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Continuing fallout from the failure of the War on Drugs

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A bankrupt policy that costs $15 billion per year and results in increasing drug use. Jon Lee Anderson reports in the New Yorker:

1971, President Nixon announced the U.S. “war on drugs,” which every President since has carried forward as a battle standard. Until recently, most Latin American governments have coöperated, and in return have received intelligence, equipment, and, perhaps most importantly, financial assistance. The overall investment has been huge—the federal government now spends about fifteen billion dollars on it each year—with the net result that drug use has proliferated in the U.S. and worldwide. In the drug-producing countries, where drug consumption was negligible at the start of the American effort, the criminal narcoculture has attained ghoulishly surreal proportions.

Over the course of the past few years, a growing number of Latin American governments have begun to challenge U.S. policy and to call for a radical rethinking of the war on drugs, including widespread decriminalization. A handful of leftist governments, such as those of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, have gone so far as to end their coöperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, alleging that U.S. drug policy is a new form of Yankee imperialism. Uruguay, under the former President José Mujica, became the first country to legalize state-sponsored production, sale, and use of marijuana.

The latest opposition to the forty-five-year-old drug war came not from a government that is hostile to the U.S. but from its most steadfast ally in the Americas, Colombia. On May 14th, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that his government was halting its longstanding practice of spraying the country’s illicit coca crop with chemicals to kill the plants. The spraying began in the late nineties under the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia, which aimed to wipe out the country’s drug culture and its guerrillas, who largely depend onnarcotráfico for their survival. Santos made the announcement after U.N. scientists confirmed what critics of spraying had long alleged: that glyphosate, a key ingredient in the herbicide known as Roundup, is probably carcinogenic to humans.

Colombia was the last country in the world to use chemical spraying to combat illegal drug cultivation. Citing health hazards and damage to impoverished rural economies, both Bolivia and Peru, which also grow coca, have banned aerial spraying. Afghanistan, the world’s chief supplier of opium, overrode American protests to ban spraying in 2007. The Karzai government argued that the program drove poor Afghan farmers into the hands of the Taliban by destroying their livelihoods without offering realistic economic alternatives. Similar arguments have long been made in Colombia, where millions of farmers have been driven from their land to live in urban slums.

The U.S. State and Defense Departments, which jointly oversee Plan Colombia, have always lobbied heavily in favor of spraying, which is outsourced to the giant U.S. security contractor DynCorp. DynCorp has earned hundreds of millions from its Colombian contracts, just as it previously did in Afghanistan, where it also won the government contract to implement counter-narcotics strategy. Notably, after President Santos announced the halt to spraying, that U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, published an Op-Ed in the leading Colombian newspaper, El Tiempo, arguing in favor of continuing the spraying campaign while saying that the U.S would continue working closely with Colombia in spite of the recent decision. Whitaker ended his Op-Ed with the English phrase “We have your back.”

So who is to be believed about the war on drugs, and what is the right way forward? After almost twenty years, many deaths, and billions of dollars spent under Plan Colombia, has illicit coca production decreased in Colombia? Overall, yes, according to the plan’s proponents: in his piece, Whitaker asserted that the area under cultivation for illegal coca production was reduced by half between 2007 and 2013. But studies also show that that area increased by thirty-nine per cent last year—so the most recent trends aren’t good. And if one third of the initial cultivation area is still left, that means that a significant amount of cocaine is still coming out of Colombia, and will be for the foreseeable future. . .

Continue reading.

Maybe we’re going about drugs all wrong?

Written by LeisureGuy

23 May 2015 at 12:30 pm

How the American opiate epidemic was started by one pharmaceutical company

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Corporations will do absolutely anything for a profit, regardless of the harm they cause. Mike Mariani looks at an example in this Pacific Standard article:

The state of Kentucky may finally get its deliverance. After more than seven years of battling the evasive legal tactics of Purdue Pharma, 2015 may be the year that Kentucky and its attorney general, Jack Conway, are able to move forward with a civil lawsuit alleging that the drugmaker misled doctors and patients about their blockbuster pain pill OxyContin, leading to a vicious addiction epidemic across large swaths of the state.

A pernicious distinction of the first decade of the 21st century was the rise in painkiller abuse, which ultimately led to a catastrophic increase in addicts, fatal overdoses, and blighted communities. But the story of the painkiller epidemic can really be reduced to the story of one powerful, highly addictive drug and its small but ruthlessly enterprising manufacturer.

On December 12, 1995, the Food and Drug Administration approved the opioid analgesic OxyContin. It hit the market in 1996. In its first year, OxyContin accounted for $45 million in sales for its manufacturer, Stamford, Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. By 2000 that number would balloon to $1.1 billion, an increase of well over 2,000 percent in a span of just four years. Ten years later, the profits would inflate still further, to $3.1 billion. By then the potent opioid accounted for about 30 percent of the painkiller market. What’s more, Purdue Pharma’s patent for the original OxyContin formula didn’t expire until 2013. This meant that a single private, family-owned pharmaceutical company with non-descript headquarters in the Northeast controlled nearly a third of the entire United States market for pain pills.

OxyContin’s ball-of-lightning emergence in the health care marketplace was close to unprecedented for a new painkiller in an age where synthetic opiates like Vicodin, Percocet, and Fentanyl had already been competing for decades in doctors’ offices and pharmacies for their piece of the market share of pain-relieving drugs. In retrospect, it almost didn’t make sense. Why was OxyContin so much more popular? Had it been approved for a wider range of ailments than its opioid cousins? Did doctors prefer prescribing it to their patients?

During its rise in popularity, there was a suspicious undercurrent to the drug’s spectrum of approved uses and Purdue Pharma’s relationship to the physicians that were suddenly privileging OxyContin over other meds to combat everything from back pain to arthritis to post-operative discomfort. It would take years to discover that there was much more to the story than the benign introduction of a new, highly effective painkiller.

In 1952, brothers Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer Sackler purchased Purdue Pharma, then called Purdue Frederick Co. All three men were psychiatrists by trade, working at a mental facility in Queens in the 1940s.

The eldest brother, Arthur, was a brilliant polymath, contributing not only to psychiatric research but also thriving in the fledgling field of pharmaceutical advertising. It was here that he would leave his greatest mark. As a member of William Douglas McAdams, a small New York-based advertising firm, Sackler expanded the possibilities of medical advertising by promoting products in medical journals and experimenting with television and radio marketing. Perhaps his greatest achievement, detailed in his biography in the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame, was finding enough different uses for Valium to turn it into the first drug to hit $100 million in revenue.

The Medical Advertising Hall of Fame website’s euphemistic argot for this accomplishment states that Sackler’s experience in the fields of psychiatry and experimental medicine “enabled him to position different indications for Roche’s Librium and Valium.”

Sackler was also among the first medical advertisers to foster relationships with doctors in the hopes of earning extra points for his company’s drugs, according to a 2011 exposé in Fortune. Such backscratching in the hopes of reciprocity is now the model for the whole drug marketing industry. Arthur Sackler’s pioneering methods would be cultivated by his younger brothers Raymond and Mortimer in the decades to come, as they grew their small pharmaceutical firm.

Starting in 1996, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 May 2015 at 2:16 pm

Posted in Business, Drug laws, Health

A memoir of working undercover for the DEA

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Malcolm Gladwell reviews the book The Dark Art: My Undercover Life in Narco-Terrorism, written by Edward Follis about his career as an undercover DEA agent. The entire review is worth reading, but here are some nuggets from it:

In the 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter described the psychological characteristics of what he called “movements of suspicious discontent.” Such groups, he said, share an interpretation of history centered on personality. They focus on people, not systems, and the object of their suspicion is “clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.”

Hofstadter observes, “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts a projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him,” and he goes on:

The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

The paranoid crusader is not disdainful of his enemy. He is in awe of him. Hofstadter quotes that staunchest of cold warriors, Barry Goldwater: “I would suggest that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.”

And, later:

Afghanistan occupies a peculiar place in the international drug trade. As recently as 1980, it accounted for just two hundred metric tons of opium—a tiny fraction of the world’s production. That number rose to fifteen hundred and seventy tons in 1990, after the chaos of the Soviet occupation. But it was in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that the country’s position as the world’s center of opium production was solidified. By the time Follis got to Kabul, the country’s opium production was more than eight thousand tons a year—more than ninety per cent of the global output.

In a recent paper, three Norwegian economists—Jo Thori Lind, Karl Ove Moene, and Fredrik Willumsen—argue that there is a direct connection between war and the surge in Afghanistan’s drug economy. “Opium is more drought resistant than wheat, the main alternative crop, and opium does not require road transportation,” they write. “Military activities that destroy infrastructure such as irrigation and roads therefore make opium relatively more profitable.” The three prove their point by showing that, the more fighting there was in any particular region, the likelier its farmers were to switch from wheat to opium.

Because a large share of the opium profits were flowing to the Taliban, the United States instituted efforts to reduce opium production. But, as the economist Jeffrey Clemens has shown, those efforts were most effective in government-controlled areas and least effective in Taliban-controlled areas. So, as the U.S. spent more to eradicate poppies and to encourage farmers to plant other crops, the share of the opium trade that went to the Taliban increased. In 2004, Taliban regions accounted for forty per cent of Afghanistan’s poppy production; by 2010, that share had risen to ninety per cent. In other words, the fighting in Afghanistan accelerated the country’s drug trade, which enriched the Taliban, which caused the U.S. to launch an effort to eradicate poppy cultivation, which enriched the Taliban still further, which caused the U.S. to step up its assault on the Taliban’s territory, which caused more farmers in Taliban territories to switch from wheat to opium, which accelerated the drug trade.

This was the mess that Follis inherited when he arrived in Afghanistan. But in “The Dark Art” there is little consideration of the broader context of the war on drugs. When Follis describes his work in Mexico, he speaks of the fact that many tens of thousands of Mexicans have been killed in the drug war there. It never occurs to him that the war on drugs, which had consumed his whole career, might have contributed to that violence. In Afghanistan, his job was to control a drug trade fuelled in part by his own country’s attempts to control the drug trade. But that paradox does not seem to interest him. As Hofstadter writes, “The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.” Follis’s world is not shaped by markets and incentives and institutional choices. It is the product of bad guys in fast cars and sharp outfits.

So what does Follis do in Kabul? . . .

The whole review is interesting and worth reading, and it should make any sane person ask what the hell the government thinks it’s doing? It’s as though the DEA and the government generally has become obsessed to the point of a narrowly focused tunnel vision that prevents them seeing the actual, real results of their actions. And, to a great extent, they don’t want to see.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 May 2015 at 1:36 pm

Marijuana may be even safer than previously thought, researchers say

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Christopher Ingraham wrote in the Washington Post back in February:

Compared with other recreational drugs — including alcohol — marijuana may be even safer than previously thought. And researchers may be systematically underestimating risks associated with alcohol use.

Those are the top-line findings of recent research published in the journal Scientific Reports, a subsidiary of Nature. Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly used substances. They found that at the level of individual use, alcohol was the deadliest substance, followed by heroin and cocaine.

Drug harm

And all the way at the bottom of the list? Weed — roughly 114 times less deadly than booze, according to the authors, who ran calculations that compared lethal doses of a given substance with the amount that a typical person uses. Marijuana is also the only drug studied that posed a low mortality risk to its users.

These findings reinforce drug-safety rankings developed 10 years ago under a slightly different methodology. So in that respect, the study is more of a reaffirmation of previous findings than anything else. But given the current national and international debates over the legal status of marijuana and the risks associated with its use, the study arrives at a good time.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 May 2015 at 1:27 pm

Posted in Drug laws, Health, Science

The heroin resurgence

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I read an article on-line yesterday and have not been able to find it again. It described the resurgence of heroin, thanks to the plentiful supply of Oxycontin, pushed heavily by Purdue Pharmaceutical and doctors, an opiate painkiller that quickly leads to addiction. The “research” on which the marketing was based was, according to the now-lost article, a single letter to the editor in a medical journal.

Responding to the demand for opiates, a single small village in Mexico began distributing heroin in the US, building a professional distributorship (salaried employees) and emphasizing customer satisfaction—if you did not like the heroin you got, you were given a free supply next time.

When I could not find the article in my browsing history, I used Google. I was not successful in finding the article, but I did find some excellent on articles (e.g., this one and this one) on this substantial and growing problem—so much for the success of the “War on Drugs” approach, an utter and expensive failure that is one component of the increasing militarization of our police departments—for example, this sheriff’s department in South Carolina whose equipment includes a belt-felt, turreted .50-caliber machine gun mounted on an armored personnel carrier. That department is really prepared to police communities—at gunpoint. They seem more focused on putting down armed insurrections that doing police work.

I hadn’t realized how great the problem has become. I wonder at what point politicians will investigate solutions other than a “War on Drugs.”

Written by LeisureGuy

16 May 2015 at 11:44 am

Posted in Business, Drug laws

Another asset forfeiture outrage

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Radley Balko reports on another instance of the government simply taking money from someone whose innocence is not even question: the government can take his money, so it does.

Do you get the strong feeling that the US government is starting to prey on ordinary citizens?

Do read Balko’s entire report, which begins:

I noted in March that New Mexico had recently passed one of most sweeping asset forfeiture reform laws in the country. The new law eliminates civil asset forfeiture, the policy that allows the government to seize and keep property without even charging the owner with a crime. But that law applies only to state officials. So even if it had been in effect at the time, it wouldn’t have prevented this:

All the money – $16,000 in cash – that Joseph Rivers said he had saved and relatives had given him to launch his dream in Hollywood is gone, seized during his trip out West not by thieves but by Drug Enforcement Administration agents during a stop at the Amtrak train station in Albuquerque.

An incident some might argue is still theft, just with the government’s blessing.

Rivers, 22, wasn’t detained and has not been charged with any crime since his money was taken last month . . .

It happened, Rivers said, to him on April 15 as he was traveling on Amtrak from Dearborn, Mich., near his hometown of Romulus, Mich., to Los Angeles to fulfill his dream of making a music video. Rivers, in an email, said he had saved his money for years, and his mother and other relatives scraped together the rest of the $16,000.

Rivers said he carried his savings in cash because he has had problems in the past with taking out large sums of money from out-of-state banks.

A DEA agent boarded the train at the Albuquerque Amtrak station and began asking various passengers, including Rivers, where they were going and why. When Rivers replied that he was headed to LA to make a music video, the agent asked to search his bags. Rivers complied.

Rivers was the only passenger singled out for a search by DEA agents – and the only black person on his portion of the train, [attorney Michael] Pancer said.

In one of the bags, the agent found the cash, still in the Michigan bank envelope.

“I even allowed him to call my mother, a military veteran and (hospital) coordinator, to corroborate my story,” Rivers said. “Even with all of this, the officers decided to take my money because he stated that he believed that the money was involved in some type of narcotic activity.” . . .

“These officers took everything that I had worked so hard to save and even money that was given to me by family that believed in me,” Rivers said in his email. “I told (the DEA agents) I had no money and no means to survive in Los Angeles if they took my money. They informed me that it was my responsibility to figure out how I was going to do that.”

The really galling thing about forfeiture is that the government officials who engage in it don’t even attempt to hide how unfair it is.

Sean Waite, the agent in charge for the DEA in Albuquerque . . . said that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2015 at 10:53 am

When laws don’t match social change: Legal Marijuana Faces Another Federal Hurdle: Taxes

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Jack Healy reports in the NY Times:

Money was pouring into Bruce Nassau’s five Colorado marijuana shops when his accountant called with the bad news: The 2014 tax season was approaching, and Mr. Nassau could not rely on the galaxy of deductions that other businesses use to reduce their tax bills. He was going to owe the Internal Revenue Service a small fortune.

“I had to write a check for $275,000,” Mr. Nassau said. “Unbelievable.”

The country’s rapidly growing marijuana industry has a tax problem. Even as more states embrace legal marijuana, shops say they are being forced to pay crippling federal income taxes because of a decades-old law aimed at preventing drug dealers from claiming their smuggling costs and couriers as business expenses on their tax returns.

Congress passed that law in 1982 after a cocaine and methamphetamine dealer in Minneapolis who had been jailed on drug charges went to tax court to argue that the money he spent on travel, phone calls, packaging and even a small scale should be considered tax write-offs. The provision, still enforced by the I.R.S., bans all tax credits and deductions from “the illegal trafficking in drugs.”

Marijuana business owners say it prevents them from deducting their rent, employee salaries or utility bills, forcing them to pay taxes on a far larger amount of income than non-marijuana businesses with the same earnings and costs. They also say the taxes, which apply to medical and recreational sellers alike, are stunting their hiring, or even threatening to drive them out of business.

The issue reveals a growing chasm between the 23 states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow medical or recreational marijuana and the federal bureaucracy, which includes national forests in Colorado where possession is a federal crime, federally regulated banks that turn away marijuana businesses and the halls of the I.R.S.

While President Obama and top federal officials have allowed states to pursue legalization, marijuana advocates say the dissonance between increasingly permissive state laws and federal prohibitions is creating a morass of complications and uncertainty.

The tax rule, an obscure provision referred to as 280E, catches many marijuana entrepreneurs by surprise, often in the form of an audit notice from the I.R.S. Some marijuana businesses in Colorado, California and other marijuana-friendly states have challenged the I.R.S. in tax court.

This year, Allgreens, a marijuana shop in Colorado, successfully challenged an I.R.S. policy that imposed about $30,000 in penalties for paying its payroll taxes in cash — common in an industry in which businesses rely on armed guards and cash-stuffed safes because they cannot get bank accounts.

“We’re talking about legal businesses, licensed businesses,” said Rachel Gillette, the executive director of Colorado’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the lawyer who represented Allgreens. “There’s no reason that they should be taxed out of existence by the federal government.” . . .

Continue reading.

If only the US had a Congress that actually functioned.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 May 2015 at 12:22 pm

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