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December 28, 2004

"Rogue" Heroin in Britain

Police in the South Wales region of Great Britain have issued a warning about a "rogue" batch of heroin that has caused adverse reactions to a number of its users, according to BBC News. Jonathan Pincott, a 24-year old, died from what is suspected to be an accidental overdose when he shot up in a hotel room in Tonyrefail. Police are trying to track down the source of the bad batch to take it out of circulation.

British police are doing the right thing by trying to regulate the heroin supply by weeding out "rogue" batches; they are trying to save lives. The problem is, the law defines all heroin as "rogue." Were heroin legal and regulated, bad batches would be nearly unknown, and in the rare instances where a bad batch did come out and hit the stores (note: stores, not the street, an improvement), it would be possible for health authorities or the manufacturer to recall it.

Instead, police have to try to hunt it down in the dispersed criminal underground and seek tips from the public to help them do so. And even if they succeed, it will be too late for Jonathan Pincott, and 24 is too young to go.

BBC News accepts feedback online.

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December 23, 2004

Meth Lab Explodes in Apartment Building

Another meth lab story, this one from the Seattle area: A low-income apartment building in Arlington was evacuated after a methamphetamine lab in one of the units exploded, the Seattle Times reported Wednesday. Authorities believe that much of the building may be contaminated by the chemicals.

We need to get serious about stopping illegal meth labs, but trying to search them out and close them down that way doesn't qualify -- all that does is move the problem from place to place. In another recent story about highway interdiction (that I may comment on in a future post), it was even noted that meth labs often are located inside vehicles. Restricting sales of Sudafed won't do it either, as WBRZ News 2 "The Advocate" in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, reported on in Mississippi.

The only way to get serious about closing down illegal meth labs is to put them out of business by replacing them with legal, regulated producers. Let's do this already -- we just can't have explosions, especially explosions involving dangerous chemicals. We can regulate legalization, but we can't regulate or control the large number of illegal, underground laboratories that move from place to place.

Seattle Times letter to the editor info is online here at the bottom right of the page. The Advocate News accepts letters to the editor too.

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December 21, 2004

Pete Doherty and the Trail of Destruction

A report yesterday by Kirsty Wark for the BBC program Newsnight profiled Pete Doherty, whom Wark describes as a "hugely talented songwriter and poet" and "the creative force behind the Libertines - whose music has been described as 'rock'n'roll for the 21st Century.'" But in August, Doherty was kicked out of the band, just as their second album was coming out, because "his drug addiction [was] so destructive, the rest of the group could no longer take it." Doherty reportedly has very serious problems with heroin and crack cocaine.

Would a saner distribution system -- e.g., a legal one -- and an ending of the criminal status of the addiction make people with those levels of the problem less disruptive? In many cases, yes. In Doherty's case, maybe, maybe not; it's hard to say in any individual case. Certainly Doherty and other addicts would be at less risk of overdose and death. Still, fair enough; if he's causing hell to other people then that is not something that should be soft-pedalled, certainly not for a celebrity who has everything.

That said, the following observation by Wark tells only half the story:

When I asked him about the trail of destruction and violence that accompanies heroin's journey from the poppy fields to his body -- particularly the plight of mainly female drug mules -- I don't think he'd given it any thought.

The other half of the story is have the politicians given much though to their policy -- prohibition -- that together with continued drug use literally causes the existence of the trail of destruction? Ending prohibition won't automatically help the drug mules find other jobs, but at least they won't be pushed into the hands of unethical drug traffickers.

I know I've linked to this in the blog just within the last few days, but it's an important one, of especial relevance to Britain -- Rx Drugs, the 1992 report by 60 Minutes on the Liverpool heroin maintenance clinic, does a great job of illustrating how much of the harmfulness of addiction to heroin including the destructive behavior of some addicts is attributable to prohibition.

Newsnight has a comment page you can use to write to the them. Also, I don't know if there's a way to use it to comment on this story or not, but BBC has a Have Your Say page for viewers to ask questions and participate.

Also on the celebrity topic, and of some relevance to Britain though an American, is Danny Sugerman, manager for The Doors and co-author of the famous Jim Morrison biography, is also author of "Wonderland Avenue: Tales of Glamour and Excess," an absolutely riveting account of his own descent into addiction and eventual touch-and-go recovery. Danny gave Drug War Chronicle an interview four years ago.

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December 20, 2004

Violence in Colombia, Edmonton (Canada), Philadelphia, Utah

From the large and terrible to the small and sad, drug prohibition is costing lives through violence around the globe.

First, a piece by Steven Dudley in today's Miami Herald, distributed by Knight Ridder and hence appearing in other papers as well, reports on a war within the feared "Norte del Valle Cartel," touched off by US extraditions of cartel leaders, which has left over a thousand dead. These thousand are not all big time drug lords -- a cartel has one or a few of those, not a thousand -- and many were doubtless innocent bystanders. Taxi drivers, for example, are among the dead left piled up by the side of the road, according to Dudley's article.

Dudley also does a good job of pointing out how the carnage is all ultimately in vain: "Yet the price of cocaine on U.S. streets continues to drop -- a sign of increasing availability," he writes, and "The only question is: How long will it take for a new [cartel] to emerge?" he quotes Wilson Reyes, a consultant for a Valle del Cauca provincial peace initiative.

In Edmonton, Canada, the Edmonton Sun in an article titled It's All About Drugs reports on the city's 27th and 28th murders this year, a record in the city. Police and criminologists attribute the spike in violence to fierce competition amonst gangs for control of lucrative drug selling turf.

Here in the US, the Philadelphia Daily News reported on the tragic murder of Milton "Shreets" Brown, a 16-year old who decided to leave drug selling behind. But his former associates wouldn't let him, and others were caught in the crossfire too.

And in Utah, KSL-TV, the NBC affiliate based in Salt Lake City, reported on a fight over drugs in the suburb of Lehi had led to a homicide. The victim was the 43-year-old Kenneth Ward.

These kinds of stories frustrate me, because all of these murders occurred only because drugs are illegal. The Norte del Valle Cartel would not exist if drugs were produced and distributed by legitimate business. Drug gangs in Edmonton would not fight over turf if they were replaced by pharmacies or what kinds of stores were licensed to sell the drugs instead. Milton Brown would never have gotten mixed up in drug selling on the criminal market if the drugs were being sold in some legal frameword -- and to those who say that Brown and the people who killed him would have just been doing some other kind of crime, I ask you, where would the money have come from to finance the lifestyle? And while we don't have enough details about the killing of Kenneth Ward to draw conclusions firmly, obviously it is the high cost of drugs, and the time people need to spend in dangerous circumstances to buy them, that makes them something people would be likely to fight over. How many people have been affected, how has the quality of life and the functioning of the economy been damaged, by all of the needless violence? The answer is so obvious -- legalization -- and therefore all the more frustrating.

The Miami Herald accepts letters to the editor via its contact form -- choose "letter to the editor" in the drop down menu. The Edmonton Sun accepts letters via e-mail to [email protected]. I was not able to find letter to the editor information on the Philadelphia Daily News web site, but if any of you can find it please post. The KSL News Room accepts feedback via the web.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

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December 19, 2004

Making Sure Drugs Kill

Reports from Grandville, Michigan, and Petersburg, Virginia, demonstrate how prohibition is a way of making sure drugs kill.

In Grandville, the community is grappling with the tragic death of Matthew McKinney, a 17-year old who had recently been expelled from the alternative Orion High School. The Grand Rapids Press said on Friday that the death appeared to be related to heroin. WXMI-TV reported that the school had held a meeting Thursday for people to talk about what had happened, and said that police believed McKinney had overdosed.

Thousands of people die from heroin overdoses in the US every year. Though it can be difficult to tell in any given case whether legal heroin could have prevented it -- and we don't have enough information on what happened to Matthew McKinney to conclude that -- we do know that prohibition makes overdoses, and other fatal accidents, far more likely. Prohibition does this by eliminating the certainty of dosage that a legally produced drug supply could have. McKinney may have overdosed because the heroin was purer than he thought and therefore more potent. Or, the heroin could have been contaminated with a poison that killed him -- again, something that would virtually never happen with a legal supply. Finally, in a saner, less prohibitionist social climate, it would be more feasible to get people accurate information that could help them -- even those who are addicted -- to at least avoid death, even if they are unable to stop using. Again, we don't have enough information to know for certain that one of these things happened in this particular case, but we do know that thousands of people in this country die every year for these reasons. Matthew McKinney may well have been one of them.

An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch described, among other things, a near tragedy in a similar category. This one was not about an addict or user, at least not so far as we know, though that could have been the case. The story, titled "Drug Activity Persists Despite Arrests," began dramatically:

"Spit it out! Spit it out! You're going to die!" Detective Anthony Patterson yelled to a teenager suspected of hiding drugs in his mouth.

Patterson eventually persuaded the 18-year old to reveal the bag of crack cocaine he had been hiding. He then walked the kid and his brother back to his home and told their mother he wouldn't arrest him if he promised to get his GED or a job.

Officer Patterson sounds like a good man with an enlightened approach to his job. But nothing he could have done would have changed the fact that laws he did not write made the situation an inherently dangerous one. The kid might have swallowed the cocaine regardless of his warnings, and might have died because of it. Because for all he knew, that might have been the only way to avoid doing time -- he had no way to know how compassionately Patterson would deal with him.

Similarly, police presence or the fear of it can play a role in overdoses -- perhaps McKinney's -- this is why harm reductionists and police forces in some cities have explored the idea of not in general sending police when there are reports of overdoses. Do a web search on "heroin overdose police presence" on the Drug Policy Alliance web site for information on this issue.

The Grand Rapids Press has an online news forum where you could start a thread on this topic if you are into it, and you can also send them letter to the editor. The Times-Dispatch opinion page lists information on submitting letters or editorials. Post copies of your work back here.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

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Meth Lab Problems -- Historical Context

Nicolas Eyle of the Syracuse-based organization ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy is a partner in this effort. This is his first entry.

With all the recent press about the methamphetamine problem I think a little background might be helpful in deciding what to do about it. First of all we should be aware that meth was completely legal in America, available without prescription, over the counter, at any pharmacy until 1954. I don't recall hearing of any of these problems then. Why? What has changed?

Were there people who abused meth before 1954? Of course. Did those folks wreak havoc on the environment by dumping the toxic chemicals they used to make the stuff in our streams? No. Why? Because it was made by big drug companies who were regulated and controlled by the government. For the most part they disposed of their waste products in approved ways.

Did those early meth users shoot each other over their black market drug deal disputes? No. Why? Because there was no black market... remember, any adult who wanted it could legally go buy it at the local drugstore.

With such easy availability was there a big problem with amphetamine abuse? Not according to the AMA at the time. They objected to the prohibition of amphetamine.

So what is the cause of our recent problems with this drug? The problem is not actually with the drug itself but with the way we chose to handle the drug. Prohibition creates a violent black market, does not recognize age restrictions on sales, and does not address purity or dose controls or environmental concerns. We've chosen to turn those issues over to the criminals.

Nicolas Eyle, ReconsiDer

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December 18, 2004

Prohibition Drives Addicted Connecticut Couple to Crime

The Connecticut newspaper The Register Citizen reported that a Litchfield couple who committed burglaries and an armed robbery because of the high cost of maintaining their addiction to heroin have been sentenced to hard time. Jennifer Rich and Lee Gary Brewer told police their heroin cost between $70 and $140 per day.

Though one might not want to excuse armed robbery, wouldn't it be better if people like Rich and Brewer were never driven to crime at all? Prohibition is the cause of crime by addicts, because it is prohibition that makes the drugs so expensive because of the risk involved in selling drugs on the black market. Experiences with heroin maintenance programs in Great Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands, even the opiate clinics in the US early last century and methadone maintenance today, all show that addicts tend to cease committing crimes and generally become more responsible people once they gain access to a legal, affordable source. The 1992 60 Minutes report on Liverpool's former heroin maintenance program is very revealing on this point.

Pages on The Register have links you can use to e-mail the editor or reporter or to post your opinion. Feel free to post copies of your letter or correspondence back here.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

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December 17, 2004

Loveable Murphy

The Press-Enterprise in San Bernardino County, California, ran a feature story this morning on Murphy, the county's latest narc, a presumably cute and loveable drug dog who in the last month alone has helped to interdict 67 pounds of drugs and $295,000 of cash that "apparently had passed though the fingers of people who had handled narcotics."

Unfortunately, none of the people involved in this questioned the basic rationale of the strategy -- does it actually make any difference? Not Deputy Heidi Hague, not local fast food mogul Rory Murphy who paid for Murphy's training, not Richard Brooks who wrote the article, and I would guess not Murphy himself.

Drugs are a market. Traffickers in them compensate for these seizures -- which they expect will take place on a regular basis -- by shipping more of their product. Drug prices have generally plummetted over the decades we've been doing interdiction, which means the seizures don't seem to even have succeeded in affecting things that way either.

There's another problem, though. It turns out that a phenomenally high percentage of the paper currency in circulation has traces of drugs on it, particularly cocaine, users of which sometimes use rolled up bills for snorting. For example, in 1999 Thomas Jourdan, the chief of materials and devices at the FBI Laboratory in DC, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that 85-90% of the cash in circulation has measurable amounts of cocaine. Though Jourdan didn't think a properly trained drug dog would react to that level of cocaine presence, but other experts drew cautions.

Clearly a drug dog's reaction to cocaine on a stack of bills does nothing to prove that the person in possession of the currency at that time earned it through an illicit transaction, even if such a transaction took place in the past. So I'm not sure how confident we should be that some of the $295,000 Deputy Hague picked out with Murphy's help was not the legitimately accumulated earnings of wholly innocent people. All of a sudden it doesn't sound so cute anymore.

Let the Press-Enterprise know what you think, and post a copy of your letter back here.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

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Meth Lab Problems -- upstate New York & Humboldt County, California

Methamphetamine reports from two cities yesterday illustrate one of the harmful effects drug prohibition has on the environment. News 10 Now in Syracuse and Newswatch 50 in Watertown, upstate New York, reported that Jefferson County Haz-Mat officials were cleaning up 20 gallons of anhydrous ammonia illegally dumped in Watertown, they suspect as part of a meth lab operation. In Eureka, California, The Times-Standard covered a presentation by Humboldt County's environmental health director on the environmental damage meth labs are causing in the county.

Media tend not to question the blame that officials place on meth lab operators for problems like chemical dumping from meth labs, and that was the case with these three reports. But of course the true story is more complex. Yes, those who dump toxins into the environment are culpable for doing so. But methamphetamine is a schedule II drug that is used in medicine, and other extremely similar substances such as Ritalin are used commonly and widely. Why is that environmental problems are not widely reported from the legal manufacturer of Ritalin or prescription methamphetamine?

Because legally manufactured drugs are produced by legitimate businesses that have to play by society's rules or risk civil or criminal sanctions. Whereas illegal meth manufacturers are already risking heavy prison time. They have no incentive to safeguard the environment, and furthermore they have a strong incentive to dispose of their excess materials as quickly and secretly as they can, to reduce the chances of getting caught with them. So the root cause of meth lab pollution is not the people running the meth labs, it's prohibition of meth.

Perhaps some of our Syracuse friends from the group ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy will comment for us. In the meantime, feel free to send your comments to the Times-Standard, Newswatch 50 and News 10 Now.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

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December 16, 2004

Arkansas arrests

Police in Fort Smith, Arkansas, have arrested 10 drug suspects whom they say were trafficking in methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine. According to Sgt. Jarrard Copeland, the department's public information officer, "We feel like we were successful in making a dent in the drug trafficking problem in Fort Smith," according to the The Times Record.

The media should be asking Sgt. Copeland why he thinks they made a dent. Why shouldn't we expect that users of meth and other drugs in Fort Smith will just procure them from other dealers who haven't been caught? Isn't that what has always happened in the past?

Letters can be sent to [email protected]. They must include name, address, and phone number and should be no more than 300 words. The Times Record "reserves the right to edit letters for length and interest."

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

Posted by dborden725 at 12:41 PM | Comments (1)

Back Home in Indiana

Police officers in Frankfort, Indiana, got into a firefight with a drug suspect early Thursday (12/16/04) after arriving at his home with a search warrant. They found 30 grams of marijuana. Shannon Hollars, aged 42, was shot and hospitalized for surgery. The police officers were shot at by Hollars but not hit.

Fortunately, no one else was hit either. But someone could have been killed -- police, suspect, bystander -- and that person would have been a victim of drug prohibition. Prohibition creates violence; shootouts between suspects and police are just one of the many ways. Hollars might be a bad guy; he certainly was quick to fire a gun at people. But that doesn't help anyone who has gotten shot as a result of the conflict between police and dealers of a substance that is banned but popular. Another reason to legalize drugs.

Suggest to the Indianapolis Star
that they talk about this -- perhaps by quoting representatives of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition in their next drug article.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

Posted by dborden725 at 11:19 AM | Comments (0)

December 15, 2004

ABC and the Philadelphia Inquirer on the big cocaine bust

Another TV station's report on the Philly cocaine bust has crossed the wires, WPVI, the local ABC affiliate, and the Philadelphia Inquirer has weighed in on the bust as well. PVI has some good quotes from the DA and police chief that really illustrate the senselessnes of the drug war pretty well.

First, DA Lynne Abraham said in their press conference:

It's going to disrupt a lot of cocaine distribution in Southwest Philadelphia and the city of Philadelphia.

The bust might have some short-term disruptive effect on cocaine distribution in Philadelphia. But that disruption is just as likely to lead to turf war violence and increased use of other drugs. And if the cocaine flow is really disupted at all, it will be back before very long. It's a market in a popular and lucrative commodity.

Then they quoted Chief Inspector Keith Sadler, referring to the 28-year old black man they had busted, Terry Scruggs, saying:

Our goal is not to let people like this terrorize the neighborhood.

And a resident of the neighborhood named Frankie Ray, referring to the size of the haul, told WPVI:

That's a big cleanup.

I hope that Frankie and his neighbors get some relief. Unfortunately, the most that busts like this can accomplish is to move the trade to some other neighborhood where other people will have to suffer with it. The truth is that only legalization can actually "clean up the streets" from the illicit drug trade -- by replacing it with a licit trade.

By the way, the Inquirer reported that Scruggs had made the US Marshals Service's "15 most wanted" list of violent fugitives nationwide during the year 2000, though he was ultimately acquitted on the two murder charges. I don't know if the acquittals mean that he wasn't guilty or if there just wasn't enough evidence to convict him. Let's assume for the sake of argument that he is the "bad guy" that Sadler and the US Marshals make him out to be. All the more reason for legalization -- to put people like Scruggs out of business.

Send a note to WPVI to let them know their report missed the story's real meaning; and send a letter to the editor to the Inquirer too. Suggest that the papers and stations revisit the Philly cocaine scene in a month or two to see how "disrupted" the cocaine trade is then, and to examine whether any increase in violence or other drug problems follows this bust. Post a copy of your letter back here.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

Posted by dborden725 at 06:46 PM | Comments (0)

Philly crack cocaine bust

KYW-TV in Philadelphia, the CBS affiliate, reported Tuesday (12/14/04) that nearly $4 million of crack cocaine is "off the street" and a suspect is under arrest. District Attorney Lynne Abraham was cited, among other people, calling it one of the largest busts in the city's history. If I remember correctly, Abraham is the DA who slandered Kemba Smith (former mandatory minimum prisoner granted clemency by Clinton) on Nightline. Nice lady (not).

Unfortunately, the quantity or dollar value of cocaine that is "off the street" does not have a lot of relevance to drug use. The important numbers are how much is "on the street" and how much do people on the street and elsewhere want. Just as supermarket chains understand that a certain amount of produce will go bad on the way to market, drug traffickers likewise expect that some of the drugs they are shipping will be seized by authorities. The market adjusts to the prevailing conditions -- suppliers of cocaine will ship enough of it to be able to supply their best customers most of the time. And as Judge Gray has pointed out, the larger the busts get, the greater a degree of failure is indicated.

This report is factual, but it does not ask or imply any of the critical questions. Will KYW go back to DA Abraham or police commissioner Johnson three or six or twelve months from now -- or to other, more neutral parties -- and examine whether the bust made any long-term impact on the price or purity or availability of cocaine in Philadelphia? If -- as decades of experience suggests -- the answer is no, it didn't, will they put anyone on TV who is willing to explicitly point out how this bust and its aftermath illustrate the futility of drug prohibition?

Click here to suggest this to them. And invite them to participate in our "Prohibition and the Media" blog (stopthedrugwar.org/blog/) while you're at it.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

Posted by dborden725 at 01:05 AM | Comments (1)