD and less than 0.5% THC. The House companion bill, House Bill 843, differs in several ways. The two measures would have to be reconciled if both pass their respective chambers.

Illinois Bill to Add Seizure Disorders Gets Hearing Today. A bill that would add seizure disorders to the list of diseases and conditions for which medical marijuana is approved gets a hearing today in the Senate Public Health Committee. Filed by Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), Senate Bill 2636 will be supported in committee by testimony from Kurt Florian, president of the Epilepsy Foundation of Chicago, as well as a family practitioner and parents of two children suffering from seizure disorders.

Drug Policy

Richard Branson Op-Ed Urges Support for California Drug Reforms. Virgin Airlines head and Global Drug Policy Commission member Richard Branson has penned an op-ed calling for support of an initiative campaign to decriminalize drug possession in California. Click on the title link to read the op-ed. Branson is also appearing this afternoon at an event in San Francisco, where Sundog Pictures will hold a special screening of its drug war documentary "Breaking the Taboo." That's at 5:30 pm at the New People Cinema on Post Street.

Law Enforcement

Pennsylvania Man Sues Philly Narcs for 13 Years of False Imprisonment. Philadelphia resident Kareem Torain has filed a lawsuit against a trio of current and former Philadephia narcotics officers, in which he claims they falsified evidence that led to him being convicted on drug charges and spending 13 years in prison. In addition to the individual narc, the lawsuit also targets the city of Philadelphia for "systemic deficiencies and deliberate indifference" that "have caused police officers, including defendant police Officers Monaghan and Reynolds, and former police Officer Walker in this case, to believe that they can violate the rights of citizens, with impunity, including the use of fraud and falsehood, without fear that their actions will be investigated." In recent years scores of drug cases have been dismissed by Philadelphia courts, and several lawsuits have been filed, claiming that narcotics officers routinely planted evidence and lied in court to secure convictions.

International

Russian Drug Czar Calls for New Plan to Combat Afghan Drug Threat. Viktor Ivanov, head of the Russian anti-drug agency, has called for the UN Security Council to address "planet scale" drug production in Afghanistan and for interested countries to create a global alliance for alternative development in Afghanistan through "forced industrialization." Ivanov is one of the Russian political leaders sanctioned as a result of the Crimea crisis, and last week, he suggested that the US was using the crisis to deliberately destroy the international anti-drug cooperation in order to hide its responsibility for the drug crisis in Afghanistan.

Canada Blocked Support for Harm Reduction at UN CND Meeting, Observers Say. Canadian diplomats in Vienna for the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) meeting blocked harm reduction health approaches abroad that are widely practiced at home, said Canadian Drug Policy Coalition director Donald MacPherson, who attended the conference. "Historically, Canada had been a leader in this area," MacPherson noted. "A substantial amount of the scientific research validating harm reduction measures was done right here in Vancouver, and we've implemented quite robust harm reduction policies at the provincial level across Canada. It's hypocritical for us to oppose adoption of these strategies internationally, especially since this is a matter of life and death in many countries with high levels of injection drug use and HIV." Similarly, Richard Elliot, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, described the position adopted by Canada in Vienna as "profoundly stupid."

Canada Court Hearing Request for Injunction to Allow Prescription Heroin This Week. The Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society and Providence Health Care will be in court this week to argue that participants in the SALOME study (The Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Maintenance Effectiveness) should receive an exemption from recent amendments to federal drug laws that prohibit doctors from prescribing heroin to patients for whom other treatment options have been ineffective. Pivot is representing five patients whose condition improved while in the SALOME study, operated by Providence Health, and who can no longer access the treatment now that their time in the study is over. Click on the link for more details.

Mexican Lawmakers Hit DC, NYC to Discuss Their Marijuana Reform Proposals. Legislators from the Mexican Congress and the Mexico City Assembly will be in Washington, DC, and New York City to discuss the bills they introduced to decriminalize the consumption and purchase of marijuana for personal use in Mexico City and to legalize medical marijuana countrywide. Mexico City Senator Mario Delgado and Mexico City Assembly member Vidal Llerenas, both from the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), will be in DC on March 24 and 25 and in NY on March 26 to discuss the aims of the marijuana reform proposals in Mexico. Click on the link for more details.

Chronicle AM -- March 19, 2014

Fewer people are getting arrested for marijuana possession in Washington state after legalization -- imagine that! -- Kansas legislators want to drug test teachers, a New Jersey heroin and opiates panel has recommendations, Russell Brand goes to Vienna, and more. Let's get to it:

Russell Brand speaks out for drug decriminalization at the CND in Vienna. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon GOP Gubernatorial Candidate Says Legalize It. Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Carr says he favors legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana use and would spend the proceeds on helping the homeless and others in need. Carr is one of six Republicans running in the primary to determine who takes on incumbent Democrat John Kitzhaber. He's not the front-runner; that distinction goes to state Rep. Dennis Richardson.

Massachusetts Poll Has Near Majority for Legalization.A new WBUR TV poll shows increased support for marijuana legalization, with 48% in favor and 41% opposed. A Boston Herald/Suffolk University poll showed majority support for the first time. These two polls suggest that attitudes toward legalization in the Bay State have moved in a positive direction in the past year.

Washington State ACLU Reports Big Drop in Pot Arrests. Misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests plummeted last year, the ACLU of Washington reported today. There were just 120 such arrests last year after legalization went into effect, compared to 5,531 the year before. But black people are still getting arrested for pot possession more often. They're getting popped at a rate three times that of whites, the ACLU said.

National Cannabis Industry Association to Host Marijuana Business Summit. The NCIA will hold its first national conference, the Cannabis Business Summit, June 24-25 in Denver. Click on the links for more details.

Medical Marijuana

Alabama CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Advances. A bill that would study the impact of using a marijuana derivative to treat seizures is one step closer to becoming state law. Senate Bill 174 passed the House Judiciary Committee after it was amended in the Senate last week.

Drug Testing

Kansas School Teacher Drug Testing Bill Passes Senate. A bill that requires drug testing of school employees and affirms the firing of educators convicted of DUI, drug crimes, and other offenses passed the state Senate Tuesday. Senate Bill 335 was approved after Senate Democrats successfully offered an amendment that would subject members of the House and Senate to treatment requirements and financial sanctions mirroring those in state law for the unemployed or those on cash aid. The welfare drug testing law passed last year also included elected representatives, but contained no provisions for sanctioning them or requiring they seek help. The bill now goes to the House.

Heroin

Kentucky Omnibus Heroin Bill Stuck in House. A bill that would both enact harm reduction measures and crack down on heroin-selling offenses is stuck in the House Judiciary Committee. Senate Bill 5 would let drug dealers be charged with murder if the sale of Schedule I drugs results in death and increases penalties for high-volume heroin dealers. It also seeks increased Medicare funds for drug treatment, access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, and a 911 Good Samaritan provision. The Senate passed the bill in January.

New Jersey Heroin Task Force Calls for Broad Reforms. A governor's task force on heroin and opiate use called for a wide array of reforms, saying it is "time to confront our demons." According to The Newark Star-Ledger, which obtained an advance copy, the panel's report calls for tighter prescription pill monitoring laws, changes in the state's insurance system to make treatment more available, and expanded use of drug treatment recovery communities.

Sentencing

California Bill Would Equalize Crack and Powder Cocaine Sentences. A bill filed by state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Culver City) would cut prison sentences for people convicted of selling crack to bring them in line with sentences for people convicted of selling powder cocaine. Senate Bill 1010 was introduced last month, but amended Monday. It is before the Senate Rules Committee.

International

In Vienna, Russell Brand Joins "Support, Don't Punish" Campaign. British actor and comedian Russell Brand spoke at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna today and publicly joined forces with the Support, Don't Punish campaign to decriminalize drug possession and end the imprisonment and punishment of people who use drugs.

Senior Mexican Anti-Drug Official Resigns. Manuel Mondragón y Kalb, Mexico's national security commissioner and one of the most senior officials in charge of the country's counternarcotics fight, has resigned "for personal reasons." The National Security Commission (CNS), which falls under the Interior Ministry, was created by President Enrique Peña Nieto in January 2013 to replace the Secretariat of Public Security. The CNS, which is in charge of the Federal Police, is behind schedule in its task to create a National Gendarmerie to bolster the country's counter-narcotics fight, which is one of Peña Nieto's campaign promises.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM -- March 11, 2014

The District of Columbia could legalize marijuana at the ballot box this year, Dr. Sanjay Gupta doubles down on his support for medical marijuana with a new CNN special tonight, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting this week in Vienna is attracting a lot of attention, and more. Let's get to it:

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta "doubles down" on his support for medical marijuana. (via Share Bear on Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

DC Legalization Initiative Cleared for Signature-Gathering. The District of Columbia Board of Elections announced this morning that it had approved a marijuana legalization initiative for signature-gathering. That means voters in the nation's capital could vote to free the weed in November. Now, the DC Cannabis Campaign must gather some 25,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot. But first, the Board of Elections must finalize the language for the measure. It has 20 days to do so.

Colorado Takes in $2 Million in Marijuana Taxes in First Month of Legalization. The state of Colorado collected $2.01 million in retail marijuana sales and excise taxes in January, the first month of legal sales, the Department of Revenue reported Monday.

Missouri Legalization Bill Gets Committee Hearing. A bill to legalize marijuana in the Show-Me State got a hearing in the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee Monday. House Bill 1659, sponsored by Rep. Chris Kelly (D-Columbia), got a mixed reception in the hearing, with GOP lawmakers expressing skepticism. The committee took no vote and offered no timetable for further action.

Louisiana Marijuana Reform Advocates Rally on Capitol Steps in Baton Rouge. Although there is no legalization bill filed in Louisiana, legalization advocates rallied at the state capitol Monday to get their voices heard. The event was organized by Legalize Louisiana, which seeks to "decriminalize, legalize, and regulate marijuana" in the Bayou State. Although there is no legalization bill this year, there are bills to decriminalize and to allow for medical marijuana.

Legalization Would Be a "Terrible Mistake," Says NYPD Commissioner. NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said Tuesday it would be a 'terrible mistake' to legalize marijuana and predicted problems for states that go that course. But he did say he supported medical marijuana.

Medical Marijuana

Dr. Sanjay Gupta Doubles Down for Medical Marijuana; Special Airs Tonight. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who first saw the light on medical marijuana a few months ago, has reiterated his support for the herb's medicinal uses and will air a new special on the topic, Weed 2: Cannabis Madness: Dr. Sanjay Gupta Reports," at 10 p.m. ET on tonight.

In New Crackdown, Los Angeles Shutters A Hundred Dispensaries. More than 100 dispensaries have shut down since Los Angeles started enforcing new rules restricting them, City Atty. Mike Feuer announced Monday. In addition to the rules prompting scores of closures, Feuer said city lawyers had successfully fended off a host of legal challenges. In one closely watched case, they prevented a dispensary from opening in Mar Vista, securing a permanent injunction before it could set up shop.

Minnesota Medical Marijuana Bill Stalled By Cops. A key lawmaker said Tuesday she doesn't see a path forward for legalizing medical marijuana after talks with law enforcement hit a standstill. Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing) said she had conceded to virtually all demands from law enforcement over the weekend but was still unable to get their support for her bill, House File 1818. Melin said she had no choice but to postpone a House committee hearing that would have been lawmakers' second look at the issue. "Law enforcement won't support any bill that would result in helping any patients," Melin said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The governor has to get involved."

Drug Testing

Georgia Food Stamp Drug Test Bill Passes Senate Committee. A bill that would require food stamp recipients suspected of drug use to pass a drug test to receive benefits narrowly passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee Monday. House Bill 772, sponsored by Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia) has already passed the House. It's not clear if it now goes to another committee or to a Senate floor vote.

Prescription Opioids

West Virginia Senator Manchin Joins Call to Overturn FDA Approval of Zohydro. US Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has joined the call for the FDA to overturn its recent approval of Zohydro, a single-ingredient hydrocodone drug approved for people suffering from chronic pain. It is the first ever single-ingredient drug to be approved by the FDA. Manchion joins Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and a number of legislators, prosecutors, and medical groups seeking to reverse the decision. But the FDA and the drug's manufacturer say the drug is needed to treat chronic pain.

Drug Use

RAND Corporation Report Reviews Past Decade's Drug Use. A new report from the RAND Corporation, What America's Drug Users Spend on Illegal Drugs: 2000-2010, pegs spending on illicit drugs at $100 billion a year. It also notes that from 2000 to 2010, the amount people spent on cocaine dropped by half from $55 billion to $28 billion, reflecting dramatic decreases in the availability of cocaine after 2006: from approximately 300 pure metric tons in 2000 to about 150 pure metric tons in 2010.

International

UN Drugs Meeting Opens after Historic Reforms Shatter Consensus on Drug Control System. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) opens its annual meeting this week after a year of historic reforms. This year’s meeting—which is taking place Vienna from March 13-21—is expected to be unusually contentious after a monumental 2013-2014. Unprecedented reforms have shaken the foundations of global drugs policy and set the stage for an explosive international debate. For live updates, check out the CND Blog.

Report Finds UN Stuck in Denial Over Marijuana Regulation. A new report from the Transnational Institute and the Global Drug Policy Observatory has been released in the run-up to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting this week. The report, The Rise and Decline of Cannabis Prohibition: the History of Cannabis in the UN drug control system and options for reform, unveils the long and little-known history of cannabis regulation from the late 19th century when it was widely used for medical, ceremonial and social purposes to the post-WWII period when US pressure and a potent mix of moralistic rhetoric and unreliable scientific data succeeded in categorising cannabis as a drug with 'particularly dangerous properties' on a par with heroin in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. It also brings the history up-to-date with more recent developments as an increasing number of countries have shown discomfort with the treaty regime's strictures through 'soft defections', such as turning a blind eye, decriminalization, coffee shops, cannabis social clubs and generous medical marijuana schemes. These have stretched the legal flexibility of the conventions to sometimes questionable limits. The report outlines specific options for reform and assesses their potential for success. These options include: WHO review and modification of cannabis scheduling; state parties amending the treaties; modifying the conventions 'inter se', e.g. between specific states only; or denunciation of the treaty and re-accession with a reservation (carried out recently by Bolivia in order to defend indigenous rights and the use of coca leaf in its natural form).

ENCOD Calls for UN to End the Drug War. The European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) will use the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs this week to call on the UN to end the war on drugs. A delegation of five Encod members will join the debate inside the UN: Urki Goñi, chairman of Cannabis Social Club Urjogaberdea in the Basque Country, Spain, Doug Fine, author of 'Hemp Bound' and 'Too High To Fail: Cannabis & the New Green Economic Revolution', Dionisio Nuñez, Bolivian ex-minister of coca affairs, Janko Belin, Encod chairman and Joep Oomen, Encod coordinator. On Friday March 14 one of them will deliver a speech to the plenary meeting. ENCOD will also be reporting nightly from the sessions later this week on the ENCOD web site.

Legalization Won't Solve World's Drug Problem, UN Drug Chief Says.Yuri Fedotov, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told reporters Monday that while it is up to member states to decide "what needs to be done," legalization ain't it. "As the head of UNODC, I have to say that legalization is not a solution to the (world's) drug problem," Fedotov said. "It is very hard to say that this law (adopted by Uruguay's parliament) is fully in line with legal provisions of the drug control conventions," he added.

UN Drug Chief Praises Iran Drug Fight Despite Executions. Yuri Fedotov, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said Monday that Iran's anti-drug efforts were "very impressive" and that Iran "takes a very active role to fight against illicit drugs" even though human rights and harm reduction groups have criticized its frequent resort to the death penalty for drug offenders. Still, he added that UNODC opposes the death penalty and that he planned to raise the issue with Iranian leaders during the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna this week.

Chronicle AM -- February 21, 2014

Marijuana legalization in the District of Columbia hits a bump, the Epilepsy Foundation comes out for medical marijuana, India passes landmark access to pain medication legislation, and more. Let's get to it:

"Big Plans, Little Brains." Canada's criminally cretinous Trailer Park Boys fight marijuana legalization in their latest flick.
Marijuana Policy

DC's Top Lawyer Says Proposed Legalization Ordinance Can't Go to Voters. District of Columbia Attorney General Irvin Nathan issued a formal opinion yesterday saying the proposed DC marijuana legalization initiative should not go before the voters because it violates federal law. His opinion is not binding, but carries weight with the Board of Elections, which meets on the issue next Tuesday. Initiative backers are scrambling to see if they can't fix the language in question before then.

New Mexico House Approves Study of Legalization Effects. The state House late Wednesday passed a nonbinding memorial (bill) that calls for studying the effects of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington. Under the measure, the Legislative Finance Committee would conduct the study and report its findings later this year. The committee will be looking specifically at state revenue and agricultural production levels as well as addiction rates and the availability of law enforcement resources. The bill is House Memorial 38.

Medical Marijuana

Epilepsy Foundation Calls for Access to Medical Marijuana, Tells DEA to Back Off. "The Epilepsy Foundation supports the rights of patients and families living with seizures and epilepsy to access physician directed care, including medical marijuana. Nothing should stand in the way of patients gaining access to potentially life-saving treatment," said Epilepsy Foundation President and CEO Philip M. Gattone and Epilepsy Foundation Board of Directors Chairman Warren Lammert. "If a patient and their healthcare professionals feel that the potential benefits of medical marijuana for uncontrolled epilepsy outweigh the risks, then families need to have that legal option now -- not in five years or ten years. For people living with severe uncontrolled epilepsy, time is not on their side." The foundation said it was moved to act after getting repeated inquiries about the use of medical marijuana, especially high CBD cannabis oils. It also urged the DEA to get out of the way. Click on the link to read the press release.

New Jersey Patients Air Grievances Before Assembly Committee. Medical marijuana patients and advocates got a chance to lay out their problems with the state's medical marijuana program Thursday at a hearing of the Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee. Click on the link to get all the details.

Maryland Medical Marijuana Program Still 18 Months Away, Official Says. Dr. Paul Davies, head of the commission set up to oversee the implementation of a medical marijuana program told lawmakers Thursday that the initiative is at least 18 months away from offering pain relief to the first patients. And that's the best-case scenario.

Harm Reduction

Naloxone (Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug) Bills Move in Ohio, Wisconsin. Bills that would expand access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) are moving in Ohio and Wisconsin. The Christian Science Monitor mentions these bills in a broader article on states moving to respond opioid overdoses. Click on the link to read the whole thing.

International

India's Rajya Sabha Passes Bill to Increase Access to Opiate Pain Medications. India's parliament has passed a bill that will ease access to opiate pain medications. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (Amendment) Bill, 2014, was passed by the Rajya Sabha, or upper house Friday. It had passed the Lok Sabha, or lower house, the day before. The law will bring relief to thousands of cancer patients in the country who use opiates for acute and chronic pain relief. It had been pushed by the Indian Association for Palliative Care, among other groups.

Canadian Pro-Legalization Group Seeks Candidates to Support in Next Year's Elections. A new organization, Legalize Canada, has popped-up with the intent of "supporting strong and vocal pro-legalization candidates for public office" in the 2015 federal election. The group said it had identified 95 to 100 ridings (legislative districts) out of 338 in the country where support for legalization could be a critical, election-winning issue. The group says it is aiming for a $7 million budget.

Canada's Trailer Park Boys Say Don't Legalize It. Canada's cult TV and movie phenomenon, Trailer Park Boys, is back with a new sequel, Trailer Park Boys 3: Don't Legalize It. Ricky, Julian, Bubbles, and the rest of the crew have too much invested in their latest criminal pot growing scheme to put up with legal weed.

Seven Killed in Philippines Drug Raid. Philippines anti-drug police killed seven suspected drug dealers and arrested several more in a Friday raid on the outskirts of Davao City. "They put up a fight and were killed in the process," Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said here when asked about the deaths. Duterte has long been suspected of being behind extrajudicial killings in Davao City, an accusation the Aquino administration ally has repeatedly denied.

Chronicle AM -- February 13, 2014

A bill has been filed to stop forcing the drug czar to oppose drug legalization, CBD medical marijuana bills continue to get attention, and there are big doings south of the border, and more. Let's get to it:

Russell Brand helped push British petition over the top. (flickr.com/photos/evarinaldiphotography/)
Drug Legalization

Congressman Steven Cohen Files Bill to Let Drug Czar Deal Honestly with Drug Legalization. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office) is required by law to oppose legalization of any Schedule I substance and prohibited from studying it. Now, Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) has filed a bill, the Unmuzzle the Drug Czar Act (H.R. 4046), that would strip that language from the drug czar's enabling legislation, the ONDCP Reauthorization Act of 1998.

Marijuana Policy

High Times, Westword Sue Colorado Over Marijuana Advertising Restrictions. Marijuana magazine High Times and Denver alternative weekly Westword filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday challenging Colorado's restrictions on advertising for legal marijuana. The state's rules allow pot businesses to advertise only in adult-oriented publications for which "no more than 30% of the publication's readership is reasonably expected to be under 21." The lawsuit argues that the restrictions are an unconstitutional contravention of free speech.

Rhode Island Legalization Bill Coming. House Judiciary Committee Chair Edith Ajello and Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Josh Miller announced Wednesday they will file a bill to legalize marijuana for adults and set up a system of taxation and regulation for marijuana commerce. The effort is backed by Regulate Rhode Island and the Marijuana Policy Project.

Hawaii Decriminalization, Medical Marijuana Bills Get Hearing Today. Three Senate committees are holding a joint hearing today on two decriminalization bills, Senate Bill 2358 and Senate Bill 2733, and one bill, Senate Bill 2402, a bill that would take away protections for patients who possess and use marijuana concentrates.

Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana Rally Set for Friday in Topeka. Supporters of a long-stalled medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 9, will rally at the Kansas State Capitol Rotunda Friday morning and lobby legislators after that. The effort is organized by Kansas for Change. Click on the title link for more details.

Hundreds Pack Oklahoma Capitol for CBD Medical Marijuana Hearing. Demonstrators called for marijuana legalization outside as hundreds of people jammed into the state capitol for a hearing on CBD medical marijuana. Dramatic and moving testimony was heard from family members of children suffering seizure disorders who might be helped by access to CBD cannabis oils.

Wisconsin Lawmakers Hold Hearing on CBD Medical Marijuana. Wisconsin legislators Wednesday heard from families of children with seizure disorders, who pleaded with them to pass a pending CBD medical marijuana bill.

Harm Reduction

Cincinnati Gets Its First Needle Exchange Program. The first needle exchange program in the Southwest Ohio/Northern Kentucky region is open for business. The Cincinnati Exchange Program becomes the third in Ohio, with others already operating in Cleveland and Portsmouth. The needle exchanges have been proven to reduce the spread of HIV, Hep C, and other blood-borne infectious diseases.

Prescription Drugs

Prescription Drug Database Bill Wins Missouri House Vote. A bill that would establish a prescription drug database has won a vote in the House, but senators, citing privacy concerns, said there is little chance of it moving forward in their chamber. The bill would create an electronic database managed by the state health department that would share information about prescriptions, patients, and doctors. The bill is House Bill 1133.

International

Mexico City Decriminalization, Regulation Bill and Mexican National Drug Reform Bill Introduced Today. In Mexico City, legislators for the federal district introduced a bill to decriminalize the possession of up to five grams of marijuana and remove the option of incarceration for possession of small amounts of other drugs. The bill would also allow for limited regulated marijuana sales. The second, national, bill would reschedule marijuana and allow for its medical use. Look for a Chronicle feature article on this soon.

Dark Web Drug Sales Site Busted. German and Dutch authorities have arrested five men in a sting directed at an internet drug sales portal. The men were connected to Black Market Reloaded and its successor web site, Utopia. Undercover police purchased drugs and weapons through the web sites, they said, and seized computers, hard drives, USB sticks, and a Bitcoin wallet containing $680,000 worth of the electronic currency.

More Than 100,000 Sign British Petition for Review of Drug Laws. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas set up an online petition urging the British government to order a cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment of British drug laws within the next year. It has now achieved the benchmark of 100,000 signatures, which means it must be addressed by the Backbench Business Committee. Sign-ons accelerated after actor and comedian Russell Brand joined with the online campaign group Avaaz to encourage its 1.1 million members to sign up.

Hoffman, Heroin, and What Is To Be Done [FEATURE]

The news last Sunday that acclaimed actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman had died of an apparent heroin overdose has turned a glaring media spotlight on the phenomenon, but heroin overdose deaths had been on the rise for several years before his premature demise. And while there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth -- and quick arrests of low-level dealers and users -- too little has been said, either before or after his passing, about what could have been done to save him and what could be done to save others.

cooking heroin (wikimedia.org)
There are proven measures that can be taken to reduce overdose deaths -- and to enable heroin addicts to live safe and normal lives, whether they cease using heroin or not. All of the above face social and political obstacles and have only been implemented unevenly, if at all. If there is any good to come of Hoffmann's death it will be to the degree that it inspires broader discussion of what can be done to prevent the same thing happening to others in a similar position.

Hoffman, devoted family man and great actor that he was, died a criminal. And perhaps he died because his use of heroin was criminalized. Criminalized heroin -- heroin under drug prohibition -- is of uncertain provenance, of unknown strength and purity, adulterated with unknown substances. While we don't know what was in the heroin that Hoffman injected, we do know that he maintained his addiction and went to meet his maker with black market dope. That's what was found beside his lifeless body.

In a commentary published by The Guardian, actor Russell Brand, a recovered heroin addict, laid the blame for Hoffman's demise on the drug laws. "Addiction is a mental illness around which there is a great deal of confusion, which is hugely exacerbated by the laws that criminalise drug addicts," Brand wrote, calling prohibitionists' methods "so gallingly ineffective that it is difficult not to deduce that they are deliberately creating the worst imaginable circumstances to maximise the harm caused by substance misuse." As a result, "drug users, their families and society at large are all exposed to the worst conceivable version of this regrettably unavoidable problem."

We didn't always treat our addicts this way. Even after the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, doctors continued for years to prescribe maintenance doses of opiates to addicts -- and hundreds of them went to jail for it as the medical profession fought, and ultimately lost, a battle with the nascent drug prohibition bureaucracy over whether giving addicts their medicine was part of the legitimate practice of medicine.

The idea of treating heroin addicts as patients instead of criminals was largely vanquished in the United States, but it never went away -- it lingers with methadone substitution, for example. But other countries have for decades been experimenting with providing maintenance doses of opioids to addicts, and to good result. It goes by various names -- opiate substitution therapy, heroin-assisted theatment, heroin maintenance -- and studies from Britain and other European countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, as well as the North American Opiate Medications Initiative (NAOMI) and the follow-up Study to Assess Long-Term Opiate Maintenance in Canada have touted its successes.

Those studies have found that providing pharmaceutical grade heroin to addicts in a clinical setting works. It reduces the likelihood of death or disease among clients, as well as allowing them to bring some stability and predictability to sometimes chaotic lives made even more chaotic by the demands of addiction under prohibition. Such treatment has also been found to have beneficial effects for society, with lowered criminality among participants and increased likelihood of their integration as productive members of society.

The dry, scientific language of the studies obscures the human realities around heroin addiction and opioid maintenance therapy. One NAOMI participant helps put a human face on it.

"I want to tell you what being a participant in this study did for me," one participant told researchers. "Initially it meant 'free heroin.' But over time it became more, much more. NAOMI took much of the stress out of my life and allowed me to think more clearly about my life and future. It exposed me to new ideas, people (staff and clients) that in my street life (read: stressful existence) there was no time for."

"After NAOMI, I was offered oral methadone, which I refused. After going quickly downhill, I ended up hopeless and homeless. I went into detox in April 2007, abstained from using for two months, then relapsed. In July 2008 I again went to detox and I am presently in a treatment center... I am definitely not "out of the woods" yet, but I feel I am on the right path. And this path started for me at the corner of Abbott and Hastings in Vancouver... Thank you and all who were involved in making NAOMI happen. Without NAOMI, I wouldn't be where I am today. I am sure I would be in a much worse place."

Arnold Trebach, one of the fathers of the drug reform in late 20th Century America, has been studying heroin since 1972, and is still at it. He examined the British system in the early 1970s, when doctors still prescribed heroin to thousands of addicts, and authored a book, The Heroin Solution, that compared and contrasted the US and UK approaches. Later this month, the octogenarian law professor will be appearing on a panel at the Vermont Law School to address what Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has described as the heroin crisis there.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman (wikimedia.org)
"The death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a tragedy all the way around," Trebach told the Chronicle. "It's a bad idea to use heroin off the street, and he shouldn't have been doing that."

That said, Trebach continued, it didn't have to be that way.

"If we had had a sensible system of dealing with this, he would have been in treatment under medical care," he said. "If he was going to inject heroin, he should have been using pharmaceutically pure heroin in a medical setting where he could also have been exposed to efforts to straighten out his personal life, and he could have access to vitamins, weight control advice, and the whole spectrum of medical care. And if he had had access to opioid antagonists, he could still be alive," he added.

While Hoffman may have made bad personal choices, Trebach said, we as a society have made policy choices seemingly designed to amplify the prospects for disaster.

"This is a sad thing. He is just another one of the many victims of our barbaric drug policy," he said. "This was a totally unnecessary death at every level. He shouldn't have been using, but we should have been taking care of him."

The stuff ought to be legalized, Trebach said.

"I'm an advocate of full legalization, but if we can't go that far, we need to at least provide social and psychological support for these people," he said. "And even if we were to decriminalize or legalize, I would still want to figure out ways to provide support and love and kindness to people using the stuff. I advise you not to do it, but if you're going to use it, I want to keep you alive. I remember talking to people from Liverpool [a famous heroin maintenance clinic covered in the '90s by Sixty Minutes, linked above] about harm reduction around heroin use back in the 1970s. One of the ladies said it is very hard to rehabilitate a dead addict."

"There are plenty of things we can be doing," said Hilary McQuie, Western director for the Harm Reduction Network, reeling off a list of harm reduction interventions that are by now well-known but inadequately implemented.

"We can make naloxone (Narcan) more available. We need better access to it. It should be offered to people like Hoffman when they are leaving treatment programs, especially if they've been using opiates, just as a safeguard," she said. "Having treatment programs as well as harm reduction programs distribute it is important. We can cut the overdose rate in half with naloxone, but there will still be people using alone and people using multiple substances."

There are other proven interventions that could be ramped up as well, McQuie said.

"Safe injection sites would be very helpful, so would more Good Samaritan overdose emergency laws, and more education, not to mention more access to methadone and buprenorphine and other opioid substitution therapies (OST)," she said, reeling off possible interventions.

Dr. Martin Schechter, director of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, knows a thing or two about OST. The principal study investigator for the NAOMI and the follow-up SALOME study, Schechter has overseen research into the effectiveness of treating intractable addicts with pharmaceutical heroin, as well as methadone. The results have been promising.

"What we're using is medically prescribed pharmaceutical diacetylmorphine, the active ingredient in heroin," he explained. "It's what you have when you strip away all the street additives. This is a stable, sterile medication from a pharmaceutical manufacturer. We know the precise dose tailored for each person. With street heroin, not only is it adulterated and injected in unsterile situations, but people really don't know how strong it is. That's probably what happened to Mr. Hoffman."

Naloxone (Narcan) can reverse opiate overdoses (wikimedia.org)
In NAOMI, 90,000 injections were administered to study participants, and only 11 people suffered overdoses requiring medical attention.

"Never did we have a fatal overdose," Schechter said. "Because it was in a clinic, nurses and doctors are right there. We administer Narcan (naloxone), and they wake up."

Heroin maintenance had even proven more effective than methadone in numerous studies, Schechter said.

"There have been seven randomized control trials across Europe and in Canada that have shown for people who have already tried treatments like methadone, that medically prescribed heroin is more effective and cost effective treatment than simply trying methadone one more time."

Those studies carry a lesson, he said.

"We have to start looking at heroin from a medicinal point of view and treat it like a medicine," he argued. "The more we drive its use underground, the more overdoses we get. We need to expand treatment programs, not only with methadone, but with medically prescribed heroin for people who don't respond to other treatments."

Safe injection sites are also a worthwhile intervention, Schechter said, although he also noted their limitations.

"Injecting under supervision is much safer; if there is an overdose, there is prompt attention, and they provide sterile equipment, reducing the risk of HIV and Hep C," he said. "But they are still injecting street heroin."

He would favor decriminalizing heroin possession, too, he said.

Harm reduction measures, opioid maintenance treatments, and the like are absolutely necessary interventions, said McQuie, but there is a larger issue at hand, as well.

"We still need to look at the overall issue of the stigmatization of drug users," she said. "People aren't open about their use, and that puts them in a more dangerous situation. It's really hard in a criminalized environment."

Stigmatization means to mark or brand someone or something as disgraceful and subject to strong disapproval. Defining an activity, such as heroin possession, as a crime is stigmatization crystallized into the legal structures of society itself.

"The ultimate harm reduction solution," McQuie argued, "is a regulated, decriminalized environment where it is available by prescription, so people know what they're getting, they know how much to use, and it's not cut with fentanyl or other deadly adulterants. People wouldn't have to deal with all the collateral damage that comes from being defined as criminals as well as dealing with the consequences of their drug use. They could deal with their addictions without having to worry about losing their homes, their families, and their freedoms."

While such approaches have a long way to go before winning wide popular acceptance, policymakers should at least be held to account for the consequences of their decision-making, McQuie said, suggesting that the turn to heroin in recent years was a foreseeable result of the crackdown on prescription opioid pain medication beginning in the middle of the last decade.

"They started shutting down all those 'pill mills' and people should have anticipated what would happen and been ready for it," she said. "What we have seen is more and more people turning to injecting heroin, but nobody stopped to do an impact statement on what would be the likely result of restricting access to pain pills."

The impact can be seen in the numbers on heroin use, addiction, and overdoses. While talk of a "heroin epidemic" is overblown rhetoric, the number of heroin users has increased dramatically in the past decade. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the number of past year users grew by about 50% between 2002 and 2011, from roughly 400,000 to more than 600,000. At the same time, the number of addicted users increased from just under 200,000 to about 370,000, a slightly lesser increase.

If there is any good news, it is that, according to the latest (2012) National Household Survey of Drug Use and Health, the number of new heroin users has remained fairly steady at around 150,000 each year for the past decade. That suggests, however, that more first-time users are graduating to occasional and sometimes, dependent user status.

And some of them are dying of heroin overdoses, although not near the number dying from overdoses from prescription opioids. Between 1999 and 2007, heroin deaths hovered just under 2,000, even as prescription drug deaths skyrocketed, from around 2,500 in 1999 to more than 12,000 just eight years later. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control, by 2010, the latest year for which data are available, heroin overdose deaths had surpassed 3,000, a 50% increase in just three years.

While the number of heroin overdose deaths is still but a fraction of those attributed to prescription opioid overdoses and the numbers since 2010 are spotty, the increase that showed up in 2010 shows no signs of having gone away. Phillip Seymour Hoffman may be the most prominent recent victim, but in the week since his death, another 50 or 60 people have probably followed him to the morgue due to heroin overdoses.

There are ways to reduce the heroin overdose death toll. It's not a making of figuring out what they are. It's a matter of finding the political and social will to implement them, and that requires leaving the drug war paradigm behind.

New York City, NY
United States

Could Different Drug Policies Have Saved Philip Seymour Hoffman?

The tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman yesterday has prompted expressions of grief and of praise for his talent. It also, naturally, has prompted discussions of addiction, the impact of pain pill prescriptions on the addicted, even of pain pill restrictions causing more people to turn to heroin.

Philip Seymour Hoffman at the 81st Academy Awards (courtesy Chrisa Hickey, flickr.com/photos/chrisahickey/, via wikimedia.org)
While the latter raises the question about whether different drug policies could make things safer or less damaging or risky for heroin addicts, I haven't heard that question directly raised in the media. Although we don't know how Hoffman would have fared under a different system -- a system that had more options available, we do have information from places that do offer more options, and they are worth examining.

One of those options is heroin maintenance programs (also known now as heroin assisted treatment, or HAT). The most famous such program operated in Liverpool, England, before the conservative Thatcher government, encouraged by the Reagan administration (so we heard), shut it down. But HAT programs current operate in Switzerland, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and the Canadian cities of Vancouver and Montreal. Patients in such programs receive a supply of pharmaceutically-produced heroin from a clinic (for free, though one can infer similar benefits if the heroin were merely cheap). They regularly access health services as a part of their participation. Those who need to inject the drug to relieve their cravings receive instruction on how to do so without damaging their veins, and heroin is made available in other forms as well.

A 2009 paper by leading drug policy researcher Peter Reuter, written for The Abell Foundation in Baltimore, reviewed research done in three of those countries. According to Reuter, Switzerland found a decrease in criminal involvement from 70% of the patients down to 10% after 18 months; and an increase in employment, from 14% to 32%. The health safety results were particularly impressive, including decreased contact with the street drug scene, and with very few adverse events or safety issues.

Many of those findings relate more to indigent addicts than they would to a famous actor. But the final point seems key, very few "adverse events" (e.g. overdoses and so forth) or safety issues, in any of the programs. Again, we don't know how Hoffman would have fared if he had entered a heroin maintenance program instead of buying it on the street. For that matter, we don't know if under legalization, broad or just for the addicted, whether Hoffman would have accessed such services in time, or chose to access them at all. But we know that many people do access these services in the countries that offer them, and that very few of the patients enrolled suffer overdose.

More generally, by prohibiting heroin, even for people who are already addicted to it, we prevent a whole class of possible approaches from every being taken to try to help people -- a whole set of options that people with substance abuse problems might be able to use to manage their problems -- to literally save their lives.

In the meanwhile, there are things to do that are legal even now, at least in a few states that have moved forward with them, with no federal laws standing in the way. These are Good Samaritan policies, that protect people from criminal liability when they seek help in an overdose situation; and use of the antidote medication for heroin overdoses, Naloxone. Meghan Ralston wrote about these in an oped yesterday.

We can also improve the debate. It's not enough to talk about the challenges of addiction and the risk of relapse people can face their entire lives, important as that is. It's a good start that people are starting to recognize the unintended consequences of the pain pill crackdown. But that isn't enough either. It's also important to take the next logical step in the argument, and rethink prohibition.

German Cannabis Activist Georg Wurth Wins a Million Euros!

Big congratulations are in order for our German brethren. They have scored a major publicity and resource coup that will definitely help them advance the cause.

Cannabis activist George Wurth of the German Hemp Association (Deutscher Hanf Verband) has won a million-Euro prize to expand the group's legalization activism from the German television program Millionaire Choice (Millionaerswahl).

Millionaire Choice is a reality TV program where self-selected contestants compete in a multi-stage process of elimination to see whose idea will be funded. The cross-media campaign is determined by the vote of viewers.

"The madness! George has won. We are completely overwhelmed. The work of 10 years has now finally paid off. Along with the events in the US and Uruguay, this can be the starting point for the hemp movement gaining strength in Germany," the group's home page exclaimed.

"January 25, 2014 will be long remembered by the DHV and raise the German hemp scene to a new level," the group said in a weekend press release. "When we decided to participate in the Millionaire Choice, we would not have expected this tremendous success. We thank you all for your votes and your infectious enthusiasm. You have voted for George, and without you this huge success would not have been possible."

Location: 
Germany

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