Poisoned Drug Supply

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WI City and County Votes for Legal Marijuana, FDA Warns on Animal Tranquilizer in Drug Supply, More... (11/10/22)

The Treasury Department is using an executive order to go after dark web drug suppliers, the FDA is warning health care workers to watch out for an animal tranquilizer that appears to be getting into the illicit drug supply, and more.

The veterinary tranquilizer and pain reliever xylazine is showing up in the illicit drug supply.
Marijuana Policy

Wisconsin Towns and County Vote for Marijuana Legalization Referendum. The cities of Kenosha and Racine joined Milwaukee County Tuesday in voting in favor of non-binding referenda showing community support for marijuana legalization. The measure was approved by 76 percent of voter in Racine, 74 percent in Milwaukee County, and 72 percent in Kenosha. The state lacks an effective initiative process, and the Republican-controlled legislature has blocked consideration of even medical marijuana, let alone adult use marijuana.

Adulterants

FDA Warns Health Care Workers to Watch Out for Potentially Lethal Animal Sedative in Illicit Drug Supply. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) on Tuesday issued a warning to health care workers to watch out for patients who may have been exposed to a potentially deadly animal sedative through illicit drug use. The sedative in question is xylazine, which is showing up in fentanyl, heroin, and other illicit drug supplies after being diverted from the legal animal drug supply or produced illegally, the FDA said. The drug, known as "tranq" on the street is approved as an animal tranquilizer and pain reliever, but not approved for use in humans.

"FDA is aware of increasing reports of serious side effects from individuals exposed to fentanyl, heroin, and other illicit drugs contaminated with xylazine," the agency announced in a news release. Those serious side effects can resemble those linked to opioid use, making it difficult to determine whether one is facing an opioid overdose or xylazine exposure.

Moreover, naloxone, which can reverse the effects of some opioid drug overdoses, may not have the same effect on xylazine, the agency said. FDA still advised health care workers to continue administering naloxone if they suspect an opioid overdose.

Dark Web

Treasury Sanctions Internet-based Suppliers of Illicit Fentanyl and Other Synthetic Drugs. Acting in conjunction with the governments of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two Dutch nationals, Alex Adrianus Martinus Peijnenburg, Martinus Pterus Henri De Koning, and one British national, Matthew Simon Grimm, and nine entities pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 14059 for supplying illicit fentanyl, synthetic stimulants, cannabinoids, and opioids to US markets through internet sales and a host of shell companies.

The action represents the first use of E.O. 14059 to target those involved in the sale of illicit drugs purchased online and via darknet marketplaces. "The Treasury Department will continue to deploy its counternarcotics authorities to disrupt those involved in the fentanyl global supply chain," said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson. "Treasury is identifying over 50 virtual wallet addresses associated with this network's drug trafficking activities as we take further action to counter the abuse of virtual currency. I would like to thank our Dutch and UK partners and US law enforcement counterparts for their partnership and for enabling today's action."

NYPD Busts Unlicensed Pot Trucks, Meth Use/Arrests/OD Deaths All Up in Recent Years, More... (8/18/22)

Nevada's Supreme Court rules against employees who smoke marijuana, Ireland is about to see its first pilot drug checking program, and more.

The Electric Picnic festival in Ireland. This year, there will be onsite drug checking. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Nevada High Court Rules Recreational Marijuana Is Not "Lawful Off-Duty Conduct." In a decision last Thursday, the state Supreme Court ruled that recreational marijuana use is not "lawful off-duty conduct" in upholding the firing of a Las Vegas casino dealer who tested positive for marijuana. State employment law provides protections for "lawful off-duty conduct," but the court held that since marijuana remains federally illegal, its use can not be considered "lawful off-duty conduct" in the casino dealer's wrongful termination claim. The ruling means that Nevada employers are free to fire or refuse to hire workers who use marijuana.

New York City Cracks Down on Unlicensed Weed-Selling Trucks. The NYPD said it seized 20 trucks used to sell unlicensed marijuana on Tuesday. "If you are looking to buy illegal cannabis from the Weed World Bus located on 5th Avenue & 40th Street it is no longer open for business," NYPD Chief of Patrol Jeffrey Maddrey tweeted. "We do not anticipate it opening for business anytime soon!" The state legalized marijuana in 2021 but has yet to see legal commercial sales. In the meantime, unlicensed vendors have emerged to serve the market. NYPD said the seizures were part of efforts to address quality of life issues, but some New Yorkers may feel their quality of life is reduced if they can't find a place to buy weed.

Methamphetamine

Meth Use, Arrests, and Overdose Deaths Rose Sharply in Recent Years. A new report from the Pew Trusts finds sharply increasing methamphetamine use, arrests, and overdose deaths in the period from 2015 to 2019. Pew said the results "highlight the need for improved responses to a worsening public health problem." Arrests for meth possession jumped 59 percent, meth use was up 22 percent, meth use as a substance-abuse disorder was up 37 percent, and meth-related overdose deaths more than doubled.

"The general response to these trends highlights a reliance on the criminal legal system that has often proved costly and ineffective," Pew said. "Meaningful reductions in drug possession arrests and drug-related deaths may not be achieved without shifting to a public health response that prioritizes evidence-based approaches to treatment and harm reduction." Meth use varies from state, with 16 states reporting at least one in a 100 adults reporting past year use. The states with the highest rates were Arizona, Montana, and West Virginia.

International

Ireland to See Pilot Drug Checking Program at Music Festival, At the Electric Picnic Festival the first weekend of September, the Health Service Executive will operate the country's first pilot drug checking program. Users will deposit drugs in bins for chemical analysis, and if a sample is found to create cause for concern -- say, for unusually high potency or the presence of dangerous adulterants -- authorities will issue warning via social media.

"I am pleased to launch this new project as part of our efforts to reduce drug-related harm in Ireland," says HSE National Clinical Lead, Professor Eamon Keenan. "We are currently very concerned about the emergence of new psychoactive substances and high potency substances which pose a threat to health. This project will provide us with vital information that we otherwise can't access in real time. While this is a progression, the HSE messaging will remain clear, it is safer not to use drugs at all. For those who choose to, they should still follow the practical steps recommended by the HSE to reduce the harms. We will issue a series of health information on social media before and during the event, I encourage the public to follow drugs.ie and engage with our teams at Electric Picnic. It is important to note that our results will only be representative of what is submitted and this will not guarantee the safety of drugs across the drug market."

First Actual Fentanyl-Laced Marijuana Case -- Or Not? -- ICC Temporarily Suspends Philippines Probe, More... (11/22/21)

An Illinois judge rules the odor of raw marijuana is no longer a basis for a vehicle search, an Ohio move to legalize marijuana is nearing its signature-gathering goal, and more.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, orchestrator of tens of thousands of drug war murders
Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Health Officials Confirm First Actual Case of Marijuana Laced with Fentanyl. While scattered police departments have previously reported cases of marijuana laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl, those claims have never panned out. But now, top Connecticut health officials say it has turned up there. After nearly 40 cases of reviving apparent overdose victims with the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone who reported using only marijuana since July, the state Department of Public Health announced last Thursday that it had found fentanyl in a marijuana sample it tested. "This is the lab-confirmed case of marijuana with fentanyl in Connecticut and possibly the first confirmed case in the United States," said DPH Commissioner Manisha Juthani, MD.

Is it what it seems? Harm reductionionists have posited on email lists that it is likely to be a case of surface contamination, and noted that fentanyl requires a vaporize at different temperatures.

Illinois Judge Rules Smell of Marijuana No Longer Provides Basis for Vehicle Search. A district court judge in Whiteside County has ruled that the odor of raw marijuana alone does not provide probable cause for a warrantless search of a vehicle. Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana has not been a criminal offense since June 2019, but police officers continued to use the smell of weed as a reason to search vehicle during traffic stops. But Judge Daniel P. Dalton ruled that "there are a number of wholly innocent reasons a person or the vehicle in which they are in may smell of raw cannabis." Judge Dalton ruled that "the court finds the odor of raw cannabis alone is insufficient to establish probable cause." This is only a district court opinion, and the state can appeal if it chooses.

Ohio Marijuana Legalization Petition Nearing Enough Signatures to Force Legislature to Act. The state Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which is pushing a signature-gathering campaign for an initiated statute that would force lawmakers to act on legalization or send the issue to a popular vote, says it is nearing the required 133,000 valid voter signatures to force the issue. If they reach that signature goal, the General Assembly would have four months to act on the proposal. If lawmakers fail to act or reject legalization, petitioners would then have to gather more signatures to send the issue to the voters in the next general election. The proposal would legalize the possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, set up a system of retail sales, and allow people to grow up to two plants of their own.

International

International Criminal Court Temporarily Suspends Probe into Human Rights Violations in Philippines Drug War. The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has temporarily suspended a formal investigation into human rights abuses during outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drugs and drug users. The move comes after the Philippines government filed a request for deferral, saying its own investigations into drug war killings were underway.

"The prosecution has temporarily suspended its investigative activities while it assesses the scope and effect of the deferral request," ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan wrote. Khan wrote that he would seek more information from the Philippines. Duterte pulled the Philippines out of the ICC in 2018 and had vowed that it would not cooperate with the ICC, but has allowed severely limited investigations into several dozen killings out of the thousands admitted by the government and the more than 30,000 claimed by human rights groups.

Those groups called on the ICC to get back to investigating Duterte: "We ask the ICC not to allow itself to be swayed by the claims now being made by the Duterte administration," said the National Union of People's Lawyers, which represents some victims' families. The national justice system is "extremely slow and unavailing to the majority of poor and unrepresented victims", the statement said. The Duterte government's claim that existing legal mechanisms could bring justice to Duterte's victims was "absurd," said Human Rights Watch. "Let's hope the ICC sees through the ruse that it is," said Brad Adam, HRW Asia director.

DEA Warning on Counterfeit Pills Containing Meth, Fentanyl; Marijuana Arrests Drop Dramatically, More... (9/28/21)

Pennsylvania lawmakers introduce a marijuana legalization bill, a top Florida Democrat introduces a psychedelic research bill, and more.

Counterfeit Adderall pill. Be careful out there! (DEA)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Arrests Fall Precipitously Nationwide in 2020. Marijuana arrests declined by 36% from 2019 to 2020, according to new data released Monday in the FBI's Uniform Crime Report. Police arrested an estimated 350,150 people for marijuana offenses in 2020. Of those, 91% were for simple possession. In 2019, 545,602 people were arrested for marijuana offenses. The 2020 arrest figures are the lowest registered since the early 1990s and down more than 50 percent from their 2008 peak, when they totaled more than 800,000. Last year's decline came as state-level legalization continued to expand, but also as police in many jurisdictions pulled back in response to the COVID pandemic.

Pennsylvania Lawmakers Roll Out Marijuana Legalization Bill. State Reps. Jake Wheatley (D) and Dan Frankel (D) on Tuesday formally introduced a marijuana legalization bill, HB 2050, with a strong emphasis on social equity. "We think we have the industry standard," Wheatley said at a press conference with supporters. "You’ve heard me over and over again, year after year, talk about this important issue. For some, it’s an economic question. For others, it’s a question around access and opportunity. But the baseline of why I’ve been harping on this for as long as I have is the social and criminal justice reform aspects." The bill would allow people 21 and over to buy and possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to three mature and three immature plants with a permit. It would also free marijuana prisoners and expunge records of past pot offenses. Fifteen percent of marijuana tax revenues would go to community reinvestment, another 15 percent for substance treatment programs, and 70 percent for the state's general fund. Similar legislation is being drafted in the state Senate, but the legislature remains in the control of Republicans, who have so far opposed advancing any legalization measures.

Drug Policy

DEA Warns of Sharp Increase in Fake Prescription Pills Containing Fentanyl and Meth. The DEA "warns the American public of the alarming increase in the lethality and availability of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine. International and domestic criminal drug networks are mass-producing fake pills, falsely marketing them as legitimate prescription pills, and killing unsuspecting Americans. These counterfeit pills are easy to purchase, widely available, and often contain deadly doses of fentanyl. Pills purchased outside of a licensed pharmacy are illegal, dangerous, and potentially lethal. This alert does not apply to legitimate pharmaceutical medications prescribed by medical professionals and dispensed by pharmacists." The DEA reported a more than four-fold increase in seizures of counterfeit pills containing at least two milligrams of fentanyl, which is considered a deadly dose. The DEA warned that not only prescription opioids are being counterfeited but that methamphetamine is also being pressed into counterfeit pills. The number of drug overdose deaths last year reached 93,000, the highest number ever.

Psychedelics

Florida Democrat Files Psychedelic Research Bill. State Senate Minority Leader Lauren Brook (D) last Friday filed a bill to require the state to research the medicinal benefits of psychedelic substances such as ketamine, MDMA, and psilocybin. The bill directs the state Health Department to "conduct a study evaluating the therapeutic efficacy of alternative therapies" such as those substances, "in treating mental health and other medical conditions," such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. A companion version of the bill has been filed in the House.

Free Drugs Handed Out in Vancouver, NJ Dismisses Nearly 88,000 Marijuana Cases with More to Come, More... (7/15/21)

Ohio sees its first full-fledged marijuana legalization bill, Mississippi is moving toward a legislative special session to address medical marijuana, legalization in Israel gets stalled, and more.

Welcome to the land of expungement. Nearly 88,000 old pot cases dismissed so far, with more to come. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Dismisses Nearly 88,000 Marijuana Cases. In accordance with the state's marijuana legalization law approved by voters last November, the New Jersey Courts announced Monday that they have vacated or dismissed nearly 88,000 marijuana cases, and that is only the first batch. Superior and municipal courts have identified another 270,000 cases eligible to be vacated, dismissed, and expunged.

Ohio Sees First Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Bill Filed. For the first time, the state legislature has a marijuana legalization bill before it after Reps. Casey Weinstein (D-Hudson) and Terrence Upchurch (D-Cleveland) have filed a bill that would allow for both personal and commercial cultivation, regulate marijuana commerce, and expunge the records of people previously convicted of low-level marijuana offenses. It's been five years since the Republican-dominated legislature passed a medical marijuana law to head off a proposed legalization initiative. Another bill filed this year, House Bill 210, would have allowed personal cultivation of marijuana plants and expungement of certain marijuana offenses, but not taxed and regulated marijuana commerce. That bill has not moved. Gov. Mike DeWine (R) remains opposed to legalization.

Medical Marijuana

Mississippi Legislature Could Hold Special Session on Medical Marijuana Next Month. Mississippi House Speaker Pro Tempore Jason White (R-District 48) said Wednesday that the legislature could be ready as early as next month to go into a special session to pass a medical marijuana bill. The legislature is acting after the state Supreme Court threw out a voter-approved medical marijuana initiative because of a technical issue the legislature has failed to address for 20 years, essentially invalidating the state's initiative process. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) has said he would call a special session only after lawmakers have reached an agreement on a bill in advance. White said both the House and the Senate have been working on the issue, and he believes they would have an agreement by mid-August.

International

Vancouver City Councilwoman, Activists Hand Out Free Drugs to Highlight Problem of "Safe Supply." Vancouver Councilwoman Jean Swanson and a pair of drug user advocacy groups, Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), joined forces Wednesday to hand out free cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to drug users in the city's Downtown Eastside. The drugs had been pre-tested to ensure they did not contain contaminants such as fentanyl. The move was undertaken to highlight the problem of the city's toxic illicit drug supply. Between January and May of this year, 851 people died of drug overdoses in the city, the highest number ever reported in the first five months of a calendar year. The city and the province of British Columbia are moving toward drug decriminalization and providing a "safe supply" of drugs to users, but activists accuse them of not doing enough. In a statement handed out at the event, the groups said the free drug handout was to "raise awareness of the deeply flawed aspects of the Vancouver Model of decriminalization, including disproportionate influence of the Vancouver Police Department, unreasonably low drug thresholds, and lack of provisions for safe supply."

Israel Marijuana Legalization Bill Vote Postponed as Arab Coalition Party Says It is Not Yet Ready to Support It. Israel's fractious and narrowly divided politics is having an impact on marijuana legalization legislation, as the ruling coalition has had to put off a Wednesday vote on a marijuana legalization bill after the Islamist Ra'am Party, which for the first time is part of a governing coalition, has said it needed more time to study the bill. Ra'am head Mansour Abbas asked bill sponsor New Hope Member of the Knesset Sharren Haskel for a two-week delay while his party studies the bill. It has been approved Sunday by Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, but now faces at least the two-week delay and, if Ra'am cannot be convinced to support it, dying in the Knesset.

With Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Bill, Canada Seeks an Off-Ramp from the War on Drugs [FEATURE]

On February 16, Canada's governing Liberal Party finally moved to enact long-promised reforms to criminal justice by introducing a sweeping new bill that would make arrests for drug possession only one option for police, end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, end some other mandatory minimums, and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But is it enough?

Canadian parliament building, Ottawa (Creative Commons)
The government's move comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces mounting pressure for reform on two fronts. First, Canada is facing an unprecedented drug overdose crisis, with the province of British Columbia especially hard-hit. Last year, the provincial Coroners Service reported, BC saw a whopping 1,716 drug overdose deaths, up a startling 74 percent over 2019. The province has always been on the cutting edge of drug reform in Canada, and spurred by the crisis, BC formally asked the federal government in early February for an exemption to the country's drug laws to allow it to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of drugs. That request is still being considered by Ottawa.

But the pressure for drug decriminalization isn't just coming from British Columbia, it's coming from inside the criminal justice system. In July 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called for drug decriminalization, recommending the "current enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system." The following month, the federal prosecution service issued a directive permitting prosecution of drug cases only in the most serious cases.

And public opinion supports decriminalization. An Angus Reid poll released after the government announced the new bill found that seven out of 10 Canadians felt the country's opioid crisis had worsened in 2020, and 59 percent supported the decriminalization of all illegal drugs.

Second, just as last summer's massive protests in the United States channeled and amplified long-standing demands for racial and social justice here, so they echoed north of the border. Canada has its own not-so-noble history of racism and discrimination, and the number of Black and Indigenous people swept up in the country's criminal justice system demonstrates that the legacy of the past continues to this day.

Indigenous people make up 5% of the Canadian population but accounted for 25% of all federal prisoners in 2019. Similarly, Black Canadians accounted for about 3% of the population but more than 7% of prisoners that year. As the Justice Ministry noted in a 2017 report, after Conservatives passed tough anti-crime measures early this century, Black and Indigenous were disproportionately targeted for mandatory minimum sentencing in the decade ending in 2017. And as the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported, non-white inmates are more likely to sent to maximum security prisons, have forced used against them, and be denied parole.

As the government rolled out the bill, C-22, "An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act," Justice Minister David Lametti made clear that not just public health but also racial justice was on its mind.

Trudeau had asked him to "address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system," he told a press conference. "We are turning the page on a failed Conservative criminal justice policy," he added. "It was an approach that did not make our communities safer. It did not deter criminals. It did not make the justice system more effective or more fair. Its singular accomplishment has been to incarcerate too many Indigenous people, too many Black people and too many marginalized Canadians."

The bill envisions reforms in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing drug offenders and sets out statements of principle for dealing with drug offenses, including "problematic drug use should be addressed primarily as a health and social issue," state actors should recognize human rights and harm reduction imperatives, and criminal sanctions are stigmatizing and not consistent with public health practice.

Under these principles, when encountering people using or possessing drugs, police would be granted the discretion to "consider whether it would be preferable... to take no further action, or warn the individual, or, with the consent of the individual, to refer the individual to a program or to an agency or other service provider in the community that may assist the individual."

Similarly, the bill mandates the prosecutors open drug possession cases only when a warning, referral, or alternate measures are "not appropriate, and a prosecution in appropriate in the circumstances." And it gives judges much broader discretion to order probationary sentences instead of confinement.

C-22 looks as if it were designed to cut off inputs to the Canadian prison system at every level of the system. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has represented Toronto's Beaches-East York riding (district) since 2015 and is a longtime proponent of full drug decriminalization, says that is exactly what it is supposed to do.

He filed private member's bills this session for decriminalization (C-235) and for an evidence-based diversion model (C-236) to reduce drug arrests and prosecutions. It is that latter bill that the government has now largely adopted as C-22.

"I favor drug decriminalization because the war on drugs is an absolute failure that harms the people we want to help," he told the Chronicle. "Our opioid crisis has taken more than 16,000 lives since 2016, and there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system, including around drug charges."

"My goal was to call for full decriminalization, with a second bill to show the government if they weren't inclined to favor decriminalization, here's an alternative that would get us closer to the goal and would be more politically feasible. This bill seriously restricts the discretion of police and prosecutors to proceed, according to a set of principles that will ensure a stronger focus on human rights and harm reduction," he said. "It doesn't go as far as I want it to go, but it is unquestionably a step forward. It will be virtually impossible for the state to move forward with drug possession charges and prosecutions."

Donald Macpherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and author of Vancouver's groundbreaking Four Pillars drug strategy in the 1990s, has a more jaundiced view of both the Liberals and C-22.

"The things that are in this bill are all things the Liberals promised when they were elected in 2015, and if they had done this then it would have been seen as a good move, getting rid of egregious stuff the Harper government had implemented," he told the Chronicle. "But now, the discussion has moved so far that even police chiefs are calling for decriminalization. It's too little, too late."

Even the limited support he gave the bill was filled with caveats.

"Overall, though, it is a good thing, it is incremental progress, getting rid of the mandatory minimums is probably the most powerful aspect in terms of criminal law," McPherson conceded. "But the bill was supposed to deal with the disproportionate impact of drug law enforcement on people of color, and it won't do it. There will be more probationary sentences and more alternatives to imprisonment, but arrests and prosecutions will be 'at the discretion of' and Black and Indigenous people will now be caught up in kinder, gentler diversion programs."

Still, passage of C-22 would be a step in the right direction, Macpherson said.

"It is preparing the ground for the next step, full decriminalization, which I think is now inevitable. The harms of criminalization in Canada are now so evident to everyone that the question now is not whether to but how to," he said. "We saw this with cannabis -- at a certain point, the change in the discourse was palpable. We're now at that point with drug decriminalization."

Long-time Vancouver drug user activist Ann Livingston, cofounder of the pioneering Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and currently executive project coordinator for the BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, had an even more jaundiced view than Macpherson, scoffing at more police discretion and expanded probationary sentences.

"I'm glad to see the mandatory minimums gone, but the Liberals want more police, and we say don't do us any more favors," she told the Chronicle. "And the police have always had discretion to not make drug arrests; they just never exercise it. And probation -- many of the people in jail are there for probation violations, even administrative ones, like missing appointments."

For Livingston, the cutting edge is now no longer criminal justice reforms or even decriminalization but creating a safe supply of currently illegal drugs. Limited opioid maintenance programs, including heroin, are available in the city, but they aren't enough, she said.

"Here in British Columbia, we had 900 COVID deaths last year and 1,700 overdose deaths. What we need is a safe drug supply," she argued. "We have to have clear demands and what we are demanding is a pure, safe supply of heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth. This is a crisis; this is the time to do this drug law stuff right. And to get serious. The feds tell us they place no barriers on heroin prescribing, but then they fight about who is going to pay for it."

If Justin Trudeau and the Liberals think passing C-22 is going to quiet the clamor for more fundamental change in Canadian drug policies, they should probably think again.

Canada

Book Review: Drug Use for Grown-Ups

Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, by Carl Hart (2021, Penguin Press, 290 pp., $28.00 HB)

Dr. Carl Hart is a one-man drug and drug user destigmatization machine. In his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, the Columbia University psychology professor blasts drug prohibition as both an affront to the American dream of the pursuit of happiness and as a tool of racial oppression. And he makes a strong, informed argument that recreational drug use can be, and usually is, a good thing.

You could hardly find someone more qualified to make the case. Hart has spent years in the trenches of neuropsychopharmacology research, handed out drugs (or placebos) to thousands of research subjects, published numerous scientific papers and popular articles in the field, and risen to the top of his profession along the way. And here is his bottom line:

"[O]ver my more than 25-year career, I have discovered that most drug-use scenarios cause little or no harm and that some responsible drug-scenarios are actually beneficial for human health and functioning. Even 'recreational' drugs can and do improve day-to-day living... From my own experience -- the combination of my scientific work and my personal drug use, I have learned that recreational drugs can be used safely to enhance many vital human activities."

Hart is refreshingly -- and deliberately -- open about his own recreational drug use. Given the stigmatization and persecution of people identified as "drug users," he feels that justice demands privileged partakers come out of the closet and give voice to their own, non-destructive drug use histories as a necessary remedy for that demonization. He certainly does so himself, revealing a disciplined yet curious mind most definitely not averse to sampling various substances.

Those substances include heroin, which he describes as his current favorite drug, one that he's been using episodically for years now: "There aren't many things in life that I enjoy more than a few lines by the fireplace at the end of the day... Heroin allows me to suspend the perpetual preparation for battle that goes on in my head... The world is alright with me. I'm good. I'm refreshed. I'm prepared to face another day, another faculty meeting, another obligatory function. All parties benefit."

But Hart is not quite so mellow when it comes to people and institutions he sees as helping to perpetuate overly negative depictions of various drugs or the persecution of drug users. He rips into Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) over her "addiction is a brain disease" mantra and the rigid ideological control she has over research funding. He rips into journalists for uncritically and sensationally reporting salacious scientific findings about the evils of drugs that he argues are not supported by the evidence they are supposedly based on. He even calls Bernie Sanders "ignorant" (that word shows up more than a few times) for complaining that marijuana shouldn't be in the same drug schedule as "killer drugs like heroin."

Dr. Carl Hart (Columbia University)
Hart doesn't deny the potential dangers of drug use but makes the case that they are dramatically overstated. In that sense, Drug Use for Grown-Ups is a corrective to more than a century of anti-drug propaganda. In a deep dive into opioids, for instance, he notes that most opioid overdose deaths are actually opioid/benzodiazepines/alcohol deaths, and that a large number of them are due to ignorance (there's that word again) -- in that, in the black market that currently exists, drug users do not and cannot know what exactly is in that pill or powder they purchased.

As long as we are in a prohibition regime, the least we can do is widespread drug testing for quality control, as is done at some European music festivals, Hart argues. But that's the only kind of drug testing he's down with; he calls the urine drug testing industry "parasitic," a sobriquet he also applies to the drug treatment industry.

But hang on, he's not done yet. Although he is an advocate for harm reduction practices, he has a bone to pick with the term itself: It's too damned negative! Drug use doesn't typically involve harm, he argues, but pleasure-seeking. As I pondered this, I came up with "benefit enhancement" as an upbeat alternative to harm reduction, but Hart went with "health and happiness."

And he's got a bone to pick with "psychedelic exceptionalism," the notion, dear to folks like Decriminalize Nature, that psychedelics, or better yet, "plant entheogens," are somehow "better" than dirty old drugs like meth or heroin and thus deserve to be treated differently, more gently. He also snarks at the notion that taking drugs for spiritual or religious purposes is of a higher order than taking them for fun and rebels at the notion of having a shaman or guide during a tripping session: "Some people find this comforting. I find it creepy and have never done so myself."

Drug Use for Grown-Ups is bracing, informative, and provocative contribution to the literature. Even the most ardent drug reformers and defenders would benefit from reading it and reexamining their own assumptions. Maybe Carl Hart is onto something.

House Postpones Marijuana Legalization Vote Until After Election Day, BC Expands "Safe Supply" of Drugs, More... (9/17/20)

There will be no House vote on marijuana legalization until after the election, Vermont lawmakers reach agreement on regulated legal marijuana sales, British Columbia moves to expand access to a "safe supply" of drugs to replace street drugs, and more.

The House punts on passing marijuana legalization right now. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Postpones Vote on Marijuana Legalization Bill Until After Election Day. A House Democratic member and several aides said Thursday that a pending vote on the MORE Act marijuana legalization and expungement bill will not happen until after Election Day. The bill was set to be voted on next week, but there were already reports that it would be pushed back to allow the House to concentrate on getting a pandemic relief package passed. Some moderate House Democrats have been expressing concern that passing a marijuana bill before the relief bill was passed would leave them open to attacks by Republicans.

Pennsylvania Governor Reiterates Call for Marijuana Legalization. At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) once again pleaded with lawmakers to move on legalizing marijuana in the state. Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and have said legalization is not on the table. "The COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormous disruptions to Pennsylvania's economy, and with the additional federal aid stagnating in Congress, we need to do everything we can right here in Harrisburg right now, to help ourselves recover from this pandemic," Wolf said. "Some states that have legalized adult use cannabis have received literally hundreds of millions of dollars in additional revenue."

Vermont: Lawmakers Finalize Marijuana Retail Sales Legislation. A legislative conference committee has finalized an agreement on Senate Bill 54, which would allow for the regulated commercial production and retail sale of marijuana to adults. Now, the revised language must be approved by the House and Senate and then be signed by Gov. Phil Scott (R).

International

British Columbia Moves to Increase "Safe Supply" of Drugs. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry issued a public-health order on Wednesday that will allow registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe, make more medications available, and expand eligibility to people who are at risk of overdose, including those who may not necessarily be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. "We know the pandemic has only made the street drug supply in BC more toxic than ever, putting people who use drugs at extremely high risk for overdose," Dr. Henry said in a statement. "Giving physicians and nurse practitioners the ability to prescribe safer pharmaceutical alternatives has been critical to saving lives and linking more people to treatment and other health and social services." Since the COVID crisis began, the province already allowed doctors to prescribe take-home doses of pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs. Now, they will be available to anyone at risk of overdose.

Dem Congresswomen File COVID Decarceration Bill, Vancouver Activists Rally for Safe Drug Supply, More... (6/23/20)

Iowa's capital and largest city moves toward marijuana law reform, Vancouver activists march to demand a safe drug supply, progressive Democratic congresswomen roll out a public health-minded bill to reduce incarceration, and more.

The InSite safe injection site in Vancouver. Now activists are calling for a safer drug supply, too. (vch.ca)
Marijuana Policy

Des Moines Creates Task Force to Study Marijuana Decriminalization. Iowa's capital and largest city is moving toward making enforcement of marijuana possession the lowest law enforcement priority. On Monday night, the city council took the first step in that process by voting unanimously to create a task force to study marijuana decriminalization. That task force will study the issue and make recommendations to the council by October 1. The resolution was part of an anti-racial profiling ordinance also unanimously passed by the council Monday.

Psychedelics

Iowa Amendment to Decriminalize Psilocybin Defeated. State Rep. Jeff Shipley (R-Fairfield) last week filed an amendment to a budget bill that would have removed psilocybin and psilocin from the state's controlled substances list. But members questioned how germane the amendment was to the budget bill and the presiding officer agreed, ruling the measure "not germane." Still, it got a vote and was handily defeated,76-17. Shipley last year filed a bill to legalize psilocybin and MDMA for medical use.

Sentencing Policy

Democratic Congresswomen File Bill to Dismantle Mass Incarceration. Last week, Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (MI), Ayanna Pressley (MA), and Barbara Lee (CA) introduced the as yet unnumbered Dismantle Mass Incarceration for Public Health Act, which would require the release of eligible individuals who are currently in custody in a jail or prison during the COVID-19 crisis and for one year after the crisis ends. "This pandemic should not be a death sentence for anyone," said Congresswoman Tlaib. "We already know that Black and Brown folks are disproportionately affected by this virus outside prison walls. We also know that they’ve been disproportionately incarcerated for decades. These factors make for a unique urgency to get this bill passed, so we ensure incarcerated individuals and their loved ones have a fighting chance to see each other again."

International

Vancouver Activists Rally and March in Downtown Eastside for Safe Drug Supply. With last month being the deadliest for drug overdoses in years with more than 170 dead in the city, Vancouver activists rallied and marched through the Downtown Eastside, the epicenter of hard drug use in the city, to demand access to a safe supply of drugs for users. While acknowledging federal and provincial government efforts to ease access to such drugs, lockdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic have resulted in interruptions to the drug supply and led to the local manufacture of substitutes cut with more dangerous and toxic ingredients. The rally was led by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

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)

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