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Russell Brand Talks Drug Policy in Parliament

Actor, comedian, and ex-heroin addict Russell Brand appeared before a parliamentary committee in London Tuesday and told MPs that drug taking should not be approached as a "criminal or judicial matter" and that decriminalizing drug use could be "useful" in some regards.

Russell Brand at the premiere of Arthur (wikimedia.org)
Brand, 36, who recently divorced singer Katy Perry, wore a black hat, gold chains and crosses and a torn black vest top for his appearance before the committee. He called MPs "mate" and addressed them by their first names during a lively half-hour long hearing.

Brand was asked about drug legalization, but demurred, saying he didn't think he was "particularly qualified" to make that judgment. He added, however, that,  "I'm not saying we should have a wacky free-for-all where everyone takes drugs, it didn't do me any good."

The flamboyant entertainer appeared before the Home Affairs Committee, which is reviewing British drug policy. The Tuesday hearing was the fourth in what the committee is calling "a comprehensive review" of the drug laws. The committee also heard from opponents of relaxing the drug laws, including columnist Peter Hitchens and campaigner Mary Brett of Cannabis Skunk Sense, an all-volunteer group whose mission is to "raise awareness of the continuing and growing threat to children, teenagers and their families, posed by cannabis use."

Brand, who has had a more than decade-long career as a comic in Britain, exploded on the US scene with his portrayal of heedless rock star Aldous Snow in 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a role he reprised and expanded on as the falling-off-the wagon rocker in Get Him to the Greek in 2010. Brand also played the role of the alcohol-besotted title character in last year's Arthur, a remake of the Dudley Moore classic.

But Brand has also been a thoughtful and incisive author, commentator, and radio and television host whose views have been informed by his own struggles with substances. His 2007 autobiography My Booky Wook dealt extensively with his drug-using career and subsequent abstinence, and he won wide acclaim for his open letter For Amy after the alcohol overdose death of Grammy award-winning chanteuse Amy Winehouse last year.

The legal status of drugs didn't matter much to addicts, Brand said. "I'm not a legal expert. I'm saying that, to a drug addict, the legal aspect is irrelevant," he said. "If you need to get drugs, you will. The criminal and legal status, I think, sends the wrong message. Being arrested isn't a lesson, it's just an administrative blip," he added.

"For me what is more significant is the way we socially regard the condition of addiction," Brand said. "It is something I consider to be an illness, and therefore more of health matter than a criminal or judicial matter. It is more important that we regard people suffering from addiction with compassion and there is a pragmatic rather than a symbolic approach to treating it."

Brand pointed to the experience of Portugal, which decriminalized drug possession in 2001, saying decriminalization could be "useful and efficient." Instead of using the "carrot and stick," Brand said, drug addiction should be approached with "love and compassion."

The committee will conduct further hearings before issuing a report.

London
United Kingdom

Review Essay: The Border and Mexico's Drug Wars

Border Junkies: Addiction and Survival on the Streets of Juarez and El Paso, by Scott Comar (2011, University of Texas Press, 214 pp., $24.95 PB)

Border Wars, by Tom Barry (2011, MIT Press, 171 pp., $14.95 HB)

Dealing Death and Drugs: The Big Business of Dope in the US and Mexico, by Beto O'Rourke and Susie Byrd (2011, Cinco Puntos Press, 119 pp., $12.95 PB)

El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden (2011, Nation Books, 209 pp., $15.99 PB)

In addition to an ever-increasing death toll, now more than 50,000 since President Calderon sent in the army in December 2006, Mexico's drug wars are generating an increasing level of concern and interest in the US, including a burgeoning literature. Next week, we'll review a trio of new works that seek to describe the emergence and significance of the so-called cartels, but this week, we look at a quartet of books that focus on the drug wars (and the drug scene) along the border.

If there's anywhere in America more attuned to the Mexican drug wars -- by which I mean the prohibition-related violence among competing drug trafficking organizations, between them and Mexican law enforcement and the military, and, sometimes, even between different factions of the Mexican security apparatus -- it's El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from one of the epicenters of the drug trade and the violence, Ciudad Juarez.

That's reflected in these titles. One is written by a pair of El Paso politicians, two more are largely set in the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez bi-national metroplex, and the last covers the US border region of which El Paso is front and center. The view from El Paso, staring across the river at the killing and mayhem, can be frightening, but also enlightening.

In Dealing Death and Drugs, El Paso city council members Susie Byrd and Beto O'Rourke (he of the famous city council resolution calling for a discussion of legalization and now running for Congress) bring a home-town perspective on the drug wars, provide some lessons on the economics of the illicit marijuana business and present a concise, yet cogent, argument for legalizing weed as a means of weakening the cartels and reducing the violence.

Marijuana is critical for the cartels, Byrd and O'Rourke argue, because unlike cocaine, which must be purchased from producers elsewhere or methamphetamine, which requires imported precursor chemicals, the cartels control it from farm to market, generating profits each step of the way. They take you from the pot fields of the Sierra Madre Occidental, where a pound costs $23 to Juarez, where it goes for $73 a pound. Getting it past the border and into El Paso drives the price up to $240, and getting it past the Border Protection Service checkpoints a few miles into Texas gets it to its final US wholesale price of about $550 a pound.

US and Mexican law enforcement seized or eradicated 22 metric tons of Mexican weed in 2008, Byrd and O'Rourke note. That's as much as 90% of high end estimates of all the pot smoked in the US, which means either those estimates are way low or that the business is way profitable. And throwing billions of dollars at the problem through law enforcement hasn't helped.

Legalizing, regulating, and taxing the marijuana market is "the least bad" solution, Boyd and O'Rourke write. Their argument, like the book itself, is pithy, yet compelling, and, as Boyd notes in an afterword, even Calderon is starting to come around. But not yet most policymakers in the US.

With El Sicario, we take a deep, dark turn toward the underbelly of the Mexican drug wars. Border sage and drug war critic Charles Bowden and translator and Juarez body count keeper Molly Molloy bring the terrifying realities of the business into chilling focus through their interviews with a former cartel hitman now in hiding with a contract on his head. This may be the single scariest book I've read about the Mexican drug wars, not for its calm and collected accounts of horrifying acts of brutality, which can be truly stomach-turning, but for the picture it paints of absolutely corrupted and complicit law enforcement, including the military.

Can you imagine if you don't know whether that cop who just stopped you is going to write you a ticket or shoot you dead without warning, or kidnap and torture you because he's actually working for the cartels? That's the case in Mexico now. Our interlocutor in El Sicario attended the Chihuahua state police academy, rose to the rank of comandante, and underwent training by the FBI, all while carrying out killings, kidnappings, and tortures for the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels. Even more perversely, while he was running the anti-kidnapping squad for the state police, he was using police vehicles to kidnap people and transport drugs.

And he is by no means alone. According to the hit man, about a quarter of his graduating class at the police academy were on the cartel payroll -- from the very beginning of their law enforcement careers! The Mexican police are heavily salted with cartel men; it's a long-term business strategy that has paid handsomely for the cartels, but has absolutely shredded any trust the public has in state and local law enforcement there.

But it's not just rotten on the Mexican side of the border. The hit man details how he and his colleagues transported tens of millions of dollars worth of drugs across the border and how he personally paid a US Customs officer $50,000 to let cars full of drugs get through. El Sicario shows that dirty knows no borders, even if the cartels are smart enough to keep the blood-letting almost entirely south of the border.

But there are other ways US law enforcement is benefiting from the Mexican drug wars. In Border Wars, journalist and Center for International Policy analyst Tom Barry uses a series of interlocking essays to argue that since the September 2001 Al Qaeda attacks, the US has spent billions of dollars "securing the border" against a triple threat of illegal immigration, drugs, and terror, and has accomplished little good, quite a bit of bad, and plenty of stupid.

Barry opens with the death of Jesus Manuel Galindo, who died for lack of proper medical treatment in 2008 in a privately operated, publicly owned federal immigration prison in remote Pecos, Texas. He recalls that until 2006, we typically handled illegal immigration administratively, often simply deporting Mexicans back across the Rio Grande. But since then, the Bush administration began treating illegal immigration as a criminal matter, and now some 20,000 people languish in those distant prisons. Barry paints chilling, Kafkasque scenes of assembly-line "justice" where judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, all in the pay of the Us government, process dozens of shackled would-be immigrant laborers into the ever-expanding federal immigration detention system.

There is money to be made there, sucking off the federal teat, although more of it appears to go to lawyers, consultants, dealmakers and lobbyists than to the desperate rural towns hoping a private prison will provide them with a semblance of an economy. There's even more money to be made by border sheriffs and border state law enforcement entities in the seemingly endless billions of Department of Homeland Security dollars to fight drugs and terror.

Barry takes us to Texas and Arizona border counties where the numbers show little violent crime, but the sheriffs and politicians cry to high heaven about "spill over violence," Korans found on the border, and the threat of narco-Hezbollah conspiracies, for which there is no evidence. Some of these counties are among the poorest in the nation, lacking social and public services, yet in one of them, the sheriff's department is so awash in federal grant money that each deputy has two official vehicles, one patrol car and one SUV.

Along the way, he exposes the ugliness of border security politics and some of it practitioners, such as Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Jan Brewer of Arizona, who use a politics of fear and hate to firm up support among their most reactionary supporters, who hype nonexistent violence on this side of the border, and who constantly tout their border security efforts "without help from Washington" even as they take in billions from Washington to pay for their loudly-touted initiatives. It's rank cynicism, opportunism, and hypocrisy at its worst, and Barry nails it.

For Barry, the central problem is our inability to enact comprehensive immigration reform, a goal always pushed further into the future as we "secure the border" first. And, he says, we have to separate national security from public safety. The gargantuan Department of Homeland Security should worry about terrorists; a separate Customs and Border Protection Service should deal with illegal immigration and drugs.

"The standard of success for our border policy shouldn’t be how completely sealed and secured our border is," he writes, "but rather how well it is regulated. New regulatory frameworks for immigration and drug consumption are fundamental prerequisites for a more cost-effective border policy." And a more sane and human one. 

Finally, with Border Junkies, University of Texas-El Paso borderlands historian Scott Comar takes us back to "the good old days" in Juarez, a decade ago, before the city earned its blood-drenched reputation. In an eye-opening work of auto-ethnography, Comar tells mainly his own story of his descent into abject addiction, in which he moved with appalling speed from owning his own moving truck to panhandling on the streets to feed his habit.

In telling his own story, though, Comar unveils a never-before-written-about world, that of the street junkies of Juarez. His account, based largely on his journal entries, details the day-to-day struggle of the border junkies, the strategies they adopt to survive and score -- and not necessarily in that order -- the kinship and friendship networks that envelop them, the heroin distribution systems that feed their insatiable appetites. For those with a taste for anthropological examinations of the junkie life, this is fascinating stuff, right up there with the work of Philippe Bourgois.

Border Junkies is notable in one other respect: I don't think there is one mention of the cartels in it. Comar recounts constant harassment by the Juarez police (and the El Paso police, too) and petty corruption, he mentions that some of his fellows belonged to gangs, though only passingly, but the existence of the cartels, the source of their dope, is so distant from their daily lives that it is as if they don't exist.

Of course, that was before the death toll in Juarez started climbing to thousands every year. Now those street gangs that in Comar's time seemed to be engaged mainly in minor thuggery, a little smuggling, and posing with pistols have, in the pressure cooker of the Mexican drug wars, morphed into true killing machines like Barrio Azteca, the Artist Assasins, and La Linea. Those guys who quietly peddled smack on the corners or out of their houses in Comar's day died by the hundreds when the violence swept through just a few years later.

Wretched as the border junkie's existence is, it is doable. Comar did it for three years, commuting over the river to panhandle in El Paso, then back across to cop and nod. It was a gritty, miserable existence, but Comar makes it seem almost routine, banal. And, along the way, he has some interesting things to say about addiction and recovery, too.

Perhaps it's fitting to end with the image of the junkie straddling the border, because the root causes of Mexico's drug wars certainly do. Whether it's America's never-ending appetite for Mexican weed, the cartels' addiction to money and power, their alcohol and cocaine-numbed killers, or border state and federal law enforcement's addiction to immigration/drugs/terror funding booty, it's all entangled there on the line.

Mexico may be another country and, thankfully, the violence, at least, remains on that side so far, but we are all in this together. Legalizing marijuana or even ending drug prohibition in the US won't make the cartels magically disappear, but failing to do so will only ensure that they grow ever more entrenched, while continuing to provide sustenance to malign political forces and authoritarian, if not downright Orwellian, policing tendencies here.

Seattle Pilot Program Offers Treatment Not Arrest [FEATURE]

The Belltown neighborhood near downtown Seattle is a charming, vibrant urban locale, located just south of the city's landmark Space Needle. Filled with bars and cafes and desirable condos, it is a nighttime hot spot, but it is also a neighborhood where a relatively small number of problematic drug users have reduced the quality of life for residents and businesses alike. According to a recent study by the Seattle Police Department, some 50 people in Belltown were responsible for a whopping 2700 arrests.

4th Ave. & Wall St., Belltown neighborhood (Chas Redmond via wikimedia.org)
Now, instead of cycling those people through more endless -- and expensive -- rounds of arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and supervision, local officials and the Seattle Defender Association have embarked on an innovative pilot program in which beat officers will offer to take low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to drug treatment instead of arresting them, booking them into jail, and prosecuting them.

The pioneering program will allow officers the discretion to offer treatment to people charged with crimes such as public intoxication or drug possession, but not people with records of violence or those accused of dealing drugs. Offenders can decline the offer of treatment and instead be arrested and go through the criminal justice system.

Known as LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), the pilot program is designed to improve public safety and order and reduce the criminal behavior of program participants. It is based on successful "arrest referral" programs that have been operating in the United Kingdom for the past several years. The program has strong support from local elected and law enforcement officials.

"We are looking for effective public safety solutions,” said Mayor Mike McGinn. "If drug dealing and crime could be solved by arrests alone, we would have solved this problem a couple thousand arrests ago. LEAD offers a promising alternative to traditional responses to street-level drug dealing, and we look forward to tracking its results in Belltown."

"We know that the issue of chemical dependency in our society cannot be solved by law enforcement alone. It is a complex social problem that requires a comprehensive social solution,” said Seattle Chief of Police John Diaz. "LEAD provides our front line police officers with the discretion necessary to ensure that treatment diversion is utilized as a viable alternative to incarceration."

"Sheriff Sue Rahr and her staff support the concepts that act as the basis for the LEAD program, and we look forward to our participation," said King County Sheriff Major James Graddon. "Respect, open communication and common goals among some historically adversarial groups have created a positive environment to move this program forward. Using the formal criminal justice system for all offenses is costly and has proven to not necessarily be the most effective way to impact future offender behavior."

Graddon was referring to strained relations dating back to the last decade between the Seattle Police and the Defender Association, a nonprofit agency that provides legal representation to indigent defendants. In a bid to reduce tensions and work together on the common goal of reducing the number of repeat offenders cycling through the system, the Defender Association and law enforcement began discussing possible responses to the continuing problem of drug-user generated low-level crime with back in 2008. The LEAD program, which rolled out in Belltown a month ago now and which will also be tried in the Skyway neighborhood of unincorporated King County, is the fruit of those discussions.

Mayor McGinn at LEAD program press conference (mayormcginn.seattle.gov)
Defender Association Deputy Director Lisa Daugaard has been a prime mover in getting the program going. Given that the state of Washington faces a $2 billion budget deficit and looming social service cuts, Daugaard managed to obtain $4 million in grants from private foundations, including the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation, to pay for four years worth of LEAD services, including not only drug treatment, but also job training, housing assistance, and educational opportunities.

"Now, because of the dismantling of the social safety net, these LEAD resources may be the only way that some people will be able to get treatment, housing, and other services," said Daugaard.

LEAD supporters hope that the by the end of the four-year pilot period, the program will be able to demonstrate that it can generate cost savings worthy of being picked up by state and local government. They aren't the only ones watching with interest. Stateline, a media outlet covering state government issues across the land, reported last week that Baltimore, New Orleans, Oakland, and the state of New Mexico have already expressed interest in the program.

As a pilot program, LEAD will undergo a rigorous evaluation to determine whether it has been a success. It that proves to be the case, it could be expanded in other Seattle and King County locales, officials said.

"The LEAD pilot has the potential to help people struggling with addiction and save public dollars at the same time," said King County Executive Dow Constantine. "We can work in partnership to replace a downward spiral toward jail with support and resources. Our families and neighborhoods are better off when those headed for the criminal justice system are instead given the opportunity to lead a fulfilling and productive life."

It won't take four years to see what kind of impact LEAD has on Belltown and Skyway. Within a matter of weeks or months, we should be able to see whether this experiment in smart policing is working and produces a model that can be adopted elsewhere.

Seattle, WA
United States

Chronicle Book Review: Drugs and Drug Policy

Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins, and Angela Hawken (2011, Oxford University Press, 234 pp., $16.95 PB)

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugs_and_drug_policy.jpg
Mark Kleiman isn't real popular among the drug reform set. The UCLA professor of public policy is no legalizer, and even though he's too much of an evidence-minded academic to be a wild-eyed drug warrior, he still seems to have an unbecoming fondness for the coercive power of the state. Kleiman, who gets top-billing over coauthors Jonathan Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon and Angela Hawken at Pepperdine, also ruffles reformers' feathers with unnecessary snideness and snark.

But I watched Kleiman address Students for Sensible Drug Policy conventions a couple of times, and I thought it was a good thing, a very useful jolt to the group-think that can grip any gathering of congregants committed to a cause. I thought having the students have to hear the arguments of a leading academic thinker on drug policy who, while not "the enemy," was not especially saying what the average SSDPer wanted to hear, was salubrious for their critical thinking skills. I still think so.

In Drugs and Drug Policy, Kleiman and his coauthors continue with the occasional jibes aimed at the drug reform movement, at times reach conclusions at odds with my own, but also serve up a surprisingly chewy work of drug policy wonkery in delicious bite-size chunks. The innovative format, something like a series of FAQs organized within broader chapters -- "Why Have Drug Laws?" "How Does Drug Law Enforcement Work?" "What Treats Drug Abuse?" "Can Problem Drugs Be Dealt With at the Source?" -- allows us to unpack that all-encompassing monster called "drug policy" one subset at a time, and for that achievement alone, is worthy of praise. That it manages to cover so much ground in a paltry 234 pages is all the more laudable.

Overall, Drugs and Drug Policy is smart, reasonable, and thoughtful. It wants policies based on evidence and it advocates for some intelligent alternatives to current policies. It recognizes the utility of needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and opiate maintenance, even as it complains that "harm reduction" has been hijacked by legalizers. It explains that most people who use drugs -- even those diagnosable as suffering from substance abuse disorders -- will quit using drugs themselves without recourse to treatment. And it even allows that drug use can have beneficial effects, even if it doesn't do so until the seventh chapter.

But Kleiman et. al dismiss decriminalization as unlikely to have a big impact on the social fiscal burden of drug law enforcement because, even though it doesn't appear to have much impact on consumption, drug consumers are not, for the most part, filling our prisons -- drug dealers are. While they do concede that not criminalizing otherwise law-abiding citizens could have "significant benefits," they seem to underplay the negative, life-long impact of a criminal drug record on one's life prospects.

In fact, they seem all too comfortable with maintaining the pernicious role of the criminal justice system in drug policy even as they recognize that enforcing the drug laws is "unavoidably an ugly process," with its reliance on snitches, surveillance, and other "intrusive methods" of enforcement. To give them credit, they want smarter drug law enforcement -- concentrating police repression on violent drug dealers while turning a blind eye to discreet dealing, triaging coerced drug treatment spots so they are reserved for the people who could most benefit from them, giving up on interdiction and source country eradication as ineffective -- that might actually reduce the social and fiscal costs of both drug abuse and enforcement, and since drug prohibition isn't going away anytime soon, at least wasting less money on drug war tactics that don't work well should be on the table.

And they reject drug legalization as too scary to experiment with, but seem to imagine it as possible only within a corporate-controlled, heavily-advertised, low-priced scenario similar to that which has accreted around the alcohol industry. Yes, it's probably true that selling cocaine like Coors, would lead (at least initially) to a significant increase in use and problem use, but why does that have to be the only model? A government monopoly similar to the state liquor store model, with reasonable taxes and no corporate pressure to advertise could conceivably allow legalization without the increases in consumption that the authors predict, even though they concede they don't know how large they might be.

Still, when you get to what it is Kleiman et al. would do if they had their druthers, all but the most purist of legalization advocates will find a lot to like. They create three separate lists of recommendations -- a "consensus list" of reforms they think are politically doable now or in the near future, a "pragmatic list" of reforms that would appeal to dispassionate observers but could raise the hackles of moralists, and a "political bridge too far list" of reforms too radical for mainstream politicians to embrace.

The "consensus list" includes expanding opiate maintenance therapy, encouraging evidence-based treatment, early intervention by the health care system, encouraging people to quit on their own (as opposed to being "powerless"), relying less on interdiction, ending the charade that alternative development is drug control, and concentrating drug enforcement on reducing violence and disorder, as well as smarter, more effective coerced treatment in the legal system. If we saw the drug czar's office produce a National Drug Control Strategy with these recommendations, we would consider that a great victory. It ain't legalization, but its headed in a more intelligent, more humane direction.

The "pragmatic list" includes recommendations to lower the number of drug dealers behind bars, not reject harm reduction even if it's been "hijacked," stop punishing former dealers and addicts, reduce barriers to medical research on illegal substances, and be open-minded about less harmful forms of tobacco use.

The authors don't neglect alcohol and tobacco -- the two most widely-used drugs -- and that is really evident in their "political bridge too far" recommendations. The first three items there are aimed squarely at reducing alcohol consumption and its ill effects. They also argue for the legalization of individual or collective marijuana cultivation, a sort of legalization without the market, increased study of the non-medical benefits of drugs, and increasing cigarette taxes in low tax states.

I think Drugs and Drug Policy needs to be read by anyone seriously interested in drug policy reform. It hits almost all the bases, and it's well-informed, provocative, and challenging of dogmatic positions. You don't like the authors' conclusions? Refute them. It'll be good for you.

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.

Thai Government in Massive Campaign to Round Up Drug Users [FEATURE]

In a new wave of repression aimed at drug users, the government of Thailand has begun rounding up suspected "drug addicts" to be forced into "rehabilitation centers." That has health, human rights, and harm reduction groups expressing grave concerns, especially given previous Thai pogroms against drug users, like that in 2003, when tens of thousands were rounded up and more than 2,000 killed by police in summary executions.

Bangkok looks so modern, but some Thai drug policies are downright medieval. (Image via Wikimedia)
The official announcement from the National News Bureau of Thailand of the government's plans came only last week. "The Ministry of Interior has picked next week to get all drug addicts across Thailand clean," it said, with Deputy Permanent Secretary for Interior Surapong Pongtadsirikul as putting the number of untreated addicts at 30,000.

"During 20-27 February, 2011, drug abusers in Bangkok will be brought to the rehabilitation centers to get clean," the notice continued. "There will be those who are encouraged to receive treatment on their freewill and those who will be forced against their will. A rehabilitation camp will be open for addicts elsewhere in Thailand where a rehab center is scarce."

The announcement also said staff training would be carried out and a location for a "makeshift rehab center for drug addicts" will be selected. Chillingly, it added that "their names will be recorded in the database specifically designed for easy tracking and providing updates on their progress in the future."

The roundup has already begun in Bangkok, according to Karyn Kaplan of the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group (TTAG). "Yes, people are being arrested right now," she said. "The police have quotas, they do this every few months, and this is just another excuse to round people up again. Even in our own small network of people who use drugs, people have been arrested, even workers at our harm reduction center."

While the Thai government officially embraces harm reduction principles -- it adopted harm reduction as a national strategy last fall -- it schizophrenically continues its crackdowns on drug users and sends them to "treatment centers" not worthy of the name.

"We don't call them treatment centers, because they aren't run by people who know how to treat people," said Kaplan. "They were originally set up because of prison overcrowding, but even though they have a policy that says drug users are patients, not criminals, they still use the police to sweep the streets and throw people into the system. But then the system says there is no room in prison, send them to the camps. The camps are in military bases and run by the military, and they aren't trained for that. The military is just housing them, and there are beatings and forced labor for no money. There is no due process," she said.

It is as if the Thai government's left hand doesn't know what its right hand is doing, said Kaplan. "The government at least pays lip service to harm reduction, but the Ministry of the Interior is not talking to the Narcotics Control Board, which sponsors the harm reduction policy," she said. "We have gotten unofficial statements from senior officials inside the Public Health Ministry saying they are going to speak with the board and the Interior Ministry about what Thailand might do more effectively."

In the mean time, the roundups continue.

The threat of the mass roundup of suspected drug users has led a coalition of Thai and international health, harm reduction, and human rights organizations to publicly air their fears that it will trample on human rights and could lead to the widespread abuses of drug users seen in other Thai anti-drug campaigns.

"These plans for mass detention and forced treatment raise considerable human rights concerns, especially given Thailand’s history of nationwide punitive and ineffective anti-drug campaigns," they said in an open letter to the Thai government. "There is no way for the government to implement a campaign to forcibly 'treat' tens of thousands of people who use drugs without widespread human rights abuses taking place."

Groups signing on to the letter include the TTAG, the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the International Harm Reduction Program of the Open Society Institute, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD).

"The mandatory rounding up and detention of people who use illicit drugs for the purpose of enforced treatment is not only a violation of their human rights, it's a violation of common sense -- enforced detention doesn't work," said INPUD's Jude Byrne. "Never has, never will! Communities need to look to the reason people are using drugs. Stop the systemic violence against the poor, minorities, people of different sexual persuasion and the unemployed. Rounding up the most marginalized people in the community will do nothing except provide jobs for the police and the people who run the detention centers. It will also drive INPUD's community underground so they are not able to access harm reduction information or equipment where it is available. The transmission of HIV and Hep C among the injecting drug using community will soar, and that is the real crime, not the use of drugs."

"This crackdown flies in the face of Thailand’s 2002 policy, which states that people who use drugs should be treated as patients, not criminals. There is nothing therapeutic about rounding up thousands of drug users and forcing them into military boot camps that fail to provide appropriate services and support," said Paisan Suwannawong, TTAG executive director and co-founder of the Thai Drug Users' Network.

While the Thai government refers to "drug addicts," its plans appear to include any drug users. Under the current plan, "occasional" users will be detained for one week, "continuous" users for two weeks, and those showing signs of drug dependence for 6 1/2 weeks (45 days).

"There are many reasons to be worried," said IHRA executive director Rick Lines. "Due process guarantees have been thrown out the window. What is the legal basis for mass detention? There are numerous examples of how forced detention in the name of drug dependence 'treatment' can lead to human rights violations and breaches of accepted principles of medical ethics," he continued. "What is more, many who do not need any form of drug dependence treatment will be herded into detention centers. Where is the clinical assessment?" he asked.

The activists also expressed concern about the temporary detention centers that will be set up outside Bangkok. They feared they would be operated not by health workers, but by police or soldiers, they said.

"We are profoundly concerned that these centers may be run by public security forces such as the police or paramilitary civil-defense organizations" said Kaplan. "It is dangerous and extremely disheartening given recent progress made in the country on injecting drug use and HIV. This can only serve to undermine those efforts in the long term. The immediate concern, however, is for the safety and well-being of those targeted."

But the medium term goal is to persuade the Thai government to embrace not merely the rhetoric of harm reduction, but the practice. That is going to take continuing pressure on the government, and the United Nations needs to step up, said Kaplan.

"We need more high-level action to push the government over to harm reduction," she said. "The World Health Organization and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime don't listen to civil society, so we need governments to step up. It is very important and progressive that Thailand is talking harm reduction, but to actually do it, they need a lot of help."

Thailand

Hemispheric Think Tank Says Time for Drug Policy Rethink

A prestigious Washington, DC-based center for hemispheric policy analysis and discussion, the Inter-American Dialogue, is calling for a refashioning of US drug policy. It demands an end to "the silent tolerance of ineffective, socially harmful laws, institutions, and policies" and has some suggestions as to where to go next.

In a report authored by the Dialogue's Peter Hakim, Rethinking US Drug Policy, the Dialogue said: "The available evidence suggests that in the past two decades, US anti-drug policies have done little to diminish the problems they were designed to address." The report proposed a number of initiatives the US government could undertake to set the stage for a thorough rethinking of US drug policy:

  • Support recent Congressional initiatives to establish House and Senate commissions to review US anti-drug strategies and develop alternative approaches;
  • Join with other nations to organize an inter-governmental task force on narcotics strategy that would review and appraise global drug policies;
  • Revise outdated UN treaties that underpin the international narcotics regime;
  • Expand data collection, analysis, and research on multiple aspects of drug problems and the policies and programs designed to address them; and
  • Identify and scale up successful drug programs that promise to reduce drug addiction and the health risks to addicts, increase the prospects of rehabilitation, and decrease drug related crimes.

The Inter-American Dialogue is holding a public discussion of the report and its recommendations Thursday, 2/10/11 on Capitol Hill.

Washington, DC
United States

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

FDA Approves Once-A-Month Injectable Drug to Fight Opiate Addiction

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Tuesday that it had approved a once-a-month injectable drug for use in treating opiate addiction. The drug, marketed as Vivitrol, is a form of naloxone, an opioid atagonist that blocks the action of opioids on brain cells and is currently used in responding to overdoses.

In approving Vivitrol, the FDA cited a Russian study with 250 heroin addicts that found it reduces relapse rates and blocks cravings for narcotics. In that study, after six months, 86% of subjects taking Vivitrol had stayed off opiates and were functioning in work or school, compared to only 57% who were given a placebo.

Unlike methadone and buprenorphine, which are commonly used in opiate substitution treatments, Vivitrol is not addictive and does not maintain opiate dependency. Additionally, unlike those two substitutes, Vivitrol does not need to be taken daily, but is instead administered monthly via intramuscular injection.

The approval of Vivitrol for opiate addiction is "an important turning point in our approach to treatment," said Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in a statement greeting the FDA announcement.

Nearly 810,000 Americans are addicted to heroin, with more than twice that number using prescription opioids, such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, for non-prescription purposes, Volkow noted.

Washington, DC
United States

Russian Diplomat Takes Over at UN Drug Agency

As of Monday, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is under new management. Russian diplomat Yury Fedotov , who was nominated for the post earlier this year by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, has now taken over the organization that makes up a key part of the global drug prohibition regime. He replaces outgoing UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa.

Yuri Fedotov (courtesy Voice of Russia, ruvr.ru)
The Vienna-based agency, established in 1997, is charged with fighting the illegal drug trade, as well as other international crime, such as corruption and human trafficking. It also publishes annual reports on the global drug scene, as well as regional reports, including annual surveys of Afghan opium poppy production.

"Public health and human rights must be central" to his agency's work, Fedotov said in a statement Monday. "Whether we talk of the victims of human trafficking, communities oppressed by corrupt leaders, unfair criminal justice systems or drug users marginalized by society, we are committed to making a positive difference," he said.

"Drug dependence is a health disorder, and drug users need humane and effective treatment -- not punishment," he added. "Drug treatment should also promote the prevention of HIV."

Harm reductionists and AIDS activists had earlier urged Ki-moon not to appoint Fedotov, pointing to Russia's abysmal record on human rights, the treatment of drug users, and HIV/AIDS prevention. But on Monday, the International Harm Reduction Association told the Associated Press it was willing to give Fedotov a chance based on his early remarks.

"We certainly hope this sets the benchmark for the path he'll be taking," said the association's executive director Rick Lines. "For any public official, they're going to be judged by what they do with the responsibility they're given."

Vienna
Austria

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