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Chronicle AM: Trump's Chinese Fentanyl Flub, UT MedMJ Law Amended, More... (12/4/18)

There's a bunch of medical marijuana news today, and President Trump misstates a Chinese position on fentanyl.

The president was unclear on just what China promised regarding fentanyl and synthetic opioids. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Adds Alzheimer's to List of Qualifying Conditions. The state Department of Health announced Monday that it was adding the degenerative neurological disorder to the medical marijuana program, despite concerns about the effectiveness of treatment with marijuana. "Any policy decisions about cannabis are difficult due to the relative lack of published scientific evidence," said state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm. "However, there is some evidence for potential benefits of medical cannabis to improve the mood, sleep and behavior of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease." Minnesota will become the 13th state to okay medical marijuana for Alzheimer's.

Pennsylvania to Consider Adding Qualifying Conditions. The state Medical Marijuana Advisory Board has approved a new process for expanding the state's list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana and in coming weeks will begin accepting petitions for new qualifying conditions to be added to the list. Patient advocates are expected to petition for conditions such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia, among others.

Utah's Voter-Approved Medical Marijuana Law Amended. Lawmakers on Monday passed sweeping changes to the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law and Gov. Gary Herbert (R) immediately signed them into effect. The changes ban many marijuana edibles, prevent people from growing their own marijuana if they live far from a dispensary, and narrow the list of eligible medical conditions for which the drug can be obtained. Smoking medical marijuana wasn't allowed under the original ballot measure and still isn't. Opponents of the meddling with measure said the changes will create major obstacles for patients and are planning to sue to block the changes. "It's an almost complete disregard for the will of the people," attorney Rocky Anderson said.

Foreign Policy

Trump Misstated Changes in China's Fentanyl Policy. This past weekend, President Trump claimed he had persuaded the Chinese to make fentanyl a controlled substance, but he was mistaken. Fentanyl is already a controlled substance in China. What the Chinese announced was that they would shift the way it regulates synthetic opioids. Now, "China has decided to list all the fentanyl-like substances as controlled substances and start working to adjust related regulations," China's foreign ministry clarified.

Chronicle AM: Dark Web Dealers Banning Fentanyl, Luxembourg Moves to Legalize Weed, More... (12/3/18)

China agrees to make fentanyl a controlled substance, Dark Web dealers begin banning fentanyl sales, Luxembourg could become the first European country to legalize marijuana, and more.

Fentanyl--too dangerous for the Dark Web? (DEA.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Bill Would Free Prisoners Doing Time for Marijuana Crimes. Democratic lawmakers have filed a bill, House Bill 6508, that would allow prisoners convicted of certain marijuana offenses to get out of prison. The release would apply to people imprisoned for use, possession, or distribution of marijuana if they meet certain conditions. It would also reduce sentences for other marijuana crimes.

Medical Marijuana

Iowa Sees First Medical Marijuana Dispensaries. The Hawkeye State's first medical marijuana dispensaries opened over the weekend. Five were authorized under a law passed last year and licenses were awarded earlier this year. The state's law only allows for the use of CBD products.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Dark Web Drug Dealers Voluntarily Ban Fentanyl Sales. The British National Crime Agency reports that major dark web drug sellers have begun voluntarily banning the sale of fentanyl because it is both too dangerous and too likely to provoke police crackdowns. That would put the powerful opioid in the company of mass casualty firearms and explosives as commodities too dangerous to trade on the dark web.

Foreign Policy

China Agrees to Make Fentanyl a Controlled Substance After Talks With US. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it had "decided to schedule the entire category of fentanyl-type substances as controlled substances, and start the process of revising relevant laws and regulations" after the meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires on Saturday. The two countries have "agreed to take active measures to strengthen cooperation on law enforcement and narcotics control," including the control of fentanyl-type substances, the statement said. The White House called the move "a wonderful humanitarian effort."

International

Luxembourg Moves Toward Legalizing Marijuana. In a joint press conference, the three political parties that constitute the country's governing coalition announced plans to legalize marijuana, including legal marijuana sales. The announcement came after an online petition calling for legalization generated enough support to be discussed in parliament. The petitioners asked for marijuana to be regulated, pointing to Canada as an example. A final agreement on the exact structure of legalization is expected to be finalized this week. 

Chronicle AM: NYC Marijuana Busts Way, Way Down; New Federal Fentanyl Sentences in Effect, More... (11/9/18)

New York City marijuana possession arrests plummet (finally), Utah patients will have some legal protection beginning next month, federal fentanyl sentences just increased, and more.

a lethal dose of fentanyl (DEA.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan US Attorneys Warn That Federal Prohibition Remains in Force. In a joint statement released Thursday, US Attorneys for Michigan Matthew Schneider and Andrew Birge warned that even though voters there legalized marijuana on Tuesday, "marijuana continues to be an illegal drug under federal law" and that they "will not unilaterally immunize anyone from prosecution for violating federal laws simply because of the passage of Proposal 1." That said, the federal prosecutors then conceded "our offices have never focused on the prosecution of marijuana users or low-level offenders" and that "as we weigh the interests in enforcing a law, we must also consider our ability to prosecute with our limited resources."

Arrests for Low-Level Marijuana Possession have Decreased 90 Percent Following New NYPD Marijuana Guidelines. Arrests for low-level marijuana possession have plummeted 90 percent since new NYPD marijuana enforcement guidelines took effect in September. There were 151 arrests for low-level marijuana in the entire city of New York in September 2018, less than 10 percent of the 1,500+ arrests last September and 3 percent of the 4,300+ arrests that took place in September 2010. However, racial disparities in enforcement still persist, with Blacks and Latino people comprising around 80 percent of the 1,000 summonses issued for marijuana.

Medical Marijuana

Utah Patients Will Have Legal Protections Beginning December 1. Although it could take months or years for the state to get a medical marijuana cultivation and distribution system up and running, medical marijuana patients will win some protections from arrest and prosecution beginning on December 1. That's because the Prop 2 initiative approved by voters includes an "affirmative defense" provision protecting them from a criminal conviction. It doesn't explicitly protect patients from arrest, but the hope is that with little likelihood of a successful prosecution, police will have little incentive to actually arrest patients.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Harsher Federal Penalties for Selling Fentanyl-Laced Drugs Are Now in Effect. New federal sentencing guidelines that went into effect November 1 significantly increase the possible prison sentence faced by people who sell heroin or cocaine laced with fentanyl. The new guidelines "create a four-level enhancement for a defendant who knowingly misrepresents or knowingly markets as another substance a mixture containing fentanyl or a fentanyl analog," which translates into sentences nearly twice as long as previously. While the guidelines only apply to someone who intentionally sought to deceive buyers, the realities of the federal criminal justice system -- where the vast majority of cases end with plea bargains -- mean that prosecutors will rarely have to prove the intent to deceive.

Chronicle AM: Brazil's New Leader is Bad News on Drug Policy, CO Legalization Faces RICO Suit, More... (10/30/18)

A lawsuit using federal RICO statutes to challenge Colorado marijuana legalization got underway today, North Dakota medical marijuana patients and caregivers can now apply to the registry, Brazil's president-elect is a giant step backward on drug policy, and more.

Brazilian President-Elect Jair Bolsonaro favors harshly repressive drug policies. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Lawsuit Challenging State's Marijuana Law Goes to Trial. A lawsuit filed by two landowners who claim that a nearby marijuana grow has reduced their property values -- in part because the smell allegedly makes horse riding less attractive -- got underway in federal court in Denver Tuesday. The case is based on federal racketeering laws, and an adverse decision could have significant disruptive effects on the state's marijuana industry. The lawsuit was filed by Safe Streets Alliance, a national anti-marijuana group.

New Jersey Lawmakers Aim for Marijuana Hearings Next Month. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3rd District) told reporters Monday he had been meeting with Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-22nd District) on advancing marijuana legalization legislation, and "I think we're real close." While Sweeney did not offer any firm timelines, Scutari said he has been looking at holding a hearing on November 26.

Medical Marijuana

More Than 200 Unlicensed Michigan Dispensaries Must Close Down By Wednesday. The state's Medical Marijuana Licensing Board has approved 14 more dispensary licenses, but some 215 pot businesses that have not obtained licenses, most of them in Detroit, received cease and desist letters Tuesday and must close their doors by Wednesday if they want any chance at getting a license in the future.

North Dakota Patients and Caregivers Can Now Register. The state Department of Health began accepting applications Monday for medical marijuana patients and caregivers, with registry cards to begin being mailed out in December. It costs $50 to apply. The move comes just under two years after voters there approved a medical marijuana initiative.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Massachusetts Governor Seeks $5 Million for Opioid Drug War. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) will file legislation seeking $5 million for a pilot program for a "regional, multi-agency approach to fentanyl interdiction and crime displacement," he said Monday. He said his proposal targets drug dealers who move from town to town to evade police crackdowns. "We want to give departments the resources to coordinate with each other across their districts, essentially flooding the zone against the drug dealers who are peddling addiction and death in their communities," Baker said. "We want to go after the dealers who too often evade authorities by moving to another nearby location in a different municipality." The $5 million would be used to "supplement surveillance work and overtime costs for units," he said.

International

Brazil's Presidential Election Winner is Bad News on Drug Policy. Jair Bolsonaro, the winner of Sunday's Brazilian presidential election and known as "the Trump of Brazil" for his right-wing populist views, is bad news for drug reform in Latin America's most populous country. He favors intensifying ongoing bloody crackdowns on people involved with drugs, he has said on repeated occasions that police should kill people suspected of drug trafficking, and he has openly praised Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody drug war, saying "he did the right thing for his country." He opposes marijuana legalization, saying it would "benefit traffickers, rapists, and hostage takers." And Bolosonaro isn't just bad on drug policy; he gets downright weird. He has also claimed, in a bizarre homophobic rant, that smoking pot makes people gay.

Chronicle AM: Coalition to Fight House "Drug War" Provision, Colombia Coca Crop at Record High, More... (9/20/18)

A provision in the House opioid bill that would let the attorney general set sentences for synthetic drug offenses generates opposition, Colombia's coca production was at record levels last year, the DEA has okayed the import of Canadian marijuana for research purposes, and more.

Colombia peasand farmer in his coca field. (DEA)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Governor Calls for Sheriff's Resignation After Racist Weed Comments. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is calling for the resignation of Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino after a tape emerged of him making racist comments about black people around the topic of marijuana legalization. Although Saudino's remarks were made back in January just after Murphy's inauguration, a recording of them just went public on Wednesday. Here's what he said, referencing Murphy's inaugural address: "He talked about the whole thing, the marijuana, sanctuary state…better criminal justice reform. Christ almighty, in other words, let the blacks come in, do whatever the fuck they want, smoke their marijuana, do this do that, and don’t worry about it," Saudino said. "You know, we’ll tie the hands of cops."

Medical Marijuana

DEA Gives Green Light for Canadian Company to Import Research Marijuana to US. The DEA has granted permission to Canadian marijuana producer Tilray, Inc. to export medical marijuana to California for scientific research purposes. The Food and Drug Administration also signed off on the deal. The marijuana is headed for Dr. Fatta Nahab, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of California San Diego medical school.

Drug Policy

Left-Right Coalition Builds to Block House Opioids Bill's "Drug War" Provision. As the House and Senate seek to reconcile their versions of bills to address the nation's opioid crisis, groups on the left and right are uniting behind an effort to undo an especially egregious provision in the House version of the bill. Organizations such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch are joining forces with right-leaning groups like FreedomWorks and the American Conservative Union to remove language that would give the attorney general the power to create a special category for synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and set penalties for those who make or sell them. That would essentially put sentencing policy for those drugs in the hands of the attorney general. "We don’t want any attorney general to have this kind of power," said Jasmine Tyler, advocacy director for the Human Rights Watch US Program. "But I think specifically when we have an attorney general who is so out of touch with this century’s expert thinking on these issues, there should be red flags for that."

International

UNODC Says Colombian Coca Cultivation at All-Time High. The amount of acreage devoted to coca growing in Colombia increased 17% last year to hit a new record high, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime said Wednesday. Some 423,000 acres were under cultivation last year, UNODC said, the largest figure since the UN began keeping records. That will produce more than 920 metric tons of cocaine, a US government report earlier this year said. The figures come as new conservative Colombian President Ivan Duque prepares to attack the drug trade, likely including aerial fumigation of crops with glyphosate. "Our goal in the next four years is to have concrete results," he said Wednesday. "So we can at least eradicate more than 70 percent of what we have today."

The Opioid Crisis Could Cost a Half Million Lives in the Next Decade

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in mid-August, showed a record 72,000 drug overdose deaths last year, with 49,000 related to heroin, fentanyl and prescription opioids. According to the authors of a study released last week in the American Journal of Public Health, that could be the new normal.

The study, by Stanford researchers Allison Pitt, Keith Humphreys, and Margaret Brandeau, attempts to assess the number of opioid-related deaths we could expect to see over the next decade, as well as the impact of different policy responses on reducing the death toll.

The researchers said there are steps that can be taken to reduce the death toll, but also that some seemingly simple solutions, such as cracking down on opioid prescribing for chronic pain, could actually increase the toll. And even those policies that could cut the opioid death rate are likely to do so only marginally.

Using a mathematical model, the researchers estimate that some 510,000 people will die over the next decade because of opioid use. The number includes not only drug overdoses but also other opioid-related deaths, such as HIV infections caused by shared needles.

Even including the non-overdose deaths, the number is staggering. Last year was the worst year ever for opioid-related overdose deaths, but this research suggests we are going to see year after year of similar numbers.

Making the overdose reversal drug naloxone more widely available could cut opioid-related deaths by 21,200 over the next decade, allowing greater access to medication-assisted therapies with drugs such as buprenorphine and methadone would save another 12,500 lives, and reducing opioid prescribing for acute pain would prevent another 8,000 deaths, the researchers said. But those three policy moves combined would shave less than 10 percent off the overall death toll.

"No single policy is likely to substantially reduce deaths over 5 to 10 years," the researchers wrote.

While harm reduction interventions such as those above would save lives, some aspects of tightening opioid prescribing would actually increase opioid-related deaths by as much as the tens of thousands -- because they increase heroin deaths more than they cut painkiller deaths. Moves such as reducing prescribing for chronic pain, up-scheduling pain relievers to further restrict their prescribing, and prescription drug monitoring programs all tend to push existing prescription opioid users into the illicit heroin and fentanyl markers all end up contributing to net increases in opioid deaths over the 10-year period, the researchers found.

On the other hand, other interventions on the prescribing front, such as reducing acute prescribing for acute pain (pain that may be signficant but is short-term), reducing prescribing for transitional pain, reformulating drugs to make them less susceptible to misuse, and opioid disposal programs, appear to prevent more deaths than they cause.

Ultimately, reducing the opioid death toll includes reducing the size of the opioid-using population, the researchers say. That implies making addiction treatment more available for those currently using and preventing the initiation of a new generation of opioid users. Restrictions on prescribing, while possibly driving some current users to dangerous illicit markets, can have a long-term impact by reducing the number of people who develop a dependence on opioids.

Whether that's a tolerable tradeoff for those pain patients who don't get the relief they need from other medications -- or for patients and others who end up dying from street heroin but might have lived despite their prescription opioid use -- is a different question.

By all appearances, when it comes to the loss of life around opioids, it looks like a pretty sad decade ahead of us.

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

Chronicle AM: Key NJ Pol Now Supports Legal Pot, UK Drug Deaths Spark Criticism, More... (8/6/18)

New Jersey's assembly speaker gets behind marijuana legalization, Ted Cruz attacks Beto O'Rourke as a drug legalizer, record-breaking British drug deaths spark a critique of government drug policy, and more.

Fentanyl deaths nearly doubled last year in Great Britain. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Key New Jersey Politico Now Supports Marijuana Legalization. Assembly Speaker Chris Coughlin (D-Middlesex), a key player in the legislature, said Friday he supported making the state the next one to legalize marijuana. Both Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) have both been more enthusiastic about legalization than Coughlin up until now. "For folks who don't want to legalize it, I understand their view. But I would ask, are we satisfied with the status quo," Coughlin said on his regular "Speak to the Speaker" radio program. "Use of marijuana is still a constant. Three out of five drug arrests are for marijuana. African Americans are three times more likely to get arrested for marijuana," Coughlin said. "We're trying to address those things and I think, if you got the right bill, we'll go ahead and try to pass it."

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Awards First Medical Marijuana Processing Licenses. The state Department of Commerce on Friday issued seven provisional licenses to aspiring medical marijuana processors. This is just the first round of licensing for processors; the state could license up to 40 such operations.

Drug Policy

Ted Cruz Attack Ad Slams Beto O'Rourke as Drug Legalizer. With the underdog Democrat nipping at his heels -- a recent poll has the Texas senate race as a statistical dead heat -- incumbent GOP Sen. Ted Cruz is using an ad that accuses O'Rourke of being a drug legalizer. "Beto O'Rourke said we should consider legalizing all narcotics, including heroin," says one ad running in Lubbock. The O'Rouke campaign said that is not true -- that O'Rourke supports marijuana legalization and says we need a larger discussion about ending the war on drugs. The campaign also warned supporters more than a month ago such attacks would be forthcoming. "It is these kinds of mischaracterizations of our positions, preying on the fears and anxieties of our fellow Texans, that they will try to use as they have used in the past," O'Rourke said on June 29.

International

British Drug Deaths at Record High (Again), Fentanyl Toll Doubles. The British government has reported 3,756 drug deaths in 2017, making the year the fifth in a row to see increases in drug deaths. The 2017 figure is the highest since comparable records began in 1993. The most dramatic drug death increases were around fentanyl and its analogs, which nearly doubled in the space of a year.

British Reform Advocates Rip Government Policies over Drug Deaths. "After five years of record or near-record drug-related deaths, the UK Government has nowhere left to hide. They are responsible for vulnerable people dying in droves, because they are blocking, or refusing to fund, measures proven to save lives in other countries," said Martin Powell of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation. "No one has ever died from an overdose in a supervised drug consumption room or heroin prescribing clinic, anywhere. In Portugal -- where drug use is decriminalized -- the drug death rate is less than a tenth of ours. So Government claims that these deaths are all the result of an aging population of drug users is a lie. The Government must fully fund drug treatment, stop criminalizing people who use drugs, and allow supervised drug consumption rooms now. Longer term, all political parties should back legal regulation of the drug market to take it out of the hands of criminals, save lives, reduce crime, and protect our communities." Also commenting was Rose Humphries of the Anyone's Child Project, who lost two sons to heroin overdoses: "It upsets me to see the figures for drug deaths at record levels year after year. The government is complicit in these deaths because it will not try the successful measures that work in other countries to reduce drug deaths and crime. Those of us in the Anyone's Child campaign can see the evidence of what works -- including legally regulating drugs. Why can't the government?" she asked.

(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: NY State Report Calls for Marijuana Legalization, DOJ Fentanyl Crackdown, More... (7/13/18)

Wine and liquor wholesalers endorse legalizing marijuana "like alcohol," a New York state report calls for marijuana legalization, Attorney General Sessions announces a crackdown on fentanyl, and more.

Jeff Sessions continues to wage last century's drug war as he tries a crackdown on fentanyl. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Wine and Liquor Wholesalers Endorses Marijuana Legalization If Regulated Like Alcohol. The Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) trade group is is urging Congress to pass legislation that adopts a number of regulatory components for cannabis that are similar to those for beverage alcohol. They include a minimum purchase age of 21; driving under the influence standards; licensing for producers, processors, distributors, and retailers; policies to prevent vertical monopoly/integration; hours and days of sale in parity with alcohol; tax collection and enforcement mechanisms; labeling requirements; advertising restrictions; product tracking; restrictions on common carrier delivery; and measures to prevent diversion of cannabis to other states.

New York Governor Releases Report Recommending New York State Legalize Marijuana for Adult Use. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) and the New York State Department of Health released an impact assessment of marijuana legalization. The report concludes that the benefits of taxing and regulating marijuana far outweigh any potential negative consequences. The study was commissioned by Governor Cuomo and announced in his address on the executive budget proposal.

Medical Marijuana

Hawaii Governor Vetoes Bill Allowing Medical Marijuana for Opioid Addiction. Gov. David Ige (D) has vetoed a bill that would have allowed medical marijuana treatment for opioid and substance abuse disorders. Senate Bill 2407 passed the legislature with large majorities in May, but Gov. Ige announced in June he planned to veto it. Now he has.

New York Enacts Emergency Rules Allowing Medical Marijuana as Opioid Replacement. State regulators have moved to allow patients who would normally be prescribed opioids to use medical marijuana instead. "Medical marijuana has been shown to be an effective treatment for pain that may also reduce the chance of opioid dependence," New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard said. "Adding opioid replacement as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana offers providers another treatment option, which is a critical step in combatting the deadly opioid epidemic affecting people across the state."

Oklahoma Advocates File Lawsuits Over Medical Marijuana Rules. Green the Vote, the people behind the successful June medical marijuana initiative, filed two lawsuits Friday against the state over its restrictive rules and regulations. "The lawsuit filed today is our endeavor to undo the wrongful acts of the Oklahoma Department of Health in adopting amendments to the regulations implementing State Initiative 788. It is our hope that this lawsuit will quickly resolve the improper regulations and allow Oklahoma citizens to exercise their rights to manage their own health care," the group announced in a news release.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Justice Department Will Target Ten Areas in Crackdown on Fentanyl. In a move right out of last century's war on drugs playbook, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that he has ordered federal prosecutors in ten areas to bring federal drug dealing charges against anyone suspected of dealing fentanyl, no matter how small the quantity. An additional assistant US attorney will also be sent to each of the designated areas in New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maine, and California.

Making Matters Worse: DEA's Move to Restrict Opioid Prescriptions Pushed Users to the Dark Web

By the end of 2013, the country's quiet opioid addiction crisis was no longer so quiet. Opioid overdose deaths that year topped 16,000, more than four times the same statistic for 1999. That prompted a number of measures at the state and federal level to rein in opioid prescriptions, including a move by the DEA in October 2014 to tighten its policies around some of the most commonly prescribed opioids.

Dark Web fentanyl sales rose after the DEA restricted some prescription opioids. (Creative Commons)
The new DEA policy -- aimed at popular opioids such as Vicodin and Lortab -- imposed restrictions on doctors' prescribing and made it more difficult for patients to get refills. In one sense, the policy was a success: Prescriptions for those drugs decreased almost immediately. But new research adds to an increasing body of evidence that restricting opioid prescribing has not solved the opioid crisis but instead worsened it.

Since the DEA policy shift, opioid overdose deaths continued to grow with more than 40,000 fatal opioid overdoses in 2016. And while prescription opioid overdose deaths have slightly decreased -- there were about 14,000 that year -- overdose deaths from heroin and non-prescription synthetic opioids such as fentanyl went through the roof. Heroin and illicit synthetics accounted for nearly two-thirds of all opioid overdose deaths in 2016.

In the new study, published this week in the British Medical Journal, researchers examining the impact of the DEA policy shift found evidence that while the change indeed lowered prescribing rates for the opioids in question, it was also linked to an increase in illicit online sales of those drugs in Dark Web drug markets.

The researchers used software called DATACRYPTO to crawl encrypted Dark Web marketplaces where people can anonymously buy damned near anything, from drugs to guns to credit card numbers. DATACRYPTO harvested data on which drugs were for sale, their country of origin, and the number of customer comments on each seller's comments page. Researchers used that last figure as a proxy for how much of a drug that seller sold. They examined sales of prescription opioids, sedatives, stimulants, and steroids, as well as heroin. It was only with prescription opioids that they found a significant Dark Web sales bump.

Here's what they found: "The sale of prescription opioids through US cryptomarkets increased after the schedule change, with no statistically significant changes in sales of prescription sedatives, prescription steroids, prescription stimulants, or illicit opioids."

According to their data, prescription opioids doubled their market share of U.S. Dark Web drug sales thanks to the DEA policy change. By July 2016, opioids represented 13.7% of all drug sales in U.S. cryptomarkets, compared with a modeled estimate of 6.7% of all sales.

While the researchers were careful to not make claims of causation -- only correlation -- their conclusion speaks for itself: "The scheduling change in hydrocodone combination products coincided with a statistically significant, sustained increase in illicit trading of opioids through online US cryptomarkets. These changes were not observed for other drug groups or in other countries. A subsequent move was observed towards the purchase of more potent forms of prescription opioids, particularly oxycodone and fentanyl."

Not only is the DEA policy change linked to increased Dark Web opioid sales, it is also linked to a move toward more powerful, and thus more dangerous, opioids. The researchers noted that while fentanyl was the least purchased Dark Web opioid in the summer of 2014, it was the second most frequently purchased by the summer of 2016. Fentanyl killed as many people as prescription opioids that year.

This study -- one of the few that examines supply reduction (as opposed to demand reduction) as a means reducing drug use -- strongly suggests that supply-side interventions carry unintended consequences, especially the resort to more dangerous and more powerful substitutes. The study's authors refer to this effect as "the iron law of prohibition, whereby interventions to reduce supply, such as increased enforcement and changes to drug scheduling, lead to illicit markets dominated by higher potency products."

Perhaps better than restricting opioid prescriptions, which has deleterious impacts on the tens of millions of Americans suffering chronic pain, or other supply-side interventions, would be increased access to addiction treatment, as well as greatly expanded harm reduction measures to try to get people off opioids and keep them alive in the meantime.

Four Ways Fentanyl Could Radically Disrupt the Global Drug Trade

The synthetic opioid fentanyl isn't just killing American drug users by the thousands. Its emergence also signals a shift in the decades-old contours of the global drug trade, with ramifications not only for traditional drug-producing countries and drug trafficking networks but also for US foreign policy.

Black market fentanyl is not just wreaking havoc on the streets of American cities. (Creative Commons)
Synthesized from chemicals -- not from papaver somniferum, the opium poppy -- fentanyl is about 50 times stronger than heroin and is severely implicated in the country's drug overdose crisis, accounting for almost 20,000 deaths in 2016.

Illicit fentanyl is typically mixed with other opiates, such as heroin, resulting in much stronger doses of opioids than users expect, thus leading to opioid overdoses. But it is also increasingly also showing up in non-opiate drugs, resulting in fentanyl overdose deaths among unsuspecting methamphetamine and cocaine users.

But the havoc super-potent fentanyl is wreaking among drug users pales in comparison with the dramatic changes it could prompt in the global illicit drug production industry. As academic researchers Vanda Felbab-Brown, Jonathan Caulkins, and Keith Humphreys write in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, fentanyl's rise has the potential to cause disruption and innovation in black markets.

Here are four ways fentanyl alters the illegal drug production and distribution status quo:

1. It doesn't require an agricultural base. Virtually all of the other opioids on the black market, from heroin to morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone, require land to grow poppies on. And they require land that is outside cdthe effective control of the state. Non-state actors who can control such areas, whether it's the Taliban in Afghanistan or the drug cartels in southern and western Mexico, reap the profits and power of that control. With the ascent of lab-produced fentanyl made out of chemicals, traditional opiate producers should see their profits and their influence undermined.

2. It doesn't require a large workforce. Traditional opium production requires a large seasonal workforce of people to plant and tend the poppies, score the pods and scrape off the leaking opium, and then process and package the raw opium. Other workers will get jobs processing raw opium into heroin. All of those jobs bring money into the hands of poor agricultural families and political capital to the traffickers, whether it's the Taliban in Afghanistan or the cartels in Mexico. With fewer job opportunities to offer up, the traffickers lose clout.

3. It doesn't require an elaborate smuggling infrastructure. Because fentanyl is so potent, small amounts of the drug can contain huge numbers of doses, and that means it doesn't require transportation networks of trucks, planes, and boats to get an agricultural crop from the valleys of Afghanistan or the mountains of Mexico to consumers in the US Fentanyl is so potent, medicinal doses are measured in micrograms, and packages of it worth hundreds of thousands of dollars can fit inside a Priority Mail envelope. With smuggling fentanyl as easy as dropping a package in the mail, international drug smuggling organizations now have competition they never had before.

4. All of this can change the dynamics of US foreign policy. If plant-based opiates lose market share to synthetics in the future, this can weaken both insurgencies (Afghanistan) and criminal networks (Mexico). Ever since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, drug warriors have been constrained in their efforts to go after the Afghan opium crops because of fears it would drive poppy-dependent peasants into the hands of the Taliban. If opium production becomes relatively less important vis-à-vis fentanyl production, that constraint on an aggressive US response to Afghan opium production is weakened. Similarly, in Mexico, to the degree that fentanyl displaces peasants and processors and weakens the link between drug cartels and rural populations, it increases the ability of the Mexican government and its American backers to crack down even harder on the cartels.

Under drug prohibition, there is a strong impetus to come up with more pure, more potent, and more compact products. Fentanyl is the ultimate expression of that imperative, and its arrival is changing the contours of the global drug industry. Who knows how it will play out?

Drug War Issues

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