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Chronicle AM: CA on Verge of Regulating MedMJ, Federal No Mandatory Minimums Drug Bill Filed, More (9/11/15)

Nearly 20 years after the passage of Prop 215, California may finally get statewide medical marijuana regulation; the Illinois governor's veto pen has an impact, but also gets blunted; there's a new report on drug policy and human rights in Latin America, and more.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) has filed a bill to end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. (house.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Illinois Decriminalization Bill Dies… For Now. The bill, House Bill 218, passed out of the legislature, only to be the subject of an amendatory veto by Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), in which he made several changes to the text of the bill. Now, the clock has run out on the legislature approving that language, but a new bill is expected to emerge and the state could still pass decriminalization this year.

Medical Marijuana

California Legislators Set to Pass Historic Medical Marijuana Regulation Package. Before day's end, the legislature is expected to approve bills that would finally bring statewide regulation to the thriving industry. The bills, Assembly Bill 266 and Senate Bill 643, are to be amended and passed today and then signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D). Passage should create a full-fledged, highly regulated system with licensing for all stages of cultivation, production, distribution, and sales.

Illinois Governor Vetoes Medical Marijuana for PTSD. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) Thursday vetoed a measure that would have allowed people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to qualify for medical marijuana. His administration also refused to expand access to medical marijuana for 10 other ailments. The Illinois Medical Cannabis Advisory Board had recommended adding the 11 conditions, but Rauner killed PTSD and the Department of Public Health killed the rest. Rauner said expanding the program was premature.

Heroin and Prescription Opiates

Senators Call for Review of FDA Decision on Oxycontin for Kids. A bipartisan group of senators have asked the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee to investigate the Food and Drug Administration's August decision to approve the use of the powerful pain reliever in pediatric patients. The senators called the FDA move "a step in the wrong direction" in the face of growing levels of opiate dependency and abuse.

Illinois Legislature Overrides Veto of Heroin Treatment Funding. The state Senate Wednesday voted 44-11 to override Gov. Bruce Rauner's (R) veto of portions of an omnibus heroin bill that would have mandated Medicaid paying for drug treatment for heroin users. The state House had already voted to override, so now the whole range of House Bill 1 will go into effect.

Asset Forfeiture

California Legislature Kills Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Under heavy lobbying pressure from law enforcement, the state Assembly Wednesday killed Senate Bill 443, which would have reformed civil asset forfeiture in the state. The bill had enjoyed bipartisan support and nearly unanimous votes prior to the final Assembly vote. But there is still a chance the bill will be reconsidered and passed today, the last day of the session. Stay tuned.


Senator Kelly Ayotte Introduces Bill to Increase Fentanyl Trafficking Sentences. Sen. Ayotte (R-NH) Thursday filed S. 2027 to increase penalties for the synthetic opioid. There are no particulars on the bill available yet.

Rep. Maxine Waters Introduces Bill to End Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenses. Rep. Waters (D-CA) Thursday filed H.R. 3489, "to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses." There are no particulars on the bill available yet.


New Report Examines Drug Policy and Human Rights in Latin America. The Argentine Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) has released a new report, The Impact of Drug Policy on Human Rights: The Experience of the Americas, covering a wide range of issues, from long prison sentences for minor drug offenses to the way harsh drug policies run counter to international human rights standards. The report also highlights how such policies have a disproportionate effect on the poor, minorities, and other vulnerable members of society.

Virginia Police Kill Old Man in Pill Raid

[Editor's Note: This year, Drug War Chronicle is trying to track every death directly attributable to drug law enforcement during the year. We can use your help. If you come across a news account of a killing related to drug law enforcement, please send us an email at psmith@drcnet.org.]

Police in Hampton, Virginia, executing a search warrant for prescription pain pills shot and killed a 69-year-old homeowner after he fired on them inside the house. William Cooper becomes the 30th person killed in US domestic law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the Daily Press Hampton News, police sought a search warrant after a confidential informant told them Cooper had sold methadone, Percocet, and "several other unknown prescription pills" from his home. Police executed the warrant just after 10:00am Saturday, forcing his front door open and entering the residence.

Hampton Police spokesman Jason Price said police identified themselves when they arrived at the house. "We did knock and announce our presence," he said. "It was not a no-knock search warrant."

A common police practice in executing warrants is to announce their presence with loud knocks on the doors and shouts of "Police!" or similar phrases, then wait a matter of seconds before breaking down the door, effectively making them knock and announce raids in technical legal terms only. Neighbors reported the police had forced their way in, and the door was visibly broken.

Price said there was an exchange of gunfire, with Cooper shooting first and the officers firing back. Cooper was pronounced dead at a local hospital an hour later.

Police announced Tuesday
they had seized four prescription pain pill bottles -- three of them empty -- and a number of weapons in the retiree's home. They consisted of one empty bottle of Oxycontin and three bottles of Oxycodone-acetaminophen (Percocet), with one containing pills. They also seized 16 other pill bottles, including ones containing drugs used for treating the symptoms of arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. Police also seized Cooper's wallet, $903 in cash, and his 2000 Lexus, as well as a vehicle title and "financial documents." They alleged the 11-year-old car was connected to the drug sales.

"We did locate evidence that supports the charge of distribution of illegal narcotics," police spokesman Jason Price said Tuesday. Police did not say whether Cooper had prescriptions for the pain pills.

But friends of Cooper said he used a cane, suffered from knee and back pain, and took lots of pain medications. Cooper complained that the drugs he was taking "weren't enough" for the pain, said Richard Zacharias, 58, a retired NASA employee who was renting a trailer home from Cooper. He also said that Cooper had poor eyesight because of cataracts and often slept late. Those factors might have caused him not to realize it was police in his home at 10:00am, Zacharias said.

But Price said police would continue to identify themselves as they moved through the home. "It's very obvious that we're the police," he said.

"It doesn’t smell right," Zacharias protested. "He wasn't real big, he wasn't real threatening." The police killed Cooper "in his own house, and that doesn't sit right with me," he said. "People around here sleep with a gun beside their bed because of all the home invasions we've had. The guy was a nice guy. The guy was a good guy."

The two so far unnamed police shooters are now on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation. But Hampton Police Chief Charles Jordan Jr. didn't see any need to wait for that. "The investigation thus far supports the actions of the officers," Jordan said Saturday. "They were met with deadly force and had no alternative other than to return fire."

Hampton, VA
United States

Chronicle Book Review: The Power of the Poppy

The Power of the Poppy: Harnessing Nature's Most Dangerous Plant Ally, by Kenaz Filan (2011, Park Street Press, 312 pp, $18.95 PB)

Kenaz Filan thinks that Poppy (always capitalized in the book) is a sentient being. Before you roll your eyes as you recall the fervent mushroom cultists who say the same sort of thing, recall also that more mainstream authors, such as foodie Michael Pollan, have been known to talk like that, too, posing similar questions about what plants want. I'm not personally convinced about the sentience of plants, but I find that adherents of such a position definitely bring something of value to the table: respect for their subjects.

The opium poppy certainly deserves our respect. It can bring miraculous surcease from suffering through the pain-relieving alkaloids within, but those same alkaloids can also bring addiction, oblivion, and death. Our "most dangerous plant ally" can be both kindness and curse, boon and bane. Only by respecting Poppy, writes Filan, can we learn how best to manage our relationship with her.

The Power of the Poppy is part historical treatment, part cultural essay, part pharmacopeia, part practical guide. As such, positions on plant consciousness notwithstanding, it's a fascinating and illuminating treatment of the poppy and its derivatives. Filan traces the history of man's relationship with poppy from 6,000-year-old archeological digs in Europe, through early uses in the Roman empire and the Islamic world, and on to the current era of the war on drugs.

While Filan addresses the war on drugs and finds it stupid, this is not mainly a book about drug policy, and he dismisses the issue in short order. "Our war on drugs has been a one-sided rout," he writes in the introduction. "We keep saying 'no' to drugs, but they refuse to listen."

In his few pages devoted to the past century of opium prohibition, he reiterates the futility of trying to stamp out poppy even as its cultivation spreads. "Poppy is happy to fulfill our needs as long as we propagate her species," he writes. "To her, our 'war' is like locust invasions and droughts -- an annoyance, but hardly something that will endanger the continued existence of her children."

From there, Filan turns to the chemistry and pharmacology of opium and its derivatives and synthetics. He traces the isolation of morphine, codeine, heroin, thebaine (from which is derived hydromorphone [Dilaudid], oxymorphone [Opana], hydrocodone [Vicodin], and oxycodone [Oxycontin]), kompot (East European homebrew heroin), methadone, and fentanyl. Along the way, Filan touches on such topics as the lack of pain-relieving poppy products in the developing world, the development of Oxycontin and the rapid spread of "hillbilly heroin," and controversies over needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and methadone maintenance therapies.

In nearly every case of the development of a new opiate or opioid drug, researchers were hoping to find a substance that maintains poppy's analgesic qualities while eliminating or at least reducing its addictive ones. No such luck. "Despite the best efforts of our chemical minds," Filan writes, "Poppy still demands her bargain…Even as we go to war with Poppy, we are forced to do business with her."

In his next section, demonstrates the bargain poppy extracts as he profiles 11 famous users, including Confessions of an Opium Eater author Thomas de Quincy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Burroughs, Lou Reed (whose Velvet Underground-era Heroin and Waiting for My Man put the 1960s New York junkie experience to music), and DJ Screw, whom I must confess I never heard of until reading The Power of the Poppy. Mr. Screw, whose real name, it turns out, was Robert Earl Davis, was a Houston DJ who rose to hip-hop fame after smoking Mexican weed and accidentally hitting the pitch button as he mixed tapes. The ensuing distorted vocals and slowed down beats became known as "screwed down" and Davis picked up the moniker DJ Screw.

Among the favorite topics of Screw and his crew was "purple drank," a concoction of soda pop, codeine cough syrup, and Jolly Ranchers candy, that created a warm, relaxed high. Screwed down music was the perfect accompaniment for a drank-fueled evening. While DJ Screw died young, in part because of his fondness for drank, he was also an overweight, fried-food loving smoker. While drank may have helped make DJ Screw, as always, poppy exacted her part of the bargain.

In the final segment of the book, Filan gets practical. He describes how to grow your own (from papaver somniferum seeds widely available at gardening stores) and how to extract the raw opium. He describes poppy tea brewing recipes, as well as how to use poppy in pill, tablet, or capsule form; as well as eating smoking, snorting, and shooting it. And he doesn't stint on explaining the dangerous path one is on when one embraces the poppy. Although I don't recall Filan ever using the words harm reduction, he is all about it as he cautions about overdose, dependency, and addiction.

The Power of the Poppy elucidates the many ways the histories of man and poppy are intertwined, and it's full of interesting tidbits along the way. Who knew that the use of "dope" to mean drugs came from Dutch sailors mixing opium and tobacco off China in the 17th Century? They called the mixture "doep," like a greasy stew they ate. Or that calling seedy establishments "dives" derived from scandalized descriptions of California opium dens, with the patrons reclining on divans? Or that the scientific name for snorting is "insufflation"?

If you have an interest in opium and its role in human affairs, The Power of the Poppy will be both entertaining and enlightening. And -- who knows? -- maybe you'll start treating that plant and its derivatives with the respect they deserve.

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