Poisoned Drug Supply

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Michigan Medical Marijuana Protest Draws 1,000+

photo courtesy Bruce Reith, South West Michigan Compassion Club
Medical marijuana supporters angered by resistance from elected officials and a state appeals court decision effectively shuttering dispensaries statewide rallied in large numbers at the state capitol in Lansing September 7. The Detroit News estimated the crowd size at about 1,500 people.

Touting signs reading "Patients are not Criminals" and "Weed Deserve Better," as well as signs directing their anger toward Attorney General Bill Schuette, who praised the appeals court decision, protesters poured onto the capitol lawn by the busload. Young and old, on foot and in wheelchairs, the crowd listened and cheered as speakers denounced the decision and praised marijuana for improving their health.

photo courtesy Bruce Reith, South West Michigan Compassion Club
Schuette, a Republican, has argued that medical marijuana use is only justified in limited circumstances and that any sales are illegal. The appeals court ruling was "a huge victory for public safety and Michigan communities struggling with an an invasion of pot shots near their schools, homes, and churches," he said.

One of the biggest cheers of the day came when a plane carrying a sign reading "Schuette: Keep the Patients Off the Streets" flew over the capitol.

"This has never been about cannabis," said Robert Redden, 61, a medical marijuana cardholder whose Oakland County home was raided in 2009. "This is about our rights."

Under last month's court ruling, most of the estimated 400 to 500 dispensaries in the state have shut down or are in the process of doing so. That leaves the nearly 100,000 card-carrying medical marijuana patients in the state with limited options for obtaining their medicine.

Under the state law approved by voters in 2008, patients can possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana and can grow up to 12 plants or have a designated caregiver grow it for them. But many seriously ill people are too sick to grow their own, and if they don't happen to know someone who can grow for them, now their only option is the black market.

photo courtesy Bruce Reith, South West Michigan Compassion Club
But buying medical marijuana on the black market has its risks. Not only do patients have to get involved in street-corner illegal drug sales, they also face the risk of contaminants in the street weed they purchase. The owner of a lab in Gaylord that tests medical marijuana subjected some samples of street weed to analysis and found mold and high levels of pesticide contamination.

"I want our medicine to be legal," said Stephanie Whisman, whose Bay City dispensary was raided. "I'm tired of them shutting down dispensaries. I've been raided twice. I've never been charged with anything. But they've taken everything I've owned."

Whisman said she didn't want to have to buy pot on the street. "I have my card. I went through my doctor. I did everything legal on my part. Why can't I go to a safe place to get my medicine?"

Lansing, MI
United States

Scottish Liberal Democrats Back Prescription Heroin

Scottish Liberal Democrats at their party conference in Perth voted Saturday to make campaigning for heroin maintenance treatment part of their party platform. Heroin users should not be fined or imprisoned, but should be given the drug through the National Health Service, party members agreed.

Tavish Scott's Lib Dems want "heroin on the NHS." (Image via Wikimedia)
The Liberal Democrats are an opposition party in Scotland, holding 16 of 129 Scottish Parliament seats, 11 of 59 Scottish seats in the British Parliament, and one of six Scottish seats in the European Parliament. They are fourth of five major political parties, behind the National Party, Labor, and the Conservatives, but ahead of the Scottish Greens. They are led by Tavish Scott.

The Lib Dems argued that both society and heroin users would benefit from prescribing the drug. Overdose and tainted drug deaths would decline, and addicts would not have to turn to crime or prostitution to feed their habits, they said.

"For drug offenders, fines and jail time simply don't work. In fact a fine will make it much more likely for a drug user to turn to a life of crime to fuel their habit," said Callum Leslie, a candidate for Mid Fife and Glenrothes. "Instead, the Liberal Democrats want to see a much greater use of Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTOs) and Community Service Orders (CSOs). The evidence shows that these methods work. Offenders are forced to pay back the community they harmed and have a chance to get drug free for good. Controlled diamorphine [heroin] treatment is a method that works where other methods have failed. It stops offenders getting street heroin, which can be fatal and turns offenders to further crime to fund their habit."

"There is a great cost to society, and the public purse, if offenders are just abandoned to a cycle of crime and prison," said Alex Cole-Hamilton, Liberal Democrat candidate for Edinburgh Central. "DTTOs and CSOs are measures that would save public money by keeping drug abusers out of jail. Drug offenders should not be treated the same as murderers. We should work to treat the problem of drug abuse, not lock addicts away and condemn them to a life of crime."

United Kingdom

Heroin Drought Causing Problems in England

A scarcity of heroin in England is leading to a growing number of drug overdoses and poisonings as users ingest dope cut with other substances by dealers trying to stretch supplies, The Guardian reported this week. Scene watchers there are calling it the worst drought in years.

Are you sure that's heroin? Be careful out there, especially in England
The drought is being blamed not on seizures by law enforcement agencies, but on a fungus that has blighted the Afghan opium poppy crop, reducing the size of this year's poppy crop by half. Afghanistan accounts for more than 90% of the world's opium production and likely 100% of the British heroin supply.

"There is a very significant heroin shortage across the UK at the moment," said Gary Cross, head of drug policy for the non-profit group Release.  "It has been going on for some time now, but the last two months have seen stockpiles exhausted."

"I've never known anything like it in 30 years," wrote one long-time heroin user on an on-line forum discussing the shortage.

As dealers and users scramble to grapple with the shortage, users are turning up at hospitals after ingesting adulterated heroin or, in some cases, fake heroin consisting of a powerful sedative, caffeine, and paracetamol, a bulking agent. Some have passed out after smoking or ingesting, while others have reported vomiting, amnesia, and flu-like symptoms.

"This 'heroin drought' appears to be serious and geographically widespread," said Neil Hunt, director of research at KCA, a nationwide community drug treatment service. "Street heroin is in a complete and utter muddle at the moment, and users are collapsing unexpectedly. We need to standardize information about what's out there.

"If people use this intravenously, perhaps on top of alcohol and methadone [the prescribed substitute drug for heroin], it is extremely risky," said Dr. John Ramsey, who runs a drug database at St. George's Medical School in London. "We have had many reports of people overdosing. It's really important that accident and emergency departments understand that they may not be dealing with a 'normal' heroin overdose when people are brought in," he said.

Harm reduction drug agencies are aware of the problem and working to address it. Several of them held an urgent meeting last week to discuss setting up an online warning system to give users notice about contaminated or adulterated drugs.

London
United Kingdom

Former Spanish Drug Czar Says Legalize Drugs

Madrid
Spain

Government-Sponsored Murder in the Name of Prohibition

This fascinating piece in Slate recalls the government's seldom-discussed effort to enforce alcohol prohibition by poisoning people:

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

It's a nightmarish tale of prohibitionist lunacy that's worth reading in its entirety. Government officials were viciously calculating in their actions and callously blamed naïve drinkers for the consequences.

Today, prohibition kills people in different, yet equally abhorrent and unnecessary ways. Its advocates continue to deny responsibility for the predictable and inevitable consequences of the policies they defend and the death toll has grown to incalculable proportions, spanning the globe. The drug war leaves sickness and murder in its wake at every turn, yet many among us remain blind to the lessons learned nearly a century ago.

Prohibition: Contaminated Drug Supply Threatening Cocaine Users in North America, Heroin Users in Europe

Problems with contaminated drug supplies reemerged on two fronts this week, with health authorities in Scotland announcing another case of anthrax among heroin users and health authorities in Quebec warning that cocaine continues to be contaminated with levamisole, a veterinary de-worming agent.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/anthraxspores.jpg
anthrax spores
In a press release issued last Friday, Health Protection Scotland announced the first anthrax case among heroin users in the Edinburgh area had been confirmed. That brings to 33 the number of confirmed cases among heroin users, all but two of them in Scotland. One was reported in Germany and one in London. Eleven people have died of anthrax from tainted heroin, 10 of them in Scotland.

"There is no way to tell if your heroin is contaminated and there is no way to take heroin which we can advise is safer or less likely to result in illness or death if it has anthrax contamination," warned Dr. Colin Ramsey, consultant epidemiologist for Health Protection Scotland. "Drug users are advised that the only way to avoid the risk of anthrax in this outbreak is not to take heroin. While we appreciate that this may be extremely difficult advice to follow, it remains the only public health protection advice possible due to the nature of anthrax infection."

Such advice dismays harm reductionists, who have called for more informational campaigns and the prescribing of pharmaceutical heroin to addicts.

Users should seek urgent medical attention in the event of symptoms such as redness or swelling at or near an injection site, or other symptoms of general illness such a fever, chills or a severe headache, as early antibiotic treatment can be lifesaving, Health Protection Scotland said. Marked swelling of a limb which has been used as an injection site is a particularly important sign of possible anthrax infection.

Meanwhile, in Montreal, the National Public Health Institute of Quebec has issued a report on levamisole contamination in cocaine (sorry, French only) in the province. According to that report, eight out of 10 blood samples taken from known cocaine users in Quebec contained the cutting agent.

When ingested by humans, levamisole can cause nausea, dizziness, and diarrhea. Chronic use can lead to neutropenia, a potentially lethal blood disorder, or a related condition, agranulocytosis.

The US DEA first reported the presence of levamisole in cocaine in 2002 and its use is on the rise. In November 2009, Center for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services published a survey indicating that 70% of cocaine seized in the US contained levamisole.

Tainted Supply: Cocaine Laced With Levamisole Keeps Turning Up

Back in September, we reported on the appearance of cocaine cut with levamisole, a veterinary de-worming agent, and its links to at least three deaths in the US and Canada from a disease caused by levamisole, agranulocytosis. At that time, the DEA reported that levamisole was turning up in about 30% of the cocaine it sampled.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/taintedcocainegraph.jpg
DEA levamisole findings
Now, the DEA says that figure is up to 70%. While the number of fatalities has remained unchanged since last fall, new cases of agranulocystosis continue to appear in North American drug users. Earlier this month, authorities in Winnipeg, Manitoba, reported that two cocaine users contracted the disease there and that additional cases had been reported in neighboring Alberta.

Levamisole suppresses immune function and the body's ability to fight off even minor infections, and people who ingest levamisole-tainted cocaine can be faced with quickly-developing, life-threatening infections. Agranulocytosis is a condition of suppressed immune systems. Its symptoms include chills or high fever, weakness, swollen glands, painful sores, sudden or lingering infections, skin infections, abscesses, thrush, and pneumonia.

Cocaine contaminated with levamisole, although not users with agranulocytosis, has also popped up in the last few days in Maine and Ohio. Samples of crack cocaine in Mansfield, Ohio, tested positive late last month. And public health officials reported Tuesday that 30% to 50% of Maine cocaine samples tested positive.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) put out an alert late in September warning of the tainted cocaine, but federal authorities have done little publicly since then.

Given the geographically widespread reports of cocaine contaminated with the veterinary drug, it is assumed that levamisole is being added as a cutting agent either in source countries or in transit countries, not by local dealers.

Europe: Anthrax Heroin Toll Rises as England Marks First Death

English authorities announced Wednesday that a Blackpool heroin user died of anthrax, making him the first fatality in England from what is apparently a batch of heroin contaminated with anthrax. The bad dope has been blamed for nine deaths in Scotland and one in Germany since the outbreak began in December.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/anthraxspores.jpg
anthrax spores
The anthrax fatality announcement from the National Health Service (NHS) in Blackpool came just five days after the Health Protection Agency issued a statement warning that a female heroin user in London had been hospitalized with anthrax.

The spate of anthrax cases among heroin users is baffling police and health experts, who have yet to actually come up with any heroin samples containing anthrax spores. There is speculation that the heroin could have been contaminated at its likely source in Afghanistan, perhaps from contaminated soils or animal skins, or that it was present in a cutting agent added there or at some other point on its transcontinental trek to northern Europe.

The cases in Germany and England have no known link to those in Scotland, leading to fears that tainted dope could be widespread. On the other hand, the numbers so far reported as being infected remain relatively small.

Although harm reductionists and drug user advocates have called for measures including public information campaigns among users, swift access to drug treatment, and making prescription heroin more widely available, British health officials continue to do little more than tell users to quit. Dr. Arif Rajpura, director of public health at NHS Blackpool, was singing from the same official hymnal this week.

He repeated warnings for users to stop using and advised them to be on the lookout for symptoms of anthrax, including rashes, swelling, severe headaches, and high fevers. "Heroin users are strongly advised to cease taking heroin by any route, if at all possible, and to seek help from their local drug treatment services. This is a very serious infection for drug users and prompt treatment is crucial," he said.

Europe: Anthrax Heroin Toll Rises as England Marks First Death

English authorities announced Wednesday that a Blackpool heroin user died of anthrax, making him the first fatality in England from what is apparently a batch of heroin contaminated with anthrax. The bad dope has been blamed for nine deaths in Scotland and one in Germany since the outbreak began in December. The anthrax fatality announcement from the National Health Service (NHS) in Blackpool came just five days after the Health Protection Agency issued a statement warning that a female heroin user in London had been hospitalized with anthrax. The spate of anthrax cases among heroin users is baffling police and health experts, who have yet to actually come up with any heroin samples containing anthrax spores. There is speculation that the heroin could have been contaminated at its likely source in Afghanistan, perhaps from contaminated soils or animal skins, or that it was present in a cutting agent added there or at some other point on its transcontinental trek to northern Europe. The cases in Germany and England have no known link to those in Scotland, leading to fears that tainted dope could be widespread. On the other hand, the numbers infected remain relatively small. Although harm reductionists and drug user advocates have called for measures including public information campaigns among users, swift access to drug treatment, and making prescription heroin more widely available, British health officials continue to do little more than tell users to quit. Dr. Arif Rajpura, director of public health at NHS Blackpool, was singing from the same official hymnal this week. He repeated warnings for users to stop using and advised them to be on the lookout for symptoms of anthrax, including rashes, swelling, severe headaches, and high fevers. "Heroin users are strongly advised to cease taking heroin by any route, if at all possible, and to seek help from their local drug treatment services. This is a very serious infection for drug users and prompt treatment is crucial," he said.
Location: 
Blackpool
United Kingdom

Europe: Anthrax-Tainted Heroin Death Toll Up to Ten

The death toll from anthrax-tainted heroin in Europe has risen to 10 as Health Protection Scotland confirmed that a heroin user who died in the Glasgow area on December 12 was infected with anthrax. Nine of the 10 deaths occurred in Scotland; the other occurred in Germany.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/anthraxspores.jpg
anthrax spores
The latest announced death is actually the earliest. Prior to the announcement of this death, the earliest known death took place December 16.

At least 19 drug users -- 18 of them Scottish -- have been diagnosed with anthrax since the outbreak began. A pair of heroin deaths in Sweden turned out to be unrelated, and a cluster of deaths in Portugal has not been confirmed as being linked to anthrax.

While Scottish authorities have yet to find any anthrax-tainted heroin, they believe either the heroin itself or cutting agents have been contaminated with anthrax spores. They said there is no evidence of person-to-person infection.

"While public health investigations are continuing to attempt to identify the source of the contamination, no drug samples tested to date have shown anthrax contamination, although a number of other types of potentially harmful bacteria have been found," said Colin Ramsay, an agency epidemiologist. "It must therefore be assumed that all heroin in Scotland carries the risk of anthrax contamination and users are advised to cease taking heroin by any route. While we appreciate that this may be extremely difficult advice for users to follow, it remains the only public health protection advice possible based on current evidence."

As noted in our earlier story linked to above, harm reductionists have called for other measures, ranging from informational campaigns to liberalized prescribing of pharmaceutical heroin.

Infected patients typically developed inflammation or abscesses around the injection site within one or two days and were hospitalized about four days after that. In some severe cases, the lesions developed necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating disease.

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