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Published: Mon, 21 Aug 2017 00:00:00 -0400

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The Federal Government Is Finally Exploring Marijuana As a Medical Alternative to Opioids

Mon, 14 Aug 2017 16:00:00 -0400

(image) Medical marijuana advocates have claimed for years that cannabis is an effective and safe alternative to prescription opioids for the treatment of pain. But no one put up the money to prove it until last week.

On Tuesday, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System announced a forthcoming study to ascertain whether medical marijuana can alleviate the need for opioids in both HIV-positive and HIV-free patients who suffer from chronic pain. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is putting $3.5 million towards the investigation.

A study published last year suggests the Albert Einstein College of Medicine is on the right track.

In 2016, researchers at the University of Michigan published two years' worth of survey results collected from 185 medical marijuana patients suffering from various ailments. Patients reported a 45 percent improvement in quality of life and a 64 percent reduction in the use of prescription opioids.

"We would caution against rushing to change current clinical practice towards cannabis," said Michigan study leader Kevin Boehnke, "but note that this study suggests that cannabis is an effective pain medication and agent to prevent opioid overuse."

The Albert Einstein College of Medicine is right to point out that we have far less data than one might expect, considering the first state to legalize medical marijuana did so 21 years ago. Most research into Schedule I drugs is paid for by the federal government, which has historically underwritten only those studies that either show the harms of such substances or explain their mechanism of action. The federal monopoly on research marijuana, meanwhile, makes studying the drug's therapeutic qualities an exercise in bureaucratic kowtowing.

But we do know there is a correlation between medical marijuana legalization and opioid use. A 2014 study that looked at 11 years of overdose data found that death rates from opioids increased in both states with liberalized marijuana laws and those without, but that "medical cannabis laws were associated with lower rates of opioid analgesic overdose mortality."

When University of Georgia economist David Bradford looked at Medicare prescribing rates, he found that physicians in medical marijuana states prescribed "1,826 fewer doses of conventional pain medication each year."

In addition to receiving funding from NIH—itself a noteworthy development—the Albert Einstein College of Medicine will conduct its study using marijuana provided by New York medical marijuana dispensaries, rather than the moldy ditchweed provided to researchers by the Drug Enforcement Administration's operation at the University of Mississippi.

Cannabis research has turned another corner.

The Justice Department Wants to Put Small-Time Fentanyl Dealers in Federal Prison

Sat, 12 Aug 2017 12:30:00 -0400

(image) If there was any question that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has little patience for treating opioid addiction as a public health issue, a Department of Justice letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission from July 31 provides some troubling clarity. In addition to asking for longer sentences for immigration and gun offenses, the Department insists that the commissioners change federal sentencing guidelines so "that defendants who distribute seemingly small quantities of fentanyl face prison time."

How small?

Distribution of any amount of fentanyl up to four grams, or one gram of a fentanyl analog, is currently a level 12 offense, punishable by 10-to-16 months in federal prison for people with little to no criminal history, all the way up to 30-to-37 months for someone with considerable criminal history.

But because fentanyl can be lethal in doses as small as two milligrams and because four grams is "sufficient to kill 2,000 persons," according to the DOJ, "a base offense level of 12 is wholly inadequate for a person who has placed that many deadly doses of fentanyl onto our streets."

There are problems with this approach. For one thing, quantity does not equal culpability. Many of the people who move fentanyl-laced heroin at the street level do not know how much fentanyl is contained in the bags they sell. In fact, powdered fentanyl is often marketed as pure heroin or pressed into pills and marketed as some other opioid. That a street level dealer wouldn't exactly know the ratio shouldn't come as a surprise. Fentanyl is imported into the U.S. by the kilogram. As the quantities get smaller, so do the operators.

The other issue is that the street level dealers most likely to sell the smallest amount of fentanyl--intentionally or not--are also the dealers most likely to be fentanyl-laced heroin users themselves. Increasing the sentence lengths at the low end would likely mean imprisoning addicts.

The DOJ knows this. In a footnote, the department points out a rule under consideration by the USSC that would allow level-12 defendants who plead guilty to receive a level reduction that would result in probation in lieu of prison time. That rule is intended to separate small fish from big fish and divert defendants into rehabilitation programs. For the DOJ to cite that rule suggests the department knows imprisoning small-time fentanyl dealers belies its claim that federal prosecutors only target major dealers.

The USSC is an obscure agency in the federal criminal justice system. Commissioners don't try or hear criminal cases and they lack the authority to change federal statutes (such as mandatory minimums). But they nevertheless play a major role in determining sentence lengths by creating sentencing guidelines used by federal judges, probation officers, prosecutors, and public defenders.

Increasing the base offense level for the smallest quantities of fentanyl would undermine the spirit of every reform they've passed in the last decade. What it says about the DOJ is even more troubling: Sessions thinks incarceration can fix this crisis. He's wrong, and poor Americans will continue to pay the price.

What China's Growing Role in Illegal Drug Production Tells Us About the Future of the Drug War

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 13:35:00 -0400

Despite what you may have heard about Mexico and its cartels, the global drug war's biggest Whac-A-Mole hole for nearly two decades has been China. The bath salts and "spice" that dominated American drug headlines in recent years? Those came from Chinese chemical factories. The Mexican cartels that have made most of our meth since regulators snuffed out America's artisanal speed industry? They buy their precursor chemicals from China. Nearly every synthetic drug you can buy in the U.S.—legally or illegally, from cathinones to steroids to the heart medication your doctor prescribed—probably came from China. And if it wasn't made in China, it was made in India, which is a good place to make illegal things for the same reasons: It's massive, loosely regulated, increasingly population-dense, and home to hundreds of millions of people looking to turn a buck. In what is now becoming a full-fledged drug reporting genre, MSNBC published a short video from Jacob Soboroff explaining just how easy it is to order fentanyl—a growing cause of overdose deaths in the U.S.—through Chinese websites accessible on the open internet: Deadly opioid fentanyl is being ordered online & shipped direct to USA from China. Here's how. #OneNationOverDosed — Jacob Soboroff (@jacobsoboroff) August 9, 2017 In a New York Times piece from 2015, reporter Dan Levin did something similar, calling up a Chinese chemical factory and running through an incomplete list of drugs available for purchase through Chinese websites: spice, bath salts, precursors for meth, the stimulant "flakka" (remember when that was popular for 10 minutes or so?), and an entire universe of "research chemicals" that mimic banned substances but technically aren't illegal. "We're seeing cases nationwide and ground zero always seems to be China," an assistant district attorney from New York told Levin. On top of that, a 2016 study from the Office of the US Trade Representative reported that 97 percent of the counterfeit prescription drugs intercepted at U.S. points of entry came from China, Hong Kong, India, or Singapore. Soboroff seems genuinely shocked that it's so easy to order drugs this way. I will confess to also being rather surprised when a Chinese chemical factory representative reached out to me after Reason published my recent feature on steroids. The rep sent me links to a reddit thread featuring reviews of his factory and a list of illegal compounds they could make in whatever quantity I desired. He also offered to send me free samples and guaranteed free re-shipping in the event my package was intercepted by U.S. Customs. (I did not take him up on his offer.) A few of the underground lab operators I've spoken to here in the U.S. say that ordering from China is a relatively safe, hassle-free, and common way to do business. Many nutritional supplement companies, meanwhile, order their research chemicals from vendors on Alibaba, which is like the Chinese version of Amazon, if Amazon were also a B2B hub. This is the 21st century drug trade. Global supply chains work nearly as well for illegal goods as they do for legal ones. Research chemists are producing very effective analogs faster than anyone can regulate them. The sheer import volume of first-world countries all but guarantees vast amount of banned goods will escape detection. We will hear more in the coming months and possibly years about the threat posed by drug makers in China and India. Law enforcement bodies will claim they're taking the necessary steps to curtail the practice. China has added more than 100 new substances to its list of illegal compounds and promised to crack down on factories that sell opioids through unapproved channels. The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, has asked the U.S. Sentencing Commission to rewrite federal sentencing guidelines in such a way that prosecutors would no longer be tasked with explaining the relationship between a banned compound and a grey market analog. The current process, the Justic[...]

NFL Owners Agree To Consider Letting Players Use Medical Marijuana

Sun, 06 Aug 2017 09:31:00 -0400

The National Football League is back in action this weekend—if you count preseason games as "action"—after taking a tiny step toward maybe, possibly, someday letting players use marijuana to treat pain. NFL owners agreed to work together with the NFL Players Association on a study to determine the effectiveness of marijuana as a medical treatment. Yes, there have already been numerous studies on the medical value of marijuana—29 states have legalized the drug for that reason—but this seemingly small step is a pretty big shift for the league, which has always maintained a strict prohibitionist stance on pot. "Certainly the research about marijuana and really more particularly cannabinoid compounds as they may relate to the treatment of both acute and chronic pain, that is an area of research that we need a lot more information on and we need to further develop," Allen Sills, a Vanderbilt University neurosurgeon hired earlier this year to be the NFL's chief medical officer, said in an interview with The Washington Post. Sills said examining the feasibility of players using marijuana to manage the pain that comes from repeated full-speed collisions with other muscle-bound athletes was "really important" to players' long term health. While the NFL has never allowed players to use marijuana for any reason—the players' union is also reportedly seeking reduced punishments for recreational use as well—there is a well-documented history of teams handing out pharmaceutical pain-killers by the handful. The NFL currently is fighting a lawsuit from several former players who allege that official team doctors literally handed out piles of opioids and other painkillers—ignoring federal laws for prescription drugs and disregarding medical guidance—before, during, and after games. "The medicine being pumped into these guys is just killing people," former player Nate Jackson told Rolling Stone last year, as part of an excellent piece on the league's nonsensical marijuana rules and how they've led to an over-reliance on opioids. The NFL's slowly changing stance on the issue comes a few months after Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys' owner and possibly the most powerful billionaire in the NFL's inner circle of powerful billionaires, floated the idea of loosening the ban on marijuana. Much as it pains me to admit it, Jones is absolutely right. The NFL's anti-marijuana stance simply doesn't make sense as more state governments adopt more liberal views toward medical and recreational weed. A player on the Seattle Seahawks or Denver Broncos (or any of the California-based teams in the league) can buy and use marijuana legally in the state where he spends most of his time during the season, but could face a suspension and a fine if he's caught with it in his system. Twenty of the 32 NFL teams play in states where medical marijuana is legal. This, too, mirrors the society-wide debate over the relationship between legal recreational weed and employment contracts that prohibit the use of marijuana. The league, and individual teams, are within their rights to require certain behavior from their players as a condition of employment, of course, but given the NFL's troubled history with punishing more serious offenses like, say, serial sexual assaults or domestic violence by star players, enforcing an absolute prohibition against marijuana use seems like it should be a lesser priority. Sills seems to recognize the NFL is both influenced by the changing views on marijuana in society, and in a position to reinforce that shift. "These really aren't just football issues," Sills told the Post. "These are society issues, right? We know right now that as a society that the treatment of both acute and chronic pain is a huge public health problem. "But I think that we in professional sports are in a unique position to help inform the public and to do research and really advance our state of understanding about this issue," he added. src="[...]

Beware, Pain-Sufferers: Jeff Sessions Is Coming for Your Doctor

Wed, 02 Aug 2017 15:40:00 -0400

I praised a new report from a federal opioid commission yesterday because its proposals to stop the increase in deadly drug overdoses did not include harsher laws or criminal sentences. It should have occurred to me that Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn't need the encouragement. Today Sessions announced a new task force devoted to fighting opioid overdoses by going after doctors who overprescribe the drugs. He's not even trying to sugarcoat it—he wants to put doctors in prison cells. From the Justice Department's press release: Speaking at the Columbus Police Academy today, Attorney General Sessions said that the new Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit will focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud using data to identify and prosecute individuals that are contributing to this prescription opioid epidemic. Additionally, as part of the program, the Department will fund twelve experienced Assistant United States Attorneys for a three year term to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting health care fraud related to prescription opioids, including pill mill schemes and pharmacies that unlawfully divert or dispense prescription opioids for illegitimate purposes. The Department of Justice is clearly suggesting that it will focus on practices that simply hand out prescriptions like perfume samples and don't actually keep an eye on dosages or signs of addiction. But if you read further, you'll see the department is going to decide what the appropriate amount of opioid use is. And the consequences for falling outside the norms could be severe. From Sessions' speech: This sort of data analytics team can tell us important information about prescription opioids—like which physicians are writing opioid prescriptions at a rate that far exceeds their peers; how many of a doctor's patients died within 60 days of an opioid prescription; the average age of the patients receiving these prescriptions; pharmacies that are dispensing disproportionately large amounts of opioids; and regional hot spots for opioid issues. With this data in hand, I am also assigning 12 experienced prosecutors to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud cases in a dozen locations around the country where we know enforcement will make a difference in turning the tide on this epidemic. These prosecutors, working with FBI, DEA, HHS, as well as our state and local partners, will help us target and prosecute these doctors, pharmacies, and medical providers who are furthering this epidemic to line their pockets. When you get a bunch of prosecutors together to tell them to fight opioid abuse, we know what's going to happen. They're going to look for doctors to prosecute, and they're certainly not going to go back to Sessions and tell him they don't see any likely targets. Every single doctor who prescribes pain medication in the areas the Department of Justice is monitoring now has a target on his or her back. Every chronic pain-sufferer who turns to these doctors for assistance will now be treated as a potential addict and faces heightened chances of being denied medication. The most logical outcome is that more people will turn to the black market to try to find some relief or to fulfill their cravings if they're addicts (or both—those aren't exclusive states). This ultimately increases the possibility that addicts and pain-sufferers will take drugs whose origins and contents are not known, and thus increases the risk of harm. This is not a recipe for reducing drug overdoses. Furthermore, this crackdown on doctors comes alongside Sessions' push to attack the illegal drug market as well. Bafflingly, in a speech Sessions gave today at a police academy in Columbus, Ohio, he made it clear he has absolutely no understanding of the relationship between government prohibitions and black markets: "Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can't file [...]

Cory Booker's Revolutionary Marijuana Reform Bill Doesn't Have a Snowball's Chance in Hell

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 15:15:00 -0400

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) today introduced a far-reaching marijuana reform bill that will likely never come up for a vote or obtain a single Republican co-sponsor. In a universe where it stood even the slightest chance of being passed into law, the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017 would remove marijuana from the federal drug schedule, allow all current federal marijuana prisoners to petition for new sentences, expunge the convictions of former federal marijuana prisoners, withhold federal law enforcement funding from states that do not liberalize their own marijuana laws, and create a community reinvestment fund for communities affected by the drug war, to which Congress will appropriate $500 million a year, every year, until 2040. Booker's bill essentially forces all of the states to legalize marijuana--or go without federal funding for law enforcement and prisons--and currently has zero co-sponsors. Booker is not the first person to introduce a federal marijuana reform bill that will never see the Senate (or House) floor. Reps. Ron Paul and Barney Frank introduced the first federal repeal bill way back in 2011. That bill called for the repeal of federal prohibition and for states to set their own marijuana policies. In addition to Paul and Frank, there were four Democratic co-sponsors. Booker addressed the incoherence of maintaining federal prohibition while states forge ahead with various legalization schemes during a Facebook Live event at 12:30 p.m. today. He decried the cruelty of denying veterans an alternative to prescription drugs, and outlined the disparate impact marijuana laws have on communities of color. His reasons for reforming federal marijuana laws are as good as his legislation is bad. Congress is closer to revisiting marijuana's place in Schedule I than it has ever been. Just last week, Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican congressman from South Carolina and a former prosecutor, grilled the interim director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy as to why marijuana is in a more restrictive schedule than cocaine and amphetamines. But if you wanted to craft a bill that would alienate Republicans in Washington, D.C., and governors and state legislators of both parties across the country, you'd be hard pressed to surpass the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017. Booker's bill would ensure the federal government would provide nothing for prison maintenance, construction, or staffing to any state in which the percentage of minorities arrested or convicted for a marijuana-related offense exceeded the percentage of minorities in the overall state population. And reduce federal funding for state and local law enforcement by 10 percent. Recidivism reduction and drug rehab funding would be exempt from this rule, but you'd need an army of Government Accountability Office inspectors to keep state facilities compliant. As with equitable sharing reviews, inspectors would be able to tackle only a few facilities at a time, and only several years after the fact. (In the alternate universe where this bill gets so much as a committee hearing, congressional delegates from states likely to be affected strangle this provision before lunch.) And then there's the $500 million-per-year Community Reinvestment Fund, some of which would be diverted from non-compliant states. The rest would simply be appropriated. Booker chose not to include a federal excise tax on marijuana sales. (Could it be that this is not a serious bill?) The fund would pay for reentry services, job training, and "expenses related to the expungement of convictions," as well as "public libraries, community centers, and programs and opportunities dedicated to youth." Library funding in a marijuana reform bill doesn't fly, even on Earth 2. The most reasonable provision in the bill is re-sentencing for current federal pot prisoners. When the U.S. Sentencing Commission changed the federal sentencing guidelines for drug offenses in April 201[...]

Opioid Addiction Report Uses Panic to Sell More Federal Spending

Tue, 01 Aug 2017 13:15:00 -0400

Let's start with the best news from President Donald Trump's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis: Their interim report does not call for new harsh laws or punitive measures against American citizens who abuse drugs. It doesn't call for more jail cells or new mandatory minimum sentences. It does not pretend that American can arrest its way into ending opioid overdose deaths. On the flip side, the commission recommends even greater government meddling in the frequency and manner by which doctors prescribe pain medication, bureaucratic behavior likely to result in more pain sufferers being denied treatment and potentially turning to the black market for dangerous alternatives. That's the unfortunate irony of the report from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's commission, made up of four elected politicians and a former White House drug policy official who want to keep marijuana as a Schedule I forbidden drug. Read the full report here. The commission's stated goal is to try to reduce the recent dramatic increase in opioid overdose deaths. The report is deeply concerned about black market access to synthetic opioids and notes that it comes directly as a result of the tightening of access to prescription drugs. Yet the report calls for more government involvement in overseeing the practices of pain medication prescribers and more state-level monitoring of prescription access to "assist prescribing doctors." Though the report doesn't appear to suggest punitive measures toward doctors who prescribe more than the government believes is appropriate, it's very easy to see how these practices will end up there. Indeed, given that the news coverage of the report is focusing on the commission's desire to get Trump to declare opioid overdoses to be a "national emergency," it's hard to imagine how its recommendations won't be used as a mechanism to overwhelmingly scale back pain medication prescriptions. The report says America has a drug overdose death toll equal to September 11 every three weeks. They even underline the "every three weeks" for emphasis. Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than gun homicides and car crashes combined, though the report doesn't mention gun and crash deaths trends had been on the decline. It is true that drug overdose deaths have been trending upward, and have been for a while. But it's an absurd exaggeration for the report to claim "If this scourge has not found you or your family yet, without bold action by everyone, it soon will." The report addressed Trump directly, telling him he's the "only person who can bring this type of intensity to the emergency and we believe [he has] the will to do so and to do so immediately." So if they don't want to throw people in prison, what do they actually want after declaring such a crisis? That's easy: More money. More federal spending to the states. The first recommendation is for the federal government to facilitate more inpatient clinics getting access to Medicaid reimbursement money for treatment. The report authors know that legislation is technically necessary to make changes, but they believe that if Trump declares an emergency, the Department of Health and Human Services can grant waivers to individual states so that reimbursement can happen more easily, and the availability of treatment will hopefully increase. The report also calls for federal incentives to increase access to medication-assisted treatments like buprenorphine and methadone to help addicts, particularly among veterans and Medicare patients. And while the report doesn't call for more harsh laws, it does call for more funding for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to fight the flow of synthetic drugs across the border into the United States. It may not want to punish Americans for being drug addicts, but the commission remains committed to fighting the war on drugs. Possibly t[...]

13 Reasons Jeff Sessions is a @$#/!

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 14:50:00 -0400

Jeff Sessions is on the ropes with Donald Trump. Good.

The president is pissed because Sessions recused himself from the investigation of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election. But here are a baker's dozen of reasons to hate the attorney general, including his obsession with restarting the war on pot, his call to jack up mandatory minimums, and his support for civil asset forfeiture. Then there's his lack of interest in due process, willingness to subvert state's rights when they conflict with his desired outcome, and desire to lengthen prison terms for non-violent criminals. Also, he might be some kind of statist elf.

During Sessions' confirmation hearings, Democrats claimed the former Alabama senator was unfit for office because he was a racist, charges that were never really substantiated. But Sessions' voting record and policy agenda are more than enough to disqualify him from being the nation's top law enforcement officer.

Mostly Weekly is hosted by Andrew Heaton and written by Sarah Rose Siskind. Watch past episodes here.

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Produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg.

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Rejecting Sessions' Plea, Senate Panel Votes to Protect Medical Marijuana

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 13:20:00 -0400

Jeff Sessions' former Senate colleagues, dismayed at Donald Trump's humilating tweets and comments about him, are rallying to his defense, urging the president to stop castigating an attorney general he describes as a "beleaguered" and "very weak" disappointment. But their solidarity with Sessions goes only so far, as demonstrated by today's vote on a spending rider that blocks Justice Department interference with medical marijuana laws. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the rider, known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, by a voice vote, indicating that it was not controversial among the panel's members, who include 16 Republicans. The committee thereby rejected a personal plea by Sessions to let the amendment lapse. "I write to renew the Department of Justice's opposition to the inclusion of language in any appropriations legislation that would prohibit the use of Department of Justice funds or in any way inhibit its authority to enforce the Controlled Substances Act," Sessions said in a May 1 letter to Senate and House leaders. "I believe it would be unwise to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic and potentially long-term uptick in violent crime." Evidently Sessions' former colleagues found that logic, tying medical marijuana to violence and heroin use, unpersuasive. The committee's approval of the rider Sessions opposes, which was first enacted in 2014 and has been renewed each year since then, sets the stage for its inclusion in the final bill providing funding for the Justice Department. "This vote is not only a blow against an outdated Reefer Madness mindset," says Marijuana Majority Chairman Tom Angell, who first reported Sessions' letter. "It is a personal rebuke to Jeff Sessions. The attorney general, in contravention of President Trump's campaign pledges and of public opinion, specifically asked Congress to give him the power to arrest and prosecute medical marijuana patients and providers who are following state laws. A bipartisan group of his former Senate colleagues just said no. A majority of states now allow medical cannabis, and we will not allow drug warriors in the Justice Department to roll back the clock. The war on marijuana is ending, even if Jeff Sessions doesn't realize it yet." Two weeks ago, the same Senate committee, by a vote of 24 to 7, approved an amendment that would have permitted Veterans Health Administration doctors to recommend marijuana as a treatment in states that allow medical use. Last year that amendment passed the Senate and House by wide margins but did not end up in the final appropriations bill. Yesterday the House Rules Committee voted to keep the rider from proceeding to a floor vote.[...]

Once a Killer Drug, Qat Is Now a Dropout Drug, If You Believe The New York Times

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 13:20:00 -0400

People have been chewing qat, a stimulating shrub that grows in the Horn of Africa and on the Arabian peninsula, for thousands of years. Its effects are commonly compared to those of strong coffee, and it serves similar functions in social and vocational contexts. But unlike coffee, qat seems exotic to Westerners, which is why we periodically see articles like the one The New York Times ran on Saturday, reporting the "alarming" fact that "underemployed youth" in Ethiopia are chewing qat, a development that "authorities" consider "an epidemic in all but name." Times correspondent Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura quotes Shidigaf Haile, a public prosecutor in Gonder, who says qat chewing by young men is "a huge problem" that is "bad for Ethiopia's economic development because they become lazy, unproductive, and their health will be affected." Yet by Haile's own account (and de Freytas-Tamura's), it's not so much that qat renders young men indolent and unemployable but that "a lack of work" encourages them to while away their time chewing the leaves. De Freytas-Tamura also casts doubt on the notion that qat makes you lazy by describing a young woman who "has made chewing the drug a ritual, repeated several times a day," and who "even chews on the job, on the khat farm where she picks the delicate, shiny leaves off the shrubs." The habit does not seem to impair her productivity, and a similar story could be told about American office workers who drink coffee several times a day. Keen to substantiate Haile's claim that qat use is unhealthy, de Freytas-Tamura consults the Drug Enforcement Administration, always a reliable source for information about psychoactive substances banned by the U.S. government, and reports that "chronic abuse...can lead to exhaustion, 'manic behavior with grandiose delusions, violence, suicidal depression or schizophreniform psychosis.'" She gives no indication of how common such outcomes are, leaving the impression that any given qat chewer could be just one leaf away from a mental hospital. "Khat is legal and remains so mainly because it is a big source of revenue for the government," de Freytas-Tamura avers, as if it is puzzling and requires explanation whenever a government decides to tolerate a psychoactive substance. "But there are mounting concerns about its widespread use." De Freytas-Tamura does consult an Ethiopian psychiatrist who notes that qat chewing "is quite a complex cultural phenomenon" and explains that "simply banning it would be difficult, given its role in cultural rites among certain religious groups." But the reporter's prohibitionist preferences are clear. This tut-tutting over young men who like to hang out and chew qat is mild compared to what the Times was saying about the plant in the early 1990s, during the U.S. intervention in Somalia. "It is considered generally unwise to move around Mogadishu at night," the Times reported in December 1992, "because by then the narcotic effect of the [teenage nomads'] two-bunch-a-day habit has taken hold. Since the mixture of khat and guns has proved such a lethal combination (the addiction often generates the looting), some desperate Somali elders have facetiously suggested a 'khat for guns' swap to empty the town of weapons." Qat seems to be a very versatile plant. When a country is in the midst of a civil war, qat drives young men to murder and mayhem. When a country is at peace but unemployment is high, by contrast, qat makes young men do nothing. Marijuana underwent a similar transformation in the United States. Known for decades as a "killer drug" that inspired appalling crimes, it was later condemned as a "dropout drug" that made its users lethargic and apathetic. But that was all a lot of nonsense, as the Times eventually admitted. Maybe someday it will come around on qat too.[...]

Countdown To (Legalized) Ecstasy! Rick Doblin, MAPS, & the Psychedelic Renaissance [Podcast]

Wed, 19 Jul 2017 11:00:00 -0400

"The experiences I've had with psychedelic drugs, namely psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD, but particularly MDMA, have been personally transformative for me," says Mike Riggs, a reporter for Reason and the author of a blockbuster new story about how medical and psychiatric researchers are using psychedelics to help their patients. "Not frequent use, but kind of taking these drugs and then having really intense, in-depth, long conversations with intelligent people about how to get better, just how to get better as a person, as a human being, how to be a better neighbor, how to be a better friend." It was that experience that led Riggs to study groups such as The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and its founder, Rick Doblin. "Doblin is a totally fascinating guy," Riggs tells me in the newest Reason Podcast. "He started MAPS in 1986. His journey of studying and advocating for the use of psychedelic drugs in therapeutic settings began in the late 1960s or early '70s. He was kind of a guy who, for a long time starting when he was in college all the way to the mid-'80s, he was a guy who's like, 'We can get this to where it needs to be in terms of legitimacy simply by talking about it and simply by doing it.' And so in the 1960s and 1970s, there's some underground psychedelic therapy work in which psychiatrists who either participated in the research in the 1950s with LSD continued secretly. And then going into the 1970s when MDMA was kind of rediscovered by this chemist named Sasha Shulgin. MDMA wasn't illegal. It hadn't been banned. So psychiatrists were able to use it as kind of a research chemical." The tale Riggs tells isn't one of wanton hedonism or Dr. Strange-level trips. Rather, it's one in which doctors and patients are working together against the backdrop of a decades-long war on drugs to figure out new and effective ways to treat PTSD, depression, and other maladies with currently illegal substances. And more amazing, how Doblin and crew are on the verge of changing the way that the government regulates drugs. Produced by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: Hi. I'm Nick Gillespie and this is the Reason podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes, and rate and review us while you're there. Today, we are talking with Mike Riggs. He's a reporter for Reason. He writes for the magazine, the print magazine. He writes for the website. And he occasionally appears in videos at Reason TV. Mike, thanks so much for talking to us. Mike Riggs: Yeah. It's my pleasure. Gillespie: All right. So, you've got a kind of blockbuster story coming out, or out at, which is about how after 30, 40 years, 50 years, almost 60 years, psychedelic drugs are being taken seriously by all kinds of medical researchers, psychological researchers, et cetera. Explain, briefly, what the thesis of your story is. Riggs: The thesis of the story, I would say, is basically that while most people who follow drug policy reform kind of broadly or generally think of it as using ballot initiatives for drugs like marijuana to basically kind of legalize through mobilizing the citizenry that there's an entire alternative path that's being pursued by psychedelic researchers. People who are studying the medical applications for LS[...]

City Councilman's Proposal to Deal With Opioid Overdoses: Let Them Die

Mon, 10 Jul 2017 13:45:00 -0400

While more Americans are coming around to the idea that drug addiction should be treated as a public-health issue rather than a crime, the recent rise in opioid overdoses threatens this shift in public opinion, especially in the areas most ravaged by this new epidemic. In Cincinnati—my hometown—174 overdoses took place in less than one week last year. Many counties in Ohio no longer have enough room to store all of the bodies of overdose victims, forcing the state to lend out mobile morgues that are normally reserved for large-scale disasters. The lieutenant governor of the state has even opened up about her family's struggle with opioid addiction. The desperation to end this epidemic has not brought out the best in everyone. Recently, Middletown, Ohio, city councilman Dan Picard proposed that paramedics not respond to addicts upon a third overdose. Critics decried the proposal as unbelievably cruel. Picard countered that many didn't understand just how bad the situation had gotten in his city, where "out-of-the-box thinking" was now required. By Picard's estimation, each overdose response costs the city $1,104. At this rate, he says, emergency services eventually won't be able to respond to other calls and "the city's going to run out of money." The city, meanwhile, is not even sure Picard's proposal is legal. However if lawyers determine that it is, it will come up for a city council vote. Should the proposal pass, supporters may be surprised at how little it does to stop the onslaught of overdose calls. Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lotti, a critic of the proposal, noted that 85 percent of the department's overdose runs involve first-time callers, who would not be subject to the three-strikes rule. Effective or not, the policy still raises ethical concerns. Paramedics should not become, at the direction of ill-informed politicians, arbiters of who deserves to live and who deserves to die based on one's lifestyle choices. Even the sorts of serial overdosers who grab headlines—such as a Dayton, Ohio, man who has been revived by paramedics twenty times—do not deserve to just be left for dead in the streets. Addicts need access to treatment, not ultimatums. But seldom is treatment readily available. An arcane federal law has inhibited the growth of drug-treatment centers in places where they are needed the most. Centers that accept Medicaid patients are prohibited from having more than sixteen beds. With a population of less than 50,000, Middletown has already seen 577 overdoses in 2017 alone. Permitting drug-treatment centers to expand at the local level would be a step in the right direction, giving addicts more opportunities to get the help they need and relieving pressure on emergency services and overcrowded jails. More treatment centers are only one part of the equation, of course. Currently, these centers are limited in what they can provide for addicts by America's outdated drug laws. When Switzerland experienced a heroin epidemic in the early 1990s, it started treating addicts with substitution therapy, using opiates like methadone to taper off addiction to other opiates and even giving prescription heroin to some heavy users. It worked. Methadone treatment is becoming more common in the U.S., despite being hampered by Medicaid rules regarding its use, but the nation is still a long way off from taking on major reforms like the Swiss did. In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is still sticking to its old ways of prohibiting any drug they set their eyes on, including Kratom, another substitute drug addicts can use in place of more dangerous opioids. Despite the rhetoric of the DEA and other government regulators, drug prohibition has made many drugs like heroin far more dangerous than they would be [...]

This Massachusetts Lawmaker Wants to Throw Folks in Prison for Having Secret Car Compartments

Thu, 06 Jul 2017 13:10:00 -0400

A hidden compartment in your car (or plane, or boat) could land you at least two years in prison in Massachusetts if a lawmaker gets his way. Blame it on the war on drugs and pressure from law enforcement lobbying. Stephan Hay, a Democrat state representative for Fitchburg, has introduced a bill that would criminalize operating a vehicle with a hidden compartment designed for the purpose of secretly transporting drugs and related contraband, equipment, currency, or weapons. The bill, H.1266, separately criminalizes the process of altering a vehicle with the intent of creating such hidden compartments. In each case the bill calls for a two-year mandatory minimum sentence, five years for subsequent offenses. The bill also allows police to seize the modified vehicle. The bill does not require that there actually be contraband in the hidden compartment, only that a person's "intent" is to use it to transport illicit goods. Then there's this clarification in the section authorizing forfeiture: Proof that a conveyance contains a hidden compartment as defined in this section shall be prima facie evidence that the conveyance was used intended for use in and for the business of unlawfully manufacturing, dispensing, or distributing controlled substances. The bill defines a "hidden compartment" as any concealable storage space added to a vehicle after its purchase. The quoted section means that a defendant accused of violating this law is put in the position of having to prove a negative—that the compartment isn't intended to transport drugs. Ohio has a similar law on the books already, and we saw the dangerous consequences in 2013. Norman Gurley was stopped by state troopers, who noticed some wires in the vehicle he was driving and discovered the car had a secret compartment. They found absolutely no drugs but arrested him anyway and charged him with violating Ohio's law against secret compartments. Gurley's story quickly became national news, then faded as quickly as is it arrived. (Gurley's attorney, Myron Watson, did not return a call from Reason to find out what ultimately happened with the case. UPDATE: A reader directed me to the online case file and Gurley is set for a jury trial in December of this year, so it hasn't been resolved yet.) Now that his story is long forgotten, Massachusetts lawmakers are pushing their own version of a law that was criticized for violating due process, not to mention property rights. According to the State House News Service, Massachusetts state police officials are very much on board and are openly supporting the legislation. Their support should come as no surprise, given that the law will allow police to keep any vehicle they seize. According to the property-rights-defending experts at the Institute for Justice, Massachusetts has the worst civil asset forfeiture laws in the country. Law enforcement officials need only reach the threshold of probable cause (the same threshold used to justify a search warrant) that somebody's property or money is connected to a crime in order to seize it. The state doesn't have to prove a citizen's guilt to keep the property; the citizen must prove his innocence to get it back. And under Massachusetts law, police get to keep 100 percent of what they seize, a huge financial incentive to claim that anyone they pull over and search is connected to the drug trade—at least if he has any possessions of value. Police in Massachusetts already rake in millions of dollars a year from forfeitures. This bill would compound the problem. And it could send people to prison for drug crimes even if no one finds so much as a single joint or fentanyl tablet in their possession.[...]

LSD Microdosing: The New Silicon Valley Productivity Hack

Mon, 26 Jun 2017 14:21:00 -0400

Tech entrepreneur George Burke consumes a tiny amount of LSD (about a tenth of a typical dose) every morning before he goes to work.

He says "microdosing" subtly improves his cognitive functioning.

"I notice that my brain seems to be able to solve problems a little bit better than...before," says Burke, who runs a startup called Fuel that helps its clients custom tailor their diets to their unique genetic makeups.

The use of psychedelics as productivity and creativity hacks is deeply rooted in Silicon Valley culture. Burke was partly inspired to go public about his drug use by the late Steve Jobs, who told his biographer Walter Isaacson, "[t]aking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life."

"People have to actually have to step up and state what they've been doing," says Burke.

Reason spoke with Burke and with James Fadiman, a scientist researching the effects of microdosing.

Watch the full video above.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera Alex Manning. Additional graphics by Meredith Bragg. Music by Kai Engel and Broke for Free.

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The Silk Road Is Dead, But the Internet's Illicit Drug Economy Is Alive and Well

Thu, 22 Jun 2017 16:42:00 -0400

Dark-web drug transactions increased 50 percent between 2013--the year the FBI shut down the Silk Road--and January 2016, according to a new report from the United Nations. The Silk Road may be dead, but the dark web drug economy is very much alive. "While drug trafficking over the darknet remains small, there has been an increase in drug transactions of some 50 per cent annually between September 2013 and January 2016 according to one study," the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes in its annual report on global illicit-drug trends. "Typical buyers are recreational users of cannabis, 'ecstasy,' cocaine, hallucinogens and [novel psychoactive substances]." The increase in dark web transactions post-Silk Road has been documented before. "After Silk Road was taken down by the FBI in October 2013," the RAND Corporation reported last year, "it was only a matter of weeks before copycats filled the void." As of 2016, the research group had counted 50 "so-called cryptomarkets and vendor shops" where anonymous buyers and sellers could conduct transactions using Bitcoin and PGP encryption. (Several sites are now also accepting the cryptocurrency Ethereum.) Boston College sociologist Isak Ladegaard, meanwhile, noted a massive increase in sales directly following the arrest of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht in late 2013. In a recent interview with Wired, Ladegaard theorized that media coverage of the case essentially served as earned marketing for the dark web. More observations from the UN's report: While Global drug trafficking cases increased only slightly from 2013 to 2015, the Global Drug Survey of 2017 found the amount of product moving through the dark web has increased dramatically. Roughly 8 percent of global drug users acquired an illicit substance through the dark web in 2017, up from 4.7 percent in 2014. Perhaps due to the passage of the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, the UK has seen the biggest increase in crypto sales: In 2016, 18.3 percent of British users acquired drugs on the dark web, while 25.3 percent of users have in 2017. These numbers are probably off, but the trend is likely real. (Crypto buying is down slightly in the U.S.) "Vendors in countries in Asia seemed to be more involved in the wholesale business, while retail sales were dominated by vendors in North America and Europe." As I noted in my piece on steroids, Asia is a dominant supplier of raw chemicals used in making America's illicit drugs. (Americans tend to think of Mexico as our biggest supplier, but it's really just an intermediary.) Silk Road was, in hindsight, a relatively small operation. "Overall, the value of transactions in the eight markets that dominated the darknet in January 2016 was 2.6 times greater than that of transactions on the Silk Road market in September 2013, which dominated the darknet at that time." This is also not surprising. If Silk Road taught the drug community anything, it's not to put all of your Bitcoin supply in one dark wallet. Heroin is not a popular dark web drug: "When compared with the overall distribution of drugs in the United States and European Union markets, methamphetamine and heroin appear to be underrepresented on the darknet, while 'ecstasy' and 'psychedelics' (hallucinogens) are overrepresented in sales over the darknet." Cross-marketing between the open web and the dark web isn't mentioned in the U.N. report, but that may have been noted elsewhere. Several open web steroid forums, for instance, feature user handles shared by dark web vendors. Users will post in the open forums about new products--but not actually sell them there--because it's easier to market to a wide audience on the open web. I haven't [...]