Heroin

RSS Feed for this category

Two Takes on the Global Drug War and Global Drug Cultures [FEATURE]

America shows signs of emerging from the century-long shadow of drug prohibition, with marijuana leading the way and a psychedelic decriminalization movement rapidly gaining steam. It also seems as if the mass incarceration fever driven by the war on drugs has finally broken, although tens if not hundreds of thousands remain behind bars on drug charges.

As Americans, we are remarkably parochial. We are, we still like to tell ourselves, "the world's only superpower," and we can go about our affairs without overly concerning ourselves about what's going on beyond our borders. But what America does, what America wants and what America demands has impacts far beyond our borders, and the American prohibitionist impulse is no different.

Thanks largely (but not entirely) to a century of American diplomatic pressure, the entire planet has been subsumed by our prohibitionist impulse. A series of United Nations conventions, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, pushed by the US, have put the whole world on lockdown.

We here in the drug war homeland remain largely oblivious to the consequences of our drug policies overseas, whether it's murderous drug cartels in Mexico, murderous cops in the Philippines, barbarous forced drug treatment regimes in Russia and Southeast Asia, exemplary executions in China, or corrupted cops and politicians everywhere. But now, a couple of non-American journalists working independently have produced a pair of volumes that focus on the global drug war like a US Customs X-ray peering deep inside a cargo container. Taken together, the results are illuminating, and the light they shed reveals some very disturbing facts.

Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov and Pills, Powder, and Smoke by Antony Loewenstein both attempt the same feat -- a global portrait of the war on drugs -- and both reach the same conclusion -- that drug prohibition benefits only drug traffickers, fearmongering politicians, and state security apparatuses -- but are miles apart attitudinally and literarily. This makes for two very different, but complementary, books on the same topic.

Loewenstein, an Australian who previously authored Disaster Capitalism and Profits of Doom, is -- duh -- a critic of capitalism who situates the global drug war within an American project of neo-imperial subjugation globally and control over minority populations domestically. His work is solid investigative reporting, leavened with the passion he feels for his subject.

In Pills, Powder, and Smoke, he visits places that rarely make the news but are deeply and negatively impacted by the US-led war on drugs, such as Honduras. Loewenstein opens that chapter with the murder of environmental activist Berta Caceres, which was not directly related to the drug war, but which illustrates the thuggish nature of the Honduran regime -- a regime that emerged after a 2009 coup overthrew the leftist president, a coup justified by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and which has received millions in US anti-drug assistance, mainly in the form of weapons and military equipment.

Honduras doesn't produce any drugs; it's only an accident of geography and the American war on drugs that we even mention the country in the context of global drug prohibition. Back in the 1980s, the administration of Bush the Elder cracked down on cocaine smuggling in the Caribbean, and as traffickers sought to evade that threat, Honduras was perfectly placed to act as a trampoline for cocaine shipments taking an alternative route through Mexico, which incidentally fueled the rise of today's deadly and uber-wealthy Mexican drug cartels.

The drug trade, combined with grinding poverty, huge income inequalities, and few opportunities, has helped turn Honduras into one of the deadliest places on earth, where the police and military kill with impunity, and so do the country's teeming criminal gangs. Loewenstein walks those mean streets -- except for a few neighborhoods even his local fixers deem too dangerous -- talking to activists, human rights workers, the family members of victims, community members, and local journalists to paint a chilling picture. (This is why Hondurans make up a large proportion of those human caravans streaming north to the US border. But unlike Venezuela, where mass flight in the face of violence and economic collapse is routinely condemned as a failure of socialism, you rarely hear any commentators calling the Honduran exodus a failure of capitalism.)

He reexamines one of the DEA's most deadly recent incidents, where four poor, innocent Hondurans were killed by Honduran troops working under DEA supervision in a raid whose parameters were covered up for years by the agency. Loewenstein engaged in extended communication with the DEA agent in charge, as well as with survivors and family members of those killed. Those people report they have never received an apology, not to mention compensation, from the Honduran military -- or from the United States. While the Honduran military fights the drug war with US dollars, Loewenstein shows it and other organs of the Honduran government are also deeply implicated in managing the drug traffic. And news headlines bring his story up to date: Just this month, the current, rightist president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, of meeting with and taking a bribe from a drug trafficker. This comes after his brother, former Honduran Senator Juan Antonio Hernández, was convicted of running tons of cocaine into the United States in a trial that laid bare the bribery, corruption, and complicity of high-level Hondurans in the drug trade, including the president.

Loewenstein also takes us to Guinea-Bissau, a West African country where 70 percent of the population subsists on less than $2 a day and whose biggest export is cashews. Or at least it was cashews. Since the early years of this century, the country has emerged as a leading destination for South American cocaine, which is then re-exported to the insatiable European market.

Plagued by decades of military coups and political instability, the country has never developed, and an Atlantic shoreline suited for mass tourism now serves mainly as a convenient destination for boatloads and planeloads of cocaine. Loewenstein visits hotels whose only clients are drug traffickers and remote fishing villages where the trade is an open secret and a source of jobs. He talks with security officials who frankly admit they have almost no resources to combat the trade, and he traces the route onward to Europe, sometimes carried by Islamic militants.

He also tells the tale of one exemplary drug bust carried out by a DEA SWAT team arguably in Guinean territorial waters that snapped up the country's former Navy minister. The DEA said he was involved in a "narco-terrorist" plot to handle cocaine shipments for Colombia's leftist FARC guerillas, who were designated as "terrorists" by the administration of Bush the Junior in a politically convenient melding of the wars on drugs and terror.

It turns out, though, there were no coke loads, and there was no FARC; there was only a DEA sting operation, with the conspiracy created out of whole cloth. While the case made for some nice headlines and showed the US hard at work fighting drugs, it had no demonstrable impact on the use of West Africa as a cocaine conduit, and it raised serious questions about the degree to which the US can impose its drug war anywhere it chooses.

Loewenstein also writes about Australia, England, and the United States, in each case setting the historical and political context, talking to all kinds of people, and laying bare the hideous cruelties of drug policies that exert their most terrible tolls on the poor and racial minorities. But he also sees glimmers of hope in things such as the movement toward marijuana legalization here and the spread of harm reduction measures in England and Australia.

He gets one niggling thing wrong, though, in his chapter on the US. He converses with Washington, DC, pot activists Alan Amsterdam and Adam Eidinger, the main movers behind DC's successful legalization initiative, but in his reporting on it, he repeatedly refers to DC as a state and once even mistakenly cites a legal marijuana sales figure from Washington state. (There are no legal sales in DC.) Yes, this is a tiny matter, but c'mon, Loewenstein is Australian, and he should know a political entity similar to Canberra, the Australian Capital Territory.

That quibble aside, Loewenstein has made a hardheaded but openhearted contribution to our understanding of the multifaceted malevolence of the never-ending war on drugs. And I didn't even mention his chapter on the Philippines. It's in there, it's as gruesome as you might expect, and it's very chilling reading.

Vorobyov, on the other hand, was born in Russia and emigrated to England as a child. He reached adulthood as a recreational drug user and seller -- until he was arrested on the London Underground and got a two-year sentence for carrying enough Ecstasy to merit a charge of possession with intent to distribute. After that interval, which he says inspired him to write his book, he got his university degree and moved back to Russia, where he picked up a gig at Russia Today before turning his talents to Dopeworld.

Dopeworld is not staid journalism. Instead, it is a twitchy mish-mash, jumping from topic to topic and continent to continent with the flip of a page, tracing the history of alcohol prohibition in the US at one turn, chatting up Japanese drug gangsters at the next, and getting hammered by ayahuasca in yet another. Vorobyov himself describes Dopeworld as "true crime, gonzo, social, historical memoir meets fucked up travel book."

Indeed. He relates his college-boy drug-dealing career with considerable panache. He parties with nihilistic middle-class young people and an opium-smoking cop in Tehran, he cops $7 grams of cocaine in Colombia and tours Pablo Escobar's house with the dead kingpin's brother as a tour guide, he has dinner with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's family in Mexico's Sinaloa state and pronounces them nice people ("really chill"), and he meets up with a vigilante killer in Manila.

Vorobyov openly says the unsayable when it comes to writing about the drug war and drug prohibition: Drugs can be fun! While Loewenstein is pretty much all about the victims, Vorobyov inhabits the global drug culture. You know: Dopeworld. Loewenstein would bemoan the utter futility of a record-breaking seizure of a 12-ton load of cocaine; Vorobyov laments, "that's 12 tons of cocaine that will never be snorted."

Vorobyov is entertaining and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and he brings a former dope dealer's perspective to bear. He's brash and breezy, but like Loewenstein, he's done his homework as well as his journalistic fieldwork, and the result is fascinating. To begin to understand what the war on drugs has done to people and countries around the planet, this pair of books makes an essential introduction. And two gripping reads.

Dopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug Trade by Niko Vorobyov (August 2020, St. Martin's Press, hardcover, 432 pp., $29.99)

Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs by Antony Loewenstein (November 2019, Scribe, paperback, 368 pp., $19.00)

Chronicle AM: Drug Overdoses Declined in 2018, Bernie Sanders Marijuana Legalization Plan, More... (1/30/20)

The CDC reports that drug overdose deaths declined for the first time in decades in 2018, Colombia's coca farmers are increasingly unhappy, Bernie Sanders could use an executive order to legalize marijuana at the federal level, and more.

Bernie Sanders is looking at using an executive order to end federal marijuana prohibition. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Bernie Sanders Could Use Executive Order to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition. Aides to Vermont senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders (I) have presented him with a list of executive orders he could use to unilaterally change federal policies, including one that would direct the Department of Justice to legalize marijuana at the federal level.

Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Advances. A bill that would decriminalize marijuana and hash oil for adults was approved Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The measure, SB 2, now heads to the Finance and Appropriations Committee and, if it passes there, a Senate floor vote.

Cleveland, Ohio, City Council Approves Marijuana Decriminalization. The city council has voted 15-2 to approve a measure that would eliminates fines and jail time for low-level marijuana possession. And it's a pretty high low level: 200 grams. The legislation still needs to be approved by Mayor Frank Jackson (D), who has previously expressed support for it.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

CDC Reports Drug Overdose Deaths Declined in 2018. For the first time this century, overall drug overdose deaths declined in 2018, according to a new report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. The report put the total number of overdose deaths at 67,000 in 2018, down from over 70,000 in 2017, a decline of 4%. But that still makes 2018 the second-worst year for drug overdose deaths in US history. The majority of overdose deaths involved heroin and fentanyl.

Asset Forfeiture

South Carolina Prosecutor to Appeal Circuit Court Judge's Ruling that Civil Asset Forfeiture Law is Unconstitutional. 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson filed notice this week that he intends to appeal a local judge's 2019 ruling that the state's civil asset forfeiture law is unconstitutional under both state and federal law. The move comes a month after Circuit Court Judge Steven John reaffirmed his August ruling. Johns' decision struck down civil asset forfeiture in his district, but the appeal decision would apply statewide.

International

Colombia Coca Farmers Plan Mass Protests as Counternarcotics Strategy Collapses. Coca farmers are demanding the resignation of crop substitution program director Hernando London after he claimed that "coca substitution leaders have not been assassinated." The coca growers' federation says at least 56 community leaders promoting crop substitution programs have been killed since the program began in March 2017. The coca growers said they were fed up with the "bullshit" of President Ivan Duque's administration and would join national strikes set for next month. Duque's anti-coca policy faces collapse if the crop substitution program is not executed because it then cannot resume aerial spraying of coca crops, according to the Constitutional Court. Without voluntary eradication and aerial spraying, only labor-intensive and easily reversed manual eradication could be used -- and 80% of the destroyed crops are replanted.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: IL Supreme Court Takes On Searches Based on Smell of Marijuana, Tom Steyer Drug Policy, More... (1/27/20)

Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer rolls out a progressive criminal justice platform, a Tennessee marijuana legalization bill is filed, and more.

Tom Steyer's platform includes marijuana legalization and opioid decrim. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Illinois Supreme Court to Decide If Smell of Marijuana Justifies Police Search. The state's highest court is pondering whether now that marijuana is legal, if smelling it is justification for police searching someone's vehicle. The case it is hearing occurred in 2017, when marijuana possession was decriminalized but not legalized, but will have even more bearing now. In that case, Decatur police pulled over a man and smelled "raw" marijuana. Even though possession of up to ten grams was no longer a crime -- merely a ticketable offense -- police used the odor of marijuana as probable cause to conduct a search, where they found other contraband and arrested the man. The court is now considering the case after oral arguments.

Tennessee Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. State Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) has filed a legislation to legalize marijuana, SB 1849. The bill would allow for licensed and regulated marijuana cultivation and retail sale, with sales limited to a half-ounce and taxed at 12%. Half the tax revenues would go to education, 30% to infrastructure, and 20% to the general fund. The bill is not scheduled for debate and no companion legislation has been filed in the House.

Drug Policy

Tom Steyer Calls for Marijuana Legalization, Opioid Decriminalization. Democratic presidential contender and billionaire Tom Steyer called for the legalization of marijuana and the decriminalization of opium possession as part of a broader criminal justice reform program released last week. "Tom believes we must end the failed War on Drugs. Based on the flawed idea that incarceration is the answer to addiction, federal and state elected officials passed severe sentencing laws that encouraged incarceration for low-level drug offenses," the plan states. "Unfortunately, communities of color were and continue to be disproportionately affected and targeted by these laws, even when other ethnicities were committing the same drug crimes at the same rates." He also called for ending mandatory minimum sentencing, more drug courts, ending the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and investing $75 million in drug treatment.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: NM MJ Legalization Bill Filed, San Francisco Heroin/Fentanyl ODs Double, More... (1/24/20)

A New Mexico marijuana legalization bill backed by the governor has been filed, Montana activists file a second legalization initiative, San Francisco authorities report a doubling of heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths last year, and more.

Heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths doubled in San Francisco last year. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Sees Second Marijuana Legalization Initiative Filed. The activist group MontanaCan filed a marijuana legalization initiative, Ballot Issue 13, on Monday. That makes two potential legalization initiatives that could be on the ballot in November. The MontanaCan initiative would legalize marijuana for people 18 and up and cap the tax rate at 5%. That contrasts with the New Approach Montana initiative, which sets the age of consumption at 21 and the tax rate at 20%. Both are waiting to be cleared for signature gathering.

New Hampshire Legislature Has Marijuana On Its Mind. As the legislative session gets underway, lawmakers are confronting at least a dozen marijuana bills that have already been filed. Some have to do with medical marijuana, including one that would allow patients to grow their own medicine. Similar legislation has passed the General Assembly in previous years, only to be vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu (R). Also on the agenda is a marijuana legalization bill, HB 1686, which was set for a public hearing Friday. That bill would legalize the possession of up to ¾ ounce of marijuana and the cultivation of up to six plants, but does not envisage a legal commercial market.

New Mexico Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. Reps. Javier Martínez (D-Albuquerque) and Antonio "Moe" Maestas (D-Albuquerque) filed marijuana legalization legislation, HB 160, on Thursday. The bill would create a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce, as well as emphasizing social equity and local entrepreneurship. There would be a 9% excise tax on sales. The bill heads first in the House Consumer & Public Affairs Committee and then in the House Judiciary Committee. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) is pushing for the bill to be passed during the current 30-day legislative session.

Austin, Texas, City Council Walks Away from Marijuana Arrests. The city council approved a resolution Thursday directing city police to not spend city funds on newly necessary lab tests to distinguish marijuana from low-THC hemp. The measure passed unanimously, and effectively ends arrests and prosecutions for small-time pot busts in most cases.

Chicago Housing Authority Relaxes Policy on Evicting Marijuana Users. The Chicago Housing Authority has relaxed its hardline approach to marijuana after the state legalized weed this year. Under federal law, people living in subsidized housing are subject to eviction for any drug law violations, and the CHA last year sent letters to its 63,000 households warning that families could be evicted for marijuana violations. But under pressure from Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), the CHA has revised its policy to now say that each marijuana complaint would lead to "consideration of relevant facts on a case-by-case basis."

Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation Will Vote on Marijuana Legalization in March. Members of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation will vote on legalizing medical and recreational marijuana and allowing alcohol in casinos in May. The move comes after council members voted in favor of a referendum earlier this month.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

San Francisco Opioid Overdose Deaths Doubled Last Year. Preliminary statistics gathered by city officials show that overdose deaths involving heroin, fentanyl, or the two drugs together hit 290 last year, more than double the 134 reported in 2018. Of those 290 deaths, 234 resulted from fentanyl alone. Just a decade ago, the number of city residents who overdosed on fentanyl and/or heroin was only 17. "It's devastating. It's awful. It's the most deadly epidemic that we've seen in our city since the HIV/AIDS crisis was killing thousands of people," said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin district where the opioid crisis has hit the city hardest. "It is painful that this is not something being talked about every day at City Hall."

Drug Testing

Iowa Bill Would Make Cheating on a Drug Test a Crime. A bill that would make it a misdemeanor crime to cheat on a drug or alcohol test in a private-sector workplace has passed its first legislative hurdle, being approved Thursday by a Senate Commerce subcommittee. SSB 3013 is being advanced by business interests concerned about the use of synthetic urine and urine additives to beat drug tests.

Chronicle AM: Federal Marijuana Prosecutions Drop, Drug Czar Touts Reduced Overdoses, More... (1/17/20)

A New Mexico pot legalization bill gets filed, Rhode Island's governor calls for legalization, the drug czar touts a drop in drug overdose deaths, and more.

Federal marijuana prosecutions declined significantly last year, a new report finds. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Federal Prosecutions Decline. Federal marijuana prosecutions declined by 28% from September 30, 2018 to September 30, 2019, according to a report from Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. The year-end report also found that total federal filings for drug crimes was up 5% over the same period, with some 83,000 cases.

New Mexico Legalization Bill Filed. State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D) and Rep. Javier Martinez (D) have filed a bill, Senate Bill 115, that would allow adults in the state to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. The move comes just a day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signaled that she supported legalizing marijuana this year. The bill would also automatically expunge prior possession convictions and promote participation by small and tribal-owned businesses. The bill would not allow home cultivation, but would decriminalize the growing up of to three plants and six seedlings.

Rhode Island Governor Includes Marijuana Legalization Proposal in State Budget Plan. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has included marijuana legalization as a priority in the state budget plan she released Thursday. The plan envisions state-contracted private marijuana retailers with the state controlling location, price, potency, and quantity of sales. Revenues would be divvied up among the state (61%), the private contractors (29%), and local communities (10%). This is the second year Raimondo is including adult-use cannabis legalization in the state budget; she introduced a similar proposal last year, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Drug Czar Touts Decline in Overdose Deaths. Jim Carroll, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), said Friday that the country had seen a decline in drug overdose deaths for the first time in 30 years. "For the first time in almost 30 years, we've seen a decline in the number of Americans dying from an overdose -- it's a 5 percent reduction," he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 70,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2017, with synthetic opioids such as fentanyl being the main driver behind those deaths.

Foreign Policy

US, Mexico Agree on Plan to Reduce Illegal Guns, Drug Trade. The Mexican government said Thursday it had reached agreement with the United States on a plan to combat the illicit trafficking of arms, drugs, and money. The announcement came after a meeting between US Attorney General William Barr and Mexican officials. The two countries said they agreed to cooperate on reducing drug consumption and combating addiction. The agreement came after President Trump threatened in November to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations, prompting Mexican officials to quickly seek talks.

International

Canadian Health Minister Says Time Not Right for Drug Decriminalization. Health Minister Patty Hadju said Thursday that talk about decriminalizing drugs to deal with the country's opioid crisis is premature until people have enough help to fight their addictions. "My personal perspective on decriminalization is that it can't be done in a broad sweep," she said. "I think that having a comprehensive kind of approach that includes things like prevention, treatment, harm reduction, enforcement, housing, those are the kind of things that are actually going to start to move the needle," Hajdu said. "It's too premature to have a conversation about full decriminalization of substances until we get to the place where we have comprehensive support for people to get well."

The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2019 [FEATURE]

As the clock ticks down toward 2020, it's worth taking a moment to look back and reflect on what has gone on in the world of drug policy this year. From marijuana to psychedelics to the lingering overdose crisis to the emergence of a new vaping-related illness, a lot happened. Here are ten of the biggest highs and lows of 2019, in no particular order:

It was a big year for marijuana in Congress. Less so in the states.
1, For the First Time, Marijuana Legalization Wins a Congressional Vote

In November, the House Judiciary Committee made history when it approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3384). The bill would effectively legalize marijuana at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substance Act's drug schedules. It would also require federal courts to expunge prior convictions and conduct resentencing hearings for those still doing federal marijuana time. And it would assess a five percent tax on marijuana sales to create a fund to aid to people and communities most impacted by prohibition.

There's a good chance the MORE Act will get a House floor vote before the end of this Congress, but even if it does, its prospects in Sen. Mitch McConnell's Senate are dim at best. Still, step by step, Congress by Congress, the end of federal marijuana prohibition is drawing nearer.

2. Marijuana Banking Bill Passes the House

In September, the House passed the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to get access to banking and other financial services. The vote was 321-103, with near unanimous support from Democrats, as well as nearly half of Republicans.

The vote came although some civil rights and drug reform groups had called for it to be put off until more comprehensive marijuana or criminal justice reform, such as the MORE Act (see above) could be enacted. They argued that passage of a narrowly targeted financial services bill could erode momentum toward broader reforms. The MORE Act did win a House Judiciary Committee vote, but has yet to get a House floor vote.

And while SAFE passed the House, it must still get through the Senate, where it is not clear whether it will be allowed to a vote, much less whether it can pass. A companion version of SAFE, S.1200, was introduced in April by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and a bipartisan group of 21 original cosponsors. It currently has 33 total cosponsors. In September, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said his committee would take up the cannabis banking issue this year and is working on preparing a new bill, but now it's December and little has happened.

3. Legalization in the States Didn't Have a Great Year

At the beginning of 2019, prospects looked good for as many as a half-dozen states to get legalization bills passed, but the year turned out to largely be a dud. Hopes were especially high in New Jersey and New York, where Democratic governors supported legalization, but it didn't come to pass this year in either state. In Albany, they'll be back at it next year, but in Trenton, it looks like the legislature is going to punt, opting instead to put the issue directly to the voters next year in a legislative referendum.

One state did make it all the way to the finish line: Illinois. After a legalization bill sailed through the legislature in the spring, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it into law in late June. With that signature, Illinois became the first state to create a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce through the legislative process, rather than through a voter initiative. (Vermont's legislature legalized possession and cultivation but not sales in early 2018.)

Getting bills through a state legislature is hard work, and it sometimes takes years. Still, that hard work that didn't quite make it over the top this year, is laying the groundwork for legalization in places like New Jersey and New York -- and maybe more -- next year. And next year is an election year, which means initiative campaigns that can bypass legislative logjams will be in play. There are already active campaigns in Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota and South Dakota, although none have yet qualified for the ballot. Look for 2020 to be a better year when it comes to freeing the weed.

4. Pot Prohibition Isn't Dead Yet: Despite Legalization, Marijuana Arrests Up in Latest FBI Crime Report

In late September, the FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2018, and once again, marijuana arrests were on the rise -- despite legalization in 11 states and DC, and decriminalization in 15 more states. There were some 663,367 marijuana arrests in 2018, up from 659,700 in 2017 and 653,249 in 2017. In all three years, simple possession cases accounted for about nine out of ten pot busts. Before 2016, marijuana arrests had been going down for more than a decade. Clearly, there is still work to do here.

5. US Supreme Court Unanimously Reins in Asset Forfeiture

In a February victory for proponents of civil libertarians, the US Supreme Court ruled in Timbs v. Indiana that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to states, thereby prohibiting state and local governments from collecting excessive fines, fees and forfeitures. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion. "The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government's punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority," Ginsburg wrote. The case involved the seizure of a $42,000 Land Rover over a drug sale of $225.

There was more progress on the asset forfeiture front on the state level, too: Bills to either end civil asset forfeiture entirely or to restrict it passed this year in Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, and North Dakota, and in September, a South Carolina circuit court judge ruled civil asset forfeiture unconstitutional, setting up a fight in state appeals courts there.

6. Thousands of Federal Drug Prisoners Go Free Under First Step Act

President Trump signed the First Step Act into law at the end of last year, but the sentencing reform measure's true impact was felt in July, when the Bureau of Prisons released more than 3,000 prisoners and reduced the sentences of nearly 1,700 more. Almost all of those released were drug offenders. The First Step Act was aimed at redressing harsh sentences for federal prisoners excluded from the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the infamous crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, but which did not include prisoners sentenced before its passage. Three states -- Florida, South Carolina and Virginia -- accounted for a whopping 25 percent of sentence reductions, and more than 90 percent went to African-American men.

A movement to decriminalize natural psychedelics emerged this year. (Greenoid/Flickr)
7. Psychedelic Decriminalization Becomes a Movement

After emerging in 2018, the movement to decriminalize natural psychedelics mushroomed this year. In May, voters in Denver narrowly approved the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Decriminalization Initiative, making clear that they wanted to "deprioritize, to the greatest extent possible, the imposition of criminal penalties on persons 21 years of age and older for the personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms." The measure also "prohibits the city and county of Denver from spending resources on imposing criminal penalties on persons 21 years of age and older for the personal use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms."

That surprise victory sparked interest across the country, and the following month Oakland followed suit, only this time it was the city council -- not the voters -- who decriminalized magic mushrooms and other natural psychedelics. In September, Chicago became the next city to get on board, with the city council unanimously passing an advisory resolution expressing support for research on the potential use of psychoactive plants and pledging support for adult use of the substances. Meanwhile, activists in three more major cities -- Berkeley, Dallas, and Portland -- were pushing psychedelic decriminalization measures, either through ballot initiatives or city council actions. By December, Decriminalize Nature, the group behind the movement, reported that more than 100 cities across the country are now seeing efforts to open up to psychedelics.

And it's not just cities. In two states, psychedelic reformers have filed initiatives aimed at the November 2020 ballot. In the Golden State, the California Psilocybin Mushroom Initiative, which would decriminalize the possession, use, and gifting of magic mushrooms and the chemical compounds -- psilocybin and psilocin -- has been cleared for signature gathering. It has until April 21 to come up with 623,212 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. Just across the border to the north, the Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin, is in the midst of signature gathering. It needs 112,020 valid voter signatures by July 2 to make the ballot. The Oregon measure in October got a nice $150,000 donation from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps.

8. Overdose Deaths Decline Slightly, But Are Still Way Too High

In July, the CDC reported 2018 drug overdose death numbers and found that they had declined from 2017's record high of more than 70,000 to just under 68,000, a five percent decrease. The latest data from CDC, which measured drug deaths in the 12-month period ending in April 2019 showed deaths at 67,000, suggesting that the decline continues, but at a glacial pace. Still, the number of overdose deaths is about seven times higher than it was in 1995, at the start of the prescription opioid epidemic.

The recent decline has been driven by a decrease in heroin and prescription opioid overdoses, although overdoses involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl increased, as did those involving the stimulant drugs cocaine and methamphetamine. Many overdoses involved more than one drug, with benzodiazepines often implicated.

If some researchers are right, fentanyl overdoses could balloon to an even higher level, if distribution of the highly potent substance takes hold in the western US. Most users take fentanyl unknowingly, after it's been used to cut street heroin or counterfeit pills.

9. Vaping-Linked Illness Emerges, Sparking Broad Anti-Vaping Backlash

In the summer, reports of vaping or e-cig users being struck down by a mysterious, lung-damaging condition began to emerge. By the end of October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 1,600 cases of lung-damaged vapors, with the death toll rising to 34. (That number has since risen to 47.) The CDC also gave the condition a name: e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI).

A likely culprit soon emerged: black market THC vaping cartridges contaminated with new additives, particularly thinners including propylene glycol (PG) and polyethylene glycol (PEG), vitamin E acetate, and medium chain triglycerides (MCT oil). The FDA has begun investigating vitamin E acetate, while public health officials in New York have found the substance in a majority of seized vape cartridges there. The FDA also announced in August that it is proposing adding propylene glycol as a "respiratory toxicant" in its list of harmful tobacco product ingredients.

While the CDC and the FDA responded to the outbreak with recommendations targeting the suspect products, elected and public health officials in a number of states responded by going after not black market marijuana vaping cartridges but legal flavored tobacco vaping products.

Massachusetts banned all vaping products, Michigan banned flavored nicotine products, New York banned flavored e-cigarettes, Oregon banned all flavored vaping products for six months, as did Rhode Island, while Washingtonissued a four-month ban on flavored vaping products. President Trump threatened to move toward a national ban on flavored vaping products, but has since changed course, even making an anti-prohibitionist argument to do so.

In its latest update, the CDC reports the number of EVALI cases has risen to nearly 2,300 and the death toll has climbed to 47. But unlike those state governments that reacted with flavored vaping bans, the CDC takes a different approach: It points the finger strongly at vitamin E acetate, recommends that people not use THC vaping products at this point -- especially if obtained informally or in the black market -- and also warns people not to add any products to vaping cartridges that are not intended by the manufacturer.

10. Safe Injection Sites Win an Important Preliminary Legal Battle

In a case involving a proposed safe injection site in Philadelphia, a federal judge ruled that it would not violate federal law. With the backing of city officials and former Gov. Ed Rendell (D), the nonprofit group Safehouse pressed forward with plans for the facility even though the Justice Department had warned that it would not allow any safe injection sites to move forward. The Justice Department sued in February to halt the project, arguing that it violated the federal "crack house law."

But US District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that the "crack house" provision of the Controlled Substances Act does not apply to the group's bid to assist opioid users. "No credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were within the contemplation of Congress" when that body wrote the law in 1986 or amended it in 2003, McHugh wrote. "I cannot conclude that Safehouse [the safe injection site] has, as a significant purpose, the objective of facilitating drug use. Safehouse plans to make a place available for the purposes of reducing the harm of drug use, administering medical care, encouraging drug treatment and connecting participants with social services."

While the Justice Department has appealed the ruling, it is a good omen, and the case is being carefully watched in cities such as Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, all of which are pursuing similar plans.

Chronicle AM: Mexico Legalization Deadline Looms, State AGs Urge Support for Fed Marijuana Bill, More... (9/24/19)

More than 20 state attorneys general have urged congressional leaders to pass legislation to protect state-legal marijuana, Mexico faces a deadline to legalize marijuana, Canadian researchers recommend providing prescription heroin to hard-core addicts, and more.

Under a Supreme Court ruling, the Mexican congress has one month to pass a marijuana legalization bill. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

21 State Attorneys General Urge Congress to Protect State Marijuana Programs from Federal Interference. Attorneys general from 21 states sent a letter Monday to congressional leaders urging support for the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act (HR 2093), which would shield state-legal marijuana programs from federal interference. Attorneys general from Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Washington, DC, signed the letter.

Pennsylvania Court Rules Odor of Marijuana No Longer Probable Cause for Traffic Searches. A Lehigh County judge has ruled that since medical marijuana is now legal in the state, the mere presence of a "strong odor" of marijuana does not provide probable cause for a vehicle search. Judge Maria Dantos ruled that because police lacked probable cause for a search, a small amount of marijuana and a weapon found during the search was inadmissible as evidence of a crime. The state is appealing to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

International

Canadian Research Group Recommends Giving Addicts Medical-Grade Heroin. Guidelines published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal recommend that health-care providers offer injectable medical-grade heroin or another prescription opioid to severely addicted users who have proven resistant to other treatment modalities. The recommendations call for the use of injectable diacetylmorphine (prescription heroin) or hydrocodone for patients who have not responded to the most effective oral treatments, methadone and buprenorphine.

Mexico Has One Month to Legalize Marijuana. A Supreme Court-ordered deadline to legalize marijuana is now only one month away, and the country's congress is now pondering 10 different bills that would do just that. One of those bills is drawing concern from activists. It would not change the legal status quo, but would instruct the health ministry to give permits for self-consumption, thereby complying with the Supreme Court ruling, but not completely legalizing marijuana. Mexico must act on one of these bills by Oct. 24.

Chronicle AM: Beto Says Use MJ Taxes for Drug War Reparations, Yang Says Decriminalize Opiates, More... (9/19/19)

Democratic presidential contenders make dramatic policy proposals, DC loosens up on marijuana, Michigan lawmakers move toward sentencing reform, and more.

Beto O'Rourke wants to legalize marijuana and use the taxes to pay drug war victims. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Beto O'Rourke Proposes Drug War Reparations Funded by Marijuana Taxes. Democratic presidential contender Beto O'Rourke on Thursday proposed legalizing marijuana and using the tax revenues to make direct payments for former drug war prisoners through a "Drug War Justice Grant" program. "We need to not only end the prohibition on marijuana, but also repair the damage done to the communities of color disproportionately locked up in our criminal justice system or locked out of opportunity because of the War on Drugs," ​O'Rourke said in a press release.​ "These inequalities have compounded for decades, as predominantly white communities have been given the vast majority of lucrative business opportunities, while communities of color still face over-policing and criminalization. It's our responsibility to begin to remedy the injustices of the past and help the people and communities most impacted by this misguided war."

DC City Employees Free to Use Marijuana on Own Time. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) issued a mayoral order Wednesday notifying District municipal workers that marijuana use can no longer prevent either getting a government job or keeping one. Some safety-sensitive workers, such as police, are still barred from using marijuana, but now, city agencies can no longer create their own policies and instead must restrict marijuana use only by employees who fit into such categories.

Medical Marijuana

New Hampshire is One Step Closer to Legalizing Medical Home Growing. The state House voted Wednesday to override Gov. Chris Sununu's (R) veto of HB 364, which would allow qualified patients to grow up to three mature plants and 12 seedlings. The Senate was expected to take up the issue Thursday.

Medical Marijuana Patients Will Be Able to Get Treatment in DC Schools Under Emergency Legislation. The DC city council on Tuesday passed emergency legislation to allow students enrolled in District schools to use medical marijuana at school. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) plans to sign the bill shortly. The emergency legislation would take effect for 90 days after the Mayor's signature.

Drug Policy

Andrew Yang Calls for Decriminalization of Opiates. Democratic presidential contender Andrew Yang said Wednesday he would decriminalize the possession of opiates for personal use if elected president. "In addition to decriminalizing marijuana, I would decriminalize opiates for personal use," Yang said, noting that this would include heroin. [Ed: One way that criminalization of opiates increases harm is that when addicted users are incarcerated and then get out, some of them return to using, but with lower tolerance levels than they had before. If they don't realize that, they may take doses that their bodies could handle before, but can kill them now.]

Sentencing Policy

Michigan Sentencing Reform Package Rolled Out. Lawmakers and ACLU officials stood together Wednesday to roll out a new bipartisan plan for sentencing reform. The proposed bill package, introduced by state Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington), state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), is aimed at overhauling the state's mandatory minimum sentencing laws "It's quite simple: We don't have a problem with crime. We have a problem with incarceration," Santana said. The number of inmates in the state increased by 13,000 during the administration of former Gov. John Engler (R).

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Why Are Meth- and Cocaine-Related Overdose Deaths on the Increase? [FEATURE]

August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, overdoseday.com
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released provisional data indicating that the country's overdose crisis peaked in late 2017 and actually declined by 5.1 percent between then and late 2018. While that is long-awaited good news, it's not great news: The annual number of drug overdose deaths was still more than 68,000, and that number is still more than a third higher than in 2014, when the overdose epidemic was already well underway.

The fever may have broken, but the patient is still in critical condition. And there is one bit of data in the CDC report that is definitely not good news: While overall overdose deaths finally began to decline, overdose deaths involving stimulants were on the increase. For cocaine, the death toll started rising in about 2012; for psychostimulants (overwhelmingly methamphetamine), the climb began a couple of years earlier.

But the new data show a dramatic uptick in overdose deaths with stimulant involvement last year. Fatal overdoses where cocaine was mentioned were up 34 percent and those where methamphetamine was involved were up 37 percent. That's more than 14,000 people dying with cocaine in their systems and more than 10,000 dying with meth in their systems.

What is driving this spike in stimulant-involved overdose deaths? Some of it can be attributed to rising use levels for cocaine and meth, which can in turn be linked to increased supplies. Meth seizures were up dramatically last year and recent DEA reports suggest that cocaine availability has increased steadily since 2012, particularly in the south and east coast of the US. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime suggests that cocaine production and manufacture are at the highest rates ever recorded.

"There is some research to suggest that we are seeing slightly higher rates of recent cocaine and methamphetamine use compared to rates of use just a few years ago," said Sheila Vakharia, PhD, a researcher with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "But increased rates of use do not always mean increased rates of addiction or overdose. Death rates are influenced by a variety of factors, including age of the user, the amount used, and other substances used, among other things."

They are also influenced by race, gender, and geographic location. A recent study looking at data from 2012 to 2015 and examining race and gender trends by drug found that white men had the highest rates of methamphetamine-involved overdose deaths more generally, while black men had highest rates of cocaine-involved overdose deaths. These racial differences persisted for women of each race as well, although their overdose rates were lower than the men in their racial groups.

"Methamphetamine-involved deaths are high on the West Coast and Midwest, while cocaine-involved deaths are high on the East Coast. We are actually seeing that in some Western states that methamphetamine is either the top drug involved in overdose deaths or among the top drugs included in overdose deaths," Vakharia noted.

"Based on the latest CDC data, Nevada’s overdose crisis has been driven by prescription opioids and methamphetamine for the past several years- in fact, methamphetamine has been the #1 drug involved in overdoses there since November 2016. Similarly, in November 2016, Oregon saw methamphetamine become the top drug involved in overdose deaths," she specified.

"Meanwhile, the East Coast is seeing the involvement of cocaine in overdoses increase as well. While no eastern state has cocaine driving their overdose crisis, places like DC are seeing fentanyl as the top driver of deaths followed by cocaine. Last year, while fentanyl contributed to the majority of overdose deaths, there were more cocaine-involved deaths than heroin or prescription opioids," Vakharia added.

It appears that it is not rising simulant use rates but the use of multiple substances that is largely driving the overall stimulant death toll upwards. A CDC report from May suggests that, from 2003 to 2017, almost three-quarters of cocaine-involved deaths involved an opioid while half of all methamphetamine involved deaths involved an opioid.

"Those CDC numbers are based on autopsy reports," said Daniel Raymond, deputy director of planning and policy for the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC). "In a lot of cases, there are multiple drugs involved, and just because an overdose involves a stimulant, it doesn't mean it was caused by stimulants."

Overdose deaths caused by stimulants look different from those caused by opioids, Raymond noted: "Fatal stimulant overdoses come from strokes, seizures, heart attacks, and potentially overheating," he said. "It's not like an opioid overdose with respiratory depression," he said.

"Some of this may be more a reflection that we still have lots of people dying from opioid-related overdoses, and it's just that more of them are also taking meth or cocaine, but the primary cause of death is the respiratory depression associated with opioid overdoses. In a lot of the cocaine deaths, medical examiners are finding both cocaine and opioids."

"We are seeing that toxicology reports of people who died with stimulants in their systems also had fentanyl or other opioids in their system," DPA's Vakharia concurred. She then listed a number of possible explanations:

  1. "This is accidental. Cross-contamination of a stimulant with an opioid like fentanyl could have been accidental and occurred during transport or packaging, and opioid-naïve stimulant users were accidentally exposed to opioid-contaminated stimulants."
  2. "This is due to co-use of opioids and stimulants in the form of speedballs (with cocaine) or goofballs (with methamphetamine), where both are used together for the desired effect of immediately stimulating high, followed by the euphoria of the opioid."
  3. "Stimulants are being willfully adulterated with opioids by suppliers/sellers, and stimulant users naïve to opioids are overdosing because they have no tolerance. (We at DPA dispute this theory, because it makes little sense why a seller would want to kill off a customer.)
  4. "Someone might have used a stimulant and opioids at different times within the past few days, but their toxicology could be showing the recency of use."

What Is to Be Done?

The Drug Policy Alliance and the Harm Reduction Coalition have both released reports on the rise in stimulant-involved overdose deaths, Stimulant Use: Harm Reduction, Treatment, and Future Directions from the former and Cocaine, Speed, and "Overdose": What Should We Be Doing? from the latter. Raymond and Vakharia took a few minutes to address those topics, too.

"There is no naloxone for stimulant overdose," Raymond pointed out. To reduce those overdoses "is about developing harm reduction strategies and outreach specifically targeting stimulant users," he said. "We spend so much time focusing on the opioid overdose crisis that our messages are oriented toward that. If we want to start a conversation, we need to not just tack it onto the opioid messaging. Even if you're not an opioid user, we want to talk about symptoms and warning signs."

HRC has moved in that direction, said Raymond. "We did some work on stimulant overdoses, we talked to a lot of people who used stimulants, we put out a guide -- Stimulant "Overamping”"Basics -- and went with the terms people used. Using 'overamping' opened a space for conversation for people who didn't identify as heroin users. If you talk overamping instead of overdosing, stimulant users have had that experience of using too much. Part of it is really just listening to the people who use the drugs. In harm reduction, we learn from the people we work with."

"People who use stimulants need access to sterile equipment beyond syringes, since many stimulant users smoke, so we are talking about sterile smoking equipment like pipes and filters," Vakharia said. "We need to teach users how to stay safe while using -- make sure to take breaks for hydration and to eat, get enough rest. It is easy to lose track of time when you've been up for days and when you have no appetite. This also puts undue stress on your heart and can exacerbate health issues," she noted.

"For many people, we should also talk about distributing safer sex supplies, because many people engage in risky sexual practices while they are using," Vakharia continued. "We also need to educate users on the risks associated with mixing different classes of drugs and the impact it can have on your body, knowing your limits, keeping naloxone on hand in case you are using opioids too, and not using alone."

It's not just harm reduction that's needed, though. Other policy prescriptions could help reduce the toll.

"Medicaid expansion and policies to increase access to basic health care and mental health care, as well as substance use treatment can greatly improve the health and well-being of people who use all drugs," Vakharia said. "And whether opioids are a person's primary drug or not, expanding access to naloxone helps anyone who is using them. Similarly, expanding Good Samaritan laws that reduce barriers to calling 911 can only help."

And then there's not treating drug uses like criminals.

"Decriminalizing drugs and paraphernalia would be a huge step forward," said Vakharia. "We know that contact with the criminal justice system increases harms and also presents barriers to going into recovery, which impacts job prospects, the ability to find work, and things like that."

"Drug decriminalization is crucial," said Raymond. "Criminalization just makes everything worse. It makes people more fearful of seeking help, and ends up locking so many people up in ways such that when they leave jail or prison, they're even more vulnerable. All of our work in harm reduction takes place in this context of mass criminalization. That keeps us swimming against the tide."

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of both Drug Reporter and Drug War Chronicle.

Most Heroin Addicts Didn't Start By Being Prescribed Pain Pills, Despite Drug Czar's Claims [FEATURE]

As part of its campaign to stem opioid addiction and overdoses, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) has launched an education campaign called The Truth About Opioids, but some of the material it is presenting has more than a whiff of spin to it -- and could imperil the ability of pain patients to get the relief they need.

Most addicts didn't go from the doctor's office to the needle and spoon, a new study reports. (Wikimedia)
The web site declares in big, bold letters that "80% of heroin users started with a prescription painkiller," and highlights the words "80%," "heroin," "started," and "prescription" in lurid purple. The graphic suggests that heroin users were prescribed opioids, developed a habit, and then went on to junk, with the further implication that a way to reduce heroin addiction is to tighten and reduce the prescribing of opioids.

The web site then asks readers if they are "shocked," "ah-ha," "outraged," or "fired up" by the information. It is only if readers scroll down the page that they are informed that the basis for the statistic is a 2013 study of "Heroin use and heroin use risk behaviors among nonmedical users of prescription opioid pain relievers." (Emphasis added.)

That's right, even though the graphic shouts out that people prescribed opioids then went on to become heroin addicts, the science it uses to back its claim is about recreational pain pill users. That's deceptive.

Misleading claims about prescribing opioids and the potential for opioid addiction are, of course, nothing new. Twenty years ago, PurduePharma infamously claimed that the risk of addiction from OxyContin was so low as to be negligible, a marketing tactic that helped kick into overdrive the pain pill phase of the current wave of opioid use.

But the drug czar's office, with its misleading suggestion that being prescribed opioids leads to heroin addiction, tips the pendulum too far in the other direction. There are real world consequences to using such faulty information. The Drug Enforcement Administration cited that 80% figure last year when it ordered steep decreases in the supply of prescription opioids, and it claimed in the Federal Register that patients got addicted "after first obtaining these drugs from their health care providers."

"The 80% statistic is misleading and encourages faulty assumptions about the overdose crisis and medical care," Pain News Network columnist Roger Chriss argued in a column last year.

And now, a new study from researchers at Penn State University published in the Journal of Addictive Studies bolsters that claim. Concentrating on southwestern Pennsylvania, an area with high levels of addiction, the researchers conducted surveys and in-depth interviews with drug users to determine their drug using histories. The sample size was small, with 125 people surveyed and 30 interviewed, but the results were illuminating.

The researchers found that two out of three of those interviewed got their first prescription opioids not from a doctor's prescription, but either bought or stole it from a family member or friend. Another 7 percent bought their drugs from a stranger or a dealer. And only one out of four (26 percent) began with opioid medications prescribed by a doctor.

"What emerged from our study -- and really emerged because we decided to do these qualitative interviews in addition to a survey component -- was a pretty different narrative than the national one. There's a lot about that narrative that I think is an overly simplistic way of thinking about this," said lead author Ashton Verdery, PhD, an assistant professor of sociology, demography and social data analytics at Penn State.

"We found that most people initiated through a pattern of recreational use because of people around them. They got them from either siblings, friends or romantic partners," he continued. "Participants repeatedly reported having a peer or caregiver in their childhood who had a substance use problem. Stories from childhood of witnessing one of these people selling, preparing, or using drugs were very common. Being exposed to others' substance use at an early age was often cited as a turning point for OMI (opioid misuse) and of drug use in general."

Among study participants, recreational drug use -- or polysubstance abuse, in public health speak -- was common, Verdery noted, and usually began not with prescription opioids but with drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription sedatives and stimulants.

"It is important to note that interviewees universally reported initiating OMI only after previously starting their substance use career with another drug (e.g., alcohol, marijuana, cocaine). Opioids were never the first drug used, suggesting that OMI is likely associated with being further along in one's drug using career," he added.

Researchers studying opioid addiction need to be aware of the role other substances play in the process, Verdery said. Understanding how opioid addiction is intertwined with other drug use is necessary to figure out the correct steps to take to prevent addiction before it takes hold.

"We think that understanding this mechanism as a potential pathway is worth further consideration," said Verdery. "It's not just that people were prescribed painkillers from a doctor for a legitimate reason and, if we just crack down on the doctors who are prescribing in these borderline cases, we can reduce the epidemic."

It's not nice for the drug czar's office to promulgate deceptive and misleading information about why people are getting strung out on heroin. It results both in limitation on access to opioid pain medications for those who need them and in obfuscating the realities of how heroin addiction happens -- and how best to deal with it.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, Vaping, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safer Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School