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Published: Thu, 19 Oct 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 19 Oct 2017 01:52:44 -0400


Florida Woman Introduced a Friend to Her Dealer. Now She Faces Murder Charges.

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 15:00:00 -0400

(image) A Central Florida woman has been charged with first-degree murder in the fentanyl-related overdose death of a friend simply for helping the friend connect with a drug dealer.

Florida's drug war is particularly vicious. Prosecutors there can charge people who provide drugs with murder if their customers die from drug overdoses. Earlier this year, the state added fentanyl and other opioids to the list of drugs that can trigger murder charges (and some new mandatory minimum sentences as well).

But Jamie Nelson, 34, was not the dealer who provided the fentanyl and heroin that killed Tracy Skornika in June. According to police, Skornika gave Nelson $50 to help her to find a heroin connection. Nelson took her to a dealer she apparently knew. Skornika overdosed and was found on her bathroom floor. She was pronounced dead three hours later at a hospital.

There's nothing is this story that even suggests that Nelson wanted her friend dead. The Orlando Sentinel report on the case notes that Nelson cried when she found out Skornika had died.

It's an absurd upending of justice to think someone should be indicted for first-degree murder without intending to kill anybody. But Florida's drug war is so focused on punishment that prosecutors and lawmakers don't even care about intent. Nelson could face the death penalty if she's convicted.

This story needs attention, because these laws are sold as mechanisms to punish sinister drug dealers. But that's obviously not what's happening here, and this isn't an anomaly. A Reason investigation by C.J. Ciaramella and Lauren Krisai showed that Florida's prisons are full of people like Nelson: fellow addicts, not high-level drug dealers. Read what their data show here.

Feds Admit Their Prosecution of Medical Marijuana Users in Washington Was Illegal

Wed, 18 Oct 2017 14:05:00 -0400

Since 2012 federal prosecutors have been trying to imprison three medical marijuana users in Washington, arguing that they grew cannabis for profit rather than relief of their symptoms. In a startling shift this week, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Spokane finally conceded what the defendants—Rhonda Firestack-Harvey; her son, Rolland Gregg; and his wife, Michelle Gregg—have been saying all along: that they grew marijuana in compliance with Washington's law allowing medical use of the plant. The government also admitted in a brief filed on Monday night that its pursuit of the case has therefore been illegal since December 2014, when Congress first passed a spending rider that prohibits the Justice Department from prosecuting people for conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws. "This filing is a victory for the family and lawful medical marijuana users all across the country," says Phil Telfeyan, the defendants' attorney. "Our government should not use federal money to prosecute people abiding by state laws. This filing will have far-reaching effects that should help end the federal prosecution of marijuana users in states where it's legal." The Greggs and Firestack-Harvey, who received sentences ranging from one year to 33 months in October 2015, are the remaining defendants in what was dubbed the Kettle Falls Five case. The other two defendants were Jason Zucker, a family friend who pleaded guilty in exchange for a 16-month sentence just before the trial started in February 2015, and Firestack-Harvey's husband, Larry Harvey, who died of pancreatic cancer in August 2015. The Justice Department is now admitting that whole ordeal was illegal, because "the United States was not authorized to spend money on the prosecution of the defendants after December of 2014." The Greggs and Firestack-Harvey plan to seek dismissal of the case on that basis. Beginning in 2012, federal prosectors argued that the Kettle Falls Five, whose combined plant total was less than the limit set by Washington's medical marijuana law, were growing too much cannabis for their own use and must have been selling it. But there was never much evidence to support that theory, and the weakness of the government's case was reflected in the March 2015 verdict. The jury convicted the Greggs and Firestack-Harvey of growing marijuana but acquitted them of distribution and a related conspiracy charge. It also rejected the government's attempt to count plants grown in previous years, which would have triggered a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, and the allegation that the defendants possessed firearms "in furtherance of" a drug trafficking crime, a charge that carries an additional five-year mandatory minimum. The jury was not allowed to hear testimony about the medical use of marijuana, which the prosecution argued was irrelevant under federal law. But that was not actually true, since Congress had by the time of the trial barred the Justice Department from interfering with the implementation of state medical marijuana laws. In 2016 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which includes Washington, ruled that the restriction made it illegal to prosecute people for actions that comply with such laws. Last June the 9th Circuit made it clear that the Justice Department was also barred from continuing to pursue cases initiated prior to the ban on interference. Before the Kettle Falls Five trial, Telfeyan argued that the case should be dismissed in light of the spending rider. U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice disagreed, noting that the prosecution was arguing that the defendants had not complied with state law. What has changed since then is not just the 9th Circuit's rulings, which prosecutors cited in this week's brief, but the government's abandonment of the claim that the defendants used medicine as an excuse to operate a marijuana business serving recreational users. "The United States concurs with the Attorneys for Appellants' statement of the issues presented as it relates to the Department of Justice not having[...]

The Justice Department Is Now Going After Chinese Fentanyl Manufacturers

Tue, 17 Oct 2017 17:30:00 -0400

The Drug Enforcement Administration announced today that U.S. Attorneys in North Dakota and Mississippi have, for the first time ever, indicted two Chinese nationals for illegally exporting fentanyl and other research chemicals to the U.S. Unsealed yesterday, the DOJ's indictments accuse Xiaobing Yan and Jian Zhang of running two separate international conspiracies intended to circumvent federal bans on various schedule I drugs and their analogs. In addition to Yan and Zhang, the DOJ indicted several American citizens and two Canadian prisoners who participated in the conspiracy from behind bars. Here's the relevant information from the unsealed Zhang indictment: Two suspects, Jason Berry and Daniel Ceron, worked with Zhang to arrange shipments from China to the U.S. while they were incarcerated in a medium security prison facility in Drummondville, Quebec. (Prisoners running things from the inside is not new, but participating in a global drug trafficking operation seems pretty novel to me.) Zhang allegedly began exporting fentanyl and fentanyl analogs to the U.S. in 2013, and the DOJ says he was able to send thousands of shipments during a three-year period. Drugs shipped by Zhang allegedly ended up in "North Dakota, Oregon, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, California, South Carolina, Ohio, and elsewhere." From the DOJ press release: "Zhang ran an organization that manufactured fentanyl in at least four known labs in China and advertised and sold fentanyl to U.S. customers over the Internet. Zhang's organization would send orders of fentanyl or other illicit drugs, or pill presses, stamps, or dies used to shape fentanyl into pills, to customers in the United States through the mail or international parcel delivery services." (For more than a year now, American journalists have been pointing to Chinese websites that sold fentanyl to the U.S. with horrified shock. Looks like DOJ wasn't blind, just investigating quietly.) Yan's case is even more interesting, as the DOJ alleges he shipped not just fentanyl, but a spectrum of synthetic drugs that are analogous to substances banned in the U.S.: In addition to fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, Yan's chemical manufacturing company is accused of shipping "research chemicals" such as synthetic cannabinoids (which mimic marijuana), cathinones (which mimic amphetamines), and synthetic empathogens (which mimic MDMA) to the U.S. None of the non-fentanyl synthetics Yan allegedly shipped have received nearly as much human testing as the drugs they're based on. Some of them are probably carcinogenic. As with fentanyl, the market for these research chemicals is entirely dependent on the prohibition of drugs that have existed for decades longer and are demonstrably safer. Yan started shipping to the U.S. in 2010, which is the same year pharmaceutical companies rolled out their tamper-proof opioid formulations. I don't know if the two events are related, but the process by which international actors recognize and exploit opportunities in the American drug market is hugely under-researched. From the press release: "Yan monitored legislation and law enforcement activities in the United States and China, modifying the chemical structure of the fentanyl analogues he produced to evade prosecution in the United States." Also from the press release: "Over the course of the investigation, federal agents identified more than 100 distributors of synthetic opioids involved with Yan's manufacturing and distribution networks. " I doubt this stops illicit fentanyl exports to the U.S., though it's likely to put pressure on the Chinese government, which is either incapable or uninterested in regulating its own chemical manufacturing industry.[...]

The Simpleminded Opioid Narrative That Doomed Tom Marino

Tue, 17 Oct 2017 16:40:00 -0400

Today Tom Marino, the Pennsylvania congressman whom Donald Trump nominated to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, withdrew his name because of a bill he was publicly bragging about just a year and a half ago. That bill, the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016, was uncontroversial when it was enacted. Not a single member of Congress opposed it. Neither did the Justice Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), or President Obama, who signed it into law on April 19, 2016. Yet Marino's sponsorship of the bill killed his nomination because of the way the law was framed in reports by 60 Minutes and The Washington Post. According to those reports, which were the product of a joint investigation, Marino was doing the bidding of the pharmaceutical industry, and everyone else involved in enacting his bill was either bought off, duped, or steamrollered. But that portrayal is persuasive only if you follow the lead of 60 Minutes and the Post by uncritically adopting the perspective of a hardline DEA faction that was unhappy with the bill. "In April 2016, at the height of the deadliest drug epidemic in U.S. history, Congress effectively stripped the Drug Enforcement Administration of its most potent weapon against large drug companies suspected of spilling prescription narcotics onto the nation's streets," the Post reports. "In the midst of the worst drug epidemic in American history," says 60 Minutes, "the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's ability to keep addictive opioids off U.S. streets was derailed." The provision highlighted by both reports limited the DEA's power to immediately suspend the registrations of manufacturers, distributors, pharmacists, and doctors based on an "imminent danger to the public health or safety." Marino's bill defined that phrase to mean "a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat that death, serious bodily harm, or abuse of a controlled substance will occur in the absence of an immediate suspension of the registration." It thereby constrained the DEA's ability to summarily stop people from prescribing or supplying controlled substances, requiring some evidence of a genuine emergency. To my mind, any limit on the DEA's power is welcome. The DEA, not surprisingly, tends to take a different view. But the DEA's leadership, which at the time was trying to promote a less antagonistic relationship with the pharmaceutical industry, signed off on the new language, as did the Justice Department. Legislators read the DEA's approval to mean there were no law enforcement objections to the bill, which explains why it passed Congress with no resistance. Even ardent prohibitionists thought the clarification of the "imminent danger" standard was fair and reasonable. "We worked collaboratively with DEA and DOJ...and they contributed significantly to the language of the bill," a spokesman for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told the Post. "DEA had plenty of opportunities to stop the bill, and they did not do so." A spokesman for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) likewise said the DEA never expressed any reservations, adding, "The fact that it passed the entire Senate without hearing any sort of communication that would have triggered concern of at least one senator doesn't really pass the smell test." By contrast, the disgruntled drug warriors who were the main sources for the Post and 60 Minutes stories—most conspicuously, Joe Rannazzisi, who used to run the DEA's Office of Diversion Control—see the bill as a shameful surrender to the evil pharmaceutical companies that profit from opioid addiction. That is the view that the Post and 60 Minutes adopted, almost without qualification. The reports give short shrift to the argument that the vague "imminent danger" standard was unfair and legally shaky, to the point that it threatened the viability of the DEA's cases. They pay no attention at all to the perspective of the bona fide pain patients who suffer when the government cracks [...]

The Pros and Cons of a Heroin Shortage

Fri, 13 Oct 2017 16:15:00 -0400

"Interdiction is critically important to increase the cost and reduce accessibility of opioids," write former Centers for Disease Control chief Thomas R. Frieden and Brandeis University's Andrew Kolodny in a new paper for the Journal of the American Medical Association. "As with tobacco and alcohol, if heroin and illicitly produced synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are more expensive and more difficult to obtain, use should decrease." But we don't need to extrapolate from alcohol and tobacco policies to figure out what a heroin shortage would do to consumption. The United Kingdom and Australia both experienced heroin droughts in the last decade and a half. It would be wise to look at what happened in those countries before ramping up interdiction efforts in the U.S. How Heroin Users in the U.K. Responded to the 2010–2011 Heroin Shortage From October 2010 to January 2011, heroin purity dropped and prices increased across most of Europe, due to a constellation of factors that ranged from fungal infections in Afghanistan's poppy fields to interdiction efforts in Europe. As a result of the reduced supply, heroin prices in the U.K. more than doubled, from £17,000 per kilogram in early 2010 to £40,000 per kilo a year later. At the street level, heroin purity plummeted from around 35 percent pre-drought to 13 percent at the end of the shortage. Basically, wholesale heroin buyers were diluting their product with cutting agents—some of them inert, some of them toxic—in an attempt to maintain their profit margins. What happened to users? Mandatory drug testing revealed a large drop in positive heroin tests, from 45 percent before the drought to 21 percent in January 2011. While less heroin meant less heroin use, it didn't mean less risky drug consumption. According to surveys conducted by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, many users continued to inject drugs sold as heroin. Several users reported an increase in tissue damage caused by cutting agents, leading to infections and loss of limbs. Others reported severe memory loss lasting several days. Some users realized they weren't buying heroin and adopted "indigenous harm reduction strategies," such as alternating injections with smoking in hopes of reducing the odds of infection. Other users simply switched to crack cocaine, often in conjunction with depressants, such as benzodiazepines and alcohol. The researchers write that one heroin user "drank 20-30 cans of high strength alcohol beer a day for the duration of the shortage—a practice which he was unable to cease post-drought and subsequently describe[s] as more problematic than his heroin use." The transition to alcohol is particularly noteworthy, considering that intravenous drug users are at higher risk for hepatitis c, which is in turn exacerbated by excessive alcohol consumption. Many of the heroin users surveyed by the London School researchers were also participating in methadone treatment. As in the U.S., it was not uncommon pre-draught for users to sell their methadone in order to buy heroin. Illicit methadone selling all but disappeared during the drought as users needed the drug to stave off withdrawal symptoms. The U.K.'s experience suggests that reducing heroin and fentanyl importation to the U.S. (a longshot, considering the resources Washington currently expends on such efforts) without an accompanying increase in access to medication-assisted therapy would lead to disastrous unintended consequences. (Frieden and Kolodny, to their credit, call for dramatically expanding access to methadone and buprenorphine for people with opioid use disorders.) How Heroin Users Reacted to the Australian Heroin Shortage of 2000–2001 Australia's heroin shortage, which began around Christmas in 2000, is probably the most studied drug drought of the last century. As in the U.K., heroin use dropped, but with a slew of adverse consequences that make it difficult to declare it a win[...]

New Hampshire's Medical Examiner: Opioid Deaths Have "Completely Overwhelmed Us"

Wed, 11 Oct 2017 10:50:00 -0400

In the six years since the federal government asked pharmaceutical companies to reformulate prescription opioids so patients couldn't use them illicitly, Thomas Andrew, the chief medical examiner of New Hampshire, has seen his caseload skyrocket. "It's almost as if the Visigoths are at the gates, and the gates are starting to crumble," Andrew told The New York Times' Katharine Seelye. "I'm not an alarmist by nature, but this is not overhyped. It has completely overwhelmed us." And he's not alone: Some medical examiners, especially in hard-hit Ohio, have had to store their corpses in cold-storage trailers in their parking lots. In Manatee County, Fla., Dr. Russell Vega, the chief medical examiner, said that when he reaches "overflow" conditions, he relies on a private body transport service to store the bodies elsewhere until his office can catch up. In Milwaukee, Dr. Brian L. Peterson, the chief medical examiner, said that apart from the "tsunami" of bodies — his autopsy volume is up 12 percent from last year — the national drug crisis has led to staff burnout, drained budgets and threats to the accreditation of many offices because they have to perform more autopsies than industry standards allow. Andrew is leaving his job to enter a seminary. Meanwhile, the medical examiner's office in New Hampshire risks losing accreditation due to a National Association of Medical Examiners rule that says individual examiners may perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. We don't have enough places to store the bodies of overdose victims, nor enough people to cut them open. We can thank bad policy for this carnage. The Centers for Disease Control have released preliminary data that show fentanyl-related deaths roughly doubled in 2016: That brown line denotes the fentanyl class of drugs (conventional prescription opioids are the blue line, which has ticked up slightly but remains within historical range). Deaths involving fentanyl, which is more potent per milligram than more commonly prescribed opioids, doubled over the last year, from 10,000 in 2015 to 21,000 in 2016. Here are the actual numbers: The category of natural and semi-synthetic opioids includes morphine, codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone. Those deaths increased, too, but nearly as much as the category that includes fentanyl. The fact that cocaine deaths increased as much as they did flummoxes me, but it perhaps shouldn't considering anecdotes from the northeastern U.S. about coke laced with fentanyl. Why are so many more people using—and dying from—fentanyl? Because in 2010, the federal government began demanding that pharmaceutical companies create tamper-proof formulations. In more recent years, both the federal government and state governments have discouraged doctors from prescribing opioids for acute pain. Combined, these actions greatly reduced the volume of prescription opioids available for non-medical use. But state actors did very little in conjunction with those policies to address the existing population of non-medical users, beyond locking up more people and modestly increasing the number of patients doctors can treat with buprenorphine and methadone. That carelessness created a massive arbitrage opportunity for black market operators and introduced fentanyl into the American drugscape. The U.S. could not have planned a more effective epidemic. *CORRECTION: The initial headline for this post claimed, based on a report from The New York Times, that New Hampshire Medical Examiner Thomas Andrew was quitting his job this year in response to the large number of opioid overdose deaths in his state. That claim is incorrect. In an interview with Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly's Alison Knopf, Andrew said his retirement had been planned 15 years in advance.[...]

America Set an Awful New Record in 2016

Sat, 07 Oct 2017 14:15:00 -0400

"Preliminary data for 2016 indicate at least 64,000 drug overdose deaths, the highest number ever recorded in the U.S.," Deborah Houry of the Centers for Disease Control told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Thursday. By the CDC's estimate, more than 300,000 people have died from opioid overdoses since 2000. That is an extraordinary amount of suffering endured by a relatively small user population. And it's largely a result of bad policy combined with inaction. "It is well-documented that the majority of people with opioid addiction in the U.S. do not receive treatment, and even among those who do, many do not receive evidence-based care," Houry wrote in her testimony, noting a lack of medication-assisted therapy (MAT) programs nationwide. According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, less than one million of the 2.5 million Americans with an opioid use disorder received MAT treatment in 2014. Only 57 percent of drug court programs in the U.S. incorporate MAT, according to Hoary. The rest employ forced sobriety, despite the fact that relapsing is far more dangerous for patients who quit cold turkey and then resume using with a lower opioid tolerance. Correctional facilities are even less equipped to treat opioid users. According to Pew, roughly 66 percent of America's 2.3 million prisoners have a substance use disorder, but only 11 percent of them receive evidence-based treatment. Here's the the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Nora Volkow—someone I frequently disagree with on drug policy—rightly touting the benefits of MAT back in 2014: When prescribed and monitored properly, MATs have proved effective in helping patients recover. Moreover, they have been shown to be safe and cost-effective and to reduce the risk of overdose. A study of heroin-overdose deaths in Baltimore between 1995 and 2009 found an association between the increasing availability of methadone and buprenorphine and an approximately 50% decrease in the number of fatal overdoses. In addition, some MATs increase patients' retention in treatment, and they all improve social functioning as well as reduce the risks of infectious-disease transmission and of engagement in criminal activities. Nevertheless, MATs have been adopted in less than half of private-sector treatment programs, and even in programs that do offer MATs, only 34.4% of patients receive them. And yet SAMSHA is still imposing limits on how many MAT patients one physician can treat and for how long (100 and a year respectively), as well as requiring extensive training and certification in order to receive a waiver that will allow them to treat up to 275 patients concurrently. The agency only recently allowed nurse practitioners and physician assistants to apply for that waiver, even though most states give both types of licensees normal prescribing power for substances that are in the same class as MAT drugs like methadone and buprenorphine. Would we see more medical providers offering MAT if the regulations surrounding it were less cumbersome? I have no idea, but I find it hard to imagine the externalities of scrapping those regs would be worse than incentivizing tens of thousands of people to use heroin. The other problem Hoary identified in her testimony was excessive opioid prescribing by doctors. Yet according to new research published in Addictive Behaviors, the number of problem users who "started" on prescription drugs fell from 80 percent in 2005 to 52 percent in 2015; over the same period, the number of users who started on heroin climbed from less than 10 percent to more than 30 percent. I'd be shocked if the number of people who started on a black market opioid had not risen substantially in the two years since that data was collected, and I'm not sure why public health advocates keep talking about prescribing practices as the major culprit in light of t[...]

DEA Agents Sold Opioids, Stole Cash, and Falsely Identified Drug Suspects, Say Feds

Wed, 04 Oct 2017 13:08:00 -0400

(image) Four former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operatives face federal corruption and conspiracy charges after allegedly engaging in all sorts of shady behavior, from selling drugs themselves to lying under oath, falsifying records, falsely identifying drug suspects, accepting bribes, and stealing cash and other property from the people they arrested. In at least one instance, their behavior led to someone being wrongly imprisoned for more than two years.

The dirty drug warriors—special agent Chad Scott, with the DEA since 1997, and former task force officers Rodney Gemar, Karl Newman, and Johnny Domingue—worked with the DEA's New Orelans Division. Gemar and Newman also work for local law enforcement agencies.

In an indictment unsealed this week, Scott, Newman, and Gemar—a Hammond Police Department officer since 2004 and DEA Task Force Officer since 2009—are accused of seizing money and other property from those they arrested and then keeping it for themselves. (Notably, the feds do not frame this as theft from the suspects but as embezzling funds from the DEA.) This went on for at least seven years.

Scott is also accused of accepting $10,000 from a defendent in a federal criminal case in exchange for recommending that prosecutors seek a reduced sentence and, in another case, tampering with witness testimony.

Scott allegedly coerced Frederick Brown (a defendent in his own drug case) "to falsely testify that Jorge Perralta was present during drug transactions between Edwin Martinez and [Brown], when in fact Frederick Brown had never seen Jorge Perralta during his drug transactions with Edwin Martinez." Scott reportedly offered his own false testimony in the case as well.

The DEA agent claimed that it was Brown who initially brought up Perralta when talking about people who were around during deals and might be Martinez's supplier, referring to Perralta not by name but as "the little Mexican guy." Scott said that he showed Brown a photograph of Perralta on his phone, and that Brown confirmed this was the dude he had seen during drug deals.

An arrest warrant was issued, and Scott went to Houston to help police there arrest Perralta for conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine. Perralta's phone was seized, he was taken into custody, and—without even being allowed to contact his parents or girlfriend—he was whisked away to Louisiana. That was in March 2015.

After nearly two and a half years behnd bars, Perralta was released in August 2017 and all charges against him were dismissed.

Brown had never brought up Perralta on his own, say prosecutors in their indictment against Scott. And when shown a picture of Perralta, Brown said that he had never seen him.

Both Scott and Gemar were arrested on October 1 and released on bond the next day.

Newman and Domingue were arrested in 2016. According to federal prosecutors, Newman seized and sold thousands of dollars worth of cocaine and oxycodone. Some of these drugs he seized from a woman identified as R.G. "by means of actual and threatened force, violence, and fear of R.G.'s person and the persons of her family."

Domingue is accused only of falsifying records related to this illegal drug seizure. His trial is set February 2018.

Newman has agreed to plead guilty to one count of "conspiracy to convert property" and one count of using a gun in furtherance of a crime of violence, in exchange for prosecutors dropping the other charges against him. He faces fines of up to $500,000 and possible life in prison, with a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years.

Atlanta Decriminalizes Possession of Small Amounts of Marijuana

Tue, 03 Oct 2017 12:05:00 -0400

(image) On Monday, Atlanta joined several other major cities (like Nashville and Pittsburgh) ratcheting down the drug war by turning possession of marijuana from a crime into a citable offense.

Atlanta's City Council unanimously voted Monday, 15-0, to decriminalize possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. Rather than facing up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail, people caught with small amounts of pot will just get a $75 ticket.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed still needs to sign the ordinance into law, and he indicated in a tweet last night his intent to do so.

The decriminalization effort was pushed forward by City Council Member Kwanza Hall, who is also running to succeed Reed as mayor in November's election. He pointed to the disparity of enforcement: Statistics show 92 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession between 2014 and 2016 in Atlanta were African-American and 85 percent were male. A little over half of Atlanta's population is black, based on 2010 census data.

Marijuana should be legal because throwing people in jail for what they consume in the first place is absurd and wrong and a violation of individual liberty. But libertarian attitudes are not exactly dominant forces in the governments of America's biggest cities. Hall pointing out that enforcement of the law is wildly inconsistent based on race is a useful tactic to push past some nanny mentalities by government officials who believe they know best and generally don't reckon with the consequences of using police and the courts to punish people for their personal choices.

As Jacob Sullum noted last week, arrests for marijuana possession are on the rise again after dropping for years. And in 28 states, you can still be sent to jail for basic possession of marijuana. Georgia is one of those states, so Atlanta smokers are still going to have to be careful about where they toke up. The city police may not throw them in jail, but anybody heading outside city limits needs to watch his or her back.

Jeff Sessions Just Made the Chief of the DEA Look Like a Pot Head's Hero

Wed, 27 Sep 2017 14:00:00 -0400

Around this time last year, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced it would begin accepting applications for a license to cultivate marijuana for research purposes. This was thrilling news for cannabis advocates, as it suggested the DEA was finally open to ending the University of Mississippi's 50-year monopoly on legal marijuana cultivation. "The DEA just made it easier do research on weed," a Wired headline declared. A year after that announcement, the DEA has yet to approve a single license application and now acting DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg is set to resign over differences with the Justice Department. One of those differences? The Justice Department's refusal to let the DEA grant any licenses to grow research marijuana. "[T]he Justice Department has effectively shut down this program to increase research registrations," an anonymous DEA source told the Washington Post in August of this year. "They're sitting on it," another source said of cultivation applications the DEA sent to the Justice Department for final approval. When STAT News asked the DEA in July how many licenses it had granted, they got smoke-screened. "The DEA says it does not have a timeline to approve or deny applications and noted that it is dealing with a new review process," STAT's Andrew Joseph reported. "All applicants remain under review and none has been rejected." Now we know it's because Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his people are keeping those applications in regulatory limbo. In an August 2016 letter to the governors of Rhode Island and Washington, Rosenberg, who will likely be out of his role by the end of the week, wrote that marijuana would only be rescheduled through the FDA's drug approval process, but that the DEA would "continue to work with NIDA to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of marijuana and its derivatives to support legitimate research needs. Part of that support includes "approving additional growers of marijuana to supply researchers." The Washington Post asked Rosenberg last month if he'd changed his mind on the latter promise. His response: "I stand by what I wrote." That's the closest thing I've seen to Rosenberg publicly pointing the finger at his boss. In addition to battling over marijuana cultivation licenses, Rosenberg reportedly disagreed with Sessions that MS-13 is a major factor in the American drug trade (Rosenberg is more worried about Mexican cartels). He also condemned President Donald Trump's speech to police officers in Long Island, during which Trump encouraged cops to rough up suspects. "When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said please don't be too nice," Trump told the audience. "The President, in remarks delivered yesterday in New York, condoned police misconduct regarding the treatment of individuals placed under arrest by law enforcement," Rosenberg wrote in an email to DEA staff. Rosenberg didn't quit solely over marijuana research, and his support for more heavily controlled cultivation certainly doesn't amount to support for marijuana legalization. But his exit from the DEA gives Sessions a chance to install—via Trump's nomination—someone who won't press the marijuana issue at all.[...]

Fentanyl Importation Reaches 'Shocking' Levels, Says Prosecutor

Wed, 20 Sep 2017 13:15:00 -0400

Law enforcement in New York confiscated a record $30 million worth of illicit fentanyl, 195 pounds of it , in two combined seizures from four defendants over the past two months. The haul dwarfs the previous record of 97 pounds, set in June of this year by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in San Diego. We should expect to see more of it. JFK Airport receives one million pieces of international mail every day. U.S. Customs officials at the facility recently told USA Today they've been able to intercept 40 percent of the fentanyl that comes through their doors, which means most of the fentanyl bound for America passes right on through JFK. The same is likely true at other U.S. ports of entry as well as the Mexican and Canadian borders. "The sheer volume of fentanyl pouring into the city is shocking," New York City Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan told NBC. We can thank our own stubborn refusal to embrace harm reduction strategies, and, of course, China. According to a report from the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission, the PRC and Hong Kong "continue to divert chemicals from legitimate pharmaceutical uses and adulterate legitimate pharmaceuticals during production" due to the "fragmented and disorganized administrative system overseeing chemical production and exports." With roughly 160,000 Chinese chemical facilities operating legally and illegally, it shouldn't surprise us that the second largest pharmaceutical market in the world and the largest global producer of chemical precursors has a major diversion problem. It also shouldn't surprise us that we don't have enough drug-sniffing dogs, Customs agents, or screening devices to catch all the fentanyl coming through the mail. We do have one thing going for us, however, which is that most of the people who use fentanyl-tainted heroin just want the heroin. A 2015 study in the Harm Reduction Journal found that 73 percent of heroin users whose urine tested positive for fentanyl didn't know they'd taken any fentanyl at all. The sample size for this study was small, but it squares with what I've heard from non-medicinal opioid users in the U.S.: Most people take fentanyl inadvertently. They'd rather not take it at all, considering both how deadly it is and the fact that a person needs substantially more naloxone to reverse an overdose. And before many Americans turned to heroin, many of them just wanted to use prescription pills, which is the safest option of the three. But we also made that incredibly difficult by cracking down on prescribing practices and requiring pharmaceutical companies to introduce tamper-proof formulations. Every day of this horrendous epidemic has been a good day to ask why we don't just allow people to take heroin. The Swiss pursued this line of investigation at the height of their own HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was driven by injectable drugs. After the launch of the country's first heroin-assisted treatment clinic in 1994, Switzerland saw huge declines in drug-related deaths, drug-related crime, and AIDS-related deaths. Participants were given clean, accurately-dosed heroin three times a day under doctor's supervision. As a result, researchers saw "major disengagement from criminal activities," reductions in the use of heroin obtained outside the program, and "marked improvements in social functioning." Heroin-assisted treatment isn't cheap: Countries with HAT programs spend roughly 15,000 Euros annually per patient, compared to roughly 2,000 Euros for medication-assisted treatment (which is also too scarce in the U.S.). But according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, "If an analysis of cost utility takes into account all relevant parameters, especially related to criminal behaviour, [HAT] saves money." Or, you know, we could keep doing wh[...]

Philly D.A. Frontrunner Backs Safe Injection Sites for Drug Users

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 14:43:00 -0400

(image) Larry Krasner, the Democratic nominee for Philadelphia district attorney, has announced he would support "properly run and appropriately supervised injection facilities" for drug users. His Republican opponent has also expressed support for the idea, saying in April that "at the very least" a pilot program ought to be opened.

Krasner is the frontrunner in the heavily Democratic city's November election. In May the mayor's task force on the opioid crisis also recommended safe injection sites.

That sounds like a consensus, but success is hardly guaranteed. Yesterday in California, an effort to let local communities either allow or establish their own safe injection sites failed in the Senate. And in Seattle, where the city and county governments recently announced their intentions to open safe injection sites, a ballot initiative is aiming both to block those plans and to ban privately funded injection sites as well.

Safe injection sites operate in dozens of cities in nine countries, including Canada. They work well. At a minimum, private organizations should be permitted to establish such facilities.

A number of cities in states like Pennsylvania have tried syringe exchange programs without explicit state authorization before, according to a 2008 paper on the law and politics of safe injection facilities in the American Journal of Public Health. "Most local governments have some police power to protect public health, and they have the discretion to implement programs that are supported by reasonable evidence of effectiveness in combating existing health threats," the authors wrote.

The paper notes that locally authorized safe injection sites would "depend on an explicit or implicit agreement among stakeholders to avoid arrests and other legal challenges." The support of a district attorney, who decides how to prioritize criminal prosecutions, would therefore be crucial to making such sites possible.

Disjointed Coughs Out Some Tired Dope Humor

Fri, 08 Sep 2017 15:00:00 -0400

Disjointed. Available now on Netflix. Way back when, my college newspaper ran a review of a Cheech and Chong show under a headline that qualified as remarkably confessional for the time: "Dope Humor Has Its Limits." I don't know if we've got to make royalty payments to whatever youthful copy editor wrote that headline, but I can't think of a single other thing to say about Netflix's new sitcom Disjointed. Dopers so wrecked they can't talk. Dopers so wrecked they can't move. Dopers so wrecked they use the Heimlich maneuver to make each other exhale dope smoke rings. (Okay, that one's new, at least for the first five seconds.) Basically, there's not a gag in Disjointed that wouldn't have fit into—or worn itself out as quickly as—a Cheech and Chong sketch or an early 1970s give-me-another-brownie flick like The Groove Tube. But even back then, the driving force of cannabis comedy—hey, man, they're smoking weed right there on the screen, my parents would be so freaked—lasted about as long as the pizza you ordered to counter the munchies. These days, with reefer madness reduced to reefer eccentricity (one in five Americans lives in states where it's pretty easy to find a legal joint), the potency is even slighter. If Disjointed were actually dope, it would be growing-along-the-river skankweed. The wispy premise of Disjointed is that its dope-addled characters get wasted under the pretense of working in a Southern California medical-marijuana dispensary. Kathy Bates plays Ruth Whitefeather Feldman, the senescent hippie owner, who says she's preaching "the gospel of marijuana: the miraculous plant that has the power to heal the sick, calm the afflicted, and usher in a golden age of people of people not being such dicks all the time." Mostly, she's just oversampling her own product, with occasional timeouts to bicker with her son Travis (Aaron Moten, The Night Of), an MBA with more secular motives: "Petty soon, somebody is going to become the Walmart of cannabis. Why not us?" Then there are employees: Jenny (Elizabeth Ho, Melissa & Joey), who introduces herself in one of the clinic's Internet ads as "your tokin' Asian," whose tiger mom thinks she's a surgeon; Olivia (Elizabeth Alderfer, Game Day), a refugee from a meth-blighted midwestern town who harbors secret doubts about the benignity of drugs; and Carter (Tone Bell, Truth Be Told), who has a secret of his own, one not usually associated with comedy. If the substance of Disjointed seems straight out of 1972, so does its structure. It's less a sitcom than a muddled series of stream-of-semi-consciousness sketches, punctuated by cut-ins of the clinic's commercials, kind of a stoner version of Laugh-In. Though for you 1980s connoisseurs, there's a running gag in which Jennie speaks Chinese to her mother—that's it, no jokes, no punch lines, just the sound of Chinese—to the uproarious delight of the canned laugh track that's been appended to the show. Not since John Hughes foreshadowed every appearance of a Chinese character named Long Duck Dong with the crashing sound of a gong in 1984's Sixteen Candles has a producer or director deemed Asian ethnicity so innately amusing. The producer in question is Chuck Lorre, the mastermind of The Big Bang Theory, Mom, and Two and a Half Men, whose association with Disjointed is as inexplicable as quantum physics after a bong full of Maui Wowie. "Back in the day, marijuana was a cause," says Ruth. "Now it's just a commodity." Marijuana humor, too.[...]

Will California Beat Seattle in Building a Safe Drug Injection Facility?

Thu, 07 Sep 2017 13:45:00 -0400

California lawmakers are close to passing a bill allowing a handful of counties to experiment with safe injection sites, facilities where people addicted to drugs can safely get high with professional oversight. Seattle is trying to become the first community in the United States to do this, but opponents have launched a battle at the ballot box. If AB 186 is passed and signed by the governor, eight California counties or the cities within them may approve or establish safe drug consumption areas. Los Angeles and San Francisco are among the approved areas. The authorization to operate the facilities sunsets on Jan. 1, 2022. The bill neither mandates these communities allow these facilities, nor does it provide any funding for them. Citizens in Bakersfield, for example, will not be paying taxes to operate a facility in the Bay Area. If citizens and local officials in Humboldt County (one of the counties authorized in the bill) decide they don't want a safe injection facility, they're under no obligation to provide one. The bill authorizes communities that so choose to create drug consumption spaces where people can consume drugs under the watch of health care professionals. Facilities will not provide drugs, but professionals can provide sterile needles (and dispose of them), prevent fatal overdoses, provide references to addiction treatment services, and educate participants about HIV and hepatitis. Neither clients nor employees at these drug consumption sites will be subject to arrest under state law for the drug use. The bill, however, comes into conflict with federal law, as the state Senate's Public Safety Committee analysis notes. The people who own and operate the facility could face federal arrest and charges, not just the users. If AB 186 passes, it seems likely that the Department of Justice might have something to say about it, given Attorney General Jeff Sessions desire to fight the drug war by maximizing federal criminal sentences for drug crimes and cracking down on doctors who prescribe opioids. The bill passed the state's Assembly in June by a vote of 41-33. It has made it through both the Senate's Health Committee and Public Safety Committee and awaits a full Senate vote by next week. If it passes, San Francisco is likely poised to be the first community to consider it. San Francisco put together a task force in April to develop recommendations for creating safe injection facilities. Assembly member Susan Eggman, a Democrat who represents Stockton and other parts of San Joaquin County, introduced AB 186. Logan Hess, a legislative aide for Eggman, tells Reason these pilot communities were picked because they already have a history of using naloxone as a way of reversing opioid overdoses, and data shows, like many other communities, they're nevertheless struggling with the problem. That AB 186 was written pretty loosely was a deliberate choice, Hess explains. It does not tie these communities to a particular model of operation. It doesn't tell cities or counties that it must be a non-profit organization, or a hospital, or operated by a public health agency. Participants will make that call. "One of the reasons we didn't want to be too prescriptive is that certain models might not make as much sense," Hess says. While the injection site in Vancouver, British Columbia, tends to be touted as a role model—it's currently the only site in North American and is Seattle's inspiration—Hess notes that there are other types of operations out there that might be better suited for particular communities. But that matters only if the law gets past the Senate. The bill is opposed by the California Police Chiefs Association, the California State Sheriffs' Association, an[...]

House Rules Committee Blocks Amendment Protecting Medical Marijuana

Thu, 07 Sep 2017 12:50:00 -0400

Yesterday the House Rules Committee blocked a floor vote on an amendment barring the Justice Department from interfering with state laws allowing medical use of marijuana. The amendment, which was first enacted in 2014 and has been renewed twice since then, could still be included in the final spending bill, since it has been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill will be worked out by a bicameral conference committee. "By blocking our amendment, Committee leadership is putting at risk the millions of patients who rely on medical marijuana for treatment, as well as the clinics and businesses that support them," said the amendment's current sponsors, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). "This decision goes against the will of the American people, who overwhelmingly oppose federal interference with state marijuana laws. These critical protections are supported by a majority of our colleagues on both sides of the aisle. There's no question: If a vote were allowed, our amendment would pass on the House floor, as it has several times before." Attorney General Jeff Sessions urged Congress to block the Rohrabacher-Bluemnauer amendment last May, arguing that "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." Exactly what medical marijuana had to do with any of that was unclear, but the Justice Department generally opposes limits on its prosecutorial discretion, and Sessions' anti-pot prejudices are well-known. In a Washington Post op-ed piece this week, Rohrabacher rebutted Sessions' clumsy attempt to blame medical marijuana for recent increases in opioid use and opioid-related deaths. To the contrary, he said, marijuana is a safer alternative to opioids. "The drug-war apparatus will not give ground without a fight," he wrote, "even if it deprives Americans of medical alternatives and inadvertently creates more dependency on opioids. When its existence depends on asset seizures and other affronts to our Constitution, why should anti-medical-marijuana forces care if they've contributed inadvertently to a vast market, both legal and illegal, for opioids?" Unlike Sessions, Donald Trump has repeatedly said he supports medical marijuana and thinks states should be free to allow it. So even if the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment is not renewed for the next fiscal year, it is not clear that Sessions will try to shut down state-licensed medical marijuana suppliers. The amendment does not cover state-legal marijuana merchants serving the recreational market, who nevertheless have escaped prosecution so far, even though they are openly committing federal felonies every day. A cannabis crackdown would not be popular. In the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, 61 percent of registered voters said marijuana should be legal for recreational use, while a whopping 94 percent said medical use should be allowed. Seventy-five percent opposed enforcement of the federal ban in states that have legalized marijuana for either purpose. "When an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose federal interference in state medical marijuana programs, it is unconscionable not to let their representatives vote on whether to continue this policy," said Don Murphy, director of conservative outreach at the Marijuana Policy Project. "Unless Congress chooses the Senate budget version, millions of seriously ill patients and the legitimate businesses that provide them with safe access to their medicine will be at risk of prosecution. Th[...]