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Check Those Pills! Harm Reduction and Club Drugs [FEATURE]

[This article was written in partnership with Alternet, and was originally published here.]

With the holiday break coming up soon, millions of young Americans will be looking to party. And tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them will be looking to stimulant drugs, especially Ecstasy (MDMA), to help them dance to the throbbing beats far into the night. MDMA is a synthetic stimulant with a chemical structure related to both methamphetamine and mescaline. It's great at providing the energy for partying the night away with a psychedelic tinge. The new scene drug, Molly, is simply Ecstasy in powdered form.

According to the 2013 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, some 17 million Americans have taken Ecstasy at least once, more than a half million reported taking it within the past month, and about three-quarters of a million reported taking it for the first time that year. Those monthly-use and first-use figures have been roughly stable for the past few years.

Some of those fun-seekers are going to take too much. And some of them are going to end up ingesting something they thought was Ecstasy, but wasn't. And one or two or three of them might die. Despite breathless media reports, people dying from Ecstasy or from what they thought was Ecstasy or what they thought was a drug like Ecstasy, is not that big a problem, especially compared with the 16,000 or so people who died last year from opiate overdoses. The number of Ecstasy-related deaths each year ranges from the single digits to the low dozens.

Still it is a problem. Any avoidable death is a problem, and those deaths are largely avoidable. They occur because of varying combinations of ignorance, greed and bad public policy. Some people are working to prevent those deaths, and the work extends from the club or rave or festival door to the halls of power in Washington.

The harm reduction group Dance Safe is among those doing that work. The small non-profit offers educational services, encourages people to submit their pills for testing ("drug checking"), and has informational booths at venues that will let them.

Where 20 years ago, the Ecstasy and party drug scene was largely limited to word-of-mouth raves, things have changed, said Dance Safe executive director Missi Wooldridge.

"We've seen a real explosion in the scene that has been transformed from an underground rave culture to a real mainstream electronic dance music culture," she said. "People are likely to experiment with drugs at raves and dances, as well as with friends at parties or night clubs."

They are also likely to be ingesting either adulterated Ecstasy or other new synthetic drugs misleadingly marketed as Ecstasy. That is reflected in reports on drug checking websites such as Pill Reports and Ecstasy Data, as well as drug discussion forums like Bluelight.

Pill Reports warns that Yellow Pacman tablets found earlier this month in Kansas and Texas contain not MDMA but the synthetic methylone, a methcathinone stimulant that is a chemical analog to MDMA, but is not MDMA. And at least two different pills currently being peddled in Canada as Ecstasy are actually methamphetamine.

"A lot of what we're seeing is the new psychoactive substances infiltrating the market and the scene," said Wooldridge. "People can purchase these substances online. I see a lot of positive results for methcathinone, MDPV, methylone, and the like. Similarly, people think they're taking LSD, but it's actual N-Bomb, or maybe ketamine. People operate under misconceptions about what they're taking, and that can be serious because there are lots of differences in things like onset, duration and potency."

Educated, sophisticated drug consumers may take advantage of drug checking services, as well as have advanced understandings of drug potency, duration and the like, but they are a minority. Most people just want to party, and they want to do it with Ecstasy.

"In contrast with some places in Europe, the market for people seeking out new synthetics is very small in the US," said Stefanie Jones, nightlife community engagement manager at the Drug Policy Alliance "But that doesn't mean they're not here. Many of the people buying them are after MDMA, but here in the US, the market is young people, and many are not that well-informed or familiar with notions like drug checking to see what's in that powder. It's largely an uninformed market, so there's a lot of adulteration."

Dance Safe's Wooldridge concurred.

Web sites like Pillreports.com will tell you whether your pills are bunk. Don't eat the Yellow Pacman! It's methylone.
"People are taking these substances unknowingly for the most part, rather than checking them out," the Denver-based activist said. "There is a relatively small segment that is into the experimentation and the understanding, but most users are not that sophisticated and are taking these drugs without really knowing what they are."

When people die, as two people did at New York's massive Electric Zoo festival last year, the pressure is on promoters and club owners to crack down on drugs, to increase security, even to decrease or do away with harm reduction measures out of fear of appearing to encourage drug use. In large part, that's because of the RAVE Act, a 2003 law sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) that threatens owners and promoters with possible criminal sanctions for encouraging drug use.

"The RAVE Act is the elephant in the room," said Wooldridge. "Its intent wasn't to harm or prosecute legitimate event producers, but to expand the crack house laws and go after people solely having events for drug use or sales. But there has been an unintended consequence. People in the industry fear that if they attempt to address drug use they'll be help legally liable for overdoses or other emergencies. Their legal teams and insurance companies say to stay clear, turn a blind eye, but that increases the risks. We need to educate the lawyers and insurers on this. Show me a case where an event producer has been prosecuted for doing harm reduction."

"If the law is making owners scared, we should change the law so they are explicitly protected," said Jones. "Put the focus on the health and safety of the patrons. Including harm reduction shouldn't be seen as encouraging drug activity, but as prioritizing health and safety. Changing the law at the federal level would send a message to the industry that harm reduction is valuable and you won't get in trouble, and that could change the landscape of festivals."

One woman is working to do just that. Dede Goldsmith didn't mean to become a reformer, but when her daughter, Shelley, a University of Virginia student, died after taking Ecstasy at Washington, DC electronic music show the same weekend at the Electonic Zoo last year, that's what happened.

She told Vox in an October interview that when one of Shelley's friends told her Shelley had taken Molly, her first response was, "Who is Molly?" In her search for answers, she came to the realization that Molly didn't kill her daughter; federal drug prohibition and policies that discourage education about safe drug use did.

On the anniversary of her daughter's death in August, Goldsmith launched the Amend the RAVE Act campaign. Its goal, Goldsmith says, is "to make EDM festivals and concerts safer for our young people. Specifically, I am asking for language to be added to the law to make it clear that event organizers and venue owners can implement safety measures to reduce the risk of medical emergencies, including those associated with drug use, without fear of prosecution by federal authorities. As the law currently stands, many owners believe that they will be accused of 'maintaining a drug involved premises' under the act if they institute such measures, opening themselves to criminal or civil prosecution."

Irony alert: Shelley Goldsmith meets RAVE Act author Joe Biden a year before she died on Ecstasy. (amendtheraveact.org)
"It's not that producers don't care, it’s that they're terrified," said Wooldridge. "Amending the RAVE Act can be a way to organize the community so people don't fear law enforcement if they're addressing drug use. What's more detrimental—a fatal overdose or having harm reduction teams and medical teams on site?"

"The campaign is just getting underway," said Jones. "They're collecting signatures, and Dede is just having first meetings with legislators to try to get them on board, to try to get some bipartisan support."

In the meantime, other steps can be taken.  

"One of the biggest things we can do is to educate with a true public health approach," Wooldridge said. "We need to have honest conversations and we need to implement drug testing; we have to have that opportunity to create an early warning system when these substances begin to appear."

"Education is really, really critical," said Jones. "We need to be able to get real drug education out to young people and meet them where they are. We need to be explicit about what the drugs are, what they look like, what the common dose it. Integrating harm reduction practices into the culture is also really important, and Dance Safe is great at that."

An effective means of tracking new and available drugs, such as a publicly funded, more comprehensive version of the drug checking websites would also be useful. But that requires someone willing to spend the money.

"We don't really have a surveillance system set up to track these new psychoactive substances," Wooldridge complained. "We don't have the public health monitoring. As a non-profit, we do some of that on a small scale, but we don't have the capacity or the resources to really do the job. What are the priorities and where is the funding to collect the data?"

"Changing policy to allow for drug checking is also an important avenue to pursue," said Jones. "If we're going to be in a world where drugs remain illegal, we will continue to have problems with imitations and new synthetics, with people not knowing what they're getting. That would be the least we can do."

There is one other obvious response.

"It's unrealistic to think we can keep drugs out of clubs and bars and festivals. Trying to do that causes more harm than good," Wooldridge said. "We need to be realistic and recognize drug use first and foremost as a health concern, not a criminal justice issue. These drugs are often being sold as something they're not, and that's because of prohibition and the black market," said Wooldridge. "One obvious option is legalization and regulation. Then you'd have quality control and you wouldn't need all this drug-checking."

But we're not there yet. Until we are, people are going to have to watch out for themselves and for each other. Check those drugs, kids!

Chronicle AM -- December 4, 2013

Some Denver city council members don't know when to give it a rest, some California US reps want stiffer penalties for pot grows on public lands, the Big Dog speaks on drug policy, Ecstasy may be on the rise, Morocco holds a historic hearing on cannabis, and more. Let's get to it:

Ecstasy seems to be making a comeback.
Marijuana Policy

Denver City Council Now Considering Cultivation Restrictions. Just when you thought it was safe again, after an effort to stop people from smoking marijuana on their own property in public view died Monday night, the Denver city council is now considering an effort to cap the number of plants that can be grown in a single household. The measure is sponsored by Councilwoman Jeanne Robb, the same person behind the failed private property smoking ban. The measure would be in conflict with Amendment 64, which is now part of the state constitution and clearly says anyone 21 or older can grow six plants "notwithstanding any other provision of law."

California US Senator, Representatives Seek Tougher Penalties for Federal Lands Marijuana Grows. Several California congressmen, including some who have been strong supporters of medical marijuana, have written a letter to the US Sentencing Commission seeking longer prison sentences for people growing on federal and some private lands. "We are concerned that existing guidelines do not address the long term detrimental threats these operations pose to the environment and nearby communities," the letter said. "The production and cultivation of controlled substances in particular marijuana, on public lands or while trespassing on private property is a direct threat to our environment and public safety." The signatories include Sen. Dianne Feinstein and US Reps. Doug Amalfa, Sam Farr, Jared Huffman, and Mike Thompson.

Drug Policy

Bill Clinton Says Attitudes Toward Drug Legalization Are Changing. Attitudes toward drug legalization are changing, former President Bill Clinton said in an interview with Fusion TV Tuesday. "The drug issue should be decided by people in each country, based on what they think is right," the ex-president opined. "We have a process in America for doing it that's being revisited state-by-state. And Latin America is free to do the same thing. It's obvious that attitudes are changing and opening up," he said. But he added that he didn't think hard drugs should be treated like marijuana. "It's also too complicated to say that if you legalize it, you wouldn't have any of these armed gangs trying to exercise a stranglehold over whole communities and lives, or that we could actually get away with legalizing cocaine and then the criminals would go away," he said.

Vermont Chief Justice Criticizes Drug War, "Tough on Crime" Approach. Vermont Chief Justice Paul Reiber has lashed out at the war on drugs and "tough on crime" approaches in general in a pair of recent speeches and a television interview. "Even with our best efforts, we are losing ground," Reiber told a crowd at Vermont Law School last month. "The classic approach of 'tough on crime' is not working in this area of drug policy. The public responds very well to this 'tough on crime' message, but that does not mean it's effective in changing individual behavior. If the idea is law enforcement alone will slow and eventually eliminate drug use altogether, that isn't going to happen… The criminal justice system can't solve the drug problem."

Club Drugs

Teen Ecstasy-Related Hospital ER Visits Doubled in Recent Years, Feds Say. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported Tuesday that hospital emergency room visits linked to teen Ecstasy use had more than doubled between 2005 and 2011. The number jumped from about 4,500 to more than 10,000 during that period. One third of those cases also involved alcohol. Authorities worry the club drug is making a comeback, although the number of ER visits reported for ecstasy is a tiny fraction of the 1.5 million drug-related ER visits reported each year.

International

Morocco Parliament Holds Hearing on Legalizing Cannabis for Hemp, Medical Marijuana. Morocco's Party for Authenticity and Modernity held a historic hearing Wednesday about legalizing marijuana cultivation for hemp and medical marijuana. The party hopes to introduce legislation next year. Somewhere between 750,000 and a million Moroccans depend on the cannabis crop for a living, although lawmakers said small farmers currently reap very little profit, with most profits going to drug traffickers sending Moroccan hash to Europe.

Former Mexican Border State Governor Charged in US with Money Laundering for Cartels. Tomas Yarrington, the former PRI governor of Tamaulipas state, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, has been indicted by US authorities on charges he took millions in bribes from the Gulf Cartel. Prosecutors allege Yarrington started receiving bribes while running for governor of the state in 1999 and continued to do so throughout his term. He is being sought by US authorities, but has not been taken into custody in Mexico.

Drug Prohibitions Hurt Science, Researchers Charge

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience, a group of leading scientists argue that global drug prohibition has not only compounded the harms of drug use, but also produced the worst censorship of research in centuries. They likened the banning of psychoactive drugs and the subsequent hampering of research on them to the Catholic Church banning the works of Copernicus and Galileo.

Prof. David Nutt (gov.uk)
The paper, Effects of Schedule I Drug Laws on Neuroscience Research and Treatment Innovation (abstract only), was written by Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London and Leslie King, both former government advisors, and Professor David Nichols of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The possession of marijuana, MDMA (ecstasy) and psychedelics are stringently regulated under national laws and international conventions dating back to the 1960s, but those laws are not based on science, and the global prohibition regime is rigid and resistant to change, they argued.

"The decision to outlaw these drugs was based on their perceived dangers, but in many cases the harms have been overstated and are actually less than many legal drugs such as alcohol," said Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London. "The laws have never been updated despite scientific advances and growing evidence that many of these drugs are relatively safe. And there appears to be no way for the international community to make such changes."

In the paper, Nutt and his colleagues argue that the scheduling of psychoactive drugs impedes research into their methods of action and therapeutic potentials and sometimes makes it impossible.

"This hindering of research and therapy is motivated by politics, not science," said Nutt. "It's one of the most scandalous examples of scientific censorship in modern times. The ban on embryonic stem cell research by the Bush administration is the only possible contender, but that only affected the USA, not the whole world."

Research in psychoactive drugs should be free of severe restrictions, the scientists argued.

"If we adopted a more rational approach to drug regulation, it would empower researchers to make advances in the study of consciousness and brain mechanisms of psychosis, and could lead to major treatment innovations in areas such as depression and PTSD," Nutt said.

Nutt headed Britain's Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs until 2009, when he was forced out by the Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Nutt was sacked after publicly criticizing the government for ignoring the committee's scientific advice on marijuana on ecstasy. He then became chair of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, which aims to review and investigate the harms and benefits of drugs free from political interference.

London
United Kingdom

Psychedelic Science Conference Examines MDMA Treatment for PTSD [FEATURE]

At the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Psychedelic Science 2013 conference in Oakland this weekend there were mind-boggling displays of psychedelic art; tables full of books on LSD, MDMA, peyote, ayahuasca, and other, stranger hallucinogens; weird musical interludes; holotropic breathwork workshops, and indigenous shamans.

Psychedelic art, MAPS 2013
There was also some heavy duty science. Stretching over five days of workshops and conference presentations, the MAPS conference is perhaps the premier confab of psychedelic researchers worldwide. A look at just some of the topics covered in the remarkably broad-ranging affair makes that case.

Researchers from around the country and the world presented findings on three "tracks": clinical ("LSD-Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Anxiety Secondary to Life Threatening Illness," "The Neurobiology of Psychedelics: Implications for Mood Disorders"), interdisciplinary ("Psilocybin in the Treatment of Smoking Addiction: Psychological Mechanisms and Participant Account," "Ethical Considerations in the Medicinal Use of Psychedelics"), and a special track on the South American hallucinogenic tea, ayahuasca ("Ayahuasca Admixture Plants: An Uninvestigated Folk Pharmacopeia," "Ayahuasca, the Scientific Paradigm, and Shamanic Healing").

One series of research reports of urgent and immediate relevance centered on the use of MDMA ("ecstasy") in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although PTSD can be caused by any number of traumas, veterans mustering out after more than a decade of US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with PTSD in record numbers. A 2004 study in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that 18% of returning Iraq combat veterans had PTSD. And a 2008 RAND Corporation report estimated that up to 225,000 veterans will return from the wars with PTSD.

Dr. Michael Mithoefer describes his MDMA PTSD research protocol
The trauma of war is reflected not only in the number of vets suffering from PTSD, but even more ominously, in sky-high suicide rates. US military veterans are committing suicide at a rate of 22 per day, up 20% from just five years ago.

The military and public health workers are keenly aware of the problem, and are attempting to address it through means both conventional and unconventional. The military and the Veterans Administration have been opened to therapeutic interventions including yoga, meditation, and the use of companion dogs; they have also armed themselves with the arsenal of psychotherapeutic drugs -- anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, tranquilizers -- available in the standard pharmacopeia. But those drugs can have some nasty side effects, and their utility in treating PTSD is questionable, and, noting reports of negative consequences, the Army has warned against over reliance on them.

In a Saturday clinical track devoted to MDMA and PTSD, researchers reported on success in Phase II clinical trials (after Phase I studies had proven safety), as well as efforts to get more studies up and running, and the hoops they have to jump through to do so. Canadian researcher Andrew Feldmar perhaps best summed up professional exasperation with the complexities of doing research on drugs governments view with skepticism and suspicion.

"Give me a break!" snorted Feldmar after relating how it took 2 ½ years and three visits from bureaucrats in Ottawa to inspect his pharmacy safe before it was approved before the safe and the study were approved. "This is not science, its politics. Those people from Ottawa were doing what power does -- cover its ass and make people doing what it doesn't want squirm. We are not discovering anything with these studies; we are just proving something we already know. This is all politics."

Indigenous Huichol shaman from Mexico
While Feldmar was at least able to report that his study had been approved, researchers in Australia and England could report no such luck.

 Australian researcher Martin Williams reported that a randomized, double-blind Phase II study there had been stopped in its tracks by a Human Research Ethics Committee.

"The proposal was rejected by the committee with no correspondence," Williams sighed. "We submitted a comprehensive letter of appeal, and it was quickly rejected. Like MAPS in 2000, we're a bit ahead of our time for Australia, where we face war on drugs rhetoric, the psychotherapy community has more a psychopharmacology focus, and we're facing funding and regulatory hurdles."

"For the past eight years, I've been slowly trying to persuade the medical establishment this is worth doing," said British researcher Ben Sessa, who is trying to get a Phase II study off the ground there. "We have lots of war casualties because like the USA, we have a peculiar obsession with imposing democracy around the world."

Peyote-infuenced Huichol art
But his government grant was denied, with regulators saying there was insufficient proof of concept, the trial would be underpowered (because it was small), and the inclusion of patients with recreational drug histories was problematic.

"Those reasons are all rubbish," snorted Sessa, who said he was revising his protocol in hopes of it being accepted. "We went for the Rolls Royce and didn't get it; maybe we'll get the Skoda," he said.

Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder have gotten approval for a Phase II study of MDMA with people with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD, but it wasn't easy. Sometimes the regulatory niggling borders on the absurd, they said.

"We started two years and were waiting on approval from the DEA," said researcher Marcela Ot'alora, who is doing the study with Jim Grigsby. "We thought they read the protocol and would let us know if we were doing something inappropriate, but that wasn't the case. We had to get a 500-pound safe and we put it in the therapists' office, but no, it had to be in the treatment room. Then, we get a second inspection by the DEA, and they said we had to install alarms. We did so, and thought we were good to go. The next day, the DEA and the city zoning department came together. The zoning department said we had to have a half bath instead of a full bath, and no kitchen."

Psychedelic Homer Simpson, MAPS 2013
Ot'alora showed slides of workers obediently demolishing the bath tub, but their travails weren't finished just yet.

"The zoning department said we had to find a place zoned for addiction and recovery, and my office met that criteria, so we moved the safe and alarms for a third time, then had a third DEA inspection," she related. "The local DEA said yes, but it also needed approval from headquarters. We had a congressman write a letter to the DEA to speed up the process, and now we have final approval and are screening our first participants. We hope to enroll the first one by the beginning of May."

That would appear to be a good thing, because other researchers reported that when they actually got studies up and completed, they were seeing good results. Israeli researcher Keren Tzarfatyl and Swiss researcher Peter Oohen both reported promising preliminary results from their studies.

But it was US researchers Michael and Annie Mithoefer who reported the most impressive results. They reported on a 2004 Phase II clinical trial with veterans, firefighters, and police officers. The research subjects were given MDMA (or a placebo) and psychotherapy sessions. MDMA-assisted therapy resulted in "statistically significant" declines in PTSD as measured by standard scales, the Mithoefers reported.

"We're doing Phase II studies, giving the substance to people who are diagnosed with PTSD and measuring the treatment effects. The results continue to be extremely impressive," said Michael Mithoefer. "These tools have so much promise for healing and growth. There are lots of reasons to think these will be useful and promising tools."

Existing treatments for PTSD -- cognitive-behavioral therapies, psychodynamic psychotherapies, pharmacological interventions -- too often just don't work for large numbers of sufferers, Mithoefer said. He cited estimates of 25% to 50% who don't respond favorably to existing treatments.

"We have looming problems with veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and most of them are not getting the treatment they need," said Mihoefer. "The Veterans Administration is overwhelmed, but also many vets just don't show up for treatment or stay in it. People with PTSD have a lot of trouble with trust, making it hard to form a therapeutic alliance. They can also either be overwhelmed by emotion and then drop out, or they are in avoidance, emotionally numb, and then the therapy doesn't work. If MDMA can increase trust and decrease fear and defensiveness, maybe it can help overcome these obstacles to successful treatment."

But even so, the research effort is starved for funds.

"This would not be happening if not for these remarkable non-profits supporting research," said Mithoefer, referring to groups like MAPS and the Beckley Foundation, which co-hosted the conference. "The government is not funding this, Big Pharma isn't funding this; the community is funding it. We are trying to build bridges, not be a counterculture, and we hope the government will get involved."

What they've found so far is definitely worth pursuing, Mithoefer said.

"We've established that for this kind of controlled use with well-screened people, there is a favorable risk-benefit ratio and no indication of neurotoxicity," he explained, although a small numbers of participants reported unhappy side effects, such as anxiety (21%), fatigue (16%), nausea (8%), and low mood (2%).

With a follow-up three years later, the Mithoefers found that the benefits of MDMA-assisted therapy remained largely intact.

"For most people, the benefits in terms of PTSD symptoms were maintained," Mithoefer reported. "With people who completed the assessment, 88% showed a sustained benefit, and assuming that those who didn't relapsed, that's still a 74% sustained benefit."

The Midhoefers are now in the midst of another Phase II study and are finding similar results.  They are finding reductions in PTSD symptoms as measured by standard measures. They are also finding lots of interest among PTSD sufferers.

"More than 400 vets have called us from around the country," said Mithoefer. "The need is so great. It's heartbreaking that we can't accommodate them all."

Anna Mithoefer read to the audience some of the responses from their research subjects.

"It's like PTSD changed my brain, and MDMA turned it back," reported a 26-year-old Iraq veteran.

"Being in Iraq was bad, but what was worse was having my body back here and part of my mind still in Iraq," said a 27-year-old who had served as a turret gunner in Iraq. "This helped me come home."

"MDMA helped me in so many ways, it feels like it is gradually rewiring my brain," said a female military sex trauma survivor. "The MDMA sessions were the crack in the ice because the trauma was so solid before that. It was incredibly intense around the MDMA sessions -- a lot like popping a big bubble from the unconscious."

The Phase II studies underway or completed strongly suggest that MDMA is useful in the treatment of PTSD. The Phase II studies trying to win approval around the world could strengthen that case -- if they can overcome the political and regulatory obstacles before them. In the meantime, another 22 veterans are killing themselves each day.

Oakland, CA
United States

Colombia Set to Decriminalize Ecstasy, Meth

Colombian Minister for Justice and Law Ruth Stella Correa said last Wednesday that the government will propose decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of synthetic drugs, such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, according to local press accounts. She added that a drug policy advisory commission would revise the country's drug law and present the proposal to congress.

Ecstasy tablets (wikimedia.org)
Correa's remarks came as she announced the formation of the advisory commission.

Currently in Colombia, people are not prosecuted for the possession of small amounts of marijuana and cocaine. She said the proposal would extend that protection to users of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine and ecstasy.

"The proposal aims to standardize the amount of drugs already permitted, while also allowing an equivalent quantity of synthetic drugs," she said. "We have to accept that Colombia is a consumer country -- this is also our reality -- and being a consumer country, we can't just throw drug users in jail, but we must look after them. I don't see the risk in establishing a personal use amount of synthetic drugs, since we are only trying to clarify things to achieve treatment for addicts and users, not to send them to prison."

Colombian constitutional court rulings have established a right to possess personal use amounts of drugs, but the government has not established what those personal use amounts of synthetic drugs are. The advisory commission will do that. The government of President Santos has also embarked on a more than rhetorical shift toward a public health approach to drug use, and Correa emphasized that in her remarks.

"We are convinced that drug policy should be designed with a holistic approach, involving families, the education system, the public health specialists, development practitioners and community leaders," she said.

Not everyone agrees with the move. Former President Alvaro Uribe, who tried repeatedly to undo those Colombian court rulings legalizing drug possession, came out swiftly against including the synthetics.

"With this personal use amount, what they are doing is validating the actions of the dealers and not taking them to prison, nor are they taking the addicts to the hospital," he complained. Decriminalizing the synthetics would only "further enslave the youth and drug more assassins to kill more people," he claimed.

Bogota
Colombia

Police Refuse to Release Description of Toxic Ecstasy Pills, Increasing the Danger of More Deaths

A string of recent overdose deaths in British Columbia has a lot of people deeply concerned. But this reaction by law enforcement is certain to make the problem worse.

VANCOUVER — Police in B.C. are reluctant to tell the public what unique markings are on ecstasy pills suspected to contain a lethal additive linked to five deaths in the province.

That's because they don't want users thinking they're sanctioning the rest of the pills. [CTV]

That is some sick logic right there. Listen, if you don't want people to think you're sanctioning the other pills, then say something like, "we're not sanctioning the other pills." What's so hard about that? But for the sake of saving human lives, at least tell people what the poison pills look like. 

Drug users are people, you know. They don't want to kill their friends. If everyone knows what the poisoned pills look like, they can help get them off the street. Everyone in the ecstasy scene will be on the lookout for the toxic doses and the people supplying that garbage will be strongly incentivized to toss it, or face serious consequences within their own social circle. This will work like 900% better than just telling everyone to stop taking ecstasy altogether.

We'll save for another day the conversation about why poisoned ecstasy exists in the first place (hint: the manufacturing process is dangerously unregulated).  

Tainted Ecstasy Linked to Western Canada Deaths

A cluster of recent fatalities among ecstasy (MDMA) users in western Canada has been linked to tainted drugs. At least five people in Alberta and three in British Columbia have died in the past few weeks. In six of those cases so far, paramethoxymethamphetamine (PMMA) has been found in toxicology reports.

Ecstasy -- or is it? (wikimedia.org)
The outbreak of deaths began last month in Calgary, and by December 29, Alberta Health Services sent out an alert warning that "Ecstasy or a combination of toxic substances sold on the street as Ecstasy is the likely cause of three recent Calgary-area deaths."

Then, in a new joint warning on January 11, the city of Calgary and Alberta Health Services announced that the province's chief medical examiner had confirmed that "paramethoxymethamphetamine (PMMA) and methamphetamine -- not previously associated with street drugs sold in Calgary as 'ecstasy' -- was present in toxicology results for each of five recent Calgary-area street-drug deaths."

On Thursday, British Columbia Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall confirmed that PMMA had shown up in one of the BC deaths, while toxicology reports were still outstanding in the two other cases.

PMMA is thought to be a less expensive compound to produce than ecstasy, similar in appearance, and produces similar, though stronger, psychoactive and physical effects. Its use as an adulterant has been linked to earlier clusters of deaths in Norway and the Netherlands.

"There are some important differences in the toxicity of PMMA compared to MDMA" said Dr. Mark Yarema, Medical Director of the Poison and Drug Information Service (PADIS). "Although all have toxic effects, PMMA is considered more toxic than MDMA, with a higher incidence of seizures and elevated body temperature. Also, the onset of action of PMMA is delayed and its initial effect may be milder. This is dangerous as it may result in users ingesting several tablets to achieve a desired effect, with potentially fatal consequences."

If Canada is going to continue to subject recreational drug users to the Russian roulette of buying drugs without quality controls or ingredients labeling in the black market, it behooves drug users to do what they can to protect themselves. They could start by checking in with organizations such as DanceSafe or checking into ecstasy testing kits.

Canada

New Drug Policy Videos from HCLU

In "The State of Harm Reduction in Europe," the film crew of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union interviewed activists and professionals attending the first meeting of the European Harm Reduction Network (EuroHRN) in Marseilles, France, to provide an overview of the progress, the backward trends, and the current state of affairs of harm reduction across the European continent.

 
One of the most powerful speeches at the recent International Drug Policy Reform Conference was Marilyn Howell's recounting of how MDMA helped her daughter gain dignity and quality of life in her final days. Watch her presentation courtesy HCLU below or read more information here.
 
 
Three videos from the "Drug, Set and Setting -- Today" panel at the conference bring us speeches by Julie Holland, Gabor Maté and Carl Hart.
 
Explore HCLU's video collection through the links above or click through to their YouTube page for more footage from the conference.
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Federal Judge Rejects Ecstasy Sentencing Guidelines

A US District Court judge in New York last Friday refused to sentence an Ecstasy defendant according to federal sentencing guidelines, saying they punish such offenses more harshly than scientifically justified and are based on "selective and incomplete" evidence.

Ecstasy tablets. A federal judge has ruled that Ecstasy offenses are punished too harshly. (Image: Wikimedia.org)
The ruling came in the case of Sean McCarthy, who faced 63 to 78 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to possess and distribute Ecstasy. But in the first federal court opinion rejecting the Ecstasy sentencing guidelines, District Court Judge William Pauley III instead sentenced him to only 26 months.

The case was the subject of a legal intervention by the American Civil Liberties Union  (ACLU), with assistance from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project challenged the judge in this case to review the sentencing guidelines and assess whether there was any rational basis for them, and relied on MAPS for a scientific review of the literature on the effects of Ecstasy.

MAPS executive director Rick Doblin had testified to the relative safety of Ecstasy before the US Sentencing Commission when it was setting the guidelines in 2001, but the commission ignored his and other expert testimony in setting guidelines that treated one gram of Ecstasy the same as 500 grams of marijuana when it came to sentencing.

In a December hearing, the ACLU presented the court with scientific evidence from expert witnesses to argue that the Ecstasy guidelines were flawed. Among those testifying was Harvard psychiatrist John Halpern, MD, who had parlayed a MAPS $15,000 grant for a pilot study of the drug's neurocognitive effects into a $1.8 million, five-year National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that found long-term recreational Ecstasy use did not cause clinically significant cognitive damage.

In his written opinion, issued in May in anticipation of Friday's sentencing, Pauley found that sentencing McCarthy under the guidelines would "give rise to a sentence that is greater than necessary to serve the objectives of sentencing." Judge Pauley also lambasted the Sentencing Commission for "opportunistic rummaging" through the scientific evidence at the time of the 2001 hearing.

That hearing and the resulting guidelines grew out of the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, passed in the midst of a drug panic over spreading recreational use of the drug. That law directed the Sentencing Commission to review and increase the penalties for any Ecstasy trafficking or distribution offense.

"The harshness of the Ecstasy guideline affects hundreds of defendants each year in the federal system," said ACLU Drug Law Policy Project staff attorney Scott Michelman. "We are gratified that courageous and thoughtful jurists are addressing this problem, and we hope today’s decision will encourage more judges to take a hard look at this issue. This ruling demonstrates the importance of thoroughly reviewing the empirical basis underlying each of the US sentencing guidelines for drug offenses, to make sure the Guidelines reflect the current state of scientific knowledge."

As for McCarthy, he did 14 months in federal prison before being released in December while awaiting sentencing. He now lives in San Diego, where he works as a home health care nurse, volunteers with the homeless, and cares for his ailing father.

Los Angeles Promoting Safe Ecstasy Use

Location: 
Los Angeles, CA
United States
Los Angeles County Health officials have posted tips for safe ecstasy use at the publicly owned Los Angeles Coliseum and Sports Arena.
Publication/Source: 
Cal Coast News (CA)
URL: 
http://calcoastnews.com/2011/02/los-angeles-promoting-safe-ecstasy-use/

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