Archive for the ‘Drug Policy’ Category

Arizona Medical-Pot Suit Dismissed by Judge

by Amanda J. Crawford, Bloomberg News

A U.S. judge dismissed a lawsuit asking the court to decide whether Arizona could carry out its medical-marijuana law without subjecting state workers to federal charges.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer claimed the voter-approved measure contradicted federal law and put state employees, who are charged with approving medical-marijuana dispensaries, at risk of prosecution. Her administration refused to approve dispensary applications pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

In her ruling yesterday, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton in Phoenix said the state failed to establish a “genuine threat of imminent prosecution.”

Read the full story on Bloomberg.com here.

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Arizona Medical Pot Offices Stand Empty After Brewer Sues Feds

by Amanda J. Crawford, Bloomberg News

When self-described serial entrepreneur Ian Christensen looks around the white-walled medical office he plans tolease in Paradise Valley,Arizona, he sees opportunity. Now all he needs is some pot.

Like hundreds of other would-be marijuana moguls, Christensen courted investors, hired attorneys, negotiated leases, cleared zoning hurdles, purchased equipment and sank tens of thousands of dollars into plans to pioneer an industry Arizona voters created by referendum in November.

Then Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican who opposed the initiative, sued the federal government and would-be dispensary operators in a case that may have implications in California and the 14 other U.S. states that have authorized medical pot. She wants a federal judge in Phoenix to decide whether the state can implement the law without its workers facing federal charges or whether U.S. law trumps the statute entirely.

“They put the dispensaries out of business before we ever started,” Christensen said last week as he toured the office.

. . . Read the full story on Bloomberg.com here.

Read my latest work for Bloomberg News here.

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Portugese drug reform 10 years later: no “illusion” that society will be drug free

July marks the 10-year anniversary of a radical experiment in drug policy in Portugal:  complete decriminalization of all drugs. Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to visit Portugal and interview government officials, public health workers, addicts and non-profit volunteers about the impact of drug decriminalization and a host of related public health reforms.

A psychologist with Associasão Ares do Pinhal, a government-contracted non-profit based in Lisbon, holds syringes and other public health supplies distributed to heroin addicts. Robust harm reduction programs are key elements of Portugal's drug strategy.

To the Portugese, drug abuse is a health issue, first and foremost. That’s how they got to this point: In the 1990s, about one percent of the Portugese population was addicted to heroin. While the country’s overall drug rates were about on par with other European nations, the rate of problematic drug use was alarmingly high. HIV and Hepatitis C were spreading rapidly among intravenous drug users. Public consumption of drugs and drug trafficking had become the number one public concern. Instead of digging in its heels in the war on drugs, the government convened a panel of experts and actually listened to them, bringing the war to its end.

Luis Mendão, a Portugese AIDS activist and drug policy reformer, recalls the rationale: “Some of us were convinced – are convinced – that drugs and psychostimulant drugs have always been used in society. Alcohol. Poppy seeds. Coca leaves. The solution that was found in going deeper and deeper in the war on drugs not only did not achieve the goal of zero consumption in the country, but it also did more harm than good. To transform someone who has a problem into a criminal is the wrong approach.”

In 2001, the Portugese parliament declared that personal possession of drugs – generally regarded as up to 5 grams of hashish, 25 grams of marijuana, one gram of heroin or 10 pills of ecstasy or other drugs – was no longer a crime. Today, if you are caught using drugs in public you are referred to a local “dissuasion board” which determines if you are an addict or a recreational user. Addicts are referred to free government treatment (though not compelled to participate). Recreational users are told that drugs are dangerous and still illegal and often (but not always) given a fine that is the equivalent of a speeding ticket. (Note that I specifically referred to doing drugs in public, like on the street or in a public park. Police will not investigate cases of drug use inside your home, unless you are suspected of drug trafficking – which is still a crime.) The dissuasion commissions are part of the Ministry of Health – not part of the criminal justice system. To the Portugese, addiction is a disease; recreational use is, well… who cares?

“A drug free society is not doable, so we are not aiming for that,” explains Nuno Portugal Capaz, a sociologist and vice president of the Lisbon dissuasion board. “We are trying to change their drug using from addiction. We don’t try to push people from doing drugs. We try to prevent people from misusing or abusing it.”

From most indications, it is working: problematic drug use and use among youth is down and the rate of new HIV infections among drug users has plummeted, officials say. While there was an uptick in overall rates of adults who have tried drugs at some point in their lives (which has been latched onto by anti-drug forces), officials explain this is because the population who never tried drugs (prior to the nation’s 1974 revolution that opened up trade and travel to and from the country) are dying off.  The country has also not become a mecca of drug tourism, as some feared — primarily because it is just as difficult to get drugs in Portugal as it is anywhere else. There is no legal equivalent to Amsterdam’s coffee houses or anything. The only advantage a tourist would have is knowledge that they won’t go to jail if they are caught. (I’ll let the experts weigh in on the outcome: Here’s the much publicized 2009 report from the Cato Institute and the more recent and well-rounded analysis that appeared in The British Journal of Criminology  late last year.)

Dr. João Goulão, president of Portugal’s Institute of Drugs and Drug Addiction (IDT), a branch of the health ministry which oversees the nation’s drug strategy, stresses that it is the public health component – not the change to criminal law – that has made the real impact in the country. The reality is that Portugal never locked away all that many drug users anyway. Still, drug decriminalization freed up activists to give out clean syringes and drug addicts felt more comfortable seeking help. Today, IDT operates a number of treatment clinics that are mostly free, offering a range of treatment services including methadone treatment, detoxification and a day center where addicts learn socialization skills. The agency and local governments also contract with non-governmental organizations to provide harm reduction services to more marginalized populations. (See pictures.)

Goulão says he believes societies need to learn to “live with” drug use, just like we live with disease. “I don’t think this solves the problem in our society, but I feel we are dealing with it in an appropriate way. We don’t have the illusion that we can eradicate drug use,” he says.

Heroin addicts get methadone from a mobile van operated by the non-profit Associasão Ares do Pinhal under a bridge in Lisbon. The group is funded by national and local government contracts.

An addict takes the methadone, distributed in the van by a nurse. Addicts also get regular screenings for AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases.

READ MORE: A more detailed essay on Portugal’s drug policy will appear soon in a U.S. political magazine. This post will be updated with the details. 

-AJC

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New AZ medical pot industry could be targeted by feds

Large-scale marijuana growers and dispensaries in Arizona could be prosecuted under federal law – even if they comply with new regulations governing the state’s fledgling medical marijuana industry. In a letter to state health officials, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis K. Burke said his office would not devote resources to prosecuting medical marijuana patients but left the door open to “vigorously prosecute individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacture, distribution and marketing activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.” It is important to note, however, that Burke did not mention state employees in the letter. In a similar letter last month, Burke’s counterparts in Washington State specifically warned state officials there that government employees could be prosecuted if they licensed marijuana dispensaries in that state. Burke’s letter has led to calls by opponents for the state to halt implementation of the voter-approved medical marijuana law.  However, most involved say they think it will just change the size and scope of the new marijuana businesses, curbing large operations.

Read Burke’s letter here.

Read The Arizona Republic story here.

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This Week in Drugs (April 29, 2011)

Although the Justice Department said in 2009 that it would not prosecute medical marijuana patients, U.S. attorneys in California and Washington state have told officials they intend to enforce the federal laws that prohibit marijuana’s manufacture and distribution, The Arizona Republic reports. This news comes as Arizona officials begin implementing the voter-approved medical-marijuana dispensaries which took effect April 14. Although the news makes many investing in the medical-marijuana industry nervous, a spokesman for Arizona U.S. attorney Dennis Burke said the U.S. attorney plans to release a statement soon to clarify enforcement of federal law in Arizona.

Ahwatukee Foothills entrepreneur Dave Levine has invented the Cannabis Container Vending Machine and a heavy plastic container called the “Cann Can” – short for “cannabis can,” The Arizona Republic reports. The Cann Can contains “smoke shop” products like lighters, rolling papers, and pipes that dispensaries may not want to stock. Levine says the machine costs less than $2,700 and includes several sets of plastic cans that can be purchased empty and customized by dispensaries. “This is a way to avoid the inconvenience of a used-up lighter, or having to go buy different items on an a la carte basis,” Levine said. “The container holds everything a patient needs.”

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson has announced his 2012 bid for the presidency, The Hill reports. Known for his “small-government” policies, Johnson rose to national prominence largely due to his advocacy of marijuana legalization. The libertarian-leaning former governor has made little effort to appeal to the more traditional parts of the GOP’s base, saying of his stance on legalization, “It is what it is. From the context of ‘The Emperor Wears No Clothes,’ I’m the only politician that’s saying the emperor is wearing no clothes. That’s not such a bad deal.” Check out Johnson’s issue-oriented group titled “Our American Initiative,” here.

Mexico’s Highway 101 through the border state of Tamaulipas, once busy this time of year with families traveling to celebrate Easter together, has become an empty ghost highway, The Washington Post reports. As rumors spread that psychotic kidnappers are dragging passengers off buses and as authorities find mass graves amassing to more than 145 bodies, people began calling it “the highway of death.”

As Mexico’s mainstream media agrees to guidelines for covering the drug war, an anonymous blogger running the site “El Blog Del Narco” continues to break the goriest stories, Al Jazeera English reported. The blog pulls many unedited, gruesome pictures uploaded by citizens to social networking sites like Facebook. While presenting one side of the violent story of drug war violence, the blog has even posted the statements of a purported spokesman for the Gulf cartel, allowing for a new medium for communication between hit men, traffickers, dealers – and the people affected by their violence. Visit the NSFW Narco Blog here.

Residents of Mexico City’s upscale San Miguel Chapultepec neighborhood discovered the dismembered body of a woman scattered over three blocks, The Associated Press reports. The discovery comes as authorities investigate the death of four women and a 14-year-old girl whose throats were slit in Acapulco over the weekend. All five worked at a beauty parlor in a neighborhood known for prostitution and drug dealing, according to the chief of detectives for the Guerrero state police. The mass killing of women is unusual in Mexico’s drug war but there is no indication that the two cases are related.

After five years and more than 34,000 dead in Mexico’s drug war, many Mexicans are organizing a movement called “ya basta” or “enough,” to bring an end to the violence, PBS NewsHour reports. Mexicans have gathered in marches and protests across the country in response to the violence that has killed thousands and displaced many more.

Illegal searches by the NYCPD occur very often but are rarely challenged in court, WNYC reports. Many defendants are told that they face “insurmountable obstacles when fighting marijuana charges” and the illegal searches that often lead to their arrests. More than 50,000 people have been arrested in New York City for marijuana possession last year and a great deal of the arrests take place in the police precincts where the most “stop-and-frisks” occur. More than a dozen men arrested told WNYC they were arrested for marijuana possession through illegal searches, none of which challenged the illegal search in court.

The US government said today that it would increase aid to Mexico’s state police in it’s anti-drug operations with a $500 million aid increase under the crime-fighting Merida Initiative, AFP reported. Many experts believe the nation’s state police are the weakest link in the fight against drug cartels due to a high rate of corruption. A statement after a meeting attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Mexican counterpart Patricia Espinosa condemned the “criminality and violence” of the drug war. This comes as the number of victims unearthed from mass graves in northern Mexico has risen to 279, Reuters reports.

The US’ seeming indifference to Mexico’s violent drug war has enraged frustrated Mexicans, according to Reuters. Even with today’s increase in aid the support pales in comparison to the more than $1 trillion spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. With an increasingly brutal war raging south of the border, Mexican historian Enrique Krauze told Reuters the Merida Initiative is “almost an insult.” Krauze said Mexicans can expect ten years of war “on [their] own,” adding, “The Obama administration has been a huge disappointment for us.”

Should Washington provide more aid to Mexico? Is the drug war winnable? Tell us what you think and check out The Economist’s interactive map of Mexico’s drug war violence.

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The rest of the story: Is U.S. drug policy or gun policy responsible for Mexican violence?

Several major media outlets reported Friday that the Mexican government had retained a U.S. law firm to explore a possible civil suit against U.S. gun manufacturers. Phoenix’s 12 News interviewed me about the potential lawsuit and the flow of weapons and ammunition south from Arizona to Mexico. (Video above.)

The reporter wanted to know: Are U.S. guns and ammunition ending up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels? How do you know? Who bears the blame?

The only thing she used from me was a short soundbite: I told her there was no way to definitively say what percentage of cartel firepower comes from the U.S. but there is no doubt that there are thousands of guns from the U.S. being used against soldiers and innocents in Mexico.

I went on to give a far more nuanced explanation about the role of U.S. guns in Mexican violence — and where the real blame lies for the deaths in Mexico.

First, are U.S. guns and ammunition being used by Mexican cartels? Yes. I’m not sure why this is up for debate. Every few days I see a press release like this one on Friday, which announces the conviction of a Tucson man for attempting to export 9,000 rounds of ammunition to Mexico. The ATF says that thousands of guns found in Mexico have been definitively traced by their serial numbers back to U.S. gun shops. I’ve personally seen hundreds of guns and boxes upon boxes of ammunition that were sold in the U.S. and recovered by federal officials in Mexico or intercepted on their way there. (Look, I know there is the whole Project Gunrunner controversy but that appears to be a result of investigative overzealousness — not proof that cartels get their weapons from China.)

Do cartels get all their firepower from the U.S.? Of course not. Most? Who knows (I don’t). But the bottom line is that there are U.S. guns and ammunition ending up in the hands of bad guys in Mexico. And those weapons have been turned against Mexican law enforcement and could be turned against Americans, too.

Some gun rights advocates will argue vociferously that cartels don’t get their weapons from the U.S. because they fear the backlash will result in restrictions on the second amendment right to bear arms. The contention that some make that the Obama administration is lying about guns found in Mexico or at border check points so that he can “take away our guns” is ludicrous. Obama has been president for more than two years, including time with a Democratic Congress. And he hasn’t done a darn thing to restrict gun sales. He has backed away from his support for a renewed assault weapons ban (which was at one point a bi-partisan idea supported by George W. Bush). Obama even blocked an emergency rule change from the ATF a few months ago that would have applied the same reporting requirements when someone buys multiple assault weapons (in border states only) that are now in place for handguns. He hasn’t taken any action on the so-called “gun show loophole” either.

Just because you don’t like the possible policy solutions, doesn’t change the underlying facts: U.S. guns are ending up in Mexico.

So who’s to blame? I’m eager to see what kind of case the Mexican government puts together against gun manufacturers. Do gun manufacturers know some of their weapons end up in Mexico? Sure they do. [Did you know that Colt makes a whole series of .38 Supers that appear designed for the Mexican gang market with names like "El Presidente" and "El Patron"? You can even find some named after Malverde, the "patron saint" of drug traffickers. Those guns are status weapons among cartel brass, federal officials tell me.] Still, while semi-automatic assault weapons and .50 BMG sniper rifles popular with the cartels increase the magnitude of the bloodshed in Mexico, they are certainly not the cause of it.

How about gun distributors? Do they know some of their guns will end up in Mexico? Sure, some do. There are always bad actors, especially when there is a lot of money involved. But the U.S. government does not require gun distributors to do much: they run a brief background check and keep a file on who buys guns. They are asked to report anyone who seems suspicious, but the gun dealers I have talked to say that this can be hard for employees to discern: Do you report anyone who buys a lot of guns? Anyone who speaks Spanish? It is legal in Arizona (and any state without robust state gun laws) to buy as many semi-automatic assault weapons and as much ammunition as you like without a waiting period or any reporting to law enforcement or government officials whatsoever.

The gun industry does deserve some blame for blocking common sense measures that could curb some gun trafficking (such as requirements on gun shops to report bulk purchases of semi-automatic weapons, etc.). For some reason, gun advocates today insist that the second amendment is absolute in a way that even the first amendment isn’t. The first amendment gives Americans the right to peaceably assemble. Yet, no one goes crazy when you have to get a permit for a demonstration or a parade. The first amendment grants freedom of the press, yet the press doesn’t have access to cover everything public officials do. The first amendment guarantees the freedom of speech, but slander and libel laws are there to curb the parameters of what we can say.

But in today’s political discourse the gun lobby has such a stranglehold over the process that even common sense measures that in the past would have been supported by both parties are now portrayed as liberal extremism. The gun lobby has won unprecedented protection from public scrutiny (that even curbs the first amendment rights of freedom of speech and of the press!). The so-called Tiahrt Amendments, for example, require the federal government to destroy all records of gun purchases within 24 hours and blocks the agency from sharing specific trace data on guns found at crime scenes (in the U.S. or Mexico) with the public or lawmakers. This is intended to shield the industry from possible lawsuits, but it ends up making it difficult for law enforcement to fight crime and gun trafficking. (Read the ‘Mayors Against Illegal Guns’ summary of the Tiahrt Amendments here.)

So does that mean that U.S. gun manufacturers are to blame for the nearly 40,000 deaths in Mexico in just over four years?

Look, guns are a means for people to commit violent acts. And, yes, easy access to sniper rifles that can tear holes through concrete and cars and semi-automatic assault weapons (which the ATF says can easily be converted to automatic in Mexico) helps the cartels fight the Mexican military. But while guns may be the instruments of battle, they are certainly not the cause of the war.

U.S. drug policy — not U.S. gun policy — is responsible for deaths in Mexico.

People are dying in Mexico because U.S. drug policies have not worked, and our international strategy to fight drugs has pushed drug distribution into Mexico. For more than 40 years, we have been fighting a losing war on drugs. We have not succeeded in curbing drug use, but we have filled our jails and prisons with drug users. We have not won the war against production and distribution, but we have moved the theater of battle. By pushing drug distribution into Mexico, we brought the battle to our border, into a country that was already plagued with poverty and corruption. The fact that the drug cartels are exploiting our gun freedom and using American guns against our national interests in the drug war is another consequence of failed U.S. drug policy.

The inconsistencies and loopholes in U.S. gun laws that have enabled cartels to arm themselves with American weapons and increase the level of violence are important to debate and deal with.  (Read more about my take on gun laws here.) But we should not be fooled into thinking that if we completely stopped the flow of U.S. weapons south we will end the bloodshed in Mexico entirely. The cartels will find weapons elsewhere as long as they have an endless supply of money from black market sales of drugs. If the last four decades of the drug war should have taught us anything it is this: if we defeat the cartels in Mexico new narcos will pop up somewhere else to replace them.  And if we seal the U.S.-Mexico border, the supply of drugs will find another way in — through Canada, via the skies or the seas or produced here at home.

I told the TV reporter: I know you want to be talking about gun policy, but if you are asking me who is to blame for the deaths in Mexico we should be talking about U.S. drug policy. Not surprisingly, that part didn’t make the story.

Read More:

Crawford On Guns: Gun Laws and Trafficking to Cartels

Inside The Phoenix Gunshow: No Hassle to Buy Assault Rifles

Get Your Guns: Inside the Phoenix gun show

The Iron River: As concerns mount over the potential for Mexican drug cartel violence to spill over the border, a steady flow of firearms south from Phoenix is helping give the cartels their lethal firepower

More…

–AJC

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This Week In Drugs (April 18, 2011)

Thursday was the first day that patients could apply for medical marijuana cards in Arizona. More than 100 people applied, mostly for chronic pain. Read more from The Arizona Republic here.

A bill to authorize and regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington is in trouble after the Department of Justice threatened to prosecute medical marijuana businesses and the state employees who license them. The bill, which has already passed both chambers of the Legislature, came in response to pressure from municipalities to regulate dispensaries that began popping up after the state’s 1998 initiative legalizing medical marijuana. Gov. Chris Gregoire said Tuesday that she cannot sign the proposal because of the federal threat to prosecute state employees, but she said she would work with legislators on a new bill.

Meanwhile, in Canada, an Ontario court has declared the country’s prohibition of marijuana unconstitutional because it bars some sick individuals from finding relief from their suffering by using the drug. Medical marijuana is legal in Canada, however patients testified that doctors were reluctant to prescribe it. The government has three months to fix the law before marijuana would become legal. Read editorials on the issue from The Toronto Star and The Winnepeg Free Press in favor of ending prohibition.

An Arizona gun dealer was allegedly encouraged to sell guns to suspected cartel gun traffickers by agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives – a revelation that came out this week in the continuing fall out over the agency’s Project Gun Runner. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, released an email from the gun dealer on Thursday, which appears to contradict contentions by the ATF that they never let guns knowingly be transported into Mexico. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General is looking into the program, which was apparently intended to nab higher level gun traffickers and cartels leaders.

A Texas congressman wants Mexico’s six major cartels to be classified as terrorist organizations, CNN reports. Republican U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee has introduced a bill that would give law enforcement greater ability to go after the cartels’ financial property and lead to harsher punishments to those who provide material support for cartels. The Arellano Felix organization, Los Zetas, Beltran Leyva, Familia Michoacana, Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel/New Federation would be categorized as terrorist organizations under the plan. Read McCaul’s editorial published in The Arizona Republic on Friday.

After the discovery of the mass grave in Tamaulipas, the U.S. government issued a warning to employees and citizens for the first time that they could be the targets of drug gang attacks in three Mexican states. The warning, published on April 8 by the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey, was the first warning of its kind, according The Wall Street Journal. U.S. Officials said they had “information that Mexican criminal gangs may intend to attack U.S. law-enforcement officers or U.S. citizens in the near future in Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and San Luis Potosí.” In the past both governments have assured Americans in Mexico that they were not the targets of drug gang violence.

A leader of the Zetas cartel, Omar Martin Estrada (a.k.a. “El Kilo”) was arrested Saturday in connection with the discovery of the mass graves in the Tamaulipas city of San Fernando. So far 145 bodies have been found at graves around the city, which was also the location of massacre of 72 mostly Central American migrants last year. Sixteen local police officers are being questioned in the case, accused of protecting cartel murderers. Seventeen others allegedly connected to the Zetas cartel were also arrested.

The prosecutor in charge of state homicide investigations in Juarez was gunned down outside his home. Mario Ramon Gonzalez Chavarria, 31, was shot in his car on the way to work Friday morning, The El Paso Times reports.

As that kind of horrific violence builds in the Mexican drug war, it is changing the nation’s language. The Associated Press looks at the unique language of drug violence. For example, how a body is found determines the slang word for it: “encobijados” – wrapped in a blanket, “encajuelados” – stuffed in the trunk of a car and “encintados” – suffocated with tape. Read more here.

The drug war violence has also taken it toll on limes. The costs of limes have quadrupled in Mexico City markets to $4 a kilo (2.2 pounds) in December and January, The Christian Science Monitor reports.  Drug gangs meddle in the supply chain and require payments from lime growers.

-AJC

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Fake drugs, real problems: Spice, Bath Salts & 2C-E

In December, we reported on the DEA’s ban on five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana, more commonly known as “spice.” Since then, more than 20 states have independently outlawed synthetic cannabinoid chemicals or moved to take them off the shelves. But synthetic marijuana is still readily available — its manufacturers staying a step ahead of the law through the development of new formulas mere molecules apart from the illegal ones.

Now there is a new synthetic doppelganger growing in popularity: “synthetic cocaine” sold under the guise of bath salts. (If you haven’t heard of it, watch this Today Show story). The effects of this new designer drug, made with chemicals like methylenedioxypyrovalerone, have been compared in the media to those of cocaine, MDMA, and even LSD. Whatever the high may be, the American Poison Control Center says bath salts have resulted in 1,511 trips to the emergency room this year. And the horror stories in the media connected to the chemical are mounting: Last month a 22-year-old Rutgers University student was allegedly beaten to death by her bath-salt-snorting boyfriend. Weeks earlier, authorities in Kentucky said a young woman driving on a highway after using bath salts became convinced her 2-year-old was a demon. She allegedly pulled over, dropped the child on his head, and walked away carrying her 5-year-old. In January, Neil Brown of Fulton, Missouri, slit his face and stomach with a hunting knife after allegedly taking bath salts.

Despite the stories about the dangers of synthetic cannabis and cocaine and the attempts to outlaw some of them, these drug imposters aren’t difficult to find, as I discovered after just five minutes of telephone calls to smoke shops in my area. I called a dozen smoke shops in the Phoenix area asking if they carried bath salts and spice, which banned the primary spice chemicals earlier this year. Only one shop said no, and the clerk referred me to another shop; another said yes and corrected me. “Um, herbal incense, you mean,” the guy on the phone said.

Another synthetic drug called 2C-E, has been garnering attention after a mass overdose at a party in Minnesota that led to one death. On March 16, 19-year-old Trevor Robinson died in Minneapolis after overdosing at the party; ten others at the party went to the emergency room after using the chemical. Reportedly similar to LSD and psychedelic mushrooms, 2C-E is a synthetic hallucinogen developed more than 30 years ago by DEA licensed psychopharmacologist, Alexander Shulgin. Like other designer drugs when they first hit the market, 2C-E is not a controlled substance in the U.S. and, like the others, synthetics with similar chemical structures are also legal and available online. Minnesota legislators are weighing a ban on the chemical.

So why the sudden shift to designer drugs? Are harsh penalties nudging thousands to try “legal” alternatives? Are we just bored of getting high au naturel? According to a report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime last year, global drug use is shifting towards synthetic drugs as demand for coke and heroin declines in developed countries and rises in the developing world. This is in large part due to Obama’s Afghan counterinsurgency strategy, coca eradication efforts in Colombia, and a fungus outbreak affecting the source of 89 percent of the world’s opium. Read more here.

The chemical synthetics may be more dangerous than the illicit drugs they replicate — especially in the case of chemical-drenched spice over naturally-grown marijuana. But is banning these chemicals the answer? The Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates legalizing marijuana and ending the drug war, says banning “spice” and other synthetic drugs just creates an illegal market for those chemicals as well. ”When policymakers outlaw a drug, they give up all control over it,” Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, told USA Today. “Instead of handing Spice and other drugs over to organized crime to make and distribute, it would be better to regulate the drugs to prohibit young people from getting access.”

What do you think?

-David Robles with AJC

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This Week in Drugs (April 2, 2011)

The Arizona health department released its final draft of medical-marijuana rules on Monday, The Arizona Republic reported. After a four month process, the state’s medical-marijuana program begins April 14 when patients can begin the application process through Arizona’s department of health services. Qualifying patients with certain debilitating conditions can receive up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks from between 120 and 126 dispensaries throughout the state or cultivate up to 12 marijuana plants if they live 25 miles or farther from a dispensary.

Meanwhile, a Delaware bill legalizing medical marijuana cleared the Senate 18-3 on Thursday and now moves on to the House, BusinessWeek reported. Under the bill, with a doctor’s written recommendation, patients with certain serious or debilitating conditions that could be helped by marijuana would be allowed to possess up to six ounces.

MSNBC featured U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) this week, who supports legalizing marijuana. Polis said that legalizing marijuana would be a “death blow” against cartels, save money and lives. (Link to Polis’ page: fearlesscampaign.com/drugpolicy) Is a member of Congress’ support of legalization proof that drug policy reform has gone mainstream? MSNBC notes a Gallup Poll that shows support for legalization in the U.S. has gone up to 46 percent in 2010 from 31 percent in 2000.

America’s drug czar Gil Kerlikowske addressed calls for legalization in a q & a with Foreign Policy saying, “I’ve never seen any of the legalization arguments that say, here’s how it will work and here’s how we’ll regulate it. Heaven knows, we’re not very successful with alcohol.” Read the interview here.

A Texas jury has found two men guilty of kidnapping an American drug trafficker murdered in Ciudad Juarez in 2009, the Associated Press reports. In this rare case of drug war violence spilling across the border, prosecutors say Cesar Obregon-Reyes and Rafael Vega broke into the house of Sergio Saucedo, bound he and his wife and kidnapped him in front of their children for a Mexican drug cartel. Saucedo was found dead with his hands chopped off on a street in Juarez, across the border from El Paso.

A United Nations report has called on the Mexican government to consider withdrawing the military from the streets following a sharp increase in human rights abuse claims since the Army was first deployed four years ago to fight drug traffickers, The Christian Science Monitor reports. The UN human rights office working group responsible for the report said the military and other government forces have become involved in an increasing number of cases of rape, torture, disappearance and arbitrary shooting. Because troops are tried in military courts instead of civil courts for rights abuses, most cases go unpunished. Calderón has sent a proposal to Congress to try cases of torture, rape, and disappearance in civic courts, but many say that change is not enough.

Mexico’s Attorney General Arturo Chavez resigned Thursday, in the face of  harsh criticism from women’s groups that he did little to solve hundreds of rapes and murders plaguing the state of Chihuahua, the San Francisco Examiner reported. Marisela Morales has been nominated to take Chavez’s place as the first woman to fill the post in Mexico’s history if confirmed by the Mexican Senate. Chavez, nominated in 2009, is the second attorney general to resign since Calderon took office in 2006.

U.S. lawmakers debated Thursday expanding border security and whether military involvement is necessary in fighting the Mexican drug war against cartels, UPI reports. Members of the House Homeland Security subcommittee were shown videotapes of Gulf and Los Zetas cartel members attacking military and law enforcement in Mexico. Both the House and Senate are writing bills for border security next year and expanding the $1.4 billion Merida Initiative designed to help the Mexican government battle the organized crime syndicates.

Finally, check out this eye-opening story from The Washington Post on the La Familia drug cartel, “Mexico’s drug lords fall, but war goes on.”

-DR & AJC

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This Week in Drugs (March 27, 2011)

Northern Arizona University associate professor Veronica Perez Rodriguez is reportedly safe after being briefly kidnapped in Juarez, The Arizona Republic reported. The 35-year-old anthropology professor was visiting her family last Friday when armed men abducted her in what is known as “express kidnapping.” Rodriguez was released in less than 24 hours, but it is unclear if she was forced to pay a ransom.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, approximately 230,000 people have been displaced by Mexico’s drug war, the Associated Press reports. The report is based on independent studies by local researchers; the Mexican government does not compile figures on people who have had to flee their homes because of turf battles between drug enterprises. “An estimated half of those displaced crossed the border into the United States, which would leave about 115,000 people internally displaced, most likely in the States of Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila and Veracruz,” the report states. According to the study, Mexico has done little in response to the mass displacement of its people, although a government census suggests an exodus in some areas.

Hundreds of Mexican news outlets agreed on Thursday to first-ever guidelines for covering the drug war that has drastically increased risks for journalists, The Los Angeles Times reported. Since Calderon’s term, 22 journalists have been murdered in Mexico, at least eight in direct response to reporting on crimes and corruption. The guidelines also urge news organizations to unite against threats to journalists, such as by jointly publishing stories. Under the 10-point accord, the companies should draw up standards for showing violent images such as decapitated bodies and provide more context when reporting on drug violence.

Fresh from a long and hard civil war, El Salvador is now struggling as Mexican drug gangs have begun utilizing the Central American nation’s new, U.S.-funded highway to traffic cocaine north, The Los Angeles Times reports. “El Caminito,” or the little pathway, is being infiltrated by street gangs with roots in Los Angeles and Mexican drug cartels using secretive networks left over from the civil war and the new land route to move drugs. Combined with El Salvador’s use of the U.S. dollar as official currency that makes it easier to launder money, the conditions set the scene of a new chapter in the violent turf wars of Mexican drug cartels.”

U.S. Border Patrol agents recovered more than 2,200 pounds of marijuana in two separate incidents Thursday, the Associated Press reported. Ajo Station agents used surveillance to locate 31 bundles of marijuana hidden in brush in the first incident. In the second, agents followed a suspicious vehicle later found abandoned containing 30 bundles of pot.

Months after the release of the first Wikileaks cables, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Carlos Pascual resigned last week, The Economist reported. Although the Mexico City cables were “milder than most,” a furious Felipe Calderón criticized Pascual’s “ignorance” and believed he should go. Pascual’s assessments of Mexico’s mishandling of the drug war and the “grey” senior members of Calderón’s National Action Party, his relationship with the daughter of a leading opposition politician and the fact that he is an expert on the delicate subject of failed states likely all contributed to his ousting.

Four men straw purchasing guns in North Texas bought more than $100,000 in assault rifles over the past six months, including one that was used in a shootout in Mexico that killed eight, federal authorities allege. NBC reports that the men are accused of purchasing 129 assault rifles since October, usually two at a time, that have been used in Mexico’s bloody drug war. They face federal charges of conspiracy to deal firearms without a license.

Federal regulators are forcing banks on California’s North Coast to investigate the financial transactions of clients who may be dealing marijuana, including many operating legally in the medical marijuana industry, according to The Press Democrat. Bringing the local banks into the drug war and instructing them to spend time and money in search of illegal activity has led some banks to simply close the bank accounts of medical marijuana dispensaries to avoid the hassle.

A Las Vegas medical marijuana advocate was arrested in a raid of her house after Metro Police suspected she and her husband of selling marijuana, 8 News Now reports. Medical marijuana patient Rhonda Shade says about  40 mature plants were confiscated by police. Read more here. Read about recent medical marijuana raids by the DEA in West Hollywood here and in Montana here.

Meanwhile, a new report shows medical pot sales have grown to rival Viagra, Time reports. Sales have reached $1.7 billion in states where it is legal, compared to annual Viagra sales of $1.9 billion. The report’s editor, Ted Rose, “noted that 1 in 4 Americans lives in a state in which medical marijuana is legal, and that nearly 25 million people in those states have medical problems for which the drug can be prescribed.” Rose projects sales to reach $8.9 billion in five years.

A new study by CUNY Professor Harry Levine and attorney Loren Siegel shows New York City has spent $75 million arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana in 2010 alone. Each arrest costs at least $1,000 to $2,000 and 50,383 people arrested for marijuana in 2010. Most of the marijuana confiscated is found through controversial “stop and frisk” practices. The NYPD made 600,000 recorded “stop and frisks,” and many additional unrecorded stops last year.

As of Thursday evening, all ten representatives and all five senators of Seattle’s state legislative delegation has gone on the record in support of taxing, regulating, and legalizing marijuana, Slog reported. The unheard of uniform support for legalization in Seattle represents a significant shift in the mainstream acceptance of marijuana.

-DR & AJC

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