Addiction Treatment

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Can Magic Mushrooms Treat Cocaine Dependency?

The hunt for a pharmacological agent to help people strung out on cocaine get off the marching powder has been a long one, and non-traditional types of treatments are among the possibilities being studied. Ibogaine is one pharmacological therapy being studied. Another is href="https://www.uab.edu/news/research/item/9565-study-can-taking-a-hallucinogen-curb-cocaine-use" target=_blank_>psilocybin, the chemical that puts the magic in magic mushrooms.

Scientists at the University of Alabama-Birmingham's (UAB) School of Public Health are now conducting a clinical trial to see whether psilocybin can help break cocaine addiction.

The trial currently has almost 20 people enrolled, but researchers are looking for more subjects -- people who are currently using cocaine and have a strong desire to quit.

"Our goal is to create a tool or drug that provides significantly better outcomes for individuals addicted to cocaine than those that currently exist," said Sara Lappan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Health Behavior

In the trial, participants receive a dose of psilocybin and are monitored for six hours, about the duration of the experience. Then, the researchers track his or her cocaine use.

"Our idea is that six hours of being under the effects of psilocybin may be as productive as 10 years of traditional therapy," Lappan said.

The researchers theorize that psilocybin works on three levels: the biochemical, the psychological, and the spiritual. In terms of biochemistry, psilocybin disrupts brain receptors thought to reinforce addictive behaviors. Psychologically, the drug is believed to reduce cravings, increase motivation, and increase one's sense of self-efficacy. Spiritually -- or transcendentally -- psilocybin (along with other psychedelics) is thought to increase both a person's sense of purpose and his or her sense of universal connectedness or oneness.

"If our hypotheses are supported, this has the potential to revolutionize the fields of psychology and psychiatry in terms of how we treat addiction," Lappan said.

But don't run out and start gobbling down magic mushrooms to quit cocaine just yet, the researchers cautioned.

"We aren't advocating for everyone to go out and do it," said Peter Hendricks, Ph.D., associate professor of health behavior in the School of Public Health at UAB. "What we are saying is that this drug, like every other drug, could have appropriate use in a medical setting. We want to see whether it helps treat cocaine use disorder."

They're not the only ones looking into the secrets of psilocybin. UAB is one of a half-dozen universities studying its potential medicinal benefits. The others are Johns Hopkins University, Imperial College London, New York University, University of California-San Francisco and Yale.

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

Different Psychedelics Share a Common Trait: Enhancing ‘Neural Plasticity"

New research suggests that different classes of psychedelic drugs all share the tendency to promote the growth of new brain cells, especially the kind that reach out and forge connections with other brain cells. This finding could help explain both the mind-expanding properties of the drugs and the mechanisms by which they appear to act as valuable treatments for a broad range of psychiatric disorders.

Earlier research had identified the dissociative anesthetic ketamine as promoting growth in key brain cells (as well as being a fast-acting and effective treatment for depression), but this new research finds similar effects in amphetamine-based psychedelics such as DOI (2,5-dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine), ergoline psychedelics (such as LSD), and tryptamines (such as DMT).

Using experiments in cell culture and with animals, researchers led by Dr. David Olson of the University of California at Davis found that various classes of hallucinogenic drugs acted on the structure and function of cortical neurons using the same mechanisms as ketamine. The findings could point to new treatment approaches for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction, the researchers wrote last Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Cell Reports.

"The state-of-the-art, prototypical, fast-acting antidepressant is ketamine -- a compound that promotes neural plasticity and repairs circuits involved in mood and anxiety disorders," Olson told MedPage Today. "Our work demonstrates that psychedelics produce comparable effects on neuronal structure and function, providing a potential explanation for why MDMA, psilocybin, and ayahuasca seem to have antidepressant and anxiolytic effects in the clinic."

Using test tubes, as well as rats and fruit fly larvae, the researchers found that all of these classes of psychedelics increased "neural plasticity," the ability to create new connections among brain cells. The drugs all excited the growth of dendritic spines and axons, the cerebral hangers-on that brain cells use to reach out and create connections, or synapses, with other brain cells.

That's the opposite of what happens with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. The current theory is that these disorders may occur when neurites retract, not allowing brain cells to connect at synapses.

"One of the hallmarks of depression is that the neurites in the prefrontal cortex -- a key brain region that regulates emotion, mood, and anxiety -- those neurites tend to shrivel up," Olson said in a statement.

Olson's research found that the neural plasticity effect found with ketamine was also "remarkably potent" with even very small doses of LSD, which could help explain the popularity of "microdosing" among people seeking happier and more creative lives. Chemical compounds that mimicked psilocybin and MDMA also increased neural plasticity on the same level as ketamine, and that could mean new opportunities for researchers working with psychiatric disorders.

The studies also showed that the effect outlasted the action of the drugs. In rats, for example, psilocybin produced results that lasted for hours after the drug had left the body. Similarly, rats given a single dose of DMT not only saw an increase in dendritic spines similar to ketamine but saw that effect last for 24 hours when the drug itself had been eliminated within one hour.

This is potentially very good news for researchers working on treatments for anxiety, depression, and addiction, which all seem to act on the same brain circuits.

"Prior to this study, there was only one player in town and that was ketamine. This opens up some new doors," Olson said. "As the diversity of chemical structures capable of producing ketamine-like plasticity effects continues to grow, so does my hope that we will find a safe and effective fast-acting treatment for depression," he said.

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

Chronicle AM: House Passes "Dangerous" SITSA Act, NY Adds MedMJ for Opioids, More... (6/18/18)

Arizona Republicans go one way, Texas Republicans go another; the House passes the SITSA Act, New York will allow medical marijuana for opioid use, and more.

The House has passed a new, old school drug war bill. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Poll: Arizona Republicans Still Don't Like Weed. A new poll from OH Predictive Insights finds that nearly three-quarters of state Republican primary voters oppose marijuana legalization. Only 21% were in favor. Still, a marijuana legalization nearly passed statewide in 2016.

Top New York Health Official Says Cuomo Panel Will Endorse Legalization. Dr. Howard Zucker, the state's top health regulator, said Monday a Cuomo administration panel will recommend that the state legalize marijuana. "We looked at the pros. We looked at the cons… the pros outweigh the cons," Zucker said of the panel's work.

Texas GOP Endorses Marijuana Decriminalization, More. At the party's state convention this past weekend, delegates approved platform planks calling for the decriminalization of marijuana possession, support for hemp farming, expanding access to medical marijuana, and calling for the rescheduling of marijuana.

Medical Marijuana

New York Health Department of Health Announces Opioid Use to be Added as a Qualifying Condition for Medical Marijuana. The Health Department on Monday announced it will develop a regulatory amendment to add opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. "The opioid epidemic in New York State is an unprecedented crisis, and it is critical to ensure that providers have as many options as possible to treat patients in the most effective way," said New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. "As research indicates that marijuana can reduce the use of opioids, adding opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana has the potential to help save countless lives across the state." Opioid use joins 12 other qualifying conditions under the state's Medical Marijuana Program. Currently, patients can be eligible if they have been diagnosed with one or more of the following severe debilitating or life-threatening conditions: cancer; HIV infection or AIDS; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); Parkinson's disease; multiple sclerosis; spinal cord injury with spasticity; epilepsy; inflammatory bowel disease; neuropathy; Huntington's disease; post-traumatic stress disorder; or chronic pain.

Drug Policy

House Passes SITSA Act. Over the protests of drug reform and other groups, the House last Friday approved HR 2851, the Stop Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act. The bill has already passed out of committee and awaits a House floor vote. The bill is an old-school drug war response to new psychoactive substances that relies heavily on the criminal justice system. The Drug Policy Alliance called the bill "dangerous" because it grants the Justice Department "broad new powers to ban synthetic analog drugs, decide what the sentences should be, and take away the requirement for Congressional oversight that has been in place for 40 years." The bill now heads to the Senate.

International

France Poll for First Time Finds Majority for Marijuana Legalization. A new poll from the Institut français d'opinion publique (Ifop) for Terra Nova and Echo Citoyen, a think tank and a citizens' political group, for the first time reports a majority for legalization. The poll had support at 51%, with 40% opposed and 9% undecided. The poll marks a "turning point," said Thierry Pech, head of Terra Nova. "French people made the finding that prohibition and repression did not work to preserve the health of users," Pech said. Under current French law, pot possession is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of more than $4,000.

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.

Chronicle AM: NY Dems Endorse Marijuana Legalization, Surgeon General Talks Harm Reduction, More... (5/24/18)

The US Surgeon General has some surprisingly frank words about harm reduction and evidence-based drug policy, Cory Booker's Marijuana Justice Act picks up another sponsor, Arizona's Supreme Court throws out a state law criminalizing the use and possession of medical marijuana on campus and more.

The section on the Surgeon General's comments has an update, including a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services on the safe injection sites mention.

US Surgeon General Jerome Adams talks harm reduction and evidence-based opioid treatment. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Jeff Merkley Signs on to Federal Marijuana Justice Act. And then there were five. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has become the fifth cosponsor of Sen. Cory Booker's Marijuana Justice Act (S. 1689). The other cosponsors are Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Ro Khanna (D-CA) introduced a companion measure, H.R. 4815, in the House of Representatives earlier this year that has 35 cosponsors.

New York Democratic Party Officially Endorses Marijuana Legalization. Delegates to the state Democratic convention Wednesday adopted a resolution supporting marijuana legalization: "The New York State Democratic Committee supports the legalization of marijuana which should be regulated and taxed in a manner similar to alcohol," reads a resolution. The resolution adds that legalization is "an important social justice issue."

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Supreme Court Okays Medical Marijuana on College Campuses. The court ruled Wednesday that the state can't criminally charge card-carrying medical marijuana patients for possessing and using their medicine on campus. In Arizona v. Maestas, the court held that a 2012 law banning medical marijuana on campus violated the state's protections for voter-approved laws. The Supreme Court ruling upholds an appellate court ruling that also found in Maestas' favor.

Ohio Dispensary License Announcement Delayed. The state Board of Pharmacy announced Tuesday that its planned announcement of dispensary license awards Wednesday has been postponed and that provisional licenses will instead be issued in June. Legal medical marijuana sales are supposed to begin on September 8. Stay tuned.

Pennsylvania Judge Halts Medical Marijuana Research Program. A Commonwealth Court judge has granted a temporary injunction sought by numerous dispensaries and growers and processors to halt the state's medical marijuana research program. The plaintiffs worry that the regulations for the clinical research programs would give an unfair advantage to clinical research partners and growers. The Health Department is now pondering next steps.

Hemp

Illinois Governor Gets Bill Legalizing Industrial Hemp. With a 106-3 House vote Wednesday, the legislature has approved a bill legalizing industrial hemp, Senate Bill 2298. Now it's up to Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) to sign it.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

US Surgeon General Urges ER Docs to Advocate for Evidence-Based Opioid Treatment. US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams called Wednesday on emergency room physicians to advocate more vigorously for evidence-based opioid treatment, including harm reduction measures. Adams supported such harm reduction interventions as needle exchanges and safe injection sites. [The Department of Health and Human Services has issued a statement claiming that Dr. Adams does not support safe injection sites, and contesting the evidence on them. See update below.] He urged doctors to reach out to and educate stakeholders in their communities. "We have to understand that these policy interventions look different in different parts of the country," Adams said. "We have to understand that public policy means public and that we have to be able to go there and show them that we care before we can share what we know."

Update: A Department of Health and Human Services officer contacted us on Saturday, March 26th, claiming that the report news outlets relied on, including the one we linked to, was inaccurate in stating that Dr. Adams supports safe injection sites. We do not have other reports on his speech at this time to go on. The article linked above has been updated to include a copy of the HHS statement:

"The Administration and the Surgeon General do not support so-called 'safe' injection sites as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and its consequences. In addition, there is no evidence to demonstrate that these illegal sites reduce drug use or significantly improve health outcomes for those with opioid use disorder. So-called 'safe' injection sites lack the necessary scientific support to be considered a standardized evidence-based practice in the U.S."

Another article states that Adams mentioned safe injection sites as being "part of the conversation" in some communities.

Ed: We are in a position to address the administration's characterization of the evidence on safe injection sites, and it is false to the point of absurdity. There is significant evidence that safe injection sites improve health outcomes for persons with opioid use disorders. In fact, multiple journal articles to this effect are available on the website of the National Institutes of Health, a division of Health and Human Services. Here are a few of them:

  • A 2017 study in Canadian Family Physician found that "SISs are associated with lower overdose mortality (88 fewer overdose deaths per 100 000 person-years [PYs]), 67% fewer ambulance calls for treating overdoses, and a decrease in HIV infections."
  • A 2017 article in Harm Reduction Journal notes with citations that evaluation of Vancouver's Insite program showed it was "meeting its objectives of reducing public disorder, infectious disease transmission, and overdose and was successfully referring individuals to a range of external programs, including detoxification and addiction treatment programs.". The article further states that "over 40 peer-reviewed studies have been published which speak to the many benefits and lack of negative impacts of this site."
  • A 2008 article in the American Journal of Public Health reported that the supervised injection facilities in Sydney and Vancouver were "negatively associated with needle sharing... and positively associated with less-frequent reuse of syringes... less outdoor injecting... using clean water for injection... cooking or filtering drugs prior to injecting... and injecting in a clean location," that "[b]oth... were effective gateways for addiction treatment, counseling, and other services," and that there were no "reported overdose deaths in a SIF."
  • A 2014 article in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that "[s]eventy-five relevant articles... converged to find that SISs were efficacious in attracting the most marginalized PWID, promoting safer injection conditions, enhancing access to primary health care, and reducing the overdose frequency" and that "SISs were found to be associated with reduced levels of public drug injections and dropped syringes."
  • A 2008 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found "Vancouver's supervised injection site is associated with improved health and cost savings."
  • A 2010 article in Addiction found that if Vancouver's supervised injection facility "were closed, the annual number of incident HIV infections among Vancouver IDU would be expected to increase from 179.3 to 262.8. These 83.5 preventable infections are associated with $17.6 million (Canadian) in lifetime HIV-related medical care costs, greatly exceeding Insite's operating costs, which are approximately $3 million per year."

Chronicle AM: 2019 Ohio Init Gears Up, Fed Treatment Bill Advances, More... (5/19/18)

Michigan legalization initiative foes urge the legislature to legalize it, an Ohio legalization initiative can begin signature gathering, a federal drug treatment bill exclusively targeting opioids advances, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Michigan Legalization Initiative Foes Urge Legislature to Pass Legalization. In a surprise move, a campaign committee formed to oppose the pending marijuana legalization initiative is now asking the legislature to preemptively pass legalization. Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods and Schools issued a press release Thursday calling on the legislature to approve the initiative. Under state law, the legislature can just pass the initiative, or, if it rejects it or fails to act, the initiative would go before voters in November. State Republicans worry that interest in the initiative will drive turnout at the polls, worsening their chances in the election.

Ohio Legalization Initiative Cleared for Signature Gathering. The state Ballot Board on Thursday cleared a legalization initiative, the Marijuana Rights and Regulation Act, for signature gathering. Campaigners need to come up with some 305,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the initiative. The deadline to make the November ballot is in July, but campaigners say there are instead aiming at 2019.

Medical Marijuana

House Panel Approves Medical Marijuana Protections. The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved an amendment from Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) to continue to protect state-legal medical marijuana programs from federal interference. The amendment is now part of the House's Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations bill. The amendment, previously known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, bars the expenditure of federal funds to go after state-legal medical marijuana.

Illinois Legislature Approves Medical Marijuana in Schools. The Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would allow for the use of medical marijuana in elementary and middle schools. The bill has already passed the House and now goes to the desk of Gov. Bruce Rauner (R). The bill would let parents administer marijuana-infused products, but not smoked marijuana, to their child on school grounds.

Missouri Medical Marijuana Bill Dies. A medical marijuana bill, House Bill 1554, has died in conference committee, leaving the path open for at least one medical marijuana initiative to go before the voters in November. The bill came as an amendment to a healthcare bill and would only have allowed patients with terminal illnesses to use non-smokable marijuana.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

House Panel Advances Bill to Expand Drug Treatment, But Only for Opioids. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Thursday advanced a bill that would free up Medicaid dollars for spending on treatment for opioid addictions, but some lawmakers warned that the country is facing a polydrug crisis. "I'm troubled that this bill would expand treatment only to people with opioid use disorder as opposed to those with other substance use disorders like alcohol, crack-cocaine, methamphetamine," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). "This bill is not only blind to the reality faced by people suffering from substance use disorder but it's also discriminatory." The measure is HR 5797.

Chronicle AM: NYC Marijuana Arrest Disparities Continue, Drug Protests Shake Tbilisi, More ... (5/14/18)

New York City has yet to escape from racially disproportionate marijuana arrests, the Mormon Church picks a fight with medical marijuana, nursing homes can't discriminate against people taking addiction medications, protests rock the capital of Georgia after a massive weekend drug bust, and more.

NYPD seems to think marijuana users only come in the colors black and brown. (IRIN)
Marijuana Policy

Oklahoma Legalization Initiative Campaign Getting Underway. A Tulsa-based group calling itself Green the Vote is now collecting signatures for a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. Campaigners will need nearly 124,000 valid voter signatures by September 8 to qualify for the November ballot. A medical marijuana initiative is already set to go before the voters next month.

New York City Pot Bust Racial Disparities Aren't Going Away. A major investigation by the New York Times has found continued racial disparities in marijuana enforcement and arrests in every neighborhood in the City. "Across the city, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people over the past three years. Hispanic people were arrested at five times the rate of white people. In Manhattan, the gap is even starker: Black people there were arrested at 15 times the rate of white people."

Medical Marijuana

Mormon Church Ups the Ante in Fight Against Utah Medical Marijuana Initiative. The church last Friday doubled down on its opposition to the medical marijuana initiative set for the November ballot. The church released a seven-page memorandum raising dozens of complaints it says "raises grave concerns about this initiative and the serious adverse consequences that could follow if it were adopted."

Drug Treatment

Justice Department: Nursing Facilities Can't Exclude Patients Using Addiction Medication. The Justice Department has reached a settlement with a skilled nursing facility in which the facility agreed to pay a fine for excluding a patient because the patient was being treated for opioid use disorder with suboxone and agreed not to discriminate in the future. "Our office is committed to protecting the rights of people with disabilities, which includes those in treatment for an Opioid Use Disorder," United States Attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling said. "As Massachusetts faces this overdose epidemic, now more than ever, individuals in recovery must not face discriminatory barriers to treatment."

International

Taliban Kill Dozens of Afghan Police in Opium Trafficking Areas. In attacks late last week, Taliban fighters attacking Afghan police bases in Farah province, killing more than 30 police. The province, in the west of the country, contains vital opium smuggling routes into neighboring Iran. Opium from Afghanistan's primary opium province, Helmand, moves north into Farah before heading for the Iranian border.

Georgia Sees Mass Protests After Weekend Mass-Arrest Drug Raids. The capital, Tbilisi, was rocked by mass protests all weekend long after interior ministry police raided two popular nightclubs and arrested more than 60 people on drug charges. Protesters were demanding the freedom of those arrested and a liberalization of the country's drug policies, and were only persuaded to stop -- at least until next weekend -- after Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia promised the government would start working on drug reforms today. The protests also saw the emergence of ultra-rightist thugs who came out to counter-demonstrate.

Chronicle AM: British Medical Journal Calls for Drug Legalization, Ohio Marijuana Init, More... (5/11/28)

One of the world's most prestigious medical journals comes out for drug legalization, an Ohio legalization initiative aimed at 2019 gets initial approval, Quebec will take a look at festival pill testing, and more.

What's in those Ecstasy pills? Quebec may start a pilot pill testing program at festivals to help users find out. (Erowid)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Has Final Public Hearing on Marijuana Legalization Saturday. A meeting tomorrow in Paramus will be the last chance for members of the public to get their opinions on marijuana legalization heard by legislators. The Assembly Oversight, Reform, and Federal Relations Committee will take testimony from invited speakers and the public on the impact at the meeting at Bergen Community College at 10:00am.

Ohio Attorney General Okays Legalization Initiative. State Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) has certified a marijuana legalization as being "fair and truthful," the first step in putting the measure before voters. The Marijuana Rights and Regulations Act now goes to the Ohio Ballot Board, which will determine if it constitutes one or multiple ballot questions. If approved by the board, campaigners would then have to gather nearly 306,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. But because the deadline for signatures for initiatives appearing on the 2018 ballot is July, campaigners are instead aiming for the 2019 ballot.

Medical Marijuana

Michigan to Now Regulate CBD Oil as Marijuana. State regulators announced Thursday that CBD cannabis oil products will be covered by the state's medical marijuana laws. The Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs declared that state law allows for the use of CBD cannabis oil -- if it comes from marijuana plants, not hemp plants. "We received lots of questions about if CBD was going to be regulated along with marijuana and how hemp plays into that," said department spokesman David Harns. "Now is the right time to send out an advisory bulletin."

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Minnesota Senate Approves Bill to Fund Opioid Treatment With Drug Company Fees. The Senate voted 60-6 Thursday to approve Senate File 730, which would raise $20 million a year from licensing fees on drug distributors and manufacturers to fund opioid treatment. A companion measure in the House awaits a final committee vote before heading to the House floor.

International

British Medical Journal Calls for Drug Legalization. The BMJ, one of the world's most prestigious medical journals, on Thursday published an editorial calling for illegal drugs to be legalized, taxed, and regulated. The editorial cited a BMJ opinion piece by Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) UK members, as well as the recent call by the Royal Academy of Physicians for drug decriminalization. "This is not about whether you think drugs are good or bad. It is an evidence based position entirely in line with the public health approach to violent crime… The BMJ is firmly behind efforts to legalize, regulate, and tax the sale of drugs for recreational and medicinal use. This is an issue on which doctors can and should make their voices heard."

Canada's Quebec Authorizes Research into Allowing Festival Pill Testing. The Quebec Health Ministry has announced that it has authorized a $100,000 study to examine the potential outcomes of allowing people to have their drugs tested at festivals, night clubs, and LBGT venues. The study will end in 2020 and then make recommendations to the provincial government about going ahead with a pilot pill testing program. The practice is currently illegal under Canadian law unless the federal government grants an exemption.

Chronicle AM: Federal Hemp Bill Gets Fast-Tracked, Google to Vet Drug Rehab Ads, More... (4/17/18)

Google is restoring drug treatment advertising but with vetting, the federal hemp bill is moving fast, fighting over coca results in a state of emergency in a Colombian province, and more.

Sometimes it pays to be the Senate Majority leader. Mitch McConnell's hemp bill has been fast-tracked. (Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska House Votes to Limit Access to Old Marijuana Convictions. The House voted Monday to approve House Bill 316, which would not expunge old pot convictions, but would restrict access to those records. Bill sponsor Rep. Harriet Drummond (D) said she filed the bill to ensure that Alaskans are not passed over for jobs or promotions for possessing a substance that is now legal. Convictions that would be hidden would be those for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana by people 21 and over. The bill now goes to the state Senate.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Approves Vaping Flowers and Buds. State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine announced Monday she will approve the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board's recommendation to allow the sale of medical marijuana in in leaf or flower form. State law forbids patients from smoking it, but vaping would be okay.

Hemp

McConnell's Hemp Bill Gets Fast-Tracked. Sometimes it pays to be the Senate Majority leader. Sen. Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) hemp bill, Senate Bill 2667, is getting fast-tracked. Using a procedural move known as Rule 14, the bill introduced last week was placed on the Senate calendar on Monday. The move allows the bill to skip the committee process and head directly to the Senate floor. Companion legislation has been filed in the House.

Drug Treatment

Google to Vet Drug Rehab Ads. Nearly a year after it suspended advertising for drug treatment centers because of numerous deceptive and misleading ads, Google announced Monday that it would resume accepting such ads. But they will first have to be vetted by an outside firm, LegitScript of Portland, Oregon. The new rules apply to in-person treatment facilities, crisis hotlines, and support groups. They will have to pass scrutiny on numerous criteria, including criminal background checks and license and insurance verification, as well as providing written policies and procedures demonstrating a commitment to best practices, effective recovery and continuous improvement."

International

The Hague Bans Pot Smoking in the City Center. For the first time, a Dutch city has banned public pot smoking. The Hague has banned pot smoking around its city center, central railway station, and major shopping areas. The move came about because of "many complaints" from residents and visitors, a spokesman for The Hague Mayor Pauline Krikke said. Amsterdam and Rotterdam ban pot smoking near schools, but do not have general bans.

Colombian Province in State of Emergency as Rebel Groups Fight Over Coca. William Vallamizar, governor of Norte de Santander province, has declared a state of emergency because fighting between two rebel groups over control of a coca-growing region. He said a thousand families had to flee the fighting, and 4,000 children were blocked from going to school. The dispute is between leftist guerrillas of the EPL (Popular Liberation Army) and ELN (Army of National Liberation), both of which hope to take over an area that had formerly been under control of the FARC. The FARC has transformed from a guerrilla army to a political party, but its demobilization has left power vacuums in the countryside.

Australian Federal Government Rejects Green Party Call for Marijuana Legalization. The federal government isn't interested in the Green Party's call for marijuana legalization, the health minister said Tuesday, resorting to discredited myths as he did so. Health Minister Greg Hunt said the party should withdraw its suggestion because it risks the health of Australians. "Marijuana is a gateway drug. The risk of graduating to ice or to heroin from extended marijuana use is real and documented," he said.

Culture Shock: American Activists Confront Compassionate Portuguese Drug Policy [FEATURE]

The American activists couldn't wrap their heads around it. Sitting in a dingy office in a nondescript building in central Lisbon, they were being provided a fine-grained explanation of what happens to people caught with small amounts of drugs in Portugal, which decriminalized the possession of personal use amounts of drugs 17 years ago.

partial view of Lisbon, looking toward the Tagus River (Wikimedia)
The activists, having lived the American experience, wanted desperately to know when and how the coercive power of the state kicked in, how the drug users were to be punished for their transgressions, even if they had only been hit with an administrative citation, which is what happens to people caught with small quantities of drugs there.

Nuno Capaz was trying to explain. He is Vice Chairman of the Lisbon Dissuasion Commission, the three-member tribunal set up to handle people caught with drugs. He had to struggle mightily to convince the Americans that it wasn't about punishment, but about personal and public health.

"The first question," he explained, "is whether this person is a recreational user or an addict."

If the person is deemed only a recreational user, he may face a fine or a call to community service. If he is deemed an addict, treatment is recommended -- but not required.

"But what if they don't comply?" one of the activists demanded. "Don't they go to jail then?"

No, they do not. Instead, Capaz patiently explained, they may face sanctions for non-compliance, but those sanctions may be little more than a demand that they regularly present themselves to a hospital or health center for monitoring.

In a later hallway conversation, I asked Capaz about drug users who simply refused to go along or to participate at all. What happens then? I wanted to know.

Capaz shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing," he said. "I tell them to try not to get caught again."

Welcome to Portugal. The country's low-key, non-headline-generating drug policy, based on compassion, public health, and public safety, is a stark contrast with the US, as the mind-boggled response of the activists suggests.

Organized by the Drug Policy Alliance and consisting of members of local and national groups that work with the organization, as well as a handful of journalists, the group spent three days in-country last month seeing what an enlightened drug policy looks like. They met with high government officials directly involved in creating and implementing drug decriminalization, toured drug treatment, harm reduction, and mobile methadone maintenance facilities, and heard from Portuguese drug users and harm reduction workers as well.

The Portuguese Model and Its Accomplishments

They had good reason to go to Portugal. After nearly two decades of drug decriminalization, there is ample evidence that the Portuguese model is working well. Treating drug users like citizens who could possibly use some help instead of like criminals to be locked up is paying off by all the standard metrics -- as well as by not replicating the thuggish and brutal American-style war on drugs, with all the deleterious and corrosive impacts that has on the communities particularly targeted for American drug law enforcement.

Here, according to independent academic researchers, as well as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the European Monitoring Center of Drugs and Drug Abuse, is what the Portuguese have accomplished:

Drug use has not dramatically increased. Rates of past year and past month drug use have not changed significantly or have actually declined since 2001. And Portugal's drug use rates remain among the lowest in Europe, and well below those in the United States.

Both teen drug use and "problematic" drug use (people who are dependent or who inject drugs) have declined.

Drug arrests and incarceration are way down. Drug arrests have dropped by 60% (selling drugs remains illegal) and the percentage of prisoners doing time for drug offenses has dropped from 44% to 24%. Meanwhile, the number of people referred to the Dissuasion Commission has remained steady, indicating that no "net-widening" has taken place. And the vast majority of cases that go before the commission are found to be non-problematic drug users and are dismissed without sanction.

More people are receiving drug treatment -- and on demand, not by court order. The number of people receiving drug treatment increased by 60% by 2011, with most of them receiving opiate-substitution therapy (methadone). Treatment is voluntary and largely paid for by the national health system.

Drug overdose deaths are greatly reduced. Some 80 people died of drug overdoses in 2001; that number shrunk to just 16 by 2012. That's an 80% reduction in drug overdose deaths.

Drug injection-related HIV/AIDS infections are greatly reduced. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of new HIV cases shrank from nearly 1,600 to only 78. The number of new AIDS cases declined from 626 to 74.

"We came to the conclusion that the criminal system was not the best suited to deal with this situation," explained Capaz. "The best option should be referring them to treatment, but we do not force or coerce anyone. If they are willing to go, it's because they actually want to, so the success rate is really high. We can surely say that decriminalization does not increase drug usage, and that it does not mean legalizing drugs. It's still illegal to use drugs in Portugal, it's just not considered a crime. It's possible to deal with these users outside the criminal system."

Dr. Joao Goulao, who largely authored the decriminalization law and who is still General Director for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors -- the Portuguese "drug czar" -- pointed to unquantifiable positives resulting from the move: "The biggest effect," he said, "has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear."

They Take the Kids! (with them to treatment)

The American activists know all about fear and stigma. And the cultural disconnect -- between a country that treats drug users with compassion and one that seeks to punish them -- was on display again when a smaller group of the activists met with Dr. Miguel Vasconcelos, the head psychologist at the Centro Taipa, a former mental hospital that now serves as the country's largest drug treatment center.

As Dr.Vasconcelos explained the history and practice of drug treatment in Portugal, one of his listeners asked what happened to drug users who were pregnant or had children.

"They take the kids," Vasconcelos said, smiling. But his smile turned to puzzlement as he saw his listeners react with resignation and dismay.

For the Americans, "they take the kids" meant child protective services swooping in to seize custody of the children of drug-using parents while the parents go to jail.

But that's not what Vasconcelos meant. After some back and forth, came clarity: "No, I mean they take the kids with them to treatment."

Once again, the Americans, caught firmly in the mind set of their own punishing society, expected only the worst of the state. But once again, light bulbs came on as they realized it doesn't have to be like that.

Now that cadre of activists is back home, and they are going to begin to try to apply the lessons they learned in their own states and communities. And although they had some abstract understanding of Portuguese drug decriminalization before they came, their experiences with the concrete reality of it should only serve to strengthen their desire to make our own country a little less like a punitive authoritarian state and bit more like Portugal.

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