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Chronicle AM: No Cannabis Lounges for Oregon This Year; Drug Eradication Clashes in Peru, Mexico, More... (4/15/19)

A set of Michigan bills would do some post-legalization cleanup, a decriminalization bill advances in Missouri, an Oklahoma bill protecting patient rights is signed by the governor, drug crop growers clash with authorities in Mexico and Peru, and more.

Peruvian coca farmers clashed with police and eradicators last Friday, leaving two dead. (deamuseum.org)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Bills Would Cut Sentences for People Jailed for Possession. State Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) has filed a package of bills that would reduce prison, parole, and probation sentences for people jailed for marijuana possession. SB 262 through SB 265 are now before the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. "After the passage of Proposal 1, it's time we rethink drug sentencing laws in Michigan, so let's start with marijuana offenses, since those are no longer considered crimes under current law," Santana said.

Missouri Decriminalization Bill Advances. The House Special Committee on Criminal Justice last Thursday unanimously approved HB 1095, which would decriminalize the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana. The measure would also make possession of less than 35 grams from a felony to a Class D misdemeanor. The measure now heads for a House floor vote.

Oregon Social Consumption Bill Dies. A bill that would have allowed marijuana consumption lounges, SB 639, was among hundreds of bills that died in the legislature after failing to move out of committee by April 9. The bill's failure is a blow to the state's legal marijuana industry, which is faced with chronic oversupply.

Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Governor Signs Patient Protection Bill. Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) has signed into law HB 2612, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana and Patient Protection Act. The measure protects patients' rights to possess firearms under state law and allows the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority to hire its own investigators to probe alleged violations. The law will go into effect 90 days after the legislature adjourns, which will be at the end of May.

Washington Senate Approves Allowing Medical Marijuana in School. The state Senate on Saturday overwhelmingly approved SB 5442, which would allow parents to administer medical marijuana to their children at school, on the school bus, and at after-school activities. The bill limits the kind of marijuana used to infused products and extracts.

International

Mexico Poppy Farmers Detain Soldiers in Eradication Protest. Residents of a rural town in Guerrero state said they detained 40 soldiers last week to demand they halt opium poppy eradication efforts. The farmers said they set up roadblocks to prevent soldiers from leaving the region and called on the state and federal governments to provide assistance to local farmers so they aren't forced to grow opium. The farmers said the state government had promised in November that their poppy crops would not be destroyed and alternative means of support would be provided, but neither happened.

Peru Clashes Over Coca Eradication Leave Two Farmers Dead. Two coca growers were killed in clashes with a large eradication team last Friday. The team, which consisted of 72 police officers and158 civilian eradicators, had arrived in the area near the Bolivian border to destroy illegal coca fields, but reported that they were attacked by people wielding machetes and sticks as they set up camp. But the mayor of the town of San Gaban said witnesses told him police fired indiscriminately. "They were shooting right and left. That's why we have this bloodshed," the mayor said.

Chronicle AM: National Pot Poll Hits Record High, Mexican Opium Prices in Free Fall, More.... (3/20/19)

The annual General Social Survey has support for marijuana legalization at an all-time high, a federal marijuana banking bill will get a hearing next week, Mexican opium poppy farmers are getting squeezed hard by fentanyl, and more.

Marijuana Policy

New National Poll Shows Support for Marijuana Legalization Still Rising. A new General Social Survey poll, which has been measuring support for marijuana legalization since the 1970s, has support at 61% this year, up from 57% two years ago and an all-time high for this poll. Support cut across all demographic and political lines, with a majority of Republicans (54%) supporting legalization for the first time. In the first General Social Survey poll in 1973, only 19% of respondents supported legalization.

Federal Marijuana Banking Bill Has Markup Set for Next Week. The House Financial Services Committee will meet next Tuesday for a markup on the Safe Banking Act, HR 1595. The bill aims to remove barriers to access to financial services for the marijuana industry.

Hawaii Decriminalization Bill Nears Final Senate Vote. With favorable votes in two Senate committees Tuesday, HB 1383 now heads for a final Senate floor vote. The bill would decriminalize the possession of up to three grams of marijuana. It has already passed the House.

Rhode Island Senate Committees Hold Joint Hearing on Governor's Marijuana Legalization Proposal. The Senate Finance and Judiciary committees held a joint hearing Tuesday on Article 20 of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget, which features a plan to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana for adult use. It also includes amendments to Rhode Island’s existing medical marijuana and hemp laws. The House Finance Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday.

International

Mexican Opium Prices in Freefall in Face of Fentanyl. Farmgate prices for Mexican opium plummeted dramatically last year because of the rise in demand for the synthetic opioid fentanyl about US drug users, according to a study from the Network of Researchers in International Affairs (Noria). They found that the price for opium gum, the raw material for heroin, dropped from just above $1,000 a kilo in 2017 to around $350 a kilo last year. The researchers noted that some farmers had reported rumors of prices going even lower, for a price drop of as much as 80%. The resulting decline in income "is causing a series of various serious secondary economic effects" in poppy-growing communities, Noria said. "Many local peasants are not even making back their investment on the product; many families are losing their sole source of income; the amount of money flowing into the local economy has dried up almost completely; and many are leaving their villages for temporary agricultural work or even to work directly for the cartels," the report said. "The Mexican opium crisis looks like it might ruin the poorest areas of rural Mexico for good."

Trump's Bombing Campaign Against Taliban Heroin Labs Quietly Fizzles [FEATURE]

A year-long bombing campaign that pitted some of America's most high-tech Air Force fighter jets against primitive Taliban "heroin labs" has quietly ended after failing to achieve much of anything, according to the latest report on continuing US operations in Afghanistan from the Defense Department's inspector general.

The campaign, dubbed Operation Iron Tempest, was only the latest iteration of America's endless and fruitless effort to suppress the country's opium economy, which has delivered hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the hands of the Taliban and corrupt Afghan officials alike. Since the U.S. invaded in 2001, American taxpayers have forked out nearly $9 billion to fight Afghan opium, yet Afghanistan continues to produce the vast majority -- about 85 percent -- of the global opium supply.

Despite all those counter-narcotics dollars, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported opium production at record highs in the last years, with more than 6,400 tons of raw opium produced last year. Iron Tempest didn't make much of a dent in it.

As part of the Trump administration's bid to look tough against both drugs and the Taliban, Iron Tempest was unleashed in November 2017 with F-22 stealth fighters and B-52 strategic bombers deploying 250- and 500-pound bombs against nondescript buildings in the Afghan hinterlands. Those F-22s, designed to be deployed against the most advanced aircraft in the world, cost $35,000 per flight hour, and they were used to blow up the barrels, tubes, and piles of raw material that constitute Afghan "heroin labs."

But hundreds of air strikes against what U.S. commanders estimated were 500 "heroin labs" operated by the Taliban failed to put a serious dent in the trade. In fact, they probably hurt Afghan security and political figures involved in the opium trade more than they hurt the Taliban.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in January that while the air strikes had deprived the Taliban of an estimated $42 million (out of its estimated annual take from the opium trade of $200 million), while unspecified others "involved in the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan" lost $200 million. (The estimated value of the opium crop alone is above $1 billion a year when prices are high; but additional profits come from taxes on the trade and the value added by processing the raw opium into more profitable heroin.)

But the numbers on the economic pain caused the Taliban are iffy, SIGAR conceded. It was difficult to weigh the actual financial impact because "no ground verification takes place to weigh and assess the amounts of the precursors or products actually destroyed by an airstrike."

SIGAR didn't mince words in its assessment of overall Afghan and U.S. counter-narcotics performance: "To put it bluntly," the watchdog said, "these numbers spell failure."

That same January SIGAR report quietly noted the end of Iron Tempest. As evidence mounted that the campaign was ineffective, the number of air raids dwindled. In the last three months of 2018, only two air strikes took place, marking the end of the campaign. Operation Iron Tempest had gone out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

That could be the epitaph for the entire American adventure in Afghanistan. After nearly two decades of invasion and occupation, Trump administration officials are now engaged in direct peace talks with the Taliban that could lead to Afghan coalition government including the Taliban and the final withdrawal of American forces.

Chronicle AM: RI Governor Ready to Legalize Weed, Myanmar Opium Crop Drop, More... (1/14/19)

Rhode Island's governor is ready to hop on the pot legalization bandwagon, Vermont solons are moving to legalize pot commerce, Ohio's governor rolls out a response to the opioid crisis, and more.

Opium production is down in Myanmar, the UNODC says. But synthetics are on the rise. (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Rhode Island Governor Proposes Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) is proposing marijuana legalization as part of her budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Her proposal would allow for regulated marijuana commerce but would ban home cultivation and place limits on the potency of products available for sale. The proposal would also limit the amount of THC in edibles to do more than 5 milligrams per serving. Raimondo has been slow to jump on the legalization bandwagon but said the state should now move in that direction because most of its neighbors are.

Vermont Legislators Prepare Bill to Allow Marijuana Sales. The Senate Judiciary Committee is planning to introduce a bill that would legalize marijuana commerce in the state. The state legalized marijuana possession last year but did not include a system of taxed and regulated sales. This bill would tax sales at 10%, with a 1% local option tax. The state's Marijuana Advisory Commission had recommended a 26% tax and funneling much of the tax revenues into the departments of public safety and health to pay for new enforcement and prevention efforts, but Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) wants the revenues to go into the general fund. He says the bill could pass the Senate within a month, but it faces a rockier path in the House.

Kratom

Utah Bill Would Regulate—Not Ban—Kratom. State Sen. Curt Bramble (R-Provo) has filed SB 58, the “Kratom Consumer Protection Act.” The bill would create regulations about how the substance is sold in the state and would bar the sale and distribution of adulterated kratom.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Ohio Governor Confronts Opioid Crisis. Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order Monday to create RecoveryOhio, an initiative aimed at confronting the state's opioid crisis. He appointed Alisha Nelson, who oversaw drug abuse policy in the attorney general's office to work"every day with a single-minded focus of fighting the drug epidemic," according to the executive order.

International

UN Says Opium Cultivation Down in Myanmar, Cites Rise of Synthetics. Opium cultivation in Myanmar declined for the fourth year in a row last year, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said last Friday. UNODC said the 2018 crop was 10% smaller than the previous years. The agency also said the decline was due to a growing regional market in synthetic drugs. 

Chronicle AM: NH Legal Pot Push Begins, Russia Plans for Poppies, More... (12/31/18)

Marijuana bills aimed at the new year begin popping up, Pennsylvania's highest court rules for pregnant drug users, Russia ponders its own poppy crop, and more.

Citing sanctions from the West, Russia is moving to grow its own medicinal poppy crops. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Legalization Bill Ready to File. A group of state lawmakers have agreed on language for a bill that would allow for legal marijuana commerce and let adults possess up to an ounce of weed and grow up to six plants. The bill has not yet been formally filed. Legalization efforts in previous years have been thwarted in the Republican-dominated legislature, but Democrats retook control in the November elections, Still, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has vowed to veto any legalization bill that reaches his desk.

Virginia Decriminalization Bill Ready to Go. When the legislature convenes next week, it will have a decriminalization bill waiting for it. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) has pre-filed SB 997, which would decriminalize the possession of up to a quarter-ounce of weed and provide for a maximum $50 civil penalty. Under current state law, getting caught with a joint carries a jail sentence of up to 30 days and a $500 fine. Similar bills have been filed in previous sessions, but never made it out of committee.

Pregnancy

Pennsylvania High Court Rules Drug-Using Pregnant Women Can't Be Charged With Child Abuse Under State Child Protection Law. In an opinion issued last Friday, the state Supreme Court held that the state's child protection law does not apply to pregnant women. The court ruled that the law doesn't include fetuses or unborn children and said victims protected by the law must be children.

International

Russia Moves Towards Allowing Medicinal Opium Crops. The Russian government last week approved a draft bill that would allow the country to produce medicinal opium crops. Government officials said the bill was needed to reduce its dependence on foreign countries that supply raw opium to government factories because some of those countries have imposed sanctions on the country. "In order not to leave our population without strong painkillers, we must be self-sufficient," health minister Veronika Skvortsova told reporters. "We need to produce drugs in a full cycle -- from substances to their medicinal form." The bill still needs to be approved by parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

Thai Government Approves Medical Marijuana, Kratom. The Thai ruling junta last week approved a bill legalizing medical marijuana, becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to do so. The bill also regularizes the status of kratom, which comes from there. The bill becomes law once it is approved by the monarchy.

The Year in Drugs II: Good, Bad, and Ugly Global Drug Policy in 2018 [FEATURE]

(See our Top Domestic Drug Stories of 2018 piece here.)

It's been a year we couldn't wait to put behind us, but as 2018 comes to an end, we can look back on some advances on the international drug policy front, as well as continued brutal and regressive responses from some quarters. Here are 10 of the global drug policy stories that shaped the year, for better or worse:

Iranian drug executions have come to a screeching halt in one of the good news stories of 2018. (handsoffcain.info)
1. Drug Death Penalty Reforms Cause Massive Drop in Executions

Early this year, it became official: Iran had reformed its death penalty statutes to radically reduce the number of people facing execution for drug offenses, and it had done so retroactively, saving the lives of thousands already on death row. By mid-year, it was clear that the move was having an impact, as human rights observers reported a 99% reduction in drug executions, with only one person being executed for drugs as of June, compared to more than a hundred during the same period in 2017.

2. Canada Becomes the First G8 Country to Legalize Marijuana

Justin Trudeau pledged that he was elected prime minister, his government would legalize marijuana. It didn't happen as fast as he would have liked, but the Liberals' legalization bill passed parliament in June and went into effect on October 17. So far, the sky has not fallen.

3. Medical Marijuana Earns Growing Acceptance

The year began with Thailand announcing a plan to allow medical marijuana and ended with Thailand approving it and becoming the first Southeast Asian country to do so. But in the meantime, Israeli pharmacies began selling medical marijuana in April, Zimbabwe legalized it in May, and Portugal and Luxembourg followed suit in June. In November, Great Britain joined the club, and Greece issued its first medical marijuana production licenses. Late in the year, in South Korea, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the country's drug laws that will pave the way for the use of medical marijuana by prescription, and New Zealand also approved it in December Not a bad year for medical marijuana.

Canadian Senate
4. The Philippines Drug War Continues, But Pressures Mount…

The bloody drug war of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte continued apace in 2018, with a death toll now put at 12, 000 (20,000 by some estimates), but Duterte has come under increasing pressure both domestically and internationally. In February, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch aimed broadsides at the Philippines even as the International Criminal Court began "preliminary examinations" of whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a case before the court. In March, activists called out drug war human rights abuses at the embassy in Washington, DC. By July, an unbowed Duterte was vowing to continue a "relentless and chilling" drug war even as national human rights groups said he was using it as a cover for assassinating political opponents. In September, he unleashed an attack on a second drug war critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes, after last year imprisoning critic Senator Leila de Lima on trumped up drug charges. She is still imprisoned.

5.. ...and the Rot Spreads in the Region

Following the lead of the Philippines, other countries in the region have also embraced drug war thuggery and human rights abuses. In May, the Bangladeshi opposition warned of a wave of police killings of drug suspects, and within weeks, more than a hundred were killed and 20,000 arrested, even as evidence emerged that the crackdown was being used to hide political assassinations. The situation was fraught enough that the UN human rights head and even the US State Department expressed concern. Drug war killings were also reported in Indonesia, although there were mixed signals about moves toward reforms there, and Sri Lanka vowed to begin hanging drug dealers. Paradoxically though, a Malaysian court's imposition of a death sentence on a man for providing cannabis oil to patients now appears to have resulted in a moratorium on the death sentence and could end the death penalty in its entirety in the county.

6. The US President Aligns Himself With Global Drug War Authoritarians

President Donald Trump was a baleful presence on the global drug policy stage this past year, sympathizing with drug war authoritarians such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, as well as drug death penalty countries such as China and Singapore. He said early in the year he wants to execute all drug dealers and admires the Singapore approach (mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking), a statement that moved more than 150 organizations to condemn his call. At year's end, he was singing a similar tune with a ghoulish call for more Chinese drug executions. In between, he went to the United Nations to try to gin up a reinvigorated global drug war.

coca leaves drying by highway
7. South Africa Legalizes Marijuana

In a case brought by three marijuana users, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that the private possession, cultivation, and consumption of marijuana is legal. "It will not be a criminal offense for an adult person to use or be in possession of cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption," Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo wrote in his ruling. It will, however, remain illegal to use cannabis in public and to sell and supply it. The ruling did not set allowable quantities, with the court saying parliament had two years to come up with a new law that reflected the ruling.

8. Glimmers of Hope in Mexico

then-President Felipe Calderon unleashed the latest chapter of the country's drug wars, bringing violence to levels not seen before in the country, Mexico is showing signs it is ready for change. The death toll from prohibition-related violence is higher than ever, and that is impelling a psh for change, most notably with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is very open to finding exits from the drug war, whether it's legalized opium production in Guerrero, granting amnesty for non-violent drug trafficking offenders, or legalizing marijuana. And speaking of legalizing marijuana, the Mexican Supreme Court in November struck down the ban on marijuana possession, cultivation, and use. Now, Lopez Obrador's governing MORENA Party has filed a bill to legalize marijuana sales. Tackling the violence, may be a bit more difficult.

9. Colombia Sees a Record Coca Crop as US Cocaine Deaths Rise

Efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production in the country after the peace agreement with the FARC rebels have not gone well, and that's causing rising worry in Washington. In June, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that 2017 production was at an all-time high, prompting expressions of concern from the drug czar's office and support from President Trump for new rightist Colombian President Ivan Duque's "head-on fight against drug trafficking." That could include a renewed resort to aerial fumigation, even drones, as well as forced eradication of coca crops, leading to renewed conflict in cultivation zones. Meanwhile, cocaine is now the third leading cause of drug overdose deaths, trailing only fentanyl and heroin.

Vienna International Centre, home to the UN drug agencies
10. Historic UN Cannabis Review Hits Last-Minute Procedural Delay

In June and again in November, the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) of the World Health Organization (WHO) met to consider the evidence on cannabis (marijuana) and its placement in the UN drug scheduling system, which determines whether or what level of control the UN drug conventions mandate that countries maintain for the substance. The conventions specify that substances should receive such an evaluation before being scheduled, but that never happened for marijuana. Observers believe the process should lead to marijuana being moved to a less restrictive schedule than it is in currently -- if the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) votes to adopt such a recommendation from ECDD.

That didn't happen when, earlier this month, WHO voted to delay release of ECDD's recommendations until January, for unexplained reasons. That may mean they get taken up at the main annual CND meeting in Vienna in March, rather than December's intersessional. The delay seems unusual, and probably political, but its intent is unclear.

The next few months may tell. In the meanwhile, ECDD says that CBD shouldn't be scheduled at all. But that didn't stop the US FDA from saying that treaties require it be scheduled, even though they also think it shouldn't be.

Chronicle AM: Bill Barr's Drug Warrior Past, Iran Warns Sanction Could Bring "Deluge of Drugs," More... (12/10/18)

Trump's sanctions could come back to bite us, Iran warns; Trump's new attorney general pick has some solid drug warrior credentials, the WHO postpones a recommendation on marijuana scheduling, and more.

Iran interdicts more opium and heroin than any other country. (UNODC)
Medical Marijuana

Florida Governor-Elect to End Former Governor's Court Battles Over Medical Marijuana. Incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is parting ways with his predecessor, Rick Scott (R), when it comes to medical marijuana. A spokesman for DeSantis said last Friday that he is unwilling to continue Scott's court battles over the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. "He is not interested in continuing that fight. I think he has a different perspective than Governor Scott," said spokeswoman Jeannette Nunez. "I think he wants the will of the voters to be implemented."

Foreign Policy

US Sanctions Could Lead to "Deluge of Drugs," Iran Warns. If US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration weaken Iran's ability to contain the opium trade from neighboring Afghanistan, the result could be a "deluge" of drugs, President Hassan Rouhani warned in a speech carried on state television last Friday. "I warn those who impose sanctions that if Iran's ability to fight drugs and terrorism are affected... you will not be safe from a deluge of drugs, asylum seekers, bombs and terrorism, Rouhani said. "We spend $800 million a year to fight drugs which ensures the health of nations stretching from of Eastern Europe to the American West and North Africa to West Asia. Imagine what a disaster there would be if there is a breach in the dam," Rouhani said. "We don't expect the West to pay their share, but they should know that sanctions hurt Iran's capacity to fight drugs and terrorism."

Law Enforcement

Trump's New Attorney General Pick Has Record as Drug Warrior. The president's pick to be the new attorney general, former Attorney General William Barr, may be less hostile to marijuana than Jeff Sessions, but as attorney general under George HW Bush, he pushed hard for more incarceration of drug offenders. More recently, he wrote a 2015 letter defending the criminal justice system as not in need of serious reform and defending mandatory minimum sentencing in particular, while encouraging Congress not to act on a sentencing reform bill. "It's hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one," Michael Collins, director of national drug affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. "Nominating Barr totally undermines Trump's recent endorsement of sentencing reform."

International

WHO Postpones Recommendation for Rescheduling Marijuana. Saying it needed more time to review findings, the World Health Organization (WHO) postponed making any recommendation on rescheduling marijuana. The recommendation was expected to be made at last Friday at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna, but that didn't happen. No new date has been provided.

Mexico's New Government Takes Aim at Cartel Finances. Mexican Financial Intelligence Unit head Santiago Nieto announced last Thursday that he had filed a complaint against three businesses and seven people linked to the Jalisco New Generation cartel. Nieto said that was only the opening salvo in the fight to stop organized crime from flourishing with impunity.

Study: Crackdowns on Heroin, Pain Pills Gave Rise to Fentanyl Overdose Epidemic [FEATURE]

A new report on illicit US drug markets from researchers at the University of San Francisco has found that that the spread of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid implicated in nearly 29,000 overdose deaths last year alone, is tied to enforcement-driven shortages of heroin and prescription opioids, as well simple economics for drug distributors -- not because users particularly desire the drug.

meet the law of unintended consequences (Creative Commons)
Illicit fentanyl has swept through American drug markets in waves -- the super strong "China white" heroin of the 1970s was actually a heroin-fentanyl mixture -- most recently in the past decade after rising levels of opioid addiction and the spread of "pill mills" prompted multifaceted moves to restrict opioid prescribing.

From a drug distributor's perspective, fentanyl is a most excellent substitute for heroin or prescription pain pills. Produced entirely in labs or chemical factories, it is far more powerful and cheaper to produce than heroin. Because it's more potent, it is easier to smuggle -- often coming into the US via postal and delivery service parcels, not by the semi load. And it doesn't require months of growing time and period of intense peasant labor in lawless regions of weak states.

Fentanyl is typically sold deceptively -- marketed as heroin or prescription drugs such as OxyContin or Xanax -- and users and street-level dealers often don't even know that the drugs they are using or selling contain fentanyl, the researchers found. Fentanyl is making its way into the supply chain at the wholesale, not the retail level. That, the researchers said, suggests that demand is not the key driver in the drug's spread.

"Fentanyl is rarely sold as fentanyl," said Sarah Mars, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF. "The dealers selling fentanyl directly to the users often don't know what's in it. Not only is this particularly dangerous, but it also means penalizing low-level dealers isn't going to make any difference in the fentanyl poisoning epidemic."

According to Mars, users are split on fentanyl, which produces a more sudden and powerful high than heroin, but one that fades faster. Some said fentanyl brought back the euphoria they had lost the ability to feel with long-term heroin use, but others said they feared fentanyl and found its effects too harsh.

"Whether or not they prefer fentanyl, users don't have any influence over what drugs are being sold," Mars said. "Without accurate information about these drugs, they can't make an informed choice about what they are buying. Also, very little drug slang has developed to describe fentanyl, which lends support to the notion that this is not a demand-driven epidemic."

The presence of drugs adulterated with fentanyl is uneven, Mars said.

"Most of the illicit fentanyl has been in the Northeast and Midwest," she specified. And that's where opioid overdose death rates are the highest.

Another contributing factor to the fentanyl overdose toll is that it has dozens of analogs with wildly varying potency. Some, like carfentanil, are amazingly powerful, as much as 10,000 times as potent as morphine. Some are so new they have not yet been made illegal.

"We believe it's the fluctuation in the potency of the drugs containing fentanyl that makes them so dangerous," said Daniel Ciccarone, MD, MPH, a professor of family and community medicine at UCSF and senior author of an ongoing National Institutes of Health-funded study, Heroin in Transition. "You might have one dose that had hardly any fentanyl in it or none at all. Then, you might have one with a different fentanyl analog, of different potency, or even mixtures of multiple fentanyls and heroin."

Here is the paradox of drug prohibition: Trying to crack down on drugs tends to lead not to less drug use but to more dangerous drugs, and in the case of opioids, tens of thousands of dead drug users. There is an inexorable logic at play: The more law enforcement comes down on a drug, the greater the tendency for suppliers to make it more potent and compact -- and dangerous.

Perhaps that's why we now see mainstream calls for a radically different approach, such as the one from Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle earlier this week. In her column "The Incredibly Unpopular Idea That Could Stem Heroin Deaths," McArdle argues that current drug policy is only running up the overdose death toll and that we need "to start talking about ways to make safe, reliable doses of opiates available to addicts who aren't ready to stop."

That would involve increasing access to opioid substitutes such as methadone and buprenorphine, "but lowering the death toll may require a more drastic step: legalizing prescriptions of stronger opiates," McArdle writes.

"Prescription heroin?" she continues. "Remember, I said you might not like the solution. I don't like it, either -- and frankly, neither do the drug policy researchers who told me it may be necessary. But when fentanyl took over the US illicit drug markets, it also got a lot of addicts as hostages. We'll never be able to rescue them unless we can first keep them alive long enough to be saved."

There is a better way to deal with the opioid crisis than relegating tens of thousands of American opioid users to early, preventable deaths. We know what it is. Now it's a matter of implementing smarter, more humane policies, and that's an ongoing political struggle -- one where lives are literally at stake.

Chronicle AM: Harborside Loses Pot Tax Case, Hemp in Final Version of Farm Bill, More... (11/30/18)

The US Tax Court has ruled against Harborside being able to deduct standard business expenses, a hemp provision is in the final version of the farm bill, Mexico and the US disagree over Mexican heroin production levels, and more.

Pot shops can't deduct standard business expenses, the US Tax Court ruled in a case Thursday. (Sonya Yruel/DPA)
Marijuana Policy

California Dispensary Loses in US Tax Court. In a decision Thursday, the US Tax Court rejected a bid from Harborside Health Center to be able to declare normal business expenses on its taxes. The court held that Harborside was "engaged in only one trade or business, which was trafficking in a controlled substance" and since Section 280E of the internal revenue code bars criminal enterprises from taking the expense deduction, "Section 280E prevents [Harborside] from deducting ordinary and necessary business expenses."

Michigan Republican Lawmaker Files Bill to Ban Home Growing. Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) on Thursday filed a measure, SB 1243, which would ban the home grows included in the marijuana legalization initiative approved by voters earlier this month. Under the initiative, adults can grow up to 12 plants for personal use in their homes, but that's got Meekhof worried: "People don’t get to make alcohol and serve it in unregulated bars to anyone they want to. Homegrown marijuana is basically unregulated," he said. "It should be in some regulated form, so we have consistency and safety. It’s a mind-altering substance like alcohol. It should be somehow controlled." Meekhof seems to have forgotten that Michigan allows the unregulated home production of up to 200 gallons of beer a year.

Industrial Hemp

Hemp Legalization Included in Final Farm Bill. A provision to legalize industrial hemp will be included in the 2018 farm bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and top figures in the House Agriculture Committee confirmed Thursday. Legislators in the House and Senate agricultural committees said they had reached an agreement on principle on the bill and are now finalizing the language.

Law Enforcement

Houston Drug Sting Leaves Two Dead, Seven Arrested. A drug sting operation involving a multi-jurisdictional task force including the DEA, Houston Police, and a SWAT team left two men dead and seven under arrest. Task force agents met with several known drug dealers, one of whom allegedly fired on SWAT officers moving in to make arrests. He was shot and killed by a SWAT officer. A second man fled the scene, but was found by a police dog and brought back to the scene, where he complained of problems breathing and then died despite efforts by tactical medics to revive him. The seven men arrested face federal drug charges.

International

Mexico Disputes US Heroin Production Estimates. The Mexican government and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said Thursday that opium poppy production in the country last year encompassed some 75,000 acres, far less than the 110,000 acres estimated by the US earlier this month. The Mexicans also said they had eradicated more than 90% of the crop, which would leave only enough for about 900 kilograms of heroin. The US estimated that Mexico produces 111 tons of heroin last year. 

Chronicle AM: MA First Day MJ Sales Draws Crowds, Afghan Opium Crop Down, More... (11/21/18)

People lined up to buy legal marijuana in Massachusetts Tuesday, Connecticut's governor says legalization is a priority for him, Afghan opium production is down, but still at high levels, and more.

Afghan opium cultivation is down 20% this year, but is still the second highest figure on record. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Governor Says Legalization a Priority. Incoming Gov. Ned Lamont (D) said Monday he intended to make marijuana legalization a priority next year. "We're going to have a legislative session. It's going to be one of the priorities we got," Lamont said. "It's something I would support, and I don't want the black market controlling marijuana distribution in our state. I think that's a lousy way to go. Canada, Massachusetts, others are doing it," he added. "That's going to lead to some enforcement things. In the meantime, we enforce Connecticut laws."

Massachusetts' First Day Legal Pot Sales Draws Crowds. Hundreds of marijuana lovers lined up before dawn Tuesday to be among the first people on the East Coast to be able to legally purchase recreational marijuana. The crowds brought gridlock to Leicester's Main Street as they gathered to buy weed. By noon there was an approximately three-hour wait in the cold, wet weather to get inside.

International

UNODC Says Afghan Opium Production Drops, But Still at High Levels. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported Wednesday that opium cultivation in Afghanistan is down 20% this year compared to 2017, but was still the second-highest measure of poppy cultivation since UNODC starting monitoring in 1994. UNODC cited a severe drought and declining opium prices for the decline.

Mexico's President Presents Plan for National Guard to Fight Drug War. President-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) on Tuesday submitted a bill for a new national guard to replace the military in the fight against organized crime. The bill would create a force 50,000 strong drawn from the ranks of the armed forces and police, but critics point out to failed previous reorganizations of the anti-drug apparatus as well as warning the move could further militarize the country's drug war.

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