Harm Intensification

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Random Drug Testing Won’t Save the Children From Heroin

Here’s drug czar John Walters shamelessly using a young woman’s death as an opportunity to plug student drug testing:

Heroin killed 19-year-old Alicia Lannes, and her parents say she got the drug from a boyfriend.  Experts say that's how most young kids get introduced to drugs: by friends or relatives.

While teen drug use is declining, Walters says a Fairfax County heroin ring busted in connection with Lannes' death proves it's still a problem.  He supports a federal program used in more than 4,000 schools to randomly drug test students.

"There's no question in my mind had this young woman been in a school, middle school or high school with random testing," said Walters, "She would not be dead today." [FOX DC]

Walters sounds supremely confident, as usual, yet the reality is that random drug testing is often impotent when it comes to discovering heroin use. Student drug testing programs typically rely on urine tests, which can only detect heroin for 3-4 days after use. Only marijuana -- which stays in your system for up to a month – can be effectively detected this way. Thus, random testing actually incentivizes students to experiment with more dangerous drugs like heroin that increase your chances of passing a drug test.


And thanks to the complete failure of the drug war, heroin is stronger today than ever before:

The drug enforcement agency says the purity of heroin found in Virginia is typically higher than usual—making it more deadly.

"They tend not to know how to gauge the strength and they usually take more than they need to," said Patrick McConnel, who oversees Treatment for Youth Services Administration Alcohol and Drug Services.

There are no easy answers here, to be sure, and I don’t claim any monopoly on the solutions to youth drug abuse. But I guarantee you that the problem isn’t our failure to collect more urine from young people. As long as the most dangerous substances continue to be manufactured, distributed, and controlled by criminals, the face of our drug problem will remain the same.

Australia: Drug Researcher Says Ecstasy Safer Than Binge Drinking, Causes Flap

Responding to recent data suggesting that young Queenslanders are switching to ecstasy in the wake of a steep increase in the state government's tax on popular "alcopops," a leading drug researcher said the young people would be better off taking small amounts of ecstasy than going on drinking binges. Unsurprisingly, the comments have attracted criticism from some quarters.

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ecstasy pills
Professor Jake Najman, director of Queensland's Alcohol and Drug Research Center, said ecstasy was "a lesser evil" than binge drinking, long a popular Australian pastime. Ecstasy is "relatively benign if taken in small quantities," he said. "When young people switch from a substantial amount of alcohol to a small amount of ecstasy... I don't think that's a bad trade at all. It is not likely that one pill on a Saturday night poses the same dangers as frequent binge drinking."

Illegal drugs kill about a thousand Australians a year, but alcohol kills around 20,000. According to a 2004 government study, 19% of 18-to-24-year-old men and 11% of women in the same age group had engaged in binge drinking -- defined as seven drinks or more at a sitting -- at least once a week over the past year.

Ecstasy is "cheaper and safer" than excessive alcohol consumption, Najman said. "Even drug-related problems, including psychotic episodes and violent behaviour are not seen with ecstasy, as they are with amphetamines and alcohol," he said.

University of Adelaide PhD student Emily Jaehne attacked Najman's statement on two counts. She said ecstasy was often adulterated, but that is an artifact of prohibition, not a property of the drug itself. Her second count, that ecstasy causes potentially serious increases in body temperature, was stronger. "When taken at hot nightclubs or rave parties the heightened effects could lead to severe brain damage or death," Ms. Jaehne said.

But while the risk of death from using ecstasy is real, it is also infinitesimal. According to a 2004 study of national death statistics, 12 people died of ecstasy-related causes in Australia between 2001 and 2004.

Still, that didn't stop Jo Baxter, director of Drug Free Australia, from calling Najman's comments "irresponsible" and dangerous. "There is no guarantee that if young people hear a message of so-called 'safe use' from people in authority, that they will use only small quantities. Taking ecstasy is like Russian roulette. No one individual knows exactly what it will do to their body chemistry," she said.

"A person in Professor Najman's position and with his qualifications is showing an extraordinary lack of responsibility, if his views have been reported accurately," Baxter continued. "The other aspect is that we seriously have to question why our young people are feeling the need to take drugs in order to 'have a good time.' We need to be giving our young people reasons not to have to rely on drugs for their social events. If we can reduce the demand, the huge volumes of ecstasy now coming into Australia would have no market."

Good luck with that, Mrs. Baxter.

Marijuana: SAFER Takes on the NFL, Cites "Hypocrisy" of Player's Huge Fine for Marijuana Possession

New England Patriots running back Kevin Faulk was suspended for one week and fined two weekly paychecks, or about $300,000, by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell this week after pleading guilty in July to misdemeanor marijuana possession charges. That has the marijuana reform group SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation) crying foul.

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SAFER Ricky Williams billboard, 2007 (saferchoice.org)
SAFER, whose primary argument is that marijuana is safer than alcohol and should not be treated more harshly, announced Thursday that it would deliver an online petition and letter calling for changes to the NFL's marijuana policy to Goodell today in New York City. For SAFER, the huge fine assessed against Faulk is rank hypocrisy from a sporting organization that accepts hundreds of millions of dollars in alcohol advertising.

The petition reads as follows:

"Players with the National Football League who use marijuana instead of alcohol to relax and recreate are making a rational choice to use a less harmful substance.

"Suspending these players and taking away hundreds of thousands (or sometimes millions) of dollars for using marijuana is driving them to use alcohol, a drug that -- unlike marijuana -- contributes to violent and aggressive behavior. Unless the NFL plans to suspend every player who receives a speeding ticket -- which is considered an offense on par with marijuana possession in some states -- it has absolutely no reason to suspend players for the simple use and possession of marijuana. Doing so is not only irrational, but given the NFL's acceptance and blatant promotion of alcohol, it is exceptionally hypocritical.

"Marijuana is safer than alcohol and the National Football League's substance abuse policy should be changed immediately to reflect that fact."

"The NFL has no problem with players using alcohol and it accepts hundreds of millions of dollars to promote booze to football fans of all ages," said SAFER executive director Mason Tvert. "Yet the league punishes those players who make the safer choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol to relax and recreate. The NFL is driving its players to drink. Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it is far less harmful than alcohol both to those who use it and to others around them," Tvert said. "It is a mystery why Commissioner Goodell and the NFL would want to steer the biggest, toughest guys in the country away from using marijuana and toward using alcohol, which contributes to aggressive behavior and countless violent crimes."

This isn't the first time SAFER has gone after the NFL's marijuana policy. Last October, the group erected a billboard across the street from Invesco Field in Denver that featured an image of NFL superstar Ricky Williams in a Denver Broncos jersey, urging the recently reinstated player to "Come to Denver: Where the people support your SAFER choice."

Harm Reduction: Funds Begin to Flow to DC Needle Exchange Programs

Eight months after Congress voted to end a decade-long ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs (NEPs) in the District of Columbia, money is starting to flow to the programs in the city with the nation's highest rate of HIV. District officials had announced almost immediately after the congressional vote that they would fund NEPs in an effort to control the spread of the disease among injection drug users.

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PreventionWorks! at work (screen shot from nytimes.com '''slide show,'' June '07)
Now, according to the Washington Times, funding is finally reaching the city's NEPs. The city will spend $700,000 a year on NEPs, with the city's largest program, PreventionWorks!, getting $300,000 a year.

According to a DC HIV/AIDS Administration 2007 report, injection drug use is the second most common mode of acquiring the HIV virus after unprotected sex, and the District has some 10,000 injection drug users.

DC NEP advocates have long argued that the federal funding ban left them starved for funds and unable to adequately address the injection drug using population. PreventionWorks!, for example, has had to scrape by on private contributions, limiting the work it has been able to do.

The need is obvious and so is the response, Ken Vail, the group's executive director, told the Times. "If you want to reduce the spread of HIV... you put more syringes out there," he said.

College Presidents Call for Debate on Lowering the Drinking Age

It's encouraging to see prominent educators take a stand for more sensible drug policies:

As college students gear up for annual back-to-school parties, a group of university and college presidents in California and across the country this week pushed for a national debate over whether the drinking age should be lowered from 21 to 18.

The current limit ignores the reality of drinking during college years and drives it underground, making binge drinking more dangerous and students less likely to seek help in an emergency, according to a petition signed by more than 100 campus presidents. Though they don't call for an outright age rollback, the campus chiefs said they support "an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age." [LA Times]

The drug czar's office went code red, of course, and was probably more than a little displeased at having to respond to a bunch of respected college presidents who couldn't be ignored or accused of being pro-drug. With the help of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, they've compiled a list of emphatic counterpoints most of which, if true, would compel us to ban alcohol entirely for everyone. My favorite is that, "all underage drinking is unsafe drinking."

And isn't that just precisely the point here? Kids are getting bombed surreptitiously in dormrooms across America. They're being ushered into the drinking culture by the drunkest people on earth. And they're afraid to ask for help in an emergency because well-meaning morons have criminalized their behavior instead of supervising it.

Of course, beyond the practical problems with the 21 drinking age, I'm still a big fan of the old cliché that if you're old enough to fight and die for your country, you're old enough to drink a beer. That argument should've worked a long time ago, but I guess I've been fighting for drug policy reform long enough to know that being right doesn't mean politicians will do what you propose.

So instead, every American between the ages of 18 and 20 should refuse to serve in the armed forces until this is addressed, lest they should find themselves fighting in defense of a freedom they may not live long enough to taste.

Canadian Health Minister Attacks Doctors for Supporting Safe Injection Sites

The latest outrage in Canada's heated harm reduction debate came at the hands of Health Minister Tony Clement who went off the rails by questioning the ethics of doctors who practice harm reduction:

MONTREAL — The association representing Canada's doctors rapped Health Minister Tony Clement on Monday after he questioned the ethics of physicians who support the use of supervised injection sites for drug addicts.


"Is it ethical for health-care professionals to support the administration of drugs that are of unknown substance, or purity or potency, drugs that cannot otherwise be legally prescribed?" Clement said.

He said that in any other medical setting, supervised overdoses would be considered "highly unprofessional." [Canadian Press]

Canada's doctors beg to differ:

The Canadian Medical Association's president responded to Clement by saying 79 per cent of members agree that safe-injection sites and harm-reduction programs work.

Dr. Brian Day said sites that allow addicts to inject their own narcotics under the supervision of medical staff have been successful in curbing illegal drug use and slowing the spread of disease.

"We specifically take issue with the minister using that phrase," Day told reporters after Clement's speech.

"The minister was off base in calling into question the ethics of physicians involved in harm reduction.

"It's clear that this was being used as a political issue."

Doctors are not politicians. They work to save lives and they are the experts on how to do that. If they all agree that existing programs are working, and some politician disagrees, then he is just wrong and he should shut up.

The drug war debate is ugly and that's not gonna change anytime soon. But one thing we can do without is politicians feigning moral superiority over the doctors who are saving lives every day. That's what this is about. Harm reduction shouldn't be a political issue and if you succeed in politicizing it for the wrong reasons, people will die.

Marijuana: Hawaii County Council Rejects "Green Harvest" Eradication Program

By the narrowest of margins, the Aloha State's Big Island Hawaii County Council has rejected a state and federally funded marijuana eradication program known as "Green Harvest." The action came during a council meeting last week, when the council tied 4-4 on whether to continue to support the widely criticized program. The tie vote meant the motion to accept the funding failed.

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Volcano National Park, Hawaii Island
"Green Harvest" began in Hawaii three decades ago and has been controversial ever since. Many residents opposed the program, saying low-flying helicopters searching for pot fields disrupted rural life and invaded their privacy. Others argued that the program has done little to eradicate marijuana and even promoted the use of other, more dangerous drugs.

By the 1990s, council members heeding public complaints began expressing reservations about the helicopter missions. In 2000, they rejected $265,000 in federal eradication funds, two-thirds of the program's money that year. But the following year, they once again accepted the full amount offered.

But last week's vote means the council will say "no thanks" to $441,000 in state and federal funds for "Green Harvest." It also means the county will save the $53,000 from its own budget that would have been its share of the operation's financial burden.

Last month, the council had narrowly approved "Green Harvest" on a 5-3 vote, but that vote had to be redone because the council failed to publish the legislation in local newspapers, as required by law. That provided the opportunity for Councilman Angel Pilago to change his vote and kill the program.

"This will have long-term impacts," Pilago said. "When we institute programs we, the county government, need to look at if they are detrimental to people's rights and the health and safety of the community. That's what we do," he told the Associated Press after the vote. "It's about home rule," he said. "The county must be assertive and aggressive and not defer certain powers to the state and federal governments. We must not cede those powers."

Pilago is running for mayor of Hawaii County, and his vote on "Green Harvest," as well as his support for a lowest law enforcement priority initiative currently underway there, could help him draw a contrast between himself and incumbent Mayor Harry Kim, who is a "Green Harvest" supporter.

"My position is no secret," Kim told the AP. "I support eradication, as long as it's done in a way that is not harmful to people who should not be harmed, as far as noise and catchment systems and all those concerns. I'm against all drugs. Marijuana is an illegal drug."

Drug Treatment: Massachusetts Senate Ponders "Secure Treatment Centers"

Faced with rising drug overdose deaths and high rates of opiate addiction, Massachusetts lawmakers this week began discussing a $5 million plan to fund two "secure treatment centers" for arrested drug users. Under the initiative, drug users busted for small-time offenses who currently face jail would be given the option of seeking drug treatment for up to 90 days.

According to the state Department of Public Health, the number of opiate-related deaths in the Bay State increased from 363 in 2000 to 637 in 2006. The number of non-fatal drug overdoses has also increased dramatically, from 8,000 in 1996 to more than 18,000 in 2005.

"This is an epidemic," state Sen. Steven Tolman (D-Boston), who is pushing the plan, told the Associated Press. "We have all these kids and young adults who get hooked on the OxyContin and heroin, but the treatment infrastructure we have is mostly for alcohol."

Under Tolman's plan, which is included in the Senate version of the state budget, the $5 million would create two 60-bed secure treatment centers. The budget also includes language establishing a special commission to investigate and study the impact of OxyContin and heroin and make additional recommendations.

The plan was set to be discussed this week in the state Senate as part of the appropriations process.

Harm Reduction: San Antonio Needle Exchange Program Not To Be, Texas Attorney General Says Would Violate State Law

A state-sanctioned needle exchange program envisioned for Bexar County (greater San Antonio) under legislation passed last year will not happen -- at least not this year. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott Monday issued an opinion saying that state drug laws blocked the program from moving forward.

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popular syringe exchange logo
The needle exchange program was envisioned to help slow the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C among injection drugs users and would have been the first official program in Texas, which is the only state in the nation without one. The law was scheduled to take effect last September, but was put on hold after Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed raised objections in August, saying that it would be illegal to conduct such a program because, in her opinion, the law was defective. That sparked State Senator Jeff Wentworth's request for an attorney general's opinion.

In addition to blocking the needle exchange program, the attorney general's opinion also opens the way to the vindictive prosecution of Bill Day, a 73-year-old AIDS sufferer who was ticketed along with two other people earlier this year for passing out clean needles. District Attorney Reed, a Republican who has warned she would arrest anyone trying to hand out needles, stayed Day's case pending Abbott's opinion, but is now likely to move forward with it.

While Day faces up to a year in jail if convicted of violating Texas drug paraphernalia laws, that's unlikely, First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg told the Dallas Morning News. "Nobody expects that Mr. Day will go to jail," said Herberg. "If people think that he's well-intentioned, that's a punishment issue, not a guilt or innocence issue."

In his opinion, Abbott wrote the law passed last year was not written clearly enough to protect needle exchange participants from prosecution because it said only that the county health department "may" set up a needle exchange, not that it "will" set one up. While the legislature may have intended to set up a program, it needs to redraft the law to fix the language, he said.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), the legislation's main sponsor, vowed to make fixing it one of her top priorities next year. "Obviously, I am terribly disappointed," she told the Morning News. "The outcome [with the needle exchange] would have been much more effective in saving thousands of lives and saving millions of taxpayer dollars at the same time."

Southwest Asia: In Harm Reduction Move, Iran to Provide Condoms, Syringes in Vending Machines

Officials of the Iranian government announced last week that they are embarking on a pilot program to provide syringes and condoms to drug users in an effort to prevent the spread of AIDS and hepatitis. The items will cost the equivalent of a nickel.

Situated next door to Afghanistan, home of 90% of the world's opium and heroin production, Iran now suffers one of the world's highest opiate addiction rates. Iranian officials generally estimate that 2 million of the country's 71 million people are addicted to opiates, now mainly heroin.

"Five of these machines which have been made will be installed in five of Tehran city's welfare shelters for addicts," the deputy head of Iran's anti-narcotics organization, Mohammad Reza Jahani, said in remarks reported by Agence France-Presse. "Condoms, syringes, bandages and plasters will be easily accessible just by inserting a coin. This protects addicts from acquiring AIDS and hepatitis."

Look for more syringe and condom vending machines, said Jahani. "The machines will be used for a three month trial period and if the scheme is successful then we will upgrade them and increase their distribution to other shelters," he said.

The harm reduction measure is the latest in a series of moves in the Islamic Republic's approach to drug use and addiction. While it still hangs traffickers and guns down smugglers, it now tries to treat users as "people who need help," or at least is starting to, rather than throwing them into already overcrowded jails.

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