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The Year in Drugs I: The Top Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2018 [FEATURE]

This is a year that just about everybody is eager to see come to an end, but when it comes to drug policy, 2018 hasn't been half-bad, at least in the US. (Check back next week for our Top International Drug Policy Stories.)

We've seen marijuana legalization spread further, we're on the verge of seeing Congress pass major sentencing reform legislation, and the ban on domestic hemp cultivation is coming to an end, among other things.

A lot went on in drug policy in 2018. Here are eight stories that helped define the year:

1. Overdose Deaths Remain Unconscionably High But Appear to Have Leveled Off

That's enough fentanyl to kill you. It killed thousands this year. (dea.gov)
The nation's fatal drug overdose crisis is far from over, but it now looks like it at least didn't get any worse this year. Driven in large part by the rise of fentanyl, overdose deaths reached a stunning 72,000 in 2017, a figure ten times the number in 1980 and double that of only a decade ago.

But preliminary reports on the 2018 overdose numbers suggest that this may be the year the crisis began to ease. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional data showing that overdose deaths had declined for six straight months, dropping 2.8 percent from their 2017 peak. That report also found that opioid overdose deaths had declined by 2.3 percent.

With both heroin and prescription opioid deaths declining, fentanyl has emerged as the most common drug involved in overdoses, being implicated in about a quarter of all drug overdose deaths. While the apparent decline in opioid overdose deaths this year is good news, the recent increases in cocaine and methamphetamine overdose deaths is not. And while any break in a years-long climb in overdose deaths is certainly welcome, another 70,000 or so Americans will still have died from them this year. We have a long, long way to go.

2. Safe Injection Sites Draw Nearer, But Feds Fire Warning Shots

Safe injection sites -- also known as supervised consumption sites, among other names -- where drug users can consume their doses under medical supervision and with an opportunity to engage with social services are a proven harm reduction intervention. More than a hundred cities around the world, mainly in Europe, Canada, and Australia have resorted to such facilities as a means of providing better outcomes, not only for drug users but also for the communities in which they live.

There are no legally permitted safe injection sites in the United States (although some underground ones are reportedly operating in Seattle, and there may be more in hiding), but this year saw mounting pressure and serious efforts to get them up and running in a number of American states and cities. It also saw mounting resistance from federal officials.

At the state level, California, Colorado, Missouri, and New York all saw safe injection site bills filed. Only the bill in California made it out of the legislature, but to the great frustration of reformers, it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who cited long outdated beliefs about substance use in his veto message. Still, the fact that bills are being filed shows the issue is gaining momentum.

The momentum is even stronger among a handful of major cities. Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle have all taken steps to clear the way for safe injection sites this year, although none are yet in place.

While like California's Gov. Brown, some state and local level political figures are hesitant to embrace them, a major reason none is yet in place is federal hostility. As the clamor for the facilities grows louder, so does opposition from the Trump administration. As Denver publicly pondered opening one, the local DEA and the US Attorney loudly warned they would be illegal, and the Philadelphia US Attorney did the same thing. Early in the year, the DEA in Washington issued a warning against safe injection sites, and in August, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein authored an op-ed in the New York Times issuing similar dire threats.

3. A Major Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Is Set to Pass

A rare example of bipartisanship on the Hill. (Creative Commons)
The first major federal sentencing reform bill in eight years is now one vote away from passing Congress. The bill, known as the First Step Act (S.3649), is the culmination of years of work by the likes of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and includes prison reform language as well as provisions that would reduce sentences for certain drug offenses. It very nearly died earlier this month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced he would not bring it to a Senate floor vote, but under broad pressure, including from President Trump, McConnell relented, and the bill passed the Senate Tuesday

The sentencing reforms include retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people; expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences; reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years.

The late word is that the bill will pass the House easily, but that hasn't happened as of this writing. If and when it does, the country will have taken a significant step toward a more just and humane federal criminal justice system. The passage has also drawn major media attention as a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington today.

4. Marijuana Legalization Advances in the States

At the beginning of the year, marijuana for adult recreational use was legal in eight states, all in the West or New England and all thanks to the initiative process. As 2018 comes to a close, that number has jumped to ten, with Vermont in January becoming the first state to legalize it through the legislature and Michigan in November becoming the first Midwest state to legalize it.

The initiative process is available in only half the states, and when it comes to legalizing weed, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. A legalization initiative in conservative Nebraska went down to defeat this year, and remaining initiative states like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Arkansas are among the most socially conservative and least likely to free the weed. But prospects are rosier in initiative states Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio. We are likely to see pot on the ballot in all three in 2020.

Vermont remains the sole state to legalize it legislatively, but a handful of states edged ever closer close this year. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wanted pot legalized in his first 100 days. That didn't happen, and legalization hasn't gotten through the legislature yet, but there is a small chance it could still happen this year and a very good chance it will be a done deal by early next year. Legislatures throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and Northeast grappled with the issue, laying the groundwork for next year and the year beyond, and just this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called for legalization next year. The long march continues.

5. Marijuana Is Still Federally Illegal, But the Crackdown Never Came

As the year comes to end, legal weed is still here and Jeff Sessions isn't. President Trump's first attorney general was an avowed foe of marijuana (as well as drug and criminal justice reform in general), but despite rescinding the Obama-era Cole memo, which basically told federal prosecutors to leave state law-abiding pot businesses alone, the much-feared crackdown on the industry never came.

Federal prosecutors, for the most part, continue to view legal marijuana businesses as a low priority, especially when faced with much more serious drug problems, such as the opioid overdose epidemic. But Sessions was also undercut by his own boss, who in April arranged a deal with Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in which he agreed to support a bill protecting states that have broken with federal pot prohibition in return for Gardner's allowing Justice department appointments to move forward.

This year saw a plethora of federal marijuana reform bills, but with Republican leadership in both houses firmly opposed, the Capitol was where marijuana reform went to die. With Democrats in control of the House next year, things promise to be different next year, although the GOP-led Senate will remain an obstacle. But with pot consistently polling in the 60s, those Republican senators may grudgingly start coming on board.

6. Marijuana Legalization is Nice, But We Need Social Justice, Too

This year saw social justice concerns around marijuana legalization move front and center in two distinct ways: demands for the expungement of marijuana arrest records for people whose offenses are no longer crimes and demands for restorative racial justice from communities that have suffered the brunt of the war on drugs.

The year started with two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, leading the way on expungement. The, in September, California became the first state to put state-level automatic expungement into effect. Delaware and Rhode Island, which have both decriminalized but not legalized pot, also passed expungement bills this year. Expungement is also a contentious issue in the ongoing battle to get legalization passed in New Jersey.

After a half-dozen years of legalization and well-heeled white guys making bank off legal weed, the call for racial justice, whether in terms of set-asides to guarantee minority participation in the industry or for funding streams aimed at restoring drug war-ravaged communities, is growing too loud to be ignored. This is an ongoing struggle now being played out not only in pot-legal states, but especially in states on the cusp of legalization. Moving forward, it's likely that every successful state legalization bill is going to have to address issues of social and racial justice. As they should.

7. Industrial Hemp Becomes Federally Legal

The sun rises on the American domestic hemp industry. (votehemp.org)
Finally, the absolutely most ridiculous aspect of federal marijuana prohibition is dead. Recreational marijuana's country cousin, hemp can't get anyone high, but is extremely useful in a broad range of industries, from foods to textiles and beyond. Thanks to a lawsuit from hemp interests more than a decade ago, hemp could be imported for American firms to use in their products, but because the DEA refused to recognize any distinction between hemp and recreational marijuana, American farmers were forced to stand on the sidelines as their competitors in China, Canada, and other countries raked in the rewards.

But having a hemp-friendly senator from a hemp-friendly state allowed hemp legalization to move this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) actually fought for the hemp bill, shepherding it into the must-pass farm appropriations bill and keeping it in there through negotiations with the House. President Trump has signed the farm bill, including the hemp provision, into law.

8. Here Come the 'Shrooms

Initiative campaigns to legalize or decriminalize the use and possession of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms began popping up in 2018. Actually, the first state-level initiative came last year in California, but this past summer it failed to qualify for the fall ballot.

Right now, there are two psilocybin initiatives in the signature-gathering phase, a municipal initiative in Denver that would decriminalize the use, possession, and cultivation of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and the statewide Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would decriminalize possession of psilocybin, allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin. The Denver initiative would go before voters in May 2019, while the Oregon initiative aims at the 2020 election.

If psilocybin initiatives follow the pattern set by marijuana legalization initiatives, the first time may not be the charm. But more will follow.

What's Killing Us: The Ten Drugs Most Implicated in Overdose Deaths [FEATURE]

While there are signs that the country's drug overdose crisis may have plateaued, the number of people dying from drug overdoses continues to be unconscionably high. Shockingly, the number of overdose deaths has increased tenfold since 1980 when there were only 6,000 nationwide and nearly doubled just in the past decade to more than 72,000 last year.

The number of drug overdose deaths remains unconscionably high.
Now, in a new report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sheds some new light on precisely which drugs are most implicated in these deaths. While the report examines overdose deaths from 2011 to 2016, we're going to zero in on the 2016 data to get as close as possible to the present.

Three drug classes are involved: prescription and non-prescription opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants. Often, fatal overdoses involve more than one drug, whether it is drugs in the same class (heroin and fentanyl) or combinations of drug classes (heroin and benzos or fentanyl and cocaine.

Before we get into the number-crunching, it's worth taking a moment to consider that each single overdose death is a tragedy. A human life has been lost prematurely, the potential snuffed out, and friends and family members suffer greatly. It doesn't have to be that way. While we're going to look at deadly drugs, it behooves us to remember that many of these deaths are a function not just of the drugs themselves, but of drug prohibition.

People overdose on fentanyl, for example, because in a black market there is no packaging, no quality control, no dosage information to inform them of just how powerful is that powder they're snorting or injecting. Added to heroin or crafted into counterfeit prescription opioids by unscrupulous black market operators, fentanyl kills people who didn't even know they were taking it. Even more insidiously, fentanyl is turning up in black market cocaine and methamphetamine, whose users aren't even looking for an opioid high and haven't developed any tolerance to them (although some may be speedballing, that is, taking both an upper and a downer at the same time.

That said, here are the drugs making the greatest contributions to the 63,352 overdose deaths in 2016. (The numbers add up to more than that figure because in some overdoses, more than one drug is mentioned.)

1. Fentanyl -- 18,335

In 2016, fentanyl vaulted into first place in the deadly drug sweepstakes. As recently as 2011, the synthetic opioid was in 10th place, with some 1,660 overdose deaths attributed to it, but the death toll has increased more than tenfold in just five years. More than two-thirds of fentanyl overdose deaths also involved other drugs, and fentanyl is involved in more than a quarter (28.5 percent) of all overdose deaths, including 40 percent of cocaine overdose deaths and nearly a third (32 percent) of heroin deaths.

2. Heroin -- 15,961

At the tail end of the prescription opioid phase of the current overdose crisis in 2011, more people died from oxycodone than heroin, but between 2012 and 2015, heroin resumed its role as the leading opioid linked to fatal overdoses, only to be overtaken by fentanyl in 2016. The vast majority -- 70 percent -- of people who died from heroin were also using other drugs. More than a third were also using fentanyl, while nearly a quarter (23.8 percent) were also using cocaine. As prescription opioids became more difficult to obtain, the number of people dying from heroin skyrocketed, nearly tripling in the five years ending in 2016.

3. Cocaine -- 11,316

Cocaine deaths rose dramatically beginning in 2015 and by 2016 the annual death toll was double what it had been five years earlier. With bumper crops in Colombia in recent years, cocaine is cheap and plentiful. It is also increasingly being cut with fentanyl, which is implicated in 40 percent of cocaine deaths, and mixed with heroin, which is implicated in a third of them. Cocaine is named in 17.8 percent of all overdose deaths.

4. Methamphetamine -- 6,762

Meth-related overdose deaths tripled between 2011 and 2016, a dramatic increase in what has become America's forgotten drug problem. In 2016, slightly more than one out of ten drug overdose deaths involved meth. Of the top ten overdose drugs, meth is by far the one most likely to have been the sole drug implicated in the death, but even so, fentanyl was implicated in one out five meth deaths and heroin in one out of ten.

5. Alprazolam -- 6,209You know it as Xanax. This short-acting benzodiazepine is a favorite of stimulant users seeking to take the edge off, but also often forms part of a sedative cocktail with opioids or other benzos. About three-quarters of Xanax overdose deaths involve other drugs, with fentanyl, heroin, and oxycodone each involved in about one-quarter of Xanax deaths. Xanax deaths increased by about 50 percent over the five year period.

6. Oxycodone -- 6,199

It's most infamous formulation is OxyContin, but it is also sold as Roxicodone, Xtampza ER, and Oxaydo. It may have been the primary killer opioid a decade ago, but has chugged along at around 5,000 deaths a year before going over 6,000 in 2016. Four out of five people who overdose on oxycodone were also using another drug, most often Xanax (25.3 percent), followed by fentanyl (18.6 percent).

7. Morphine -- 5,014

The granddaddy of opioids. Morphine deaths increased slowly beginning in 2011, but have still increased by about 40 percent since then. More than eight out of 10 morphine deaths involve other drugs as well, particularly fentanyl, which is involved in one out three morphine deaths. Cocaine (16.9 percent) and heroin (13.7 percent) are also frequent contributors to morphine ODs.

8. Methadone -- 3,493

Prescribed as an opioid maintenance drug, methadone is one of the few drugs on this list to have seen the number of deaths decline between 2011 and 2016. They've dropped from more than 4,500 a year down to less than 3,500, a drop of roughly a quarter. Nearly three-fourths of all methadone deaths implicate other drugs, with Xanax being most common (21.5 percent), followed by fentanyl (15.1) and heroin (13.8).

9. Hydrocodone -- 3,199

This semi-synthetic opioid is sold under a variety of brand names, including Vicodin and Norco, and has proven remarkably stable in its overdose numbers. Between 2011 and 2016, it never killed fewer than 3,000 or more than 4,000, almost always (85 percent of the time) in concert with other drugs. Xanax was implicated in one-quarter of all hydrocodone overdoses, followed by oxycodone (17.2 percent) and fentanyl (14.9 percent).

10. Diazepam -- 2,022

The most well-known diazepam is Valium. Like Xanax, this anti-anxiety drug can be used to take the edge off a stimulant binge, but it's not coke heads and speed freaks who are dying from it. In more than nine out of 10 fatal Valium overdoses, other drugs are involved, most commonly the opioids oxycodone and fentanyl, each implicated in about a quarter of the deaths, and heroin, implicated in a fifth.

Using these drugs is dangerous. Using them under a prohibition regime is even more so. Users don't always know what they're getting, and that lack of knowledge can be fatal. If you're going to be messing with these substances, be extremely cautious. Try a test dose first. And don't do it alone. Stay safe out there.

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

Georgia Nightmare: Jailed Four Months for Possession of Cotton Candy [FEATURE]

A Georgia woman has filed a federal lawsuit after she spent nearly four months in jail because a roadside drug test administered by untrained police officers falsely identified a bag of cotton candy as methamphetamine.

Meth or cotton candy? Georgia cops couldn't tell the difference. (Creative Commons)
Monroe County resident Dasha Fincher filed the lawsuit in mid-November against Monroe County, the two deputies who arrested her, and the company that makes the drug test. The lawsuit argues that the Monroe County Sheriff's Office was reckless and negligent and violated her civil rights.

According to the lawsuit, the car Fincher was riding in was pulled over on New Year's Eve 2016 because of a dark window tint, the deputies said, even though they later admitted the windows were legal. Deputies Cody Maples and Allen Henderson spotted a large open plastic bag inside the vehicle, and Fincher explained that it was cotton candy.

The deputies didn't believe Fincher and used a roadside field drug test which they said indicated there was meth in the bag. She was then arrested, hauled off to jail, and charged with meth trafficking and possession of meth with intent to distribute. Her bond was set at $1 million, which she was unable to come up with, so she sat in jail for the next four months.

In March 2017, Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab test results revealed that the substance was not an illegal drug, but Fincher sat in jail for another month before prosecutors finally dropped the charges.

The lawsuit says the drug test is the Nark II, manufactured by North Carolina-based Sirchie Acquisitions. That particular field drug test is known for producing errant results. In Georgia alone, police using the Nark II to field test drugs have wrongfully arrested at least 30 people, including a man with breath mints (positive for crack), a teacher with Goody's Headache Powder (positive for cocaine), and a couple with vitamins (positive for ecstasy).

In all those cases, as in Fincher's, lab test results from the Bureau of Investigation found no presence of illegal substances. But in all those cases, the exonerating results came only weeks or months later, after the harm to innocent Georgians had already been done.

The Nark II is still in wide use in Georgia. The manufacturer, Sirchie, defends itself by saying: "Our NARK presumptive drug tests are presumptive only. All samples should be sent to a crime lab for confirmation." But too many Georgia law enforcement agencies clearly don't bother to wait for confirmation before making life-changing arrests. And the state of Georgia doesn't even require police officers to be trained on how to do the tests. As a result, innocent Georgians are being wrongfully arrested and jailed. And now, perhaps, at least one of these law enforcement agencies, will have to pay for its wrongdoing.

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

How This Red State's Cruel Meth Laws Are Putting Women Behind Bars in Record Numbers [FEATURE]

Like other Great Plains states, South Dakota has a methamphetamine problem. But it's becoming increasingly evident that South Dakota also has a problem with the way it deals with meth.

South Dakota women's prison in Pierre (KELO-TV screen grab)
Because of its strict drug laws, the state is seeing a dramatic spike in women being sent to prison for meth. According to a new report from the nonprofit South Dakota News Watch, the number of women in prison in the state has jumped 35 percent since 2013, while the male prison population has increased at only one-quarter of that rate. Nearly two-thirds of all women prisoners in the state are there for nonviolent drug offenses. The state now has the fourth-highest incarceration rate for women in the country, trailing only Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Kentucky.

Overall, about one-third of all inmates in the state are doing time for drug-related offenses, the majority of them for simple drug possession. That's a higher percentage than most other states, where drug offenders tend to make up somewhere around 20 to 25 percent of the inmate population.

The high drug-related incarceration overall and for women in particular stems less from the prevalence of drug use than from the conservative, largely rural state's reaction to it. South Dakota has not responded to decades of failed war on drug policies by reforming them, but by doubling down on them.

The state has not moved toward the defelonization of drug possession, as at least 16 others have. Instead, it has moved in the opposite direction. South Dakota has mandatory sentencing laws that include prison for not only for the manufacture and distribution of meth but also for simple possession.

State lawmakers and cops have long favored tough drug laws, and they are still at it. This year, state Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) guided bills through the legislature that heighten penalties for meth dealing and increase sentences for dealers whose clients overdose and die.

But the state's most notorious and contentious drug law -- bone that is sending hundreds of people to prison -- is the state's "possession by ingestion" statute. Otherwise known as an "internal possession" law, the statute allows for a felony conviction if a drug test reveals the presence of illicit drugs in a suspect's system. (The law also applies to marijuana, but the penalty for testing positive for pot is only a misdemeanor.)

The strictest in the nation, that law was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2004. Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed a measure that would have slightly tweaked the law by removing marijuana, but that bill was killed by a unanimous vote in the first committee that heard it.

As of August, about nine percent of the male prison population and an astonishing 21 percent of the female prison population was doing time for unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance. That's right: More than one out of five women prisoners in South Dakota is behind prison bars for nothing more than having used drugs.

South Dakota law enforcement and lawmakers may be happy with the status quo, but the man who actually runs the prison system isn't. State Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk told South Dakota News Watch that the cops' and courts' proclivity for busting and imprisoning women on drug charges is creating an expensive and ineffective cycle of imprisonment, release, and recidivism.

"We seem to think that locking individuals up is going to solve their addiction problem," said Kaemingk, a former drug officer. "They're coming to us in corrections and we're thinking that solves the problem, and I think in many cases it makes the problem worse."

Criminalizing addiction, especially among women who are mothers, Kraemingk said, creates a situation where the children are more likely to end up in prison themselves. He pointed to national studies showing that up to 80 percent of children who have parents behind bars will end up there themselves.

"Imprisonment in South Dakota is generational," Kaemingk said. "The females behind prison walls have experienced that as a child. The generation we have back there now as inmates experienced the same things when they were children."

Kraemingk and other relatively enlightened actors in the state are pushing for enhanced treatment opportunities and expanding drug courts, among other measures, to better deal with the situation, but nobody seems to be talking about not involving these women in the criminal justice system in the first place. A first step would be getting rid of that hideous "possession by ingestion" statute. The next step would be defelonization or outright decriminalization of drug possession in the state. Drug use absent harm to others should not be the state's business.

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

Chronicle AM: Feinstein Cosponsors STATES Act, US Will Bar Canadian Pot People from Entry, More... (9/14/18)

Medical professionals are on board with marijuana legalization, and Diane Feinstein is getting there, too; the latest national drug use survey is out, US Customs talks tough about Canadians and marijuana, and more.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is coming around on marijuana policy. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Dianne Feinstein Signs On as Cosponsor of STATES Act. The STATES Act (S 3032) has picked up a somewhat surprising 10th cosponsor: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). The bill, introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), would allow states that have legalized either medical or recreational marijuana to do so without federal interference. Feinstein has long been a foe of marijuana legalization, but she has been changing her tune lately, and this is the latest example of her shifting stance.

Poll Finds Medical Professionals Support Marijuana Legalization. A poll of medical professionals conducted by Medscape Medical News found majority support for marijuana legalization among doctors (54%), health administrators (72%), nurses (57%), pharmacists (54%), and psychologists (61%). Support was even higher for medical marijuana, with two-thirds (67%) of physicians and more than 80% among all other groups except pharmacists, who came in at 71%.

Medical Marijuana

Michigan Judge Issues Injunction to Keep A Hundred Dispensaries Open. Court of Claims Judge Stephen Borrello on Thursday granted an injunction that blocks the state from shutting down some 98 dispensaries until they are approved for state licenses. These are dispensaries that are in the midst of applying for licenses. They will now get to stay open until December 15.

Drug Policy

National Drug Use Survey Finds Drop in New Heroin Users, But Meth, Marijuana Use Up. The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health was released Friday. Among the significant findings: The initiation of heroin use is down dramatically, fewer young people are misusing prescription opioids (down from 8.5% to 7%), but more people are using marijuana and methamphetamine. 

US Customs Official Warns Canadians Who Smoke Legal Marijuana or Work or Invest in the Industry Will Be Banned from Entering US. US Customs and Border Patrol official Todd Owen said Thursday that any Canadians who admit to having used marijuana, work for the country's legal pot industry, or invest in it will be barred from entering the United States. Canadian legalization goes into effect October 17, but Own said the US doesn't plan to change its border policies because of that. "We don't recognize that as a legal business," Owen said. 

Europe's Top Five Cities for Cocaine, Ecstasy, and Speed Use

Do you want to know Europe's true party capitals? The European Monitoring Commission on Drugs and Drug Abuse (EMCDDA) is here to help. Last month it released its latest annual report on drug use levels in 56 European cities in 19 countries.

Raving in Vienna (Wikimedia)
The report relied not on survey results or extrapolations from drug seizures, but a much more direct method: an analysis of daily wastewater samples in the catchment areas of wastewater treatment plants over a one-week period. Researchers analyzed the wastewater from approximately 43 million people, looking for traces of four illicit drugs: amphetamine, methamphetamine, cocaine, and MDMA (ecstasy).

The epidemiological analysis of wastewater is "a rapidly developing scientific discipline with the potential for monitoring close to real-time, population-driven trends in illicit drug use," the EMCDDA points out. Their researchers can now use it to estimate levels of drug use by measuring the levels of drugs and their metabolites excreted into the sewers by urine.

So, which cities are doing the most drugs? We'll give you the top five for each drug, as well as a bit of discussion below:

Amphetamines (milligrams/1,000 people/day)

Eindhoven (Netherlands)     271.7

Antwerp Zuid (Belgium)      268.8

Saarbrucken (Germany)        242.0

Oostende (Belgium)               236.4

Mainz (Germany)                    226.9

The loads of amphetamine detected varied considerably across study locations, with cities in the north and east of Europe reporting much higher levels than in the south. Amphetamine, a working man's drug, was also found more evenly throughout the week than the party drugs, which tend to show up more in weekend samples. Of the top 15 cities, nine were in Germany, three each in Belgium and the Netherlands, and one in Iceland. Berlin came in 10th, Amsterdam 11th.

Cocaine (milligrams/1,000 people/day)

Barcelona (Spain)                  965.2

Zurich (Switzerland)             934.4

Antwerp Zuid (Belgium)      822.9

St. Gallen Hofen (Switzerland)      821.7

Geneva (Switzerland)           794.8

Cocaine use is highest in western and southern European cities, particularly in Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK, but Switzerland, with three of the top five and five of the top 10 cokiest cities, certainly deserves mention. Year-to-year figures show that an upward trend first reported in 2016 continues.

MDMA (Ecstasy)(milligrams/1,000 people/day)

Amsterdam (Netherlands)    230.3

Eindhoven (Netherlands)     165.1

Antwerp Zuid (Belgium)      95.3

Zurich (Switzerland)             85.2

Utretcht (Netherlands)          59.8

The Dutch really love their E, taking three of the top five spots, and nearby Antwerp is really starting to look like an unsung drug hotspot, appearing in all three top fives so far. Berlin, Barcelona, Geneva, and Paris are all in the top 10, but at use levels only about one-fifth of Amsterdam.

Methamphetamine (milligrams/1,000 people/day)

Chemnitz (Germany)            240.6

Erfurt (Germany)                 211.2

Budweis (Czech Republic)      200.2

Brno (Czech Republic)            105.7

Dresden (Germany)              180.2

Like plain old amphetamine, meth use generally concentrated in northwest Europe, although the Czech Republic is certainly cranking, too, as it traditionally has. It is most popular in eastern Germany, Finland, and Norway.

One city worth mentioning is notable for its absence from these top fives: Lisbon. Portugal is the only country in Europe to have decriminalized the use and possession of all drugs, but its capital and largest city consistently ranked low-to-middling in drug use levels: The wastewater in Lisbon contained zero methamphetamine, came in 11th for Ecstasy use, 45th for amphetamine use, and 28th for cocaine use.

Those figures from Lisbon strongly suggest that other countries can decriminalize drug use and possession without seeing their populations turned into deranged party animals. In the meantime, the real party animals might want to head to Antwerp.

Chronicle AM: Sessions Opens Door to Renewed Federal War on Marijuana, More... (1/4/18)

It took him a year, but Attorney General Sessions has now torn up the Cole memo, opening the way for a renewed federal war on marijuana. Vermont legislators are advancing a legalization bill anyway, New York's governor calls for criminal justice reforms, and more.

Is this what we have to look forward to? (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Sessions Opens Door to Renewed Federal War on Marijuana. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that he had rescinded the Obama-era Cole memo, opening the way for federal prosecutors to go after marijuana in states where it is legal. The Cole memo, which directed prosecutors to take a laissez faire approach to state-legal marijuana except for specified circumstances (violence, diversion, use by children, etc.) undermines "the rule of law," Sessions said in a statement. "Today’s memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all US attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country," he said.

New Hampshire Legislature Postpones Vote on Legalization Bill. The House voted Wednesday to postpone until the next calendar session a vote on a marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 656, because one of its chief proponents was out of the country. The bill would allow for personal possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, as well as setting up a system of regulated and taxed sales.

Vermont Legalization Bill Moving Forward Fast. The House Judiciary Committee approved the marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 22, and the House on Thursday rejected two attempts to slow passage. One Republican-led effort sought to delay a vote until mid-month, while the other sought to delay legalization until 2019. The House may well have passed the bill by the time you read these words; if so, it would then go back to the Senate for a final vote. The measure would legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, but not retail sales.

Methamphetamine

South Dakota Attorney General Seeks Stiffer Sentences for Meth Sales. State Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) said Tuesday he intends to ask the legislature to impose tougher sentences for meth distribution, and he had a unique reason for doing so: He argued that it would lead to fewer people in prison because it would scare meth dealers away. He is proposing raising the maximum sentence for distribution from 10 to 15 years, among other enhanced penalties. Jackley is seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Criminal Justice

New York Governor Calls for Criminal Justice Reforms. Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed sweeping changes in the state's criminal justice system Thursday. Among them are: Eliminating cash bail for defendants facing misdemeanor and nonviolent felony charges, speeding up trials by forcing prosecutors to share evidence before the trial date, and asset forfeiture reforms.

International

Mexico City Mayoral Candidate Calls for Personal Marijuana Cultivation. Mexico City residents should be able to grow their own marijuana, mayoral candidate Salomon Cherorivski said Wednesday. "My proposal is the legalization of private cultivation for personal consumption, not for sale, in homes in Mexico City," the center-left Chertorivski  told Reuters. Chertoriviski is seeking the nomination of a left-right coalition for the mayoral candidacy. That coalition is currently polling second to a left-wing party in the Mesoamerican megalopolis.

Australian Government Will Allow Medical Marijuana Exports. The federal government announced Thursday that it will allow the export of medical marijuana in a bid to boost opportunities for Australian producers. The proposal needs approval by the federal parliament, but the government is behind it, and the main opposition party has already signaled its support. Australian marijuana stocks surged on the news.

Four Reasons Black Incarceration Rates Are Going Down, While White Rates Are Going Up [FEATURE]

It's long been a given that tremendous racial disparities plague the nation's criminal justice system. That's still true -- blacks are incarcerated at a rate five times that of whites -- but the racial disparities are decreasing, and there are a number of interesting reasons behind the trend.

That's according to a report released this month by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Researchers there reviewed annual reports from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting system and found that between 2000 and 2015, the incarceration rate for black men dropped by nearly a quarter (24%). During the same period, the white male incarceration rate bumped up slightly, the BJS numbers indicate.

When it comes to women, the numbers are even more striking. While the black female incarceration rate plummeted by nearly 50% in the first 15 years of this century, the white rate jumped by a whopping 53%.

And make no mistake: Racial disparities in incarceration rates haven't gone away. As the NAACP notes, African Americans account for only 12 percent of the US population, but 34 percent of the population in jail or prison or on parole or probation. Similarly, black children account for 32 percent of all children who are arrested and more than 50 percent of children who are charged as adults.

In and of itself, increases in the white incarceration rate isn't a good thing. The world's leaders incarcerator state needs to reduce the number of prisoner it holds, especially for nonviolent, mostly low-level offenses such as drug crimes, not just shift who the people are that it incarcerates. Still, the reduction in disparities is at least an improvement, and has come with some reduction in the numbers of minorities being imprisoned.

When it comes to drugs, the NAACP reports, African Americans use drugs in proportion to their share of the population (12.5 percent), but account for 29 percent of all drug arrests and 33 percent of state drug prisoners. Black people still bear the heaviest burden of drug law enforcement.

Still, that that 5:1 ratio for black vs. white male incarceration rates in 2015, was an 8:1 ratio 15 years earlier. Likewise, that 2:1 ration for black vs. white female incarceration rates was a 6:1 ratio in 2000.

"It's definitely optimistic news," Fordham University law professor and imprisonment trends expert John Pfaff told the Marshall Project. "But the racial disparity remains so vast that it's pretty hard to celebrate. How, exactly, do you talk about 'less horrific?'"

So what the heck is going on? These numbers challenge the standard narrative around mass incarceration, if only partially. It behooves analysts and policymakers alike to try to make sense of the changing complexion of the prison population, but that's no easy task.

"Our inability to explains it suggest how poorly we understand the mechanics behind incarceration in general," Pfaff said.

Still, the Marshall Project wanted some answers, so it did more research and interviewed more prison system experts, and here are four theories, not mutually exclusive, that try to provide them:

Crime Has Been Declining Overall

Arrests for nearly all types of crime rose into the mid-1990s, then declined dramatically, affecting African-Americans more significantly than whites since they were (and are) more likely to be arrested by police in the first place. In the first decade of the new century, arrests of black people for violent offenses dropped 22%; for whites, the decline was 11%. Since those offenses are likely to result in substantial prison sentences, this shift has likely contributed to the changing racial makeup of the prison population.

White guys get busted for meth. (Wikimedia)
Shifting Drug War Demographics

The black vs. white disparity in the prosecution of the war on drugs is notorious, and a central tenet of drug reform advocacy. But even though blacks continue to suffer drug arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonment at a far greater rate than whites, something has been happening: According to BJS statistics, the black incarceration rate for drug offenses fell by 16% between 2000 and 2009; at the same time, the number of whites going to prison for drugs jumped by nearly 27%.

This could be because the drug crises of the day, methamphetamines and heroin and prescription opioid addiction, are mainly white people drug problems. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the drug crisisdu jour was crack cocaine, and even though crack enjoyed popularity among all races, the war on crack was waged almost entirely in black communities. The war on crack drove black incarceration rates higher then, but now cops have other priorities.

The shift in drug war targeting could also explain the dramatic narrowing of the racial gap among women prisoners, because women prisoners are disproportionately imprisoned for drug crimes.

White People Blues

Declining socioeconomic prospects for white people may also be playing a role. Beginning around 2000, whites started going to prison more often for property offenses, with the rate jumping 21% by 2009. Meanwhile, the black incarceration rate for property crimes dropped 9%.

Analysts suggest that an overall decline in life prospects for white people in recent decades may have led to an increase in criminality among that population, especially for crimes of poverty, such as property crimes. A much discussed study by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that between 1998 and 2013, white Americans were experiencing spikes in rates of mortality, suicide, and alcohol and drug abuse. That's precisely when these racial shifts in imprisonment were happening.

And while blacks also faced tough times, many whites were newer to the experience of poverty, which could explain why drug use rates, property crime, and incarceration rates are all up.

Reform is More Likely in the Cities, Where More Black People Live

Since the beginning of this century, criminal justice reform has begun to put the brakes on the mass incarceration engine, but reforms haven't been uniform. They are much more likely to have occurred in more liberal states and big cities than in conservative, rural areas.

In big cities such as Los Angeles and Brooklyn, new prison admissions have plummeted thanks largely to sentencing and other criminal justice reforms. But in counties with fewer than 100,000 residents, the incarceration rate was going up even as crime went down. In fact, people from rural areas are 50% more likely to be sent to prison than city dwellers.

Even in liberal states, the impact of reforms vary geographically. After New York state repealed its draconian Rockefeller drug laws, the state reduced its prison population more than any other state in the country in the 2000s. But the shrinkage came almost entirely from heavily minority New York City, not the whiter, more rural areas of the state.

People in rural districts are now 50 percent more likely to be sent to prison than are city dwellers, as local prosecutors and judges there have largely avoided the current wave of reform. New York offers an illustrative example. It reduced its incarcerated population more than any other state during the 2000s -- but almost entirely through reductions in the far more diverse New York City, not in the whiter and more sparsely populated areas of the state.

Whatever the reason for the shrinking racial disparities in the prison population, there is a long way to go between here and a racially just criminal justice system. If current trends continue, it would still take decades for the disparities to disappear.

Is North Korea Peddling Dope to Get Around Sanctions?

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Faced with an ever tougher economic sanction regime aimed at forcing the Hermit Kingdom to end its nuclear and ICBM programs, there are increasing signs that North Korea is using drug dealing -- among other illicit activities -- to earn hard currency. Such moves call into question whether economic sanctions can cause enough pain to the regime to force it to modify its behavior since the country's illicit economy is estimated to be larger than its licit one.

North Korean leader Kim Jung Un (Flickr)
At a deeper level, they also shed light on one of the unintended consequences of drug prohibition. Criminalizing the drug trade means there are huge profits waiting for those willing to scoff at the drug laws, as North Korea has done for decades.

According to Deutsche Welle, which cites South Korean sources with covert contributors in the north, state-run trading companies have begun to manufacture and sell illicit drugs in a move to bust the sanctions regime. The companies have been "ordered to earn foreign currency" and, with legal means of doing so being constrained by United Nations export bans, they "are turning to drugs manufacturing on an industrial scale."

It wouldn't be the first time. The Kim dynasty ordered the production of opium poppies in the 1970s, with the harvest "sent to pharmaceutical plants" where it was "processed and refined into heroin… under the direct control and strict supervision of the central government," regime defectors reported. Drugs would be smuggled across the Yalu River into China, on commercial shipping bound for loosely guarded Southeast Asian ports, and inside the baggage of North Korean diplomats.

After 1998, as famine lingered and torrential rains ruined poppy fields, King Il Sung engineered a switchover of heroin labs to methamphetamine labs. Meth suited the regime both for domestic purposes -- it stimulated workers' energy while reducing their hunger -- and for its ability to generate hard currency.

Within a few short years, the value of North Korean drug production exploded, with the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission estimating that the country earned between $500 million and $1 billion from the drug trade in 2001 alone. A Congressional Research Service report seven years later concurred, also estimating the value of the trade at up to a billion dollars. By 2005, the Chinese were complaining about intercepted shipments of methamphetamine and MDMA being trafficked from North Korea.

Little has changed in the intervening years. North Korean meth is still making its way to China, according to journalist Brendan Hong.

"China has a major meth problem," he wrote last year. "It mostly comes from North Korea and it's been flooding northeastern China for years. I have seen workers abuse meth in Chinese electronics factories so they can stay awake when trudging through unending shifts. Cam girls (models who perform or strip online for a fee) and karaoke hostesses smoke it with their clients, who call the practice, "ice-skating.'"

"The North has a long track record of manufacturing and selling drugs overseas and it is a convenient fallback for the regime to ratchet up production when sanctions are stepped up and it is harder for them to export legitimate goods," said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University. "It is clear that they need hard cash for their new military gadgets and they know there is a big cash market for illegal drugs," he told Deutsche Welle.

North Korea appears bound and determined to become a nuclear state complete with the means to deliver atomic death and destruction across thousands of miles. And if it's got an illicit drug industry as big as its legal economy, sanctions aimed at legal sectors of the economy aren't going to rein in the regime. The primary result of increased sanctions may turn out to be making Kim Jung Un the Walter White of Northeast Asia.

Trump BS Alert: The Border Wall Won't Stop Drug Smuggling [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

The president doesn't let reality get in the way of rhetoric. (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
President Trump sure loves his border wall. It was a staple of his campaign rhetoric, and despite Mexico's firm insistence that there is no way it's ever going to pay for it, Trump's desire for it is unabated. Now, he's threatening to shut down the government unless he can persuade the Congress to make American taxpayers pay for it.

Last week, Trump claimed that "building the wall will stop much of the drugs coming into the county." That claim is yet another example of what CNN contributor Fareed Zakaria pungently referred to as Trump's primary political product: bullshit.

Here's what Trump claimed during his joint press conference last Monday with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto:

"The wall will stop much of the drugs from pouring into this country and poisoning our youth. So we need the wall. It's imperative… The wall is needed from the standpoint of drug -- tremendous, the drug scourge, what's coming through the areas that we're talking about… So we will build the wall, and we will stop a lot of things, including the drug -- the drugs are pouring in at levels like nobody has ever seen. We'll be able to stop them once the wall is up."

And here's the reality: Trump's own DEA and outside experts agree that building a wall along the 1,700 mile land border with Mexico will have little impact on the drug trade. Not only do drugs from Latin America enter America by sea and air as well as across the Mexican border, but the vast majority of drugs crossing the land border do so not in unfenced desert expanses, but through official ports of entry.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations "transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest Border through ports of entry (POEs) using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers," the DEA said in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment. "The drugs are typically secreted in hidden compartments when transported in passenger vehicles or comingled with legitimate goods when transported in tractor trailers."

Here's how the DEA detailed trafficking methods for various drugs:

Methamphetamine: "Traffickers most commonly transport methamphetamine in tractor trailers and passenger vehicles with hidden compartments. In addition, traffickers send methamphetamine through various mail services or by couriers traveling via bus or commercial airline.

Heroin: "Most heroin smuggled across the border is transported in privately-owned vehicles, usually through California, as well as through south Texas."

Cocaine: "Tractor trailers and passenger vehicles are frequently used to transport multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine. Cocaine is hidden amongst legitimate cargo or secreted inside of intricate hidden compartments built within passenger vehicles."

Marijuana: "Large quantities of marijuana are smuggled through subterranean tunnels."

A May 2017 DEA intelligence report obtained by Foreign Policy echoed the 2015 assessment. It, too, found that drugs coming from Mexico went indeed cross the border, but they mainly do so concealed in vehicles using ports of entry -- not those unfenced expanses. That report also noted that drugs headed for the Northeast United States, especially from Colombia -- the world's leading cocaine producer, as well as source of opium and heroin second only to Mexico in the US market -- come more often by plane and boat.

Drug traffickers "generally route larger drug shipments destined for the Northeast through the Bahamas and/or South Florida by using a variety of maritime conveyance methods, to include speedboats, fishing vessels, sailboats, yachts, and containerized sea cargo," the report found. "In some cases, Dominican Republic-based traffickers will also transport cocaine into Haiti for subsequent shipment to the United States via the Bahamas and/or South Florida corridor using maritime and air transport."

That report did not address the border wall, but its examples of how and where drugs enter the country show that in many cases, building a wall wouldn't make a scintilla of difference: "According to DEA reporting, the majority of the heroin available in New Jersey originates in Colombia and is primarily smuggled into the United States by Colombian and Dominican groups via human couriers on commercial flights to the Newark International Airport," the report found.

The report concluded with recommendations for reducing the drug trade, but none of them were about building a border wall. Instead, targeting foreign drug trafficking networks within the US "would be an essential component to any broad strategy for resolving the current opioid crisis."

It's not just his own DEA that is giving the lie to Trump's bullshit. His own chief of staff, John Kelly contradicted the president's position at a congressional hearing in April. Illegal drugs from Mexico "mostly come through the ports of entry," he said. "We know they come in in relatively small amounts, 10, 15 kilos at a time in automobiles and those kinds of conveyances."

Drug trafficking experts agreed with Kelly and the DEA -- not Trump.

Brookings Institution senior fellow and long-time analyst of drug production and trafficking Vanda Felbab-Brown summed things up bluntly in an essay earlier this month: "A barrier in the form of a wall is increasingly irrelevant to the drug trade as it now practiced because most of the drugs smuggled into the US from Mexico no longer arrive on the backs of those who cross illegally."

"The wall won't stop the flow of drugs into the United States," she told Fact Check last week.

Other experts contacted by Fact Check concurred. University of Maryland criminal justice professor and founder of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center Peter Reuter pronounced himself skeptical that a wall would have any impact on the drug trade.

"The history is that smugglers eventually figure a workaround," he said. "There have been many promising interdiction interventions -- none of them have made more than a temporary dent."

And Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Stephen D. Morris, whose research has largely focused on Mexico, came up with two reasons the border wall would not stop drugs.

"First, as you say, most drug shipments come disguised as commerce and are crossing the border by truck or in cargo containers. Human mules, to my knowledge, bring in a small fraction," he said. "Second, smugglers adapt. Whether it is tunnels, submarines, mules, drones, etc., they are good at figuring out new ways to get drugs to those in the US who will buy them."

It is a shame that Donald Trump's ascendency has so coarsened and vulgarized our national political discourse. But his lies demand a forthright response. Bullshit is bullshit.

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