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The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]

The new year is upon us and 2011 is now a year for the history books. But we can't let it go without recognizing the biggest global drug policy stories of the year. From the horrors of the Mexican drug wars to the growing clamor over the failures of prohibition, from the poppy fields of Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle to the coca fields of the Andes, from European parliaments to Iranian gallows, drug prohibition and its consequences were big news this year.

Of course, we can't cover it all. We have no room to note the the emergence of West Africa as a transshipment point for South American cocaine bound for Europe's booming user markets, nor the unavailability of opioid pain medications in much of the world; we've given short shrift to the horrors of "drug treatment" in Southeast Asia; and we've barely mentioned the rising popularity of synthetic stimulants in European club scenes, among other drug policy-related issues. We'll be keeping an eye on all of those, but in the meantime, here are our choices for this year's most important global drug policy stories:

The Mexican Drug Wars

militarized US-Mexico border
This month marks the fifth anniversary of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's declaration of war on his country's drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- and five years in, his policy can only be described as a bloody disaster. The death toll stands at somewhere around 45,000 since Calderon sent in the army and the federal police, but that figure doesn't begin to describe the horror of the drug wars, with their gruesome brutality and exemplary violence.

Mexico's drug wars pit the army and the state and federal police against the cartels, the cartels against each other, and different factions of state, local, and federal police, and even different military commands, aligned with various cartels fighting each other in a multi-sided dance of death. All the violence and corruption has had a corrosive effect on Mexicans' perceptions of personal and public safety and security, as well as on its political system.

It has also tarnished the reputation of the Mexican military. After a two-year investigation, Human Rights Watch reported last month credible evidence that the security forces, led by the military, were responsible for 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances and 24 extrajudicial killings in the five states they studied.

And, as the cartels battle each other, the military, and the various police, the violence that was once limited to a handful of border cities has spread to cities across the country. Once relatively peaceful Acapulco has been wracked by cartel violence, and this year, both Veracruz and Monterrey, cities once unaffected by the drug wars, have seen murderous acts of spectacular violence.

Meanwhile, business continues as usual, with drugs flowing north across the US border and voluminous amounts of cash and guns flowing south. Calderon's drug war, which has racked up a $43 billion bill so far (and an additional nearly one billion in US Plan Merida aid), has managed to kill or capture dozens of cartel capos, but has had no discernable impact on the provision of drugs across the border to feed America's voracious appetite. Worse, the attempted crackdown on the cartels has led them to expand their operations to neighboring Central American countries where the state is even weaker than in Mexico. Both Guatemala and Honduras have seen significant acts of violence attributed to the cartels this year, while El Salvador and Nicaragua also complain of the increasing presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

There are, however, a couple of positives to report. First, the carnage may have peaked, or at least reached a plateau. It now appears that the 2011 death toll this year, while tremendously high at around 12,000, didl not exceed last year's 15,000. That would mark the first downturn in the killing since Calderon called out the troops.

Second, the bloody failure of Calderon's drug war is energizing domestic Mexican as well as international calls to end drug prohibition. A strong civil society movement against the drug war and violence has emerged in Mexico and, sadly, the sorrow of Mexico is now Exhibit #1 for critics of drug prohibition around the world.

Afghanistan: Still the World's Drug Crop Capital

anti-opium abuse posters at a drug treatment center in Kabul (photo by the author)
A decade after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on, even as it begins to wind down. And Afghanistan's status as the world's number one opium poppy producer remains unchallenged. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies.

The Afghan poppy crop was down in 2010, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. In 2011, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the area under poppy cultivation increased 7%, but that the expected harvest increased 61% because of better yields and would produce about 5,800 metric tons of opium.

The 2010 blight-related poppy shortage led to price increases, which encouraged farmers to plant more poppy and more than doubled the farm-gate value of the crop from $605 million to more than $1.4 billion. Additional hundreds of millions go to traders and traffickers, some linked to the Taliban, others linked to government officials. Last year, US and NATO forces embarked on counter-drug operations aimed at traders and traffickers, but only those linked to the Taliban.

And it's not just opium. According to the UNODC World Drug Report 2011, Afghanistan is also "among the significant cannabis resin producing countries," producing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 metric tons of hash in 2010, with no reason to think it has changed dramatically in 2011. That brings in somewhere between $85 million and $265 million at the farm gate.

A decade after the US invasion, Afghanistan remains the world's largest opium producer by far and possibly the world's largest cannabis producer. Given the crucial role these drug crops play in the Afghan economy, there is little reason to think anything is going to change anytime soon.

The Return of the Golden Triangle

In 2010's roundup of major international drug stories, we mentioned the reemergence of opium production in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. In 2011, production has accelerated. According to the UNODC's Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2011, opium production has been increasing since 2006, but jumped 16% last year.

The region produced an estimated 638 metric tons this year, of which 91% came from Myanmar, with Laos and Thailand producing the rest. The region is now responsible for about 12% of annual global opium production.

The amount of land under poppy cultivation is still only one-third of what it was at its 1998 peak, but has more than doubled from its low point of 20,000 hectares in 2006. More importantly, estimated total production has rebounded and is now nearly half of what it was in 1998. The UNODC points a finger at chronic food insecurity, weak national governments, and the involvement of government actors, especially in Myanmar.

If Afghanistan does not produce enough opium to satisfy global illicit demand, the countries on the Golden Triangle are standing in the wings, ready to make up the difference.

The Rising Clamor for Legalization

former Mexican president Vicente Fox speaking at the Cato Institute
2011 saw calls for ending drug prohibition growing ever louder and coming from ever more corners of the world. Throughout the year, Latin American leaders, such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and former Mexican President Vicente Fox, have called repeatedly for drug legalization, or at least a serious discussion of it. Although the specifics of their remarks shift over time -- sometimes it's a call for drug legalization, sometimes for marijuana legalization, sometimes for decriminalization -- leaders like Fox and Santos are issuing a clarion call for fundamental change in global drug policies.

That such calls should come from leaders in Colombia and Mexico is no surprise -- those are two of the countries most ravaged by drug prohibition and the violence it fuels. By the fall, even current Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who unleashed Mexico's drug war five years ago, was starting to join the chorus. In an October interview with Time magazine, Calderon said he could never win in Mexico if Americans don't reduce demand or "reduce at least the profits coming from the black market for drugs." While he was unwilling to take the final step and embrace ending prohibition, he added that "I want to see a serious analysis of the alternatives, and one alternative is to explore the different legal regimes about drugs."

But the biggest news in the international battle to end drug prohibition came at mid-year, when the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a star-studded panel of former presidents and prime ministers, public intellectuals, and business magnates, called the global war on drugs "a failure" and urged governments worldwide to should shift from repressive, law-enforcement centered policies to new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, as a means of reducing harm to individuals and society, in a report that drew press attention from around the world.

The commission, heavily salted with Latin American luminaries, grew out of the previous year's Latin American Initiative on Drug Policy and includes some of the same members, including former Brazilian President Henry Cardoso and former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. It is paired with the UK-based Beckley Foundation's Global Initiative for Drug Policy Reform, which launched in November and is eyeing changes in the legal backbone of international drug prohibition, the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and its successor treaties. The global commission also picked up strong support from an organization of Latin American judicial figures, Latin Judges on Drugs and Human Rights, which echoed the commission's call with its own Rome Declaration.

European Reforms

wall paintings near the entrance to Christiania, Copenhagen (wikipedia.org)
Drug reform continued its achingly slow progress in Europe in 2011, with a handful of real advances, as well as a number of parties in various countries taking strong drug reform stands. But while Europe has largely embraced harm reduction and seen the positive results of Portugal's decade-long experiment with drug decriminalization, getting to the take level -- ending drug prohibition -- remains elusive.

In March, Scotland's Liberal Democrats voted to making 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.

In September, their more powerful brethren, the British Liberal Democrats, who are junior partners with the Conservatives in the governing coalition, did them one better by adopting a resolution supporting the decriminalization of drug possession and the regulated distribution of marijuana and calling for an "impact assessment" of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that would provide a venue for considering decriminalization and controlled marijuana sales. That is going to lead to debate in parliament on the issue next year.

In August, the Greek government proposed drug decriminalization in a bill sent to parliament by Justice Minister Miltadis Papioannou. Under the proposed bill, drug possession for personal use would qualify only as "misconduct" instead of a more serious criminal offense. The bill would also guarantee the right to drug treatment, including for people currently imprisoned. People deemed "addict offenders" by the courts would be provided treatment instead of being jailed. But given the other pressing matters before the Greek government, the bill has yet to move.

Probably the most significant actual drug reform achievement in Europe in 2011 was Poland's passage of a law that allows prosecutors to divert drug users into treatment instead of prison. That law went into effect in December. The new law lets prosecutors bypass the courts in a "treat, not punish" approach to drug use when confronted with people arrested in possession of small amounts of drugs. A person arrested with personal use quantities of drugs can now be immediately referred to a therapist, and prosecutors are compelled to gather information on the extent of the person's drug problem. Still, there is an appetite for more reform; a political party that wants legalize soft drugs won 10% of the vote in the October presidential elections.

There has been some movement on marijuana and hints of more to come, as well in 2011. In an otherwise dismal year for weed in the Netherlands (see below), the Dutch high court ruled in April that anyone can grow up to five pot plants without facing criminal charges, no matter how big the harvest. The ruling came after prosecutors went after two different people who produced large multi-pound yields from a handful of plants, arguing that such harvests violated the Dutch five-gram rule. The court disagreed, but said that the pot would have to be turned over to police if they came to the door.

In June, Italy's top court ruled that balcony pot grows are okay, finding that the amounts of pot produced in such grows "could cause no harm." It's a small advance on earlier court rulings, and a step in the right direction.

And then there are moves that are pushing the envelope. Last month, the Copenhagen city council voted to explore how best to legalize and regulate pot sales. The move has the support of the mayor, but has to be approved by the Danish parliament, which has balked at such measures before. Maybe this time will be different. And raising the ante, the Basque parliament is set to approve a new drug law that will regulate marijuana cultivation, distribution, and consumption. The move is being propelled by the health ministry in the autonomous region of Spain, and would be a direct challenge to the UN conventions' ban on legalization.

Medical Marijuana's Slowly Growing Global Acceptance

It comes by dribs and drabs, but it comes.

In Israel, the Cabinet approved guidelines in August that will govern the supply of marijuana for medical and research purposes. In so doing, it explicitly agreed that marijuana does indeed have medical uses. The move came on the heels of a Health Ministry decision the week before  to deal with supply problems by setting up a unit within the department to grow medical marijuana. That unit will begin operating in January 2012. Currently, medical marijuana is supplied by private Israeli growers, but with the number of medical marijuana patients expected to rise from the current 6,000 to 40,000 by 2016, the state is stepping in to help out with supply.

In the Czech Republic, the Ministry of Health said in September it plans to remove marijuana from its list of proscribed substances and allow it to be prescribed by doctors. The ministry said it would move to amend Czech drug laws by the end of the year to allow for the prescription of marijuana by doctors, although we haven't seen that actually happen yet. The ministry must also determine what sort of distribution system to set up. The Israeli model, where the state is licensing medical marijuana farms, is one oft-cited system.

In New Zealand, medical marijuana was on the agenda of the New Zealand Law Commission when it issued a report in May reviewing the country's drug laws. In addition to other drug reform measures, the commission called for clinical trials on medical marijuana "as soon as practicable" and said medical marijuana patients should not be arrested in the meantime. "Given the strong belief of those who already use cannabis for medicinal purposes that it is an effective form of pain relief with fewer harmful side effects than other legally available drugs, we think that the proper moral position is to promote clinical trials as soon as practicable. We recommend that the government consider doing this." The government there does not appear to be eager to follow those recommendations, but the commission report is laying the groundwork for progress.

In Canada, which has an existing medical marijuana program, the news is more mixed. Health Canada is in the process of adopting a "more traditional regulatory role" for the medical marijuana "marketplace, and envisions privatized medical marijuana provision by licensed and strictly regulated grower. That doesn't sit well with a lot of patients and activists because it means Health Canada wants to eliminate patients' ability to grow their own. Nor were patients particularly impressed with Health Canada's earlier attempt to provide privately produced and licensed medical marijuana. Without outright legalization of marijuana being more popular than the Conservative government, Canada may eventually get around to solving its medical marijuana problem by just legalizing it all.

Iran's Drug War Execution Frenzy

drug burn marking International Anti-Drugs Day, Tehran
Iran has garnered itself a well-deserved reputation as one of the world's leading practitioners of the death penalty, but 2011 saw an absolute explosion of death sentences and executions -- the vast majority of them for drug offenses. At the end of January, we reported that Iran had already executed 56 drug offenders for offenses involving more than five kilograms of opium or 30 grams of heroin. As if that weren't enough, in February, the Islamic Republic made trafficking in synthetic drugs, including meth, a capital offense. More than 50 grams (less than two ounces) of meth could bring the death penalty, but only on a second offense.

At the end of May, by which time the execution toll for drug offenses had risen to 126, Iran announced it had 300 drug offenders on death row and lashed out at Western critics, saying if the West was unhappy with the killings, Iran could simply quit enforcing its drug laws.

"The number of executions in Iran is high because 74% of those executed are traffickers in large quantities of opium from Afghanistan bound for European markets," said Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran's Supreme Council for Human Rights, during a press conference that month. "There is an easy way for Iran and that is to close our eyes so drug traffickers can just pass through Iran to anywhere they want to go," he said."The number of executions in Iran would drop 74%. That would be very good for our reputation."

In a December report, Amnesty International condemned Iran's drug executions, saying the Islamic Republic has embarked on "a killing spree of staggering proportions." The London-based human rights group said "at least 488 people have been executed for alleged drug offenses so far in 2011, a nearly threefold increase on the 2009 figures, when Amnesty International recorded at least 166 executions for similar offenses."

"To try to contain their immense drug problem, the Iranian authorities have carried out a killing spree of staggering proportions, when there is no evidence that execution prevents drug smuggling any more effectively than imprisonment," said Amnesty's Interim Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Ann Harrison. "Drug offenses go much of the way to accounting for the steep rise in executions we have seen in the last 18 months," Harrison said.

Amnesty said it began to receive credible reports of a new wave of drug executions in the middle of 2010, including reports of mass executions at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, with one, on August 4, 2010, involving at least 89 people. While Iran officially acknowledged 253 executions in 2010, of which 172 were for drug offenses, Amnesty said it has credible reports of another 300 executions, "the vast majority believed to be for drug-related offenses."

"Ultimately, Iran must abolish the death penalty for all crimes, but stopping the practice of executing drug offenders, which violates international law, would as a first step cut the overall number significantly," said Harrison.

Amnesty also accused Iran of executing people without trial, extracting confessions by torture, failing to notify families -- or sometimes, even inmates -- of impending executions, and mainly executing the poor, members of minority groups, or foreigners, including large numbers of Afghans.

Amnesty noted tartly that Iran receives significant international support in its war on drugs. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has provided $22 million since 2005 to support training for Iranian anti-drug forces, while the European Union is providing $12.3 million for an Iran-based project to strengthen regional anti-drug cooperation. Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, and Japan have all provided anti-drug assistance to Iran via UNODC programs.

"All countries and international organizations helping the Iranian authorities arrest more people for alleged drugs offenses need to take a long hard look at the potential impact of that assistance and what they could do to stop this surge of executions," said Harrison. "They cannot simply look the other way while hundreds of impoverished people are killed each year without fair trials, many only learning their fates a few hours before their deaths."

Iran may be the most egregious offender when it comes to killing drug offenders, but it is by no means the only one. Other countries that not only have the death penalty for drug offenses but actually apply it include China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Human rights activists argue that the death penalty for drug offenses violates the UN Charter. For information on ongoing efforts to curtail the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, visit the International Harm Reduction Association's Death Penalty Project.

In a bit of good news on the death penalty front, in June, India's Bombay High Court struck down a mandatory death penalty for some drug offenses.The regional high court is the equivalent of a US district court of appeals.

"This is a positive development, which signals that courts have also started to recognize principles of harm reduction and human rights in relation to drugs. It is not utopia, but it is a giant step," said Indian Harm Reduction Network head Luke Samson.

"The Court has upheld at the domestic level what has been emphasized for years by international human rights bodies -- capital drug laws that take away judicial discretion are a violation of the rule of law," said Rick Lines, executive director of Harm Reduction International (formerly the International Harm Reduction Association) and author of The Death Penalty for Drug Offenses: A Violation of International Human Rights Law"India's justice system has affirmed that it is entirely unacceptable for such a penalty to be mandatory. This will set a positive precedent for judicial authorities in the region, which is rife with draconian drug laws."

Weekly updates on executions worldwide including for drug offenses are available from the Rome-based group Hands Off Cain.

The Netherlands Will Bar Foreigners from its Cannabis Cafes... and More

a coffee shop in Amsterdam (wikimedia.org)
The Netherlands' conservative coalition government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte continued and deepened its effort to undo Holland's reputation as a marijuana haven and drug tourism destination last year. Plans to ban foreigners from Dutch cannabis cafes reached fruition in 2011, with the Dutch Justice Ministry saying in November that foreigners would be barred from southern border coffee shops effective January 1. A month later, the government announced that plan would be delayed until May, and would go into effect nationwide beginning in 2013. Goodbye, tourist dollars.

But it's not just clamping down on foreigners. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, with local governments putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.). Now, the national government will be limiting their client base to 2,000 card carrying Dutch nationals each.

The national government also rather bizarrely declared in October that it wanted to declare high-potency marijuana a dangerous drug like cocaine or heroin and ban its possession or sale. That hasn't happened yet, but unless the Dutch get around to electing a more progressive government, the Christian Democrats and their allies will continue to work to undo the country's progressive pot policy reputation, not to mention its tourism industry..

North America's Only Supervised Injection Site Gets a Reprieve

Ending a years' long effort by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Steven Harper to close Insite, the Vancouver supervised injection site for hard drug users, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously in September that it should be allowed to stay open.

The Harper government, a foe of harm reduction practices in general and safe inection sites in particular, had argued that the federal drug law took precedence over British Columbia's public health policies. British Columbia and other Insite supporters argued that because Insite is providing a form of health care, its operation is a provincial matter. The federal government's concerns did not outweigh the benefits of Insite, the court said.

"The grave consequences that might result from a lapse in the current constitutional exemption for Insite cannot be ignored," the court said. "Insite has been proven to save lives with no discernible negative impact on the public safety and health objectives of Canada."

Insite has been the only supervised injection site on the North American continent, but in the wake of that ruling, that may not be the case for long. In the wake of the September ruling, Montreal announced plans for four safe injection sites in December. It's not a done deal -- it will require financing from provincial health agencies -- but plans are moving forward. And there are distant rumblings of plans for an effort to get a supervised injection site running in San Francisco, which would be a first for the US, but don't hold your breath on that one.

If the Harper government has been defeated in its effort to kill supervised injection sites, it is moving forward with plans to pass an omnibus crime bill that includes mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, including growing as few as six pot plants. With an absolute majority in a parliamentary system, there seems to be no way to block the bill's passage, which will mean a real step backward for our northern neighbor as it emulates some of our worst penal practices.

Bolivia Challenges the Global Coca Ban

coca leaves drying in warehouse, Ayacucho province (photo by the author)
At the end of June, the Bolivian government of former coca-grower union leader Evo Morales announced it was resigning from the UN 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs because that treaty bans the cultivation of coca. The resignation is effective January 1. The move came after a failed effort last year by Bolivia to amend the treaty to allow for coca cultivation, a traditional activity in the Andes, where the plant has been used as a mild stimulant and hunger suppresser for millennia.

"This is an attempt to keep the cultural and inoffensive practice of coca chewing and to respect human rights, but not just of indigenous people, because this is an ancient practice of all Bolivian people," Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca told the British newspaper The Guardian at the time.

Bolivia will rejoin the convention sometime during the new year, but with the reservation that it does not accept the language proscribing the coca plant.

That move has aroused the concern of the International Narcotics Control Board, which issued a statement saying the international community should reject moves by any country to quit the treaty and return with reservations doing so "would undermine the integrity of the global drug control system."

Of course, there are many people aside from Evo Morales who believe the global drug control system lacks any integrity whatsoever. For those people, the actions of Bolivia represent the first serious effort to begin to undo the legal backbone of the global prohibition system.

Morales himself said last month
that he believes Bolivia will succeed next year. "I am convinced that next year we will win this international 'fight' for the recognition of chewing coca leaves as a tradition of peoples in Latin America, living in the Andes," he  said in an interview with the Bolivian radio station Patria Nueva.

In ending...

Global drug prohibition is under sustained, systemic, and well-deserved attack. It is being attacked (finally) in its core treaties and institutions, it is under ever broader political attack from around the planet; its central precepts are increasingly tattered. Ever year the clamor grows louder in the face of prohibition's screaming failure to accomplish its given ends and the terrible costs it generates. The process of chipping away at drug prohibition is under way. The prohibitionist consensus is crumbling; now comes the struggle to finally kill the beast and replace it with a more sensible, compassionate, and smarter approach to mind-altering substances.

US House Votes to Ban New Synthetic Drugs

The House of Representatives voted last Thursday to pass HR 1254, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011, which would criminalize not only synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), but also synthetic cannabinoids ("fake pot") marketed under names such as "K2" and "Spice."

Spice and other synthetic cannabinoids and stimulants will be banned under the bill passed by the House (wikimedia.org)
The bill passed on a roll call vote of 317-98. Sixteen Republicans joined with 82 Democrats to vote against the prohibitionist measure.

At least 40 states have passed bans on the new synthetic drugs, and the DEA has placed both fake pot and bath salts under emergency bans. The bill would make both sets of substances Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, which would pose substantial impediments to researching them. Scientists have warned Congress that placing the synthetic drugs under Schedule I will have a chilling effect on ongoing efforts to explore treatments for a range of diseases and disorders.

Under the bill, prison sentences of up to 20 years could be imposed for the distribution of even small quantities of the new synthetics.

Seeking some small solace in the wake of the vote, Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which had lobbied to defeat the bill, said it was "significant" that nearly a hundred members of the House had broken with drug war orthodoxy to vote against the bill.

Washington, DC
United States

US House Set to Pass Bad Drug Bills [FEATURE]

Going in the face of an ever-increasing clamor to reform decades of failed drug policies, the US House of Representatives is poised to pass two bills that promise more of the same. The House is set to vote any day now -- the vote was originally set until Wednesday night, but was pushed back -- on HR 1254, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011, which would criminalize not only synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), but also synthetic cannabinoids ("fake pot") marketed under names such as "K2" and "Spice."

"This is almost certain to pass," said Grant Smith, federal affairs coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has been lobbying to try to stop it. "We're doing our best to try to block it, but it's unlikely we will succeed," he said.

The bill foresees prison sentences of up to 20 years for the distribution of small quantities of synthetic drugs. But despite an intense debate in the House Judiciary Committee last month over the bill's implications, it is moving ahead.

At least 40 states have passed bans on the new synthetic drugs, and the DEA has placed both fake weed and bath salts under emergency bans. The bill would make both sets of substances Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, which would make them difficult to research. Scientists have warned Congress that placing synthetic drugs under Schedule I will have a chilling effect on research intended to explore treatments for a range of diseases and disorders.

The bath salts drugs -- primarily methcathinones like mephedrone derived from the khat plant -- have been associated with spectacular bad reactions, including increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, agitation, hallucinations, extreme paranoia and delusions, and some reports of violent behavior. Fake pot has been associated with less dangerous bad reactions, including confusion, nausea and panic attacks.

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

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

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

Horrible drugs or not, evidence from Britain suggests that some people like them quite a bit. According to an August report in the Guardian, which cited recently released scientific research, "Mephedrone is more popular among UK clubbers than ecstasy despite being banned."

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

But Congress was on a different wavelength. In a statement typical of congressional discourse on the issue, in a September hearing, Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA), the sponsor of HB 1254, first listed a number of anecdotal scare stories, then proceeded to warn his colleagues that the drugs were not innocent. "These substances are marketed with innocent sounding names," he said, "but these labels are total misnomers designed to facilitate their legal sale. These drugs have no legitimate medicinal or industrial purposes."

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

The second bill, HR 313, the Drug Trafficker Safe Harbor Elimination Act of 2011, introduced by veteran drug warrior Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) would make it a criminal offense to plan to engage in an activity in another country if that activity would violate US drug laws if committed in the US -- even if that activity is legal in the country where it takes place.

While Smith and other bill supporters say the legislation is aimed at drug traffickers who conspire in the US, opponents point out that it could just as easily be applied to someone who makes plans to attend and partake at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, work at a safe injection site in Vancouver or any of the other 64 cities that have them, or work in a medical marijuana program in Israel. All of those activities are illegal under federal drug laws and thus subject to the purview of the bill.

"Since the war on drugs was declared 40 years ago, the US has spent more than one trillion dollars and arrested tens of millions of Americans for drug law violations, yet drugs are readily available in every community and the problems associated with them continue to mount," said Bill Piper, DPA director of national affairs. "When you're in a hole, you shouldn't just keep digging," he added.

"Facing massive budget deficits, policymakers from both parties should be searching for alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug law offenders, because locking them up is only making us poorer, not safer," said Piper. "The US can't incarcerate its way out of its drug problems and should stop trying. The only way out of the drug war mess is to start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue."

"By rushing to criminalize synthetic drugs, Congress is condemning more Americans to years in prison and ignoring warnings from the scientific community that this bill will hurt medical research," said Smith. "Outright criminalization compromises both public health and safety by shifting demand for synthetic drugs into the criminal market. It would be more effective for Congress to pursue comprehensive drug education and create a regulatory framework to reduce youth access to synthetic drugs. This approach is working for tobacco, which has contributed to more deaths than alcohol and illicit drugs combined."

Washington, DC
United States

Drug Policy Prospects on Capitol Hill This Year [FEATURE]

There are nearly two dozen pieces of drug policy-related legislation pending on Capitol Hill, but given a bitterly divided Congress intently focused on the economic crisis and bipartisan warfare in the run-up to the 2012 election, analysts and activists are glum about the prospects for passing reform bills and even gloomier about the prospects for blocking new prohibitionist bills.

uphill climb for reform this year
But while drug reform in the remainder of the 112th Congress may take on the aspect of slow-moving trench warfare, there is work to be done and progress to be made, advocates interviewed by Drug War Chronicle said. And intensely expressed congressional concern over federal budget deficits could provide opportunities to take aim at the federal drug war gravy train.

Bills to reform drug policy or of relevance to drug policy reform this session run the gamut from hemp legalization, medical marijuana reforms, and marijuana legalization to various sentencing reform and ex-offender re-entry measures, as well as a pair of bills aimed at protecting public housing residents from eviction because a family member commits a drug offense. Also worth mentioning is Sen. Jim Webb's (D-VA) National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2011, which, if it were to pass, would be a feather in the soon-to-be-retiring senator's cap.

On the other side of the issue, the most intense prohibitionist fervor this session is centered around banning new synthetic drugs, with five bills introduced so far to criminalize the possession and trade in either synthetic cannabinoids ("fake weed"), or synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"), or both. Other regressive bills would ban anyone with a drug arrest from owning a gun and require states to drug test welfare recipients. A hearing on welfare drug testing is reportedly coming soon. Conservative Republican-controlled House foreign affairs and national security committees could also see efforts to boost drug war spending in Mexico or other hard-line measures in the name of fighting the cartels.

[To see all the drug policy-related bills introduced so far in Congress, as well as legislation introduced in the states, visit our new Legislative Center.]

While advocates are ready to do battle, the political reality of a deeply divided Congress in the run-up to a presidential election in the midst of deep economic problems means drug policy is not only low on the agenda, but also faces the same Republican House/Democratic Senate gridlock as any other legislation.

"The inertia is not exclusive to sentencing or drug policy reform," said Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project. "Nothing is moving. There is such a deadlock between the House and the Senate and the Republicans and the Democrats in both chambers. I don't think failure to move in this Congress is necessarily a sign of limited interest in reform, but the political fighting means nothing moves."

"The House is passing stuff with no expectation it will pass the Senate," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "The whole Congress right now is in a state of suspended animation, waiting to see whether Obama is reelected or not and whether the Senate goes Republican or not. The gridlock we all see in the headlines around big issues such as taxes and spending filters down to almost every committee and every issue."

And with Republicans in control of the House, the prospects for marijuana law reform in particular are grim in the short term, the former House Judiciary Committee counsel said. "I don't think there is going to be any positive legislative action," Sterling predicted. "The House is not going to take up the medical marijuana bills and it's not going to take up the Frank-Paul legalization bill. They won't even get hearings."

"I don't think any of these marijuana bills will pass with this Congress, but they're very important as placeholders," agreed Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "As long as those bills are out there, we can keep bringing the issue in front of lawmakers and continue to educate them about this."

Even stalled bills provide opportunities for advancement, Sterling concurred. "That's not to say there isn't important education that can be done, and organizing and encouraging members to cosponsor good legislation. They need to be educated. The test of whether the effort is worthwhile or not is whether it can be passed this session," he offered. "The political stars are not lined up.

Jim Webb at 2007 hearing on incarceration (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Medical marijuana legislation in Congress includes a pair of bills aimed at making the financial system friendlier to dispensaries and other medical marijuana-related businesses, as well as a bill that would reschedule marijuana for prescription use:

  • Introduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), H.R. 1984, the Small Business Banking Improvement Act of 2011, would protect financial institutions that accept medical marijuana deposits from federal fines or seizures and having to file "suspicious activity" reports. Such threats have prompted major banks to stop doing business with dispensaries.
  • Introduced by Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), H.R. 1985, the Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2011, would allow dispensaries to deduct expenses like any other business and is designed to avoid unnecessary IRS audits of dispensaries and put an end to a wave of audits already underway.
  • The marijuana rescheduling bill, H.R. 1983, the States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act, would also specifically exempt from federal prosecution people in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. It was introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA).

"We're having our grassroots support all three pieces of legislation, but our primary thrust is H.R. 1983," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "It's tough to get people engaged at the federal level, but we've mounted a social media campaign and want to promote the bill through Facebook and other methods, getting some viral participation in something that should be important for most patients around the country."

Part of the group's difficulty in getting members to focus on Congress is because they are busy fending off assaults at the state and local level, said Hermes. "We've had many instances of state officials doing an about-face on implementation of state laws or further restricting them, so the battleground has become very focused and localized," he noted.

"That takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level, and that's the real tragedy because it's the federal government that's at the root of all the opposition and tension taking place at the local level," Hermes said, pointing to this year's spate of threatening letter from US Attorneys to elected officials. "Having to fight this locally takes energy away from what's going on at the federal level."

Aaron Smith of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the recently formed trade association for marijuana businesses, said his group was focused on the financial bills. "I'm not holding my breath on the Republicans in the House, but the very introduction of these bills is progress," he said. "For the first time, we're actually seeing some of the industry's issues addressed. We think we'll see more traction for these bills than the broader legalization issue. There's already an industry clamoring for regulation, and federal laws are getting in between states and businesses in those states. We will be seeing state officials supporting these reforms. It's hard to write a check to the IRS or state treasuries when you can't have a banking account."

While the association is not predicting passage of the bills this session, it will be working toward that goal, Smith said. "We can get more cosponsors and we will be working to raise awareness of the issue," he said. "Just a year ago, no one even knew about these problems, now they are being addressed, and that's progress in itself."

But Congress is not the only potential source of relief for the industry, Smith said. "It would be helpful if we could get a memo from the Department of the Treasury clarifying that businesses licensed under their respective state laws are not a banking risk," he continued, suggesting that the existence of the bills could help prod Treasury.

While acknowledging the obstacles to reform in the current Congress, Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, was more upbeat about the state of affairs on Capitol Hill. "I'm super-excited about the level of support for the Frank-Paul marijuana legalization bill," he said. "It has 15 cosponsors now, and when you consider that it is completely undoing federal marijuana prohibition, that's pretty remarkable. Three or four years ago, we couldn't even get anybody to introduce it. And I'm also pleasantly surprised by not only the number of cosponsors, but who they are. They include Reps. John Conyers (D-MI), Charlie Rangel (D-NY), and Barbara Lee (D-CA), three important members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and most recently, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a member of the Hispanic caucus."

In the event that the Democrats retake the House in 2013, Conyers would become chair of the House Judiciary Committee again, Piper noted. "We would have a cosponsor of a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition chairing that key committee," he said. Until then, Piper continued, "while the bill is gaining steam, it is unlikely to get a hearing in this Congress."

If the prospects are tough for marijuana reform in the current Congress, they aren't looking much better for sentencing reform, although the budget crisis could provide an opening, Piper said. "I'm not optimistic about sentencing reform, but DPA is advocating that it be added to the package of spending cuts and bills designed to reduce the deficit over the long term. If they're talking about reforming entitlements and the tax code, they should be talking about reducing unsustainable drug war spending," he argued.

The Sentencing Project's Gotsch said that while the Hill would be difficult terrain for the rest of the session, there is progress being made on the sentencing front. "The Sentencing Commission has been very good, and the Department of Justice has responded favorably to Fair Sentencing Act implementation. Justice supported retroactivity on crack, and it has also reversed course on prosecuting crack cases prior to August 2010," she said.

Even in the Congress, there are small signs of progress, she noted. "I am encouraged by things like federal good time expansion included in the Second Chance Act reauthorization. That has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it even picked up one Republican vote. That's good, and that's a discussion we hadn't had before."

What Gotsch is not getting enough of is hearings, she said. "It's disappointing that there hasn't been more activity regarding hearings, but next month, the Sentencing Commission will hopefully release its mandatory minimum sentencing report, and I know the advocacy community will be pushing the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on that."

For Sterling, it is money that is going to move things in the current Congress. "According to the latest Sentencing Commission on federal drug cases, 26% of federal drug cases were marijuana cases," he noted. "With a federal drug supply reduction budget of $15.4 billion, you can argue to the Congress that if you were to pass the Frank-Paul legalization bill, you could save about $4 billion a year."

Sterling is making a similar argument to the deficit-tackling congressional Supercommittee about federal crack cocaine prosecutions. "I argue to them that if they eliminated federal crack cocaine prosecutions, which account for about 20% of federal drug cases, they could save $3.5 billion a year," he said. "Crack is made and sold locally; it shouldn't be a federal case. That should be reserved for people like Mexican cartel leaders."

But while Sterling's argument is logical, he is not sanguine about the prospects. "We could save billions of dollars a year, but I don't think something that gets translated as letting dope dealers out of prison is going to get very far. Still, it's a contemporary argument, and the money is real money. What is clear is that these expenditures are a waste; they're not keeping drugs out of the hands of the community or reducing the crime in the community, and the money could be better spent on something else."

Budget battles offer potential openings to drug reform foes as well. House Republicans are using budget bills to attempt to kill reforms they didn't like, such as opening up federal AIDS funding streams to needle exchange programs, said Hilary McQuie of the Harm Reduction Coalition.

"We have to fight this constantly in the House now," she said. "They're reinserting all these bans; they even put a syringe exchange ban rider in the foreign operations budget bill, so that's a new front, and we can't even fight it in the House. That means we have to make sure the Senate is lined up so these things can be fixed in conference committee. It feels to me like we can't make any progress in Congress right now."

McQuie said, though, that Congress isn't the only game in town. "We're looking less to Congress and more to the regulatory bodies," she said. "Obama's appointments have been pretty good, and just last week we had SAMHSA coming out with guidance to the state about applying for substance abuse block grants. This is the first big piece of money going out with explicit instructions for funding syringe exchange services. Even in this political atmosphere, there are places to fight the fight."

Where the Congress is likely to be proactive on drug policy, it's likely to be moving in the wrong direction. The ongoing panic over new synthetic drugs provides a fine opportunity for politicians to burnish their drug warrior credentials, and legislation to ban them is moving.

"I'm pessimistic about those stupid bills to outlaw Spice and bath salts," said Piper. "One bill to do that just sailed through the House Commerce Committee, and we're hoping it at least goes through Judiciary. The Republicans definitely want to move it, it went through Commerce without a hearing, and no one opposed it," he explained. "But we're working on it. Given that this is the 40th anniversary of the failed war on drugs, why add another drug to the prohibitionist model?"

"Those bills are going to pass," Sterling bluntly predicted. "There may be some quibbling over sentencing, but there's simply no organized constituency to fight it. DPA and the ACLU are concerned about civil liberties, but I don't think that's going to have much of an impact. I'd be very surprised if more than a handful of liberals vote against this."

That may not be such a bad thing, he suggested. "I'm quite willing to say that people who use these things should not be punished, but I'm not sure I want to defend the rights of people to sell unknown chemicals and call them whatever they want," he said.

Even though the evidence of harm from the new synthetics may be thin, it remains compelling, Sterling said, and few legislators are going to stand up in the face of the "urgent" problem. "Even if you argued that these drugs needed to be studied, the rejoinder is that we are facing a crisis. To challenge these bills is asking more courage of our legislators than our system tolerates."

The remainder of the current Congress is unlikely to see significant drug reform, in large part for reasons that have more to do with congressional and presidential politics than with drug policy. But that doesn't mean activists are going to roll over and play dead until 2013.

"People should continue to pressure members of Congress to get on the Frank-Paul legalization bill," urged Piper. "The more cosponsors we get, the more it helps with passing legislation at the state level, and it also helps with getting media on the issue and making it more likely that the bill will get a hearing. That's a top priority for us."

The budget issue also needs to stay highlighted, Piper said. "Whether it's Democrats or Republicans in charge, Congress is going to make cuts, and they should definitely be pressured to cut the drug war. We want the drug war on the chopping block. This is a unique historical opportunity with the recession and the focus on the budget cuts. We have to re-frame the drug war as not only failed, but too expensive to continue."

Washington, DC
United States

DEA Issues Emergency Ban on "Bath Salts" Drugs

The DEA announced September 7 that it was using its emergency scheduling powers to impose a ban on three synthetic stimulants widely marketed as "bath salts." The three drugs are mephedrone, methylone, and 3,4 methyleneoxypyrovalerone (MDPV).

Ivory Wave and other products containing "bath salts" will soon be banned. (image via Wikimedia)
But the ban on bath salts drugs comes as a rising chorus has begun to criticize the prohibitionist approach to new drugs, with European researchers noting that new synthetics have been emerging at a rate of one a week in the past 18 months.

The ban does not go into effect for at least 30 days, after which DEA will publish in the Federal Register a Final Order to ban them for a year, with a possible six-month extension.

The emergency ban makes it illegal to possess or sell the three substances while the DEA and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) conduct further studies to determine whether the substances should be permanently controlled. In the meantime, the emergency order will designate the bath salts drugs as Schedule I controlled substances.

"This imminent action by the DEA demonstrates that there is no tolerance for those who manufacture, distribute, or sell these drugs anywhere in the country, and that those who do will be shut down, arrested, and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," said DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart. "DEA has made it clear we will not hesitate to use our emergency scheduling authority to control these dangerous chemicals that pose a significant and growing threat to our nation."

The bath salts drugs appeared in the US in the last couple of years and are sold under names such as "Ivory Wave," "Vanilla Sky" and "Bliss," but according to reports from poison control centers and hospital emergency rooms, their effects can sometimes be anything but blissful. Reported effects from users seeking help or being transported for medical attention include disorientation, extreme paranoia and violent episodes.

According to the DEA, 33 states have already moved to ban or otherwise regulate the bath salts drugs, and the agency cited "an increasing number of reports" of problems related to the substances as a reason it moved to ban them.

The DEA declared a similar temporary emergency ban on synthetic cannabinoids earlier this year, but a report from the British newspaper The Guardian on Saturday suggested such an approach to new synthetic chemicals may be a losing battle. That article noted that the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction had reported the emergence of 40 new synthetic drugs in the first five months of this year. Many of those reported new drugs were derivatives of methcathinone, as are the three drugs banned Wednesday by the DEA.

Given the plethora of new substances, researchers and analysts told The Guardian that attempting to ban new drugs is not a feasible solution. Instead, they should be studied, regulated, and controlled.According to Paulo Deluca, co-principal investigator at the European Union-funded Psychonaut Research Project, which studies new drug trends, it's becoming hard to even keep up. "It's also becoming very difficult to know exactly how many new compounds there are, because you have all these brand names and when you test the batch they are different from the following one," he said.

Attempts to ban one new substance after another are like "a cat chasing its tail," said Steve Rolles of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. "Each time they ban one, another emerges. It seems to show a blindness to the basic market dynamic, effectively creating a void for backstreet chemists to create another product."

Rolles added that new drugs should be studied and regulated like conventional drugs. "It's just ridiculous, irrational really. If you're not looking at the regulatory options, then you're not following an evidence-based approach -- you are following a political mandate."

But enforcing prohibition is the mandate that the DEA has -- or rather, attempting to enforce it. And as unlikely as they are to succeed at that goal, they are are equally unlikely to ever willingly embrace evidence-based policies, the new ban shows.

Washington, DC
United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington, DC
United States

New Zealand to Ban Synthetic Marijuana This Week

In a shift from an April decision to regulate rather than prohibit synthetic cannabinoids, the government of New Zealand's ruling National Party has moved instead to ban them by the end of this week. It is rushing to amend the Misuse of Drugs Amendments Bill to criminalize some 43 fake weed products currently on store shelves.

Synthetic cannabinoids like Spice will be banned in Kiwiland this week. (image via Wikimedia)
The move will create an emergency 12-month ban while the government crafts a detailed response to the Law Commission's May report on psychoactive substances, which noted that under current New Zealand laws, "a psychoactive substance can be manufactured, imported, and sold without restriction until it is proven harmful and is either regulated or prohibited." The commission called for that burden of proof to be reversed, so that the industry would be required to prove its products are safe.

"We are going to create temporary class drug orders that will allow me to place a 12-month ban on these currently unregulated psychoactive substances and any new ones that come along," Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced. "The bottom line is that these products are generally untested and we do not know the long-term effects of their use and we are not about to just let it all happen and pick up damaged young people at the end."

The cabinet would be "looking carefully at crafting permanent legislation in the foreseeable future," said Prime Minister John Key. "We are not going to stand by while these substances are constantly being created and being made available for sale," he added.

Synthetic cannabinoids, or "cannibimimetics," in the Law Commission's parlance, are synthetic compounds that mimic the action of THC, producing highs similar to that of natural marijuana. The compounds are sprayed on herbal material and sold in corner stores under names like Spice and K2 in the US, although Kronic appears to be a favorite name in Australia and New Zealand.

Under the emergency action, fake marijuana will be carry the same penalties as Class C1 drugs such as marijuana, but mere possession of it will not be a criminal offense.

"We are sending a very strong message that we don't think there is any case for these drugs and we believe they should be taken off the marketplace and we are sending a message to young people that we don't want them taking them," Key said. "It's unacceptable to the government that a product that causes potentially lethal risks is available freely to our young people. If someone's in possession of the products for their own personal use, they could continue to legally use it."

The opposition Labor Party is also supporting the temporary ban. "The government needed to act, you can't have product out there with potentially damaging effects. You should ban the product until they can prove it's safe," party leader Phil Goff told TVNZ's Breakfast Show Monday morning.

But importer Matt Bowden, who seeks regulation of fake marijuana, warned that prohibition would lead to more potent drugs being developed and would create a black market and empower organized crime.

"Prohibition is counterproductive. It's a failed policy which does nothing for consumers," he said. "A black market happens when you make something illegal and there is a high consumer demand. Right now they are available for a couple of weeks, consumers will be stockpiling them.''

Another interested party, Chris Fowlie of the Hempstore, which sells the products, told TV ONE that despite sensational reports in the media, there are no actual scientific, peer-reviewed studies that back up the sometimes lurid accusations of harm.

"Well, they aren't making it up, but they aren't peer reviewed, so for all we know they could be talking about the same person complaining many times, it could be one particular brand causing all the problems, we don't know, so until we have those studies, it's guess work," he said. "The law does say that the classification of drugs does have to be based on evidence, that's built into the misuse of drugs act and Peter Dunne is ignoring that."

Fowlie predicted that the ban will create new problems. "Firstly you will see retailers dumping stock, we for one will be having a big sale to get rid of everything we've got, and you will see new products come out immediately after the ban."

New Zealand

More States Go After Synthetic Drugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Czechs Ban New Synthetic Drugs, Salvia, Ketamine

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

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

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

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

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

Prague
Czech Republic

New Zealand to Regulate Rather Than Prohibit Synthetic Marijuana

The government of New Zealand plans to regulate and restrict access to legal synthetic cannabinoids, government spokesmen said last week. Under the plan, synthetic cannabinoids could not be sold to people under 18, and they would face regulation of their packaging, marketing, and sales.

New Zealand takes a reasoned approach to fake pot. (Image via Wikimedia)
The government is following the advice of the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs, which reviews controlled drugs and other psychoactive substances and recommends how such substances should be classified. The committee found no basis for banning fake pot, but said it was unacceptable for the products to be available without regulation.

Products containing synthetic cannabinoids have appeared in markets worldwide in recent years, typically sold as "incense" under brand names including Spice and K2. A number of European governments have responded by banning the substances, as has the US DEA, which imposed an emergency ban earlier this year.

Americans states have responded similarly, with more than a dozen of them imposing bans before the DEA acted, and moves are afoot in other state legislatures this year to enact more bans. California, however, responded similarly to what is proposed in New Zealand, banning it only for minors.

Under the New Zealand proposal, in addition to the ban on minors, sales would be banned in places where minors gather and there would be restrictions on advertising. Fake pot products would have to be sold in child-resistant containers and would have to be labeled with the synthetic cannabinoids they contain.

Moving synthetic cannabinoids from an unregulated substance to a restricted substance under the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act of 2005 will require parliamentary approval.

Auckland
New Zealand

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