New Synthetic Drugs

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Chronicle AM -- November 15, 2013

The future of medical marijuana under Washington state's legalization scheme remains a hot topic, the DEA is banning more new synthetics, there are contradictory signals from Holland, and more news, too. Let's get to it:

Amsterdam cannabis cafes near schools will have to close during the day, although kids can't go in them anyway. (wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana

Hundreds Pack Washington State Medical Marijuana Meeting. Medical marijuana patients and providers by the hundreds attended a public hearing in Lacey Wednesday, the final day for public comment on state regulators' proposed plans to do away with medical marijuana grows, shutter dispensaries, and reduce the amount of medicine patients may possess. Regulators essentially want to fold the state's medical marijuana program into its new marijuana legalization scheme. Patients and providers are not happy, and they let the regulators know it.

Former New Mexico Medical Marijuana Official to Speak in Iowa. Dr. Steve Jenison, the former medical director of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program, will be in Iowa in coming weeks to make presentations about how the New Mexico program works. His visit comes as pressure to institute medical marijuana in the Hawkeye State is on the rise. Jenison will speak in Iowa City on November 19 and Des Moines on December 2. Click on the link for more details.

Synthetic Drugs

DEA Bans Three More New Synthetic Drugs. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Friday announced it was banning three new synthetic phenethylamines effective immediately. The drugs are 25I-NBOMe, 25C-NBOMe, and 25B-NBOMe, which the DEA describes as powerful psychedelics linked to at least 19 deaths in the US since March 2012. The ban is an emergency ban, placing them on Schedule I for the next two years, while the DEA and the Department of Health and Human Services move to permanently ban them.

International

Amsterdam Cannabis Cafes Near Schools Must Shut Down During the Day. Beginning in January, all Amsterdam cannabis cafes within 250 meters of a secondary school will have to shut down during school hours, Mayor Eberhard van der Laan said Friday. Thirty-one cannabis cafes will be affected, and the cafe operators' association isn't happy. "This cannot be true," the association said. "It's going to cause problems, and distance from a school is a non-issue. This policy is directed at school pupils but the under-18s don't get into a coffee shop anyway because of the tough controls. But our regulars will have to wait until 18.00 hours."

Most Dutch Municipalities Support Legal Marijuana Cultivation for Cannabis Cafes.Two-thirds of Holland's largest municipalities support some form of government-organized or -legalized marijuana production to supply cannabis cafes, NOS TV reported Friday. That would address the country's "back door problem," where retail sales of marijuana are allowed, but a legal supply for cannabis cafes is not. Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten has said he opposes such a move, but has pledged to update parliament on the situation by year's end.

Czech Medical Marijuana Law Leaves Patients without a Legal Supply. The Czech Republic legalized medical marijuana earlier this year, but the estimated 20,000 patients who would be eligible to use it can't get it legally. Fingers are being pointed at the Health Ministry, which opposes it. The ministry banned insurance companies from paying for it, banned its use by people under 18, limited patients to only one ounce a month, and allows only four strains to be imported by Dutch medical marijuana producers -- at very high prices for a low-income country. But even the Dutch medi-weed hasn't arrived -- it may show up in December -- and when it does, pharmacies still won't be able to sell it until an electronic registry is set up.

Bermuda Public Safety Minister Doesn't Rule Out Marijuana Legalization. Bermuda Public Safety Minister Michael Dunkley said Thursday that while he personally opposes marijuana legalization, he has not ruled out the possibility of legalizing the herb there. His remarks came in the context of rising interest in marijuana law reform in the island nation, where a public debate on decriminalization is set to happen soon. This is the first time a Bermudan public safety minister has expressed the slightest openness to legalization.

Bolivia Increases Size of Legal Coca Grows. The Bolivian government Wednesday set the amount of coca to be grown legally for traditional uses at 14,705 hectares, an increase of 2,000 hectares over previous years. The increase is needed to meet demand for coca for traditional uses, according to the Comprehensive Study of the Coca Leaf. But Bolivia cultivates nearly twice as much coca as is envisioned for traditional use.

Chronicle Daily News--November 1, 2013

The big news today is yesterday's surprising appeals court ruling allowing the NYPD to continue stop-and-frisk searches, but there's more as well on marijuana reform, drug testing, and a conference in New Zealand.

NYPD practices stop-and-frisk techniques (nyc.gov/nypd)
Search and Seizure

Federal Appeals Court Blocks Judge's Ruling on NYPD Stop-and-Frisk. The 2nd US Court of Appeals in New York City blocked an order by District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin requiring changes in the NYPD's much criticized stop-and-frisk program. In an unusual move, the appeals court also removed Judge Scheindlin from the case, saying she had violated the code of conduct for federal judges by giving media interviews and publicly responding to criticism of her court. Scheindlin had found that NYPD violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of people by subjecting them to stop-and-frisk searches based on their race.

Drug Testing

Truckers Object to Federal Bill to Allow Hair Drug Tests. A bill pending in Congress, House Resolution 3403, the "Drug Free Commercial Driver Act of 2013," is drawing opposition from an independent trucker group, the association's organ Landline Magazine reports. The bill would allow trucking companies to use hair testing for pre-employment and random drug tests. Currently, federal regulations mandate urine testing and allow hair testing only in conjunction with urine tests, not as a replacement. Hair-based testing can reveal drug use weeks or months prior to the testing date. The independent truckers accuse bill sponsors of carrying water for larger trucking firms that want to undercut their competition.

Marijuana Policy

Colorado to Vote Tuesday on Marijuana Tax. Colorado voters will decide Tuesday whether to impose a 15% excise tax on marijuana sales to pay for school construction and a 10% sales tax to pay for marijuana regulation. The tax vote wasn't included in Amendment 64 because state law requires any new taxes to be approved by the voters. The measure is expected to pass despite opposition from some marijuana activists.

No Pot in Washington Bars, State Regulators Say. The Washington State Liquor Control Board Wednesday filed a draft rule banning any business with a liquor license from allowing on-site marijuana use. The state's pot law already bars public use, including in bars, clubs, and restaurants, but some businesses have tried to find loopholes allowing customers to use on premise, such as by having "private clubs" within the establishment.

DC Marijuana Reform Moves Could Spur Congress to Ponder Legalization. The DC city council appears set to approve decriminalization, and DC marijuana activists are pondering a 2014 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. That could set the stage for Congress to finally turn its sights on federal marijuana legalization, Bloomberg News suggested in this think piece.

One-Fourth of Americans Would Buy Legal Weed, Poll Finds. At least one out of four Americans (26%) said they would buy marijuana at least on "rare occasions" if it were legal, according to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll released Thursday. Only 9% said they buy it on rare occasions now. One out of six (16%) of respondents said they never buy it now, but might if it were legal.

International

New Zealand to Host International Conference on Drug Reform Laws. The country has drawn international attention for its innovative approach to new synthetic drugs—regulating instead of prohibiting them—and will be the site of a March 20, 2014 "Pathway to Reform" conference explaining how the domestic synthetic drug industry began, how the regulatory approach was chosen and how it works. International attendees will include Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann and Amanda Fielding, of Britain's Beckley Foundation.

Florida Attorney General Bans "Crazy Clown" Drug

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi Wednesday filed an emergency rule criminalizing four related synthetic cannabinoid drugs, including one being marketed under the name "Crazy Clown," her office announced in a press release. The emergency move makes the new synthetics Schedule I controlled substances under Florida law.

The four substances are B-PINACA, AB-FUBINACA, ADB-PINACA, and Fluoro ABDICA. They have been tentatively identified as cannabinoid receptor agonists, similar to an earlier round of synthetic cannabinoids that have been marketed under names such as "Spice" and "K2." Those drugs are banned under federal law and are illegal in a number of states as well.

Georgia banned the drugs last month under a synthetic drugs analog law, and now neighboring Florida has moved to do so, too.

The move came after a spate of media reports and law enforcement warnings in August and September about users suffering ill effects from "Crazy Clown," including nausea, vomiting, and violent behavior. But there has been no reported follow-up on those initial accounts.

"I will remain vigilant in my efforts to keep these drugs off store shelves and will continue to outlaw emergent synthetic drug compounds. These drugs pose a serious threat to Floridians, particularly our youth," said Attorney General Bondi.

"While synthetic drugs are marketed as safe alternatives to illegal drugs, make no mistake; these synthetics are dangerous," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. "Adding these four new concoctions to Florida's schedule 1 drug list strengthens our fight. We will continue our efforts with Attorney General Bondi to identify illegal chemicals and react swiftly."

Bondi said she will work with the state legislature to permanently ban them next year.

While Bondi's action is of a piece with the reflexive prohibitionist response to the earlier new synthetics apparent both in Washington and in state houses around the country, banning new synthetic drugs is not the only possible response to them. New Zealand made headlines worldwide when instead of banning them, it moved to regulate new synthetics.

Tallahassee, FL
United States

New Zealand Regulates -- Not Bans -- Synthetic Drugs

Like other countries around the world, New Zealand has been grappling with the rise of the new synthetic drugs, such as the stimulant-type drugs known as "bath salts." Unlike other countries around the world, including the United States, Kiwi lawmakers have responded not by attempting to ban them out of existence, but moving instead to regulate them.

"Bath salts" synthetic drugs (wikipedia.org)
"Regulating psychoactive substances will help protect the health of, and minimize harm to, individuals who use these substances," said the Ministry of Health in support of the bill.

Passed on July 17 and put into effect the following day, the Psychoactive Substance Act of 2013 creates a new government agency, the Psychoactive Substances Regulatory Authority, to ensure that the new synthetics meet safety standards before going to market. The Authority is also charged with developing, implementing, and administering a licensing scheme for researchers, retailers, wholesalers, manufacturers, and importers.

That means that instead of sending in SWAT teams to bust underground synthetic drug labs, New Zealand will allow the drugs to be legally manufactured under strict regulations. But those seeking to manufacture them legally will have to demonstrate that they pose a low risk to consumers, including undergoing rigorous clinical trials to determine toxicity and addictiveness, and subsequent approval by an independent expert advisory committee.

"Simply banning these drugs only incentivizes producers to develop drugs that get around the law -- regardless of what they will do to the people that take them," said Ross Bell, executive director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation. "This model incentivizes producers to develop drugs that are safer. We think that's a much smarter way to go about it."

Under the new law, regulations on the sale and purchase of the new synthetics immediately went into effect, including a ban on sales to people under 18, a ban on sales in convenience stores, and requirements for labeling and packaging, including mandatory health warnings.

"This represents a potentially transformative breakthrough in the legal regulation of drugs that typically have been criminalized with little forethought," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the US Drug Policy Alliance. "It pokes an important hole in the edifice of drug prohibition."

Other countries may be interested in enlarging that hole, the Associated Press reported last week. It cited interest in the New Zealand model among Australian and British parliamentarians and quoted bill sponsor MP Peter Dunne as saying others were interested, too.

"The Hungarians, the Irish, the British, they're all keen to know what we are up to," he said. "It's seen as cutting edge. They want to see how it works, and view it for their own country."

Auckland
New Zealand

The Top Ten Drug Policy Stories of 2012 [FEATURE]

In some ways, 2012 has been a year of dramatic, exciting change in drug policy, as the edifice of global drug prohibition appears to crumble before our eyes. In other ways it is still business as usual in the drug war. Marijuana prohibition is now mortally wounded, but there were still three-quarters of a million pot arrests last year. The American incarceration mania appears to be running its course, but drug arrests continue to outnumber any other category of criminal offense. There is a rising international clamor for a new drug paradigm, but up until now, it's just talk.

The drug prohibition paradigm is trembling, but it hasn't collapsed yet -- we are on the cusp of even more interesting times. Below, we look at the biggest drug policy stories of 2012 and peer a bit into the future:

1. Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana!

Voters in Colorado and Washington punched an enormous and historic hole in the wall of marijuana prohibition in November. While Alaska has for some years allowed limited legal possession in the privacy of one's home, thanks to the privacy provisions of the state constitution, the November elections marked the first time voters in any state have chosen to legalize marijuana. This is an event that has made headlines around the world, and for good reason -- it marks the repudiation of pot prohibition in the very belly of the beast.

And it isn't going away. The federal government may or may not be able to snarl efforts by the two states to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce, but few observers think it can force them to recriminalize marijuana possession. It's now legal to possess up to an ounce in both states and to grow up to six plants in Colorado and -- barring a sudden reversal of political will in Washington or another constitutional amendment in Colorado -- it's going to stay that way. The votes in Colorado and Washington mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition.

2. Nationally, Support for Marijuana Legalization Hits the Tipping Point

If Colorado and Washington are the harbingers of change, the country taken as a whole is not far behind, at least when it comes to public opinion. All year, public opinion polls have showed support for marijuana legalization hovering right around 50%, in line with last fall's Gallup poll that showed steadily climbing support for legalization and support at 50% for the first time. A Gallup poll this month showed a 2% drop in support, down to 48%, but that's within the margin of error for the poll, and it's now a downside outlier.

Four other polls released this month
demonstrate a post-election bump for legalization sentiment. Support for legalization came in at 47%, 51%, 54%, and 57%, including solid majority support in the West and Northeast. The polls also consistently find opposition to legalization strongest among older voters, while younger voters are more inclined to free the weed.

As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it after his survey came up with 51% support for legalization, "This is the first time Quinnipiac University asked this question in its national poll so there is no comparison from earlier years. It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

Caravan for Peace vigil, Brownsville, Texas, August 2012
3. Global Rejection of the Drug War

International calls for alternatives to drug prohibition continued to grow ever louder this year. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the voices for reform took to the stage at global venues such as the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

While calls for a new paradigm came from across the globe, including commissions in Australia and the United Kingdom, this was the year of the Latin American dissidents. With first-hand experience with the high costs of enforcing drug prohibition, regional leaders including Colombian President Santos, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, and even then-Mexican President Calderon all called this spring for serious discussion of alternatives to the drug war, if not outright legalization. No longer was the critique limited to former presidents.

That forced US President Obama to address the topic at the Summit of the Americas and at least acknowledge that "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places" before dismissing legalization as a policy option. But the clamor hasn't gone away -- instead, it has only grown louder -- both at the UN in the fall and especially since two US states legalized marijuana in November.

While not involved in the regional calls for an alternative paradigm, Uruguayan President Mujica made waves with his announcement of plans to legalize the marijuana commerce there (possession was never criminalized). That effort appears at this writing to have hit a bump in the road, but the proposal and the reaction to it only added to the clamor for change.

4. Mexico's Drug War: The Poster Child for Drug Legalization

Mexico's orgy of prohibition-related violence continues unabated with its monstrous death toll somewhere north of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000 during the Calderon sexenio, which ended this month. Despite all the killings, despite Calderon's strategy of targeting cartel capos, despite the massive deployment of the military, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid for the military campaign, the flow of drugs north and guns and money south continues largely unimpeded and Mexico -- and now parts of Central America, as well -- remain in the grip of armed criminals who vie for power with the state itself.

With casualty figures now in the range of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and public safety and security in tatters, Calderon's misbegotten drug war has become a lightning rod for critics of drug prohibition, both at home and around the world. In the international discussion of alternatives to the status quo -- and why we need them -- Mexico is exhibit #1.

And there's no sign things are going to get better any time soon. While Calderon's drug war may well have cost him and his party the presidency (and stunningly returned it to the old ruling party, the PRI, only two elections after it was driven out of office in disgrace), neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.

The Mexican drug wars have also sparked a vibrant and dynamic civil society movement, the Caravan for Peace and Justice, led by poet and grieving father Javier Sicilia. After crisscrossing Mexico last year, Sicilia and his fellow Mexican activists crossed the border this summer for a three-week trek across the US, where their presence drew even more attention to the terrible goings on south of the border.

5. Medical Marijuana Continues to Spread, Though the Feds Fight Back

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and while there was only one new one this year, this has been a year of back-filling. Medical marijuana dispensaries have either opened or are about to open in a number of states where it has been legal for years but delayed by slow or obstinate elected officials (Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, DC) or in states that more recently legalized it (Massachusetts).

None of the newer medical marijuana states are as wide open as California, Colorado, or Montana (until virtual repeal last year), as with each new state, the restrictions seem to grow tighter and the regulation and oversight more onerous and constricting. Perhaps that will protect them from the tender mercies of the Justice Department, which, after two years of benign neglect, changed course last year, undertaking concerted attacks on dispensaries and growers in all three states. That offensive was ongoing throughout 2012, marked by federal prosecutions and medical marijuana providers heading to federal prison in Montana. While federal prosecutions have been less resorted to in California and Colorado, federal raids and asset forfeiture threat campaigns have continued, resulting in the shuttering of dozens of dispensaries in Colorado and hundreds in California. There is no sign of a change of heart at the Justice Department, either.

6. The Number of Drug War Prisoners is Decreasing

The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced recently that the number of people in America's state and federal prisons had declined for the second year in a row at year's end 2011. The number and percentage of drug war prisoners is declining, too. A decade ago, the US had nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges; now that number has declined to a still horrific 330,000 (not including people doing local jail time). And while a decade ago, the percentage of people imprisoned for drug charges was somewhere between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, that percentage has now dropped to 17%.

That decline is mostly attributable to sentencing reforms in the states, which, unlike the federal government, actually have to balance their budgets. Especially as economic hard times kicked in in 2008, spending scarce taxpayer resources on imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders became fiscally and politically less tenable. The passage of the Proposition 36 "three strikes" sentencing reform in California in November, which will keep people from being sentenced to up to life in prison for trivial third offenses, including drug possession, is but the latest example of the trend away from mass incarceration for drug offenses.

The federal government is the exception. While state prison populations declined last year (again), the federal prison population actually increased by 3.1%. With nearly 95,000 drug offenders doing federal time, the feds alone account for almost one-third of all drug war prisoners.

President Obama could exercise his pardon power by granting clemency to drug war prisoners, but it is so far a power he has been loathe to exercise. An excellent first candidate for presidential clemency would be Clarence Aaron, the now middle-aged black man who has spent the past two decades behind bars for his peripheral role in a cocaine deal, but activists in California and elsewhere are also calling for Obama to free some of the medical marijuana providers now languishing in federal prisons. The next few days would be the time for him to act, if he is going to act this year.

7. But the Drug War Juggernaut Keeps On Rolling, Even if Slightly Out of Breath

NYC "stop and frisk" protest of mass marijuana arrests
According to annual arrest data released this summer by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges. The good news is that is a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

But that still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, and no other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

The war on drugs remains big business for law enforcement and prosecutors.

8. And So Does the Call to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients

Oblivious to constitutional considerations or cost-benefit analyses, legislators (almost always Republican) in as many as 30 states introduced bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients, people receiving unemployment benefits, or, in a few cases, anyone receiving any public benefit, including Medicaid recipients. Most would have called for suspicionless drug testing, which runs into problems with that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant or probable cause to undertake a search, while some attempted to get around that obstacle by only requiring drug testing upon suspicion. But that suspicion could be as little as a prior drug record or admitting to drug use during intake screening.

Still, when all the dust had settled, only three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- actually passed drug testing bills, and only Georgia's called for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. Bill sponsors may have been oblivious, but other legislators and stakeholders were not. And the Georgia bill is on hold, while the state waits to see whether the federal courts will strike down the Florida welfare drug testing bill on which it is modeled. That law is currently blocked by a federal judge's temporary injunction.

It wasn't just Republicans. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Roy Tomblin used an executive order to impose drug testing on applicants to the state's worker training program. (This week came reports that only five of more than 500 worker tests came back positive.) And the Democratic leadership in the Congress bowed before Republican pressures and okayed giving states the right to impose drug testing requirements on some unemployment recipients in return for getting an extension of unemployment benefits.

This issue isn't going away. Legislators in several states, including Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have already signaled they will introduce similar bills next year, and that number is likely to increase as solons around the country return to work.

9. The US Bans New Synthetic Drugs

In July, President Obama signed a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The bill targeted 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years. The drugs had previously been banned under emergency action by the DEA.

The federal ban came after more than half the states moved against the new synthetics, which have been linked to a number of side effects ranging from the inconvenient (panic attacks) to the life-threatening. States and localities continue to move against the new drugs, too.

While the federal ban demonstrates that the prohibitionist reflex is still strong, what is significant is the difficulty sponsors had in getting the bill passed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put a personal hold on the bill until mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were removed and also argued that such efforts were the proper purview of the states, not Washington. And for the first time, there were a substantial number of Congress members voting "no" on a bill to create a new drug ban.

10. Harm Reduction Advances by Fits and Starts, At Home and Abroad

Harm reduction practices -- needle exchanges, safer injection sites, and the like -- continued to expand, albeit fitfully, in both the US and around the globe. Faced with a rising number of prescription pain pill overdoses in the US -- they now outnumber auto accident fatalities -- lawmakers in a number of states have embraced "911 Good Samaritan" laws granting immunity from prosecution. Since New Mexico passed the first such law in 2007, nine others have followed. Sadly, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill this year.

Similarly, the use of the opioid antagonist naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and restore normal breathing in minutes, also expanded this year. A CDC report this year that estimated it had saved 10,000 lives will only help spread the word.

There has been movement internationally as well this year, including in some unlikely places. Kenya announced in June that it was handing out 50,000 syringes to injection drug users in a bid to reduce the spread of AIDS, and Colombia announced in the fall plans to open safe consumption rooms for cocaine users in Bogota. That's still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs unanimously supported a resolution calling on the World Health Organization and other international bodies to promote measures to reduce overdose deaths, including the expanded use of naloxone; Greece announced it was embracing harm reduction measures, including handing out needles and condoms, to fight AIDS; long-awaited Canadian research called for an expansion of safe injection sites to Toronto and Ottawa; and Denmark first okayed safe injection sites in June, then announced it is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection. France, too, announced it was going ahead with safe injection sites, which could be open by the time you read this.  

This has been another year of slogging through the mire, with some inspiring victories and some oh-so-hard-fought battles, not all of which we won. But after a century of global drug prohibition, the tide appears to be turning, not least here in the US, prohibition's most powerful proponent. There is a long way to go, but activists and advocates can be forgiven if they feel like they've turned a corner. Now, we can put 2012 to bed and turn our eyes to the year ahead.

Canada Health Ministry Bans "Bath Salts" Drug

The Canadian government has banned MDPV (methylenedioxypyrovalerone), a synthetic stimulant commonly found in "bath salts" drugs. The ban went into effect last Wednesday, the same day it was announced by Health Canada.

now banned in Canada (wikimedia.org)
"Our government is committed to protecting hardworking Canadian families and keeping our streets and communities safe," said Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq in a statement. "That's why we have moved quickly to make the illicit drug known as "bath salts" illegal to possess, traffic, import or export, unless authorized by regulation."

The criminalization of MDPV -- it is now a Schedule I controlled substance, like heroin and cocaine -- had been a promise of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Aglukkaq said in July that regulation was forthcoming.

All activities involving MDPV are now illegal, except for research and scientific activities, which must be authorized by regulation. That means that people seeking to use and distribute it will have to resort to underground markets, something that police spokesmen who lauded the move don't seem to understand.

"Today's announcement by the Government of Canada to add MDPV in Schedule I of the Controlled Drug and Substances Act is an important step in stopping organized criminal groups from acquiring and profiting from this illegal substance," said Staff Inspector Randy Franks of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and Acting Chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Drug Abuse Committee.

But as Marni Soupcoff noted in a National Post op-ed critical of the ban, Franks was both taking credit where it was not due and making unwarranted assumptions about how drug markets work.

"The substance, which is a key ingredient in the drug known as 'bath salts,' was obviously not illegal before the ban," Soupcoff wrote. "So it's circular to credit the ban for stopping the acquisition of something illegal. My bigger problem with the quote is the notion that making a substance illegal stops organized criminals from profiting from it. This is precisely the opposite of how things have gone with alcohol, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana and pretty much every other illicit drug or beverage in history."

Instead of prohibiting a relatively new and uncommon drug, Canada could have gone a more rational, public health-oriented way, Soupcoff suggested.

"What else could Canada have done to try to mitigate harm from MDPV?" she asked. "How about public health and education initiatives? Maybe monitoring MDPV sellers to ensure compliance with existing laws (investigating instances of fraud, false advertising, etc.) and creating open forums for MDPV buyers to report complaints, adverse reactions, etc. Heck, Health Canada could even have formally declared the stuff dangerous, no good, terrible, very bad and to be avoided by those who know what’s good for them."

But instead Canada gets a new addition to its list of banned substances -- and a new, underground criminal market to supply it.

Ottawa, ON
Canada

Obama Signs Synthetic Drug Ban Bill

President Barack Obama Monday signed into law a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The language barring the substances was inserted into the Food and Drug Administration safety bill passed last month by the Congress.

Bye-bye Spice, hello...? (wikimedia.org)
The bill targets 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years.

With their rising popularity came rising reports of emergency room visits and poison control center calls attributed to the drugs. Synthetic cannabinoids have been linked to symptoms similar to those suffered by people who sought medical help after smoking marijuana, while the adverse reactions reported by "bath salts" users have been more serious.

More than half the states and numerous localities have moved to ban some of these new synthetics, and the DEA placed both groups of substances under an emergency ban until Congress acted.

Congressional advocates of the prohibitionist approach to new synthetics were pleased.

"President Obama's swift approval of this federal ban is the final nail in the coffin for the legal sale of bath salts in smoke shops and convenient stores in New York State and throughout the rest of the country," said Schumer in a press release (which also includes a complete list of the 31 banned substances). "This law will close loopholes that have allowed manufacturers to circumvent local and state bans and ensure that you cannot simply cross state lines to find these deadly bath salts, and I'm pleased that after a great deal of effort, it has become law. We have seen bath salts catalyze some of the most heinous crimes in recent months across Upstate New York, and the President's signature ensures that the federal government can fight this scourge with a united front, across state lines and at our borders."

Schumer used the occasion to take a jab at Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who had placed a senatorial hold on the bill, blocking it for months over his concerns about mandatory minimum sentences before removing the hold after the bill's sentencing structure was modified. Schumer gloated that Congress passed the bill "over the strenuous objections" of Paul.

While Schumer and his colleagues claimed the bill will suppress the new synthetics, others were not so certain.

New York state anti-synthetic activist Deirdre Canaday, whose 26-year-old son Aaron Stinson died last year after smoking a form of fake weed called Mr. Nice Guy, told a local TV news station the ban addressed only a handful of potential new synthetic drugs.

"I think if the American public isn't careful, they'll think this issue has been addressed when this is really just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "By specifically labeling chemical compounds, they are creating an open door for these basement and garage chemists to create analogs, which is branching out from the original compound, and differing just slightly, and it still has the same effect," said Canaday.

Washington, DC
United States

Japan to Ban New Synthetic Drugs

The Japanese government will ban four new synthetic drugs in August, according to Japanese press reports. The four drugs are the synthetic cannabinoids JWH-018 and cannabicyclohexanol and the synthetic stimulants mephedrone and MDPV.

mephedrone among new synthetic drugs to be banned in Japan
The synthetic cannabinoids are commonly sold as incense and marketed in the US under brand names like Spice and K2. The synthetic stimulants are commonly sold as plant fertilizer and marketed under names such as Ivory Wave. The two types of synthetic drugs are commonly referred to as "fake pot" and "bath salts," respectively.

The compounds have been banned in the European Union, and numerous states in the US have also taken action to prohibit them. Legislation is pending in the US Congress to ban them as well, and both sets of drugs are currently banned federally under emergency DEA edicts.

The Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will designate the four synthetic drugs as "narcotics" under the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law and is working on a blanket regulation that would allow it to impose the same designation on new drugs with slightly differing chemical compositions but that have similar effects to the banned substances.

Japanese health authorities have reported 114 cases of "health problems" associated with the use of the synthetic drugs, but there is no reporting on how many of those cases were associated with synthetic cannabinoids or how many were associated with synthetic stimulants. The adverse reactions to synthetic stimulants are more severe than those associated with synthetic cannabinoids. Authorities in Japan have also reported a number of cases of people injuring others while driving under the influence of the new synthetics.

Tokyo
Japan

US Senate Passes Synthetic Drug Ban, Without Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate has passed House Resolution 1254, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011, which would federally criminalize the possession, distribution, and manufacture of synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and synthetic stimulants ("bath salts"). The measure has already passed the House, and President Obama is expected to quickly sign it into law.

The synthetic cannabinoids are marketed as "herbal incense" and sold under brand names such as K2 and Spice, while the synthetic stimulants are marketed as "bath salts" and sold under a variety of names, including Ivory Wave and Vanilla Sky. Poison control centers and emergency rooms around the country have reported a sharp increase in synthetic drug incidents in the past two years, with Spice users reporting adverse effects similar to those sometimes reported with marijuana, while bath salts users have suffered more serious adverse effects, including hallucinations, psychotic breaks, and death.

Fake pot or bath salts or both are already banned in a number of states, and more states are considering criminalizing them. Both types of drugs have already been subject to emergency bans by the DEA while its legislatively mandated process for evaluating new drugs proceeds.

A widely publicized incident over the weekend in which a man chewed off parts of another man's face before being shot and killed by police has heightened concerns about the new synthetics, generating headlines like "Miami cannibal zombie-like attack linked to powerful 'bath salts' drug," but at this point, such claims are pure speculation. Police in the case have also posited "a new form of LSD" and "cocaine psychosis" to explain the attack, but any real information will have to await a toxicologist's report.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) had single-handedly blocked passage of the bill for months by placing a senatorial hold on it. Paul objected to harsh mandatory minimum sentences in the bill, as well as to further broadening of the federal war on drugs.

But bill supporters, led by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), resorted to a parliamentary maneuver to get it passed. They quietly attached it to an FDA regulatory bill, which the Senate passed last Wednesday.

Sen. Rand Paul got mandatory minimums removed
Still, Sen. Paul was able to insert language into the bill specifying that the Controlled Substance Act's mandatory minimum 20-year sentence for anyone supplying a drug that causes severe bodily harm or death to a user does not apply to the newly banned synthetics. That's because in order to get the FDA bill approved by Memorial Day, Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who actually sponsored the amendment adding the synthetics to the FDA bill, had to win unanimous consent for his amendment. Paul agreed not to object after Portman inserted the language about the mandatory minimums.

The bill still contains draconian sentencing provisions, including sentences of up to 20 years for a first sale or manufacturing offense and up to 30 years for a subsequent offense.

The bill's sponsors said after the vote that its passage would strike a strong blow against the new synthetics, but industry advocates and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) disagree.

"Let this be a warning to those who make a profit manufacturing and selling killer chemical components to our teens and children: the jig is up," Schumer said in a statement. "This bill closes loopholes that have allowed manufacturers to circumvent local and state bans and ensures that you cannot simply cross state lines to find these deadly synthetic drugs."

"These new designer drugs can kill, and if we don't take action, they are going to become more and more prevalent and put more and more people at risk," Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), another sponsor of the bill said in a statement. "Today's action is good news for this critical legislation to give law enforcement the tools they need to crack down on synthetic drugs before they put more lives in danger, and I will continue to work to ensure these provisions are signed into law."

But the Retail Compliance Association (RCA), which represents smoke shop and convenience store operators and which opposed the bill, pointed out that the bill only bans five chemical families and only names 15 synthetic cannabinoids. Many of those compounds are already off the market, the RCA said, adding that the bill does not include hundreds of additional compounds unrelated to the chemical families banned under it.

"This bill will be touted as banning what law enforcement has deemed 'fake pot,' but it does no such thing; it actually only bans a few of the potential ingredients of these products, by no means the products themselves," said RCA spokesman Dan Francis. "The bill's range of enforcement may well be limited to the specifically named compounds because labs cannot test for chemical families, nor can the police or retailers. The products are tested by many different levels of this industry, and no lab I have spoken with has a test to determine the chemical family," Francis added.

The CBO, for its part, published a cost analysis of the bill in November that found its impact would be minimal.

"Based on information from industry and law enforcement experts, CBO expects that, by the date of the legislation's enactment, most vendors will have largely replaced the banned substances with new products because many states have already passed legislation banning some or all of the compounds listed in the bill and because the DEA has already issued emergency rules temporarily banning five cannabimimetic agents and three synthetic stimulants," the analysis found.

Still, Congress can pat itself on the back for "doing something" about the new synthetic drugs -- whether or not it actually does anything good.

Washington, DC
United States

Australia Bans Synthetic Marijuana

As of Tuesday, synthetic cannabis ("fake weed") products are illegal in Australia. The ban came when the Therapeutic Goods Administration placed eight groups of synthetic cannabinoids and all synthetic cannabinomimetics on the National Medical and Poisons Schedule.

"spice" or K2 packet (wikimedia.org)
Fake weed is already banned in at least 16 countries and an ever-growing number of US states. The DEA issued an emergency ban on the substances last year, but a bill to make that ban permanent has been stalled in Congress by a hold placed on it by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).

Fake weed consists of powdered synthetic cannabinoids, which are then sprayed on herbal matter and marketed under brand names including Kronic, K-2, and Spice. They produce a high similar to marijuana and sometimes create undesired side effects in users similar to those sometimes experienced with marijuana. No deaths in the US have been directly linked to their use.

Possession, manufacture, or sale of fake weed is now a criminal offense in Australia with violators facing fines or jail, including up to 10 years in prison for manufacturing and distribution offenses.

The ban came after police last month called for urgent meetings with public health and drug authorities. The state of Western Australia last year requested consideration of a national ban and had banned fake weed in its territory last year after a spate of highly-publicized hospitalizations of users, but no other Australian state had enacted a ban.

"These products do not appear to have any legitimate therapeutic use and there is a developing international body of evidence and clinical experience that is showing harm related to use of these substances," said Western Australia Mental Health Minister Helen Morton, who had championed the ban there last year. "Removing synthetic cannabinoids from legal supply, sale and possession is expected to result in a significant decrease in consumption and the associated harm related to their use," she told Perth Now.

Ironically, the surge in fake weed use in Western Australia came as the state government there toughened its marijuana laws last year. Prior to the enactment of that law last August, possession of up to 30 grams of pot had been decriminalized, but under the new law, those possessing more than 10 grams face up to two years in prison. The cultivation of up to two plants had also been decriminalized, but is now punishable by up to two years in prison as well.

Canberra
Australia

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