Synthetic Stimulants

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New Drugs Get Same Old Response on Capitol Hill [FEATURE]

Confronted with the rising popularity of new synthetic drugs, Congress is responding in a reflexive prohibitionist manner. Last month, bills aimed at banning the substances moved forward in Congress, despite the protests of advocates and businessmen that lawmakers are simply repeating the mistakes of drug prohibition.

Congress never met a new drug it didn't want to ban. (image via Wikimedia)
The bills are aimed at two distinct classes of designer drugs -- synthetic cannabinoids or fake marijuana sold under names such as Spice and K2, and the synthetic methcathinone derivatives mephedrone and MDVP commonly sold as "bath salts" under names such as Ivory Wave that produce a high likened to those of cocaine, methamphetamine, or ecstasy.

A number of states have moved against fake weed or bath salts or both. In action earlier this year, the DEA imposed a temporary emergency ban on fake weed, but it has not moved yet against bath salts. Now, Congress is poised to get in on the action.

H.R. 1254
, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011 and its Senate companion bill, S. 605 would make both fake marijuana and bath salts Schedule I controlled substances, like LSD, heroin, and marijuana. They also attempt to block new designer drugs by banning whole classes of similar chemical compounds. And they seek to expand the period for which the DEA can impose an emergency ban on a new drug, which the agency did earlier this year with synthetic cannabinoids. That bill was moving in House committees last week. 

Two other bills that would do essentially the same thing have also been filed in the Senate. They are S. 409, introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and S. 839, sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). These bills, though, are aimed only at bath salts. (An additional House bill, H.R. 1571, identified by the Library of Congress legislative tracking system as related to S. 409, has not moved out of committee.)

The bath salts drugs have been associated with spectacular bad reactions, including increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions, and some reports of violent behavior. Fake weed has been associated with less dangerous bad reactions, including confusion, nausea and panic attacks.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers warned in May that it had seen a nine-fold increase in bath salts-related calls over the previous year, and that was with less than half the year gone. Last year, centers reported 302 calls; as of May of this year, they had received more than 2,200 calls.

That would clearly seem to suggest that use of bath salts is on the rise, but what it means beyond that is not so clear. Without a handle on actual use levels, it is difficult to determine how frequent such adverse reactions are, or how they compare to reported adverse events with other drugs.

Still, Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center, said the substances are the worst he has seen in 20 years at the poison center. "These products create a very severe paranoia that we believe could cause users to harm themselves or others," he said.

Oddly enough, for drugs that are touted as being so horrible, evidence from Britain suggests that somebody likes them quite a bit. According to a report last month in the Guardian, which cited recently released scientific research, "Mephedrone is more popular among UK clubbers than ecstasy despite being banned."

"The legal status wasn't considered important," said Fiona Measham, a criminology lecturer who led the research. "Among the people we spoke to, I was surprised how much they liked it, how much they enjoyed it. They wanted to take more and were prepared to seek it out and buy it on the illegal market."

"Ivory Wave" is one popular brand of mephedrone. (image via Wikimedia)
But Congress isn't paying attention to foreign researchers. In a statement typical of congressional discourse on the issue, in a hearing last week, Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA), the sponsor of HB 1254, first listed a number of anecdotal scare stories, then proceeded to warn his colleagues that the drugs were not innocent. "These substances are marketed with innocent sounding names," he said, "but these labels are total misnomers designed to facilitate their legal sale. These drugs have no legitimate medicinal or industrial purposes."

"We are in a new era of drugs," said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), as she prepared to deal with them with the same tired approach Congress has taken with other drugs -- by banning them.

There is a better way, said reform advocates and representative of trade groups.

"Lawmakers are poised to repeat mistakes from the past by creating ineffective laws that will criminalize more people and drive these substances into the illicit market," said Grant Smith, federal policy coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance. "History has clearly shown that prohibiting a drug makes it more dangerous, not less. Instead of more failed drug prohibition, Congress would be much more successful with an approach that restricts how these drugs are marketed, provides comprehensive drug education, and has strict age controls. To best reduce the harms of these drugs, Congress should instead support rigorous scientific study to better understand what is in these products, and establish a robust system of regulation and control of the synthetic drug market."

"This application of the law is irresponsible," said Daniel Francis, executive director of the Retail Compliance Association, which represents retail outlets that sell (or sold) K2 as he addressed HB 1264. "It is the most irresponsible thing a lawmaker can do, an act of prohibition. I hope they wear the responsibility of the consequences of these acts on their minds forever. This law will force even less understood compounds into the market."

"This legislation comes at a time when Washington is seeking to reduce federal spending. Yet, enforcing a federal ban on synthetic drugs isn't going to be cheap and we already know from marijuana prohibition that this approach won't work," said Smith. "The irony is that the only reason that people use synthetic marijuana is because the real thing is illegal. But passage of this legislation will only further escalate the war on drugs, send more people to jail, exacerbate health harms, and ignore four decades of comprehensive research and review that confirms the war on drugs approach has failed," he added.

"The bill covers some potential ingredients in herbal incense products, by no means all, and these ingredients are invisible, no one, no police officer, or retailer can tell what is in the product, if it is legal or not, and this law provides no direction whatsoever in how one is to determine this," pointed out Francis.

The Retail Compliance Association, which sent a letter of concern to Congress about the issue in April, expects that its efforts to block passage of HB 1264 this year will be in vain. But that doesn't mean it is rolling over and playing dead. Instead, the group said it is forming a coalition to file a legal challenge to the bill "immediately after it passes."

It has taken decades to get past the hysteria and fear-mongering surrounding traditional drugs, and that is a task that is by no means completed. It would be nice if we didn't have to go through the same sort of rigmarole with these new designer drugs, but we do. At least this time around, there are people around from the beginning who and willing to stand and fight.

Washington, DC
United States

More States Go After Synthetic Drugs

Although new synthetics are coming to market faster than governments can ban them, a number of states have moved in recent weeks to criminalize their possession and distribution. In Florida, Louisiana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, state governments have enacted bans on synthetic cannabinoids ("fake pot") or synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), or both. In South Dakota, they took a slightly different path to arrive at the same end.

Fake pot goes under many brand names. Spice is one. (image via wikimedia.org)
Synthetic cannabinoids are marketed as "incense" under a variety of names, including Spice and K-2. They are currently the subject of a one-year emergency ban by the DEA, which is set to expire at the end of February. "Bath salts" are made from methcathinone analogues, typically mephedrone and MDPV, and produce a high likened to cocaine, methamphetamines, and ecstasy. The DEA lists them as a "drug of concern," but has yet to act against them.  They are sold under names like Bliss, Ivory Wave, and the less mellow-sounding Charley Sheene and Drone.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed into law House Bill 1039 on May 31. It criminalizes the possession of "bath salts" by making them a Schedule I controlled substance. The new law makes permanent an emergency ban on the drugs that went into effect in January.

In Louisiana, the legislature has passed House Bill 12, which bans both synthetic marijuana and "bath salts." Gov. Bobby Jindal, who in January issued an executive emergency ban on the synthetic stimulants and who made this bill part of his legislative agenda, is expected to sign it shortly. Under the bill, both fake pot and "bath salts" will be classified as Schedule I drugs and their possession or distribution will be punished accordingly. This bill is set to go into effect July 15.

In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton (D) has signed into law HF0057, which criminalizes bath salts, fake pot, and 2-CE, as well as any substances that are "substantially similar" in chemical structure and pharmacological effects to illegal drugs. That law goes into effect Friday. Although all of the substances are placed on Schedule I of the controlled substances list, possession of fake pot is a misdemeanor and sale of fake pot is a gross misdemeanor. Possession or sale of bath salts or 2-CE is a felony.

"Please do not use as SNUFF," a web site that peddles "bath salts" helpfully advises (ivory-wave.com)
In Minnesota, at least, retailers are fighting back. Three of them filed suit in Hennepin County (Minneapolis) District Court Monday charging that the law is too vague and broad and is not backed by scientific proof. They also argue that the law provides no criteria for determining if a substance is "substantially similar" to an illegal drug and that the ban infringes on individuals' right to privacy and pursuit of happiness.

Consumers and retailers won't know "if they're committing a crime or not," said attorney Marc Kurzman, who is representing the stores. "You shouldn’t have to get the answer by being charged and going through criminal trials," he said. 

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett (R) last week signed into law Senate Bill 1006, which bans the possession, sale, and use of fake pot, "bath salts," and, for good measure, the psychedelic designer drug 2-CE and salvia divinorum. Possession of the proscribed substances can earn you a year in prison, while sales or possession with intent can get you five years. The law will go into effect in late August, 60 days after it was signed into law.

"If left unchecked, synthetic drugs could have developed into the most dangerous drug crisis since methamphetamine labs found their way into our state,'' Corbett said in a press release announcing his signature. "This ban on synthetic drugs sends a strong message that Pennsylvania will not tolerate the use of these chemicals."

In South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) back in March signed into law Senate Bill 34, which will go into effect Friday. In deals with the fake pot and "bath salts" "threat" not by criminalizing them, but by making it a crime to use, possess, manufacture, or distribute them -- or any other substance -- to get high. In South Dakota, it is already a crime to have ingested an illegal drug; now, it will be a crime to ingest legal substances if it is for the purpose of intoxication.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) last week signed into law Senate Bill 54 criminalizing the sale, manufacture, and possession of synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic stimulants. Possession of synthetic cannabinoids is now punishable by up to six months in jail for a first offense and three years in prison for a second offense, while manufacture or distribution garners up to six years in prison. Possession of synthetic stimulants now garners up to a year in jail for a first offense, while distribution of manufacture earns a number of years in prison, depending on the quantity involved.

"By classifying dangerous synthetic narcotics as illegal in the state of Wisconsin we are giving law enforcement the ability to take these destructive substances off of our streets and out of our neighborhoods," Gov. Walker said in a signing statement.

For a master list of states that have banned or are considering banning or otherwise controlling mephedrone and MDPV ("bath salts"), go here. For a master list of states that have banned or are considering banning or otherwise controlling fake pot, go here.

Czechs Ban New Synthetic Drugs, Salvia, Ketamine

The Czech Parliament has moved to ban some 33 synthetic substances now being sold in the country, including synthetic cannabinoids and mephedrone, which is often marketed as bath salts and has stimulant effects similar to cocaine or amphetamines. Also included in the prohibitionist legislation is salvinorin A, the active ingredient in salvia divinorum, and the weird hallucinogen ketamine.

packaged synthetics (image via wikimedia.org)
The European Union banned mephedrone last November, while the US DEA banned synthetic cannabinoids effective March 1. The DEA considers mephedrone a drug of interest, but has yet to ban it. About 20 US states have banned synthetic cannabinoids, with action pending in others this year, while similar moves against mephedrone in the states are just getting underway.

The Czech Senate voted 67-0 April 4 to approve the legislation, which amends the Czech drug law. The House passed the bill last month. According to the Prague Daily Monitor, President Vaclav Klaus is expected to sign the bill into the law before the end of this month.

Some senators worried that rushing the legislation into effect would not allow merchants to get rid of their supplies in time, but that concern fell on deaf ears. Deputy Pavel Bem of the governing Civic Democrats, a sponsor of the legislation, argued that the ban should go into effect as quickly as possible.

The Czech government decriminalized drug possession
in personal use amounts in January 2010. It is unclear how these newly criminalized substances fit into the decriminalization scheme or whether personal use amounts for them have been set.

Prague
Czech Republic

Mephedrone ("Bath Salts") Banned in Kentucky

Kentucky has become the latest state to ban the synthetic stimulants mephedrone and MDPV, which are commonly marketed as bath salts. Gov. Steve Beshear has signed into law House Bill 121, which makes possession of the substances a Class B misdemeanor and manufacturing or trafficking in them a Class A misdemeanor.

No new legal drugs for you, Kentucky! (Image via Wikimedia.org)
The drugs are reported to have effects similar to cocaine, ecstasy, or methamphetamine. Poison control centers and hospital emergency rooms have reported an increasing number of incidents involving people using them.

The drugs have been banned in a handful of states, but are not currently illegal under federal law.

"This bill gives law enforcement another tool to protect Kentuckians from substances that are engineered specifically to mimic illegal dangerous drugs and allows Kentucky to keep pace with an ever-changing drug market," Gov. Beshear said.

Kentucky passed a law banning synthetic cannabinoids last year. This year's mephedrone ban also adds new chemicals to the list of banned cannabinoids to reflect chemicals developed since that law was passed.

Frankfort, KY
United States

Most of World Lacks Access to Pain Drugs, UN Agency Says [FEATURE]

More than eight out of 10 of the world's inhabitants have little or no access to opioid pain medications, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) said Wednesday. The finding came as the INCB released both its Annual Report 2010 and a special report on the global availability of pain medications.

INCB head Hamid Ghodse (l) briefing reporters in Vienna (incb.org)
People in many countries in Africa, Asia, and parts of the Americas had little or no access to opioid pain medications and psychotropic substances for medical purposes, the INCB found. Opioids include both narcotics, such as morphine and oxycodone, and synthetic opiates, such as fentanyl. Psychotropic medicines include depressants, antidepressants, and antipsychotics.

"Ninety percent of the licit drugs are consumed by 10% of the world's population in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and some European countries," Hamid Ghodse, the INCB's president, said in a briefing on the release of the reports. "It has to be recognized that the availability of narcotics and psychotropic medicines is indispensable to medical practice," Ghodse told reporters.

The US is by far the world's leading consumer of opioid pain medications. According to INCB figures, for every pain pill consumed per capita in Asia, Africa, or Latin America, 50 are consumed in Europe, and 300 in North America. The US alone, with 5% of the world population, consumed 56% of the world's pain pills. [Editor's Note: This does not mean that US patients who need opioids can always get prescriptions for them.]

The special report on the availability of pain medicines found that while the global supply of raw opium for licit needs is adequate, there are a number of obstacles blocking their availability in large parts of the world. The INCB identified the obstacles in descending order as concerns about addiction, reluctance to stock or prescribe, lack of training of professionals, restrictive laws, administrative problems, cost, distribution problems, lack of supply, and absence of policies around the prescribing of the drugs for pain treatment.

Lack of supply was near the bottom of the list. The INCB said opiate raw materials, including opium, poppy straw, and poppy straw concentrate were sufficient to outstrip consumption. "There is no problem whatsoever with the availability of raw materials," Ghodse said.

Ghodse called on governments to analyze the problem, identify barriers to adequate availability, and take action to reduce or remove them. The report called on governments to collect data on licit drug requirements, legislation, education and training, national drug control systems, and steps to combat misuse.

For the INCB, the flip side of barriers to adequate pain pill access in large swathes of the world is excess availability, which it said can lead to abuse and drug dependence. While the number of single doses of opioid pain medications consumed has increased four-fold in the last 20 years, driven largely by increases in synthetic opioid production, consumption in the US, for example, has increased six-fold. The US now sees more people dying of prescription drug overdoses than from illegal drugs.

morphine consumption by region (incb.org)
"In countries with excessive availability, the non-medical use of pain relievers, tranquillizers, stimulants or sedatives has become the fastest growing drug problem," the report said.

That is a theme repeated from last year's INCB report, when the monitoring body reported that the abuse of prescription drugs was increasingly markedly worldwide. More people were taking prescription drugs for non-medical reasons than were using heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy combined, that report said.

Another major theme for the INCB in this year's report was increasing concern over the emergence of new synthetic drugs, or what it called designer drugs. The INCB said the development of such drugs is escalating so rapidly that governments need to adopt generic bans on new substances.

The report cited 4-methyl-methcathinone, or mephedrone, which has effects similar to cocaine or amphetamines and is being marketed as bath salts under names like Ivory Wave. The drug is currently the cause of ongoing concern in the US, where it has been banned in at least four states, and in Europe, where it has been banned by the European Union.

"Mephedrone has now become a problem drug of abuse in Europe, North America, Southeast Asia and in Australia and New Zealand," the INCB report said. But mephedrone is just "one example of a large number of designer drugs that are being abused."

The European Union, for example, is monitoring 15 other methcathinone analogues alone, while Japan recently placed 51 designer drugs under control. The INCB is recommending generic bans on such substances.

"Given the health risks posed by the abuse of designer drugs, we urge governments to adopt national control measures to prevent the manufacture, trafficking in and abuse of these substances," said Ghodse.

The INCB's schizophrenic report -- increase access to licit opioid pain medications, continue to ban new drugs -- reflects its bifurcated mission. At the same time it is charged with ensuring an adequate supply of medicines to the world, it is also charged with preventing non-medical use and diversion.

Vienna
Austria

"Bath Salts," Fake Marijuana Banned in Utah

Utah has become the latest state to ban new synthetic drugs. Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed into law Friday HB 23, which bans both synthetic cannabinoids and mephedrone, or "synthetic cocaine." The "emergency" measure went into effect immediately upon being signed by the governor.

No more buzz from Spice or "Bath Salts" in the Beehive State (Image via Wikimedia)
Synthetic cannabinoids are typically marketed as incense under brand names including Spice and K2. They are currently banned in more than a dozen states, with action pending in others. The DEA attempted to implement a nationwide ban as of Christmas Eve, but was blocked by legal moves on the part of retailers' groups until Tuesday, when a federal ban went into effect.

Mephedrone, a derivative of methcathinone, the stimulant substance found in the khat plant, is commonly sold as "bath salts," under names like Ivory Wave. Users report that it has cocaine-like or amphetamine-like effects. It has also been banned in Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana. The DEA has not yet moved against mephedrone.

The Utah law criminalizes 17 synthetic chemicals, all synthetic cannabinoid or methcathinone variants. They now go on the state's list of controlled substances, and their possession, sale, or manufacture becomes a criminal offense.

Gov. Herbert said after signing the bill that he didn't expect that to be the end of it. "Things change," he said. "What we face today is different than 10 years ago, and I expect my grandchildren will face different situations in the future."

Salt Lake City, UT
United States

Schumer Wants to Ban Synthetic "Bath Salts" Drugs

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) told the Associated Press Saturday that he wants the federal government to criminalize the new synthetic stimulant drugs mephedrone and MPDV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone). Although he said he was announcing a bill Sunday, it had yet to be filed as of Monday afternoon.

mephedrone ad (image via Wikimedia)
Marketed as "bath salts" under brand names including Ivory Wave, Zoom, and White Lightning, and sold in head shops, convenience stores, and corner gas stations across the land, as well as on the Internet, the drugs have effects on users similar to those of cocaine or amphetamines.

The substances are already banned by emergency action in three states -- Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi -- and similar actions are likely in other states. Alarm-raising press reports are typically followed by hasty administrative or legislative action at the state house.

Now, Sen. Schumer wants to ban the substances nationwide. The bath salts "contain ingredients that are nothing more than legally sanctioned narcotics," he said.

The DEA is aware of the bath salts drugs and have them listed as drugs of concern, but it has so far not moved to enact a ban.

Drug War Chronicle has been following the mephedrone story for the past year. Read our recent overview here.

Washington, DC
United States

Meet Mephedrone, the Latest "Drug Menace" [FEATURE]

Poison control centers, hospital emergency rooms, and law enforcement are all raising the alarm about a new, uncontrolled stimulant drug, and the first moves to ban the drug at the state level have already taken place. But the DEA has yet to act, and drug policy analysts say that a reflexive move to ban the drug may not be the answer.

Going, going, gone in Louisiana. Who's next?
The drug is 4-methylmethcathinone, also known as mephedrone, a synthetic derivative of cathinone, the psychoactive stimulant found in the khat plant. (To be completely accurate, there are actually a number of methcathinone analogues involved, but for brevity's sake we will refer simply to mephedrone.) It produces a stimulant effect that users have likened to that of cocaine, ecstasy, methamphetamines, or Ritalin.

The drug is being sold as bath salts, plant food, or plant fertilizer and typically marketed with the words "not for human consumption" under product names including Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky, Pure Ivory, and Sextacy. Marketers also use names with a local charge, such as Hurricane Charlie in Louisiana and White Lightning in Kentucky.

After hysterical press coverage of unproven mephedrone overdose deaths in England early last year, the drug was banned in the United Kingdom, and in November, the European Union banned mephedrone in member countries, citing a risk assessment from the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Abuse (EMCDDA).

But while that risk assessment found that mephedrone can cause acute health problems and lead to dependence, it found only tenuous links between mephedrone and any alleged fatalities. The risk assessment also cautioned that banning the drug could create its own problems. "Control measures could create an illegal market in mephedrone with the associated risk of criminal activity," EMCDDA warned.

But the European Union didn't listen, and now, politicians in the US states where mephedrone is most prevalent, are jumping on the ban bandwagon. Last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) issued an emergency rule making the possession, distribution, or manufacture of mephedrone illegal and placing it in Schedule 1 of the state's controlled substances act. That means violators could face up to 30 years in prison.

"These drugs have crept into our communities and they are hurting our kids," said Jindal as he announced the rule. "We have to do everything in our power to protect our children and to make sure our streets are safe for our families. The reality is that the chemicals used to make these dangerous substances have no legitimate use other than to provide a high for the user. Today’s announcement gives our law enforcement officials the tools they need to crack down on the people pushing these dangerous drugs. Indeed, our law enforcement officials can immediately take these drugs off the shelf -- and at the same time, it's now illegal to possess and use these dangerous chemicals."

This week, neighboring Mississippi is moving against the substance. At least two bills to ban mephedrone have been introduced and are moving through committees. The bills are likely to be combined. As in Louisiana, the bills envision harsh penalties, with offenders facing up to 20 years in prison.

News media reports warning of the new "menace" and urging authorities to act have also appeared in Georgia and Texas. Such news reports are often a precursor to legislative or administrative action.

That these first moves to ban mephedrone are taking place on the Gulf Coast makes sense because that is where the drug has made the deepest inroads. Louisiana Poison Control Center director Dr. Mark Ryan went public with news of mounting calls about mephedrone just before Christmas, and on Monday, the American Association of Poison Control Centers issued a nationwide alert about mephedrone.

The alert shows that, at this point, mephedrone is very much a regional phenomenon. Poison control centers around the country have taken more than 300 calls about mephedrone, 69 of them in just the first days of 2011. While poison centers representing 25 states have received calls, 165 of them were in Louisiana. Kentucky was second with 23 calls. In the Upper Midwest, however, there have been no calls about mephedrone.

"We got notice a few weeks ago about reports from other poison centers, but we're not aware of any coming to our regional center," said Rachel Brandt of the Sanford Poison Control Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which covers Minnesota and the Dakotas.

It's a much different story in Louisiana. "We got our first case on September 29 and shortly thereafter we began getting calls just about every day," said the Louisiana Poison Control Center's Dr. Ryan. "We reported to the state health department that this was coming up on our radar, that we were getting people with bizarre, off-the-wall symptoms, with some of them staying in the hospital for five to seven days and the symptoms not resolving very well. The state became very concerned, and so did we as the number of calls continued to increase."

According to Dr. Ryan, adverse responses to mephedrone can be extreme. "We are seeing people describing intense cravings even though they don't like the high," he said. "We're seeing guys discharged from the hospital showing up again a few days later. We're seeing people who are very anxious or suffering from extreme paranoia, we're seeing people with suicidal thoughts, we're seeing people with delusions and hallucinations. A common thread is that they describe monsters, aliens, or demons."

But while the adverse reactions can be disturbing, and while three deaths have been "linked" to mephedrone, there have been no verified mephedrone overdose fatalities. In one case, a 21-year-old man named Dickie Sanders committed suicide three days after ingesting mephedrone. Louisiana media also referred to two other deaths "linked" to the substance, but the connection to mephedrone use remains unproven.

"They're saying the other two are related, but there is no toxicology to back that up," said Dr. Ryan.

Dealing with new designer drugs is difficult and frustrating, Dr. Ryan said. "We banned six different substances after looking at the ones abused in European countries," he said. "But you can't ban everything, and you could make a different designer cathinone every day. It's like a cat chasing its tail."

The DEA is also taking a look at mephedrone. But unlike state legislators, which can act without the least bit of evidence, the DEA is charged with actually finding good reasons to add a new drug to the list of proscribed or controlled substances. While more than a dozen states have criminalized the psychedelic salvia divinorum based on little more than the fear someone somewhere might get high on something legally, the DEA has had salvia on its radar as a drug of concern for nearly a decade, but has yet to find the evidence it needs to schedule it. On the other hand, the DEA is susceptible to political pressure, as indicated by its quick action last November to ban synthetic cannabinoids after being asked to do so by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).

Mephedrone has been on the DEA's radar since at least September 2009, when an analysis of drug samples containing mephedrone was published in the agency's Microgram Bulletin. But a DEA spokesman told the Chronicle this week the agency has yet to act.

"This is a drug of concern," said DEA public information officer Michael Sanders. "We're looking into it right now. We see those drugs out there, but there is a lot of research that goes into actually scheduling something."

The DEA may be well served by not rushing to judgment, said drug policy analyst Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. Prohibiting drugs has not worked in the past and there is no reason to assume it will now, he argued.

"Regulation is pretty much always better than prohibition because it means you can actually control the drug," he said. "You can regulate potency, quality, and all that stuff, but prohibiting it just drives it further into an unregulated market. Prohibition certainly has not controlled cocaine, ecstasy, or meth," Piper pointed out.

"It seems really strange that the political position around drugs in this country is that the only drugs people can legally use from now until the end of time are apparently alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine," Piper said. "And at least two of those substances are more dangerous than most of the other drugs. Every new substance is either banned immediately or eventually. This should be something for policymakers and voters to discuss and debate instead of just having knee-jerk responses."

That unfortunately has yet to happen, for mephedrone or for most drugs, and the drive to prohibit mephedrone is gaining steam.

This Year's Top 10 International Drug Policy Stories

This year saw continued turmoil, agitation, and evolution on the international drug policy front. While we don't have the space to cover all the developments -- the expansion of medical marijuana access in Israel, the rise of Portugal as a drug reform model, the slow spread of harm reduction practices across Eurasia -- here are what we see as the most significant international drug policy developments of the year.

The Mexican Tragedy

San Malverde, Mexico's patron saint of narco-traffickers
Mexico's ongoing tragedy is exhibit number one in the failure of global drug prohibition. This month, the official death toll since President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the so-called cartels in December 2006 passed 30,000, with 10,000 killed this year alone. The multi-sided conflict pits the cartels against each other, cartel factions against each other, cartels against law enforcement and the military, and, at times, elements of the military and different levels of law enforcement against each other. The US has spent $1.2 billion of Plan Merida funds, mainly beefing up the police and the military, and appropriated another $600 million this summer, much of it to send more lawmen, prosecutors, and National Guard units to the border. None of it seems to make much difference in the supply of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine coming over (under, around, and through) the border, but the horrorific violence of Mexico's drug war is eroding public confidence in the state and its ability to exercise one of its essential functions: maintaining order. The slow-motion disaster has spurred talk of legalization in Mexico -- and beyond -- but there is little chance of any real movement toward that solution anytime in the near future. In the mean time, Mexico bleeds for our sins.

The Rising Clamor for a New Paradigm and an End to Drug Prohibition

The critique of the international drug policy status quo that has been growing louder and louder for the past decade or so turned into a roar in 2010. Impelled in part by the ongoing crisis in Mexico and in part by a more generalized disdain for failed drug war policies, calls for radical reform came fast and furious, and from some unexpected corners this year.

In January, the former French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru called for Tahiti to legalize marijuana and sell it to European tourists to provide jobs for unemployed youth. Three months later, members of the ruling party of another island nation spoke out for reform. In traditionally tough on drugs Bermuda, leading Progressive Labor Party members called for decriminalization.

In February, an international conference of political figures, academics, social scientists, security experts, and activists in Mexico City called prohibition in Mexico a disaster and urged drug policies based on prevention, scientific evidence, and respect for human life. By August, as the wave of violence sweeping Mexico grew ever more threatening, President Felipe Calderon opened the door to a discussion of drug legalization, and although he quickly tried to slam it shut, former President Vicente Fox quickly jumped in to call for the legalization of the production, distribution, and sale of drugs. "Radical prohibition strategies have never worked," he said. That inspired Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to say that he supported the call for a debate on legalization. The situation in Mexico also inspired two leading Spanish political figures, former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales and former drug czar Araceli Manjon-Cabeza to call for an end to drug prohibition in the fall.

Midsummer saw the emergence of the Vienna Declaration, an official conference declaration of the World AIDS Conference, which called for evidence-based policy making and the decriminalization of drug use. The declaration has garnered thousands of signatures and endorsements, including the endorsements of three former Latin American presidents, Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia. It has also picked up the support of public health organizations and municipalities worldwide, including the city of Vancouver.

Great Britain has also been a locus of drug war criticism this year, beginning with continuing resignations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Several members of the official body had quit late last year in the wake of the firing of Professor David Nutt as ACMD after he criticized government decisions to reschedule cannabis and not to down-schedule ecstasy. In April, two more ACMD members resigned, this time in response to the government's ignoring their recommendations and banning mephedrone (see below).

The revolt continued in August, when the former head of Britain's Royal College of Physicians joined the growing chorus calling for radical reforms of the country's drug laws. Sir Ian Gilmore said the government should consider decriminalizing drug possession because prohibition neither reduced crime nor improved health. That came just three weeks after Nicholas Green, chairman of the Bar Council (the British equivalent of the ABA), called for decriminalization. The following month, Britain's leading cannabis scientist, Roger Pertwee called for cannabis to be legalized and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, and the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officer's drug committee said marijuana should be decriminalized. Chief Constable Tim Hollis said decrim would allow police to concentrate on more serious crime. The following day, the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in a coalition government with the Conservatives, were lambasted by one of their own. Ewan Hoyle called for a rational debate on drug policy and scolded the party for remaining silent on the issue. And just this past week, former Blair administration Home Office drug minister and defense minister Bob Ainsworth called for the legalization of all illicit drugs, including cocaine and heroin.

From Mexico to Great Britain, Vancouver to Vienna, not to mention from Tahiti to Bermuda, the clamor for drug legalization has clearly grown in volume in 2010.

Opium and the Afghan War

More than nine years after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on. This year has been the deadliest so far for Western occupiers, with 697 US and NATO troops killed as of December 20. And while the US war machine is fueled by a seemingly endless supply of borrowed cash -- another $160 billion was just authorized for the coming year -- the Taliban runs to a large degree on profits from the opium and heroin trade. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies. The Afghan poppy crop was down this year, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. But even that is not good news: The poppy shortage means prices will rebound and more farmers will plant next year. The West could buy up the entire poppy crop for less than what the US spends in a week to prosecute this war, but it has so far rejected that option.

The Netherlands Reins in Its Cannabis Coffee Shops

Holland's three-decade long experiment with tolerated marijuana sales at the country's famous coffee shops is probable not going to end under the current conservative government, but it is under pressure. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, local governments are putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.), and the national government is about to unveil a plan to effectively bar foreigners from the shops. The way for that was cleared this month when the European Court of Justice ruled that such a ban did not violate European Union guarantees of freedom of travel and equality under the law within the EU because what the coffee shops sell is an illegal product that promotes drug use and public disorder. Whether the "weed pass" system contemplated by opponents of "drug tourism" will come to pass nationwide remains to be seen, but it appears the famous Dutch tolerance is eroding, especially when it comes to foreigners. Do the Dutch really think most people go there just to visit the windmills and the Rijksmuseum?

Russian Takeover at the UNODC

In September, there was a changing of the guard at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), one of the key bureaucratic power centers for the global drug prohibition regime. Outgoing UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa, a former Italian prosecutor, was replaced by veteran Russian diplomat Yury Fedotov. Given Russia's dismal record on drug policy, especially around human rights issues, the treatment of hard drug users, and HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as the Russian government's insistence that the West resort to opium eradication in Afghanistan (Russia is in the throes of a heroin epidemic based on cheap Afghan smack), the international drug reform community looked askance at Fedotov's appointment. But the diplomat's first missive as ONDCP head talked of drug dependence as a disease, not something to be punished, and emphasized a concern with public health and human rights. Fedotov has shown he can talk the talk, but whether he will walk the walk remains to be seen.

US War on Coca on Autopilot

Coca production is ongoing, if down slightly, in the Andes, after more than a quarter century of US efforts to wipe it out. Plan Colombia continues to be funded, although at declining levels, and aerial and manual eradication continues there. That, and a boom in coca growing in Peru, have led to Peru's arguably retaking first place in coca production from Colombia, but have also led to increased conflict between Peruvian coca growers and a hostile national government. And remnants of the Shining Path have appointed themselves protectors of the trade in several Peruvian coca producing regions. They have clashed repeatedly with Peruvian police, military, and coca eradicators. Meanwhile, Bolivia, the world's number three coca producer continues to be governed by former coca grower union leader Evo Morales, who has allowed a limited increase in coca leaf production. That's enough to upset the US, but not enough to satisfy Bolivian coca growers, who this fall forced Evo's government to repeal a law limiting coca leaf sales.

Canada Marches Boldly Backward

Canada under the Conservatives continues to disappoint. When the Liberals held power in the early part of this decade, Canada was something of a drug reform beacon, even if the Liberals could never quite get around to passing their own marijuana decriminalization bill while in power. They supported Vancouver's safe injection site and embraced harm reduction policies. But under the government of Prime Minister Steven Harper, Canada this year fought and lost (again) to shut down the safe injection site. Harper's justice minister, Rob Nicholson, in May signed extradition papers allowing "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery to fall into the clutches of the Americans, in whose gulag he now resides for the next four years for selling pot seeds. And while Harper's dismissal of parliament in January killed the government's bill to introduced mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, including growing as few as five pot plants, his government reintroduced the bill this fall. It just passed the Senate, but needs to win approval in the House of Commons. The Conservatives won't be able to pass it by themselves there, so the question now becomes whether the Liberals will have the gumption to stand against it. This as polls consistently show a majority of Canadians favoring marijuana legalization.

A New Drug Generates a Tired, Old Response

When in doubt, prohibit. That would seem to be the mantra in Europe, where, confronted by the emergence of mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant derived from cathinone, the active ingredient in the khat plant, first Britain and then the entire European Union responded by banning it. Described as having effects similar to cocaine or ecstasy, mephedrone emerged in the English club scene in the past 18 months, generating hysterical tabloid press accounts of its alleged dangers. When two young people supposedly died of mephedrone early this year, the British government ignored the advice of its Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which called for it to be a Schedule B drug, and banned it. Poland followed suit in September, shutting down shops that sold the drug and claiming the power to pull from the shelves any product that could be harmful to life or health. And just this month, after misrepresenting a study by the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction, the EU instituted a continent-wide ban on mephedrone. Meet the newest entrant into the black market.

Heroin Maintenance Expands Slowly in Europe

Heroin maintenance continues its slow spread in Europe. In March, Denmark became the latest country to embrace heroin maintenance. The Danes thus join Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and, to a lesser degree, Britain, in the heroin maintenance club. In June, British scientists rolled out a study showing heroin maintenance worked and urging the expansion of limited existing programs there. The following month, a blue-ribbon Norwegian committee called for heroin prescription trials and other harm reduction measures there. Research reports on heron maintenance programs have shown they reduce criminality among participants, decrease the chaos in their lives, and make them more amenable to integration into society.

Opium is Back in the Golden Triangle

Okay, it never really went away in Laos, Burma, and Thailand, and it is still below its levels of the mid-1990s, but opium planting has been on the increase for the last four years in the Golden Triangle. Production has nearly doubled in Burma since 2006 to more than 38,000 hectares, while in Laos, production has more than doubled since 2007. The UNODC values the crop this year at more than $200 million, more than double the estimate of last year's crop. Part of the increase is attributable to increased planting, but part is accounted for by rising prices. While Southeast Asian opium production still trails far behind that in Afghanistan, opium is back with a vengeance in the Golden Triangle.

In a Rush, European Union Bans Mephedrone

The justice ministers of the 27 countries that constitute the European Union (EU) announced Friday that they had agreed to ban the synthetic stimulant mephedrone across the EU. The drug, which is comparable to ecstasy or cocaine in its effects, is already illegal in 15 EU countries.

Mephedrone, now available in Europe only via the black market (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Marketed under the name "Meow Meow" or "plant food," mephedrone is widely available at retail sales outlets in EU countries where it is still legal. It can also be purchased via the Internet. Mephedrone is derived from cathinone, a stimulant compound found in the khat plant.

The justice ministers' announcement comes about a month and a half after the European Commission proposed in October that governments act to stop the spread of mephedrone. Friday's decision bans the manufacture and marketing of mephedrone, making those acts a crime anywhere in Europe.

"It is good to see that EU governments are prepared to take swift action to ban this dangerous drug," said Vice-President Viviane Reding, the EU's Justice Commissioner in a statement Friday. "This drug is sold over the Internet, often behind innocent names like plant food or bath salts. Young people should not be fooled. These drugs are harmful. The EU has shown today that we can act quickly to stop this kind of drug from taking more lives."

The move comes after a wave of hysterical reporting about mephedrone, especially in the British press, and after a risk assessment by the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA). That assessment found that while mephedrone can cause acute health problems and lead to dependence, there have been few verified fatalities reported across Europe.

Britain reported two fatalities in which mephedrone appeared to be the sole cause of death, but it later turned out that those two deaths had been caused by methadone, not mephedrone.

In fact, the EMCDDA risk assessment noted that despite health dangers, there is no direct causal link between mephedrone alone and any deaths. The risk assessment also warned against banning the drug. "Control measures could create an illegal market in mephedrone with the associated risk of criminal activity," the assessment warned.

The EMCDDA noted that 37 deaths had been "linked" to mephedrone, but warned against jumping to conclusions. "In some of these cases it is likely that other drugs and/or other medical conditions or trauma may have contributed to or been responsible for death," the assessment noted. "The inquests into the deaths are pending for the majority of these cases therefore it is not possible at this time to determine the contribution of mephedrone."

And while the risk assessment noted health dangers with the drug, including headaches, nausea, agitiation, palpitations, chest pains, paranoia, teeth grinding, and sexual arousal, it found that serious side effects such as seizures or abnormal heart rhythms were "rare."

"Taken as a whole, the scientific evidence base available for drawing conclusions is limited and this proviso should be borne in mind when interpreting the findings of the risk assessment exercise," the EMCDDA warned.

Too bad the EU doesn't listen to its own advisors, instead choosing to play to the sensationalist media peanut gallery.

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