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Why Opioid Deaths Are This Generation's AIDS Crisis

Tue, 06/27/2017 - 12:19
The soaring numbers of deaths from overdoses in the US and UK requires a radical and fast rethink of drugs policy.

Dr Daniel Ciccarone, a San Franciso-based public health researcher and physician told me of a recent encounter which, despite 17 years in the field, left him stunned. “I talked to a [heroin] user in West Virginia. Nice guy. Manages to keep his habit and keep his job. He’s 10 years out of high school. He’s 29. He went to his high school reunion. I kid you not – half of his high school class is gone. Died. It was mostly [opioid] pills and heroin.”

Ciccarone is on the frontline of efforts to understand and combat the US’s rapidly escalating opioid crisis and he makes no bones about the scale and impact of what he says is an unprecedented public health emergency. “We are moving beyond an epidemic. I would call it a crisis,” he says.

According to official statistics opioids, including heroin and prescription versions of the drug, killed more than 33,000 people in the US in 2015 – a record surge that is expected to see yet more increases

A New York Times analysis earlier this month estimated that overdose deaths are rising faster than ever. And, as the Guardian has reported, more US citizens die from overdoses than from gun fatalities or car crashes. It is now becoming the leading cause of death for the under-50s.

Ciccarone draws parallels with the early years of the HIV epidemic, including that those affected are vilified by wider society. Indeed, the problem is increasingly being called this generation’s Aids crisis. At its peak in 1995, that epidemic claimed 51,000 US lives.

Overdoses are spiralling partly because illicitly manufactured Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, and similar drugs are entering the US illegally. Fentanyl is around 50 times more potent than heroin (and in some forms much more so). A combination of its strength and the fact that users aren’t aware that parts of the heroin supply have been laced with it or that it’s often used in fake prescription opioids, makes it especially lethal.

This crisis isn’t confined to the US. Canada is in the midst of its own opioid crisis. However, coinciding with last month’s Harm Reduction International conference in Montreal, the Canadian government took what was seen as a world-leading step to confront the problem. It passed legislation making it easier to open supervised injection sites so that users can inject safely and, should an overdose occur, trained medical professionals are on site to provide life-saving help such as administering anti-overdose medication. It’s the epitome of a sensible harm reduction approach that aims to reduce or eliminate harm rather than, as is often the case, punish or stigmatise users.

The magnitude of the north American crisis may be unrivalled, but there are nevertheless worrying portents for Britain. Published earlier this month, the latest annual analysis from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reported that deaths by overdose in the UK accounted for almost one in three overdose deaths in Europe – primarily related to heroin and other opioids. Thirty-one percent of the total 8,441 deaths recorded in 2015 were in the UK.

Critics of drugs policy in the UK have been sending warning flares for several years, highlighting the impact of austerity cuts. It is no surprise that already cash-strapped local councils – who have no legal obligation to provide addiction services – slashing support.

Niamh Eastwood, director of the UK drugs charity Release, which has been highly critical of government responses to the risk of avoidable death, says that while evidence of the Fentanyl contamination propelling the US epidemic is so far sparse in the UK, the overdose emergency requires a radical rethink of policy – and fast. Eastwood points to the government’s rejection of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommendations “to combat the rising rate of opioid-related deaths through improving drug treatment and harm reduction services” including supervised injection rooms and the “routine” availability of the anti-overdose medication, Naloxone.

There is a precedent. At the height of the HIV epidemic in the UK, the Thatcher government opened up needle exchanges for intravenous drug users.

Drug users have long been one of the most demonised and marginalised groups in society – and a low priority for policymakers. This simply can’t continue. A public health crisis and loss of life on the scale currently being witnessed warrants an immediate, and unapologetically progressive response.

r Daniel Ciccarone, a San Franciso-based public health researcher and physician told me of a recent encounter which, despite 17 years in the field, left him stunned. “I talked to a [heroin] user in West Virginia. Nice guy. Manages to keep his habit and keep his job. He’s 10 years out of high school. He’s 29. He went to his high school reunion. I kid you not – half of his high school class is gone. Died. It was mostly [opioid] pills and heroin.”

Ciccarone is on the frontline of efforts to understand and combat the US’s rapidly escalating opioid crisis and he makes no bones about the scale and impact of what he says is an unprecedented public health emergency. “We are moving beyond an epidemic. I would call it a crisis,” he says.

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Why Isn’t Big Pharma Paying for the Harm It Caused Like Big Tobacco?

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 13:15
They got their claws in the opioid crisis and are milking it for all it's worth.

Late last year, the Senate approved $1 billion of taxpayer money for “opioid prevention and treatment programs” as part of the 21st Century Cures Act. Yes, taxpayers are stuck paying for the opioid crisis which Big Pharma created for no other reason than to make more money.

Once upon a time, narcotics were limited to post-surgery, post-accident and cancer pain because they are addictive. But cagey Pharma marketers, assuming that both younger doctors and patients had forgotten why narcotics were so heavily restricted, spun the lie that the narcotics were not addictive per se—that addiction boiled down to the individual person. Right. They began marketing narcotics for everyday pain and the result is the opioid and heroin crisis we have now.

When Big Tobacco was busted for a similar scheme—lying to consumers that its products were neither addictive or deadly—it was forced to pay $206 billion in the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. [executives are pictured before Congress in 1994) Provisions include paying states, in perpetuity, for some of the medical costs of people with smoking-related illnesses. Why are taxpayers paying for the similar, Pharma-caused scourge?

Because drug ads account for as much as 72 percent of TV commercials and almost all media companies allow drug company representatives to serve as board members, mainstream media enables the deadly deception and pretends the opioid crisis "just happened" like the Zika virus or influenza. Recently, the New York Times said the controversy swirling around the new mental health czar was whether the opioid crisis should be treated with "the medical model of psychiatry, which emphasizes drug and hospital treatment and which Dr. McCance-Katz [the new czar] has promoted” or “the so-called psychosocial, which puts more emphasis on community care and support from family and peers.”

Nope, New York Times. The issue is about Pharma money pure and simple. The “medical model of psychiatry” also known as “addiction medicine” is a big, second line business for Pharma. People who were totally normal until Pharma hooked them on narcotics by marketing opioids for everyday pain are now said to have the “psychiatric disease” of an “addiction disorder” and need to be treated with more lucrative Pharma drugs. Ka-ching.

To get an idea of how lucrative addiction medicine has become, Bain Capital paid $720 million for CRC Health in 2006 and resold it for $1.18 billion in 2014. The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment (one Pharma drug marketed for addiction) unashamedly admits it is industry funded to “Educate the public about the disease of opioid addiction and the buprenorphine treatment option; [and] help reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with patients with addiction disorders.” Addiction medicine is so lucrative, Amazon may start acquiring addiction chains!

Pharma is so camped out in the opioid crisis, insurance companies will no longer reimburse rehab facilities unless they use an expensive drug to treat the “disease.” The message of peers, patient advocates and former addicts, on the other hand, who know that more drugs is not the answer to drugs and that peer support is 100 percent free, is lost in the greed scramble.

In covering Dr. McCance-Katz’s appointment, the Times cites her support from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Is that a joke? Both the APA and NAMI are so steeped in Pharma money they were investigated by Congress.

When Big Tobacco said its products were neither addictive or deadly it was forced to pay $206 billion in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. Why are US taxpayers paying for Pharma’s similar deception?

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Legalizing Marijuana Dramatically Reduces Traffic Stop Searches

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 11:36
Click here for reuse options! When weed is legal, cops have one less reason to search. That's one less opportunity for a potentially lethal confrontation.

In states where marijuana has been legalized, traffic stops resulting in searches by state police are down dramatically, according to a new analysis from the Marshall Project and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

With marijuana possession being legal, police in legal states can no longer assume criminal activity merely because of the presence of pot, which would have given them probable cause to conduct a search. And that means fewer interactions between drivers and police, reducing the prospect of dangerous—or even deadly—clashes.

But even though the number of searches dropped for all racial groups, black and brown drivers are still being subjected to searches at a higher rate than whites, the study found. And because the report only studied state police (Highway Patrol) stops, not stops by local law enforcement, which patrols urban areas with higher minority population concentrations, it may understate the racial disparity in traffic stop searches.

The report is based on an analysis of data from researchers at Stanford University, who released a report this week studying some 60 million state patrol stops in 31 states between 2011 and 2015, the most thorough look yet at national traffic stop data. The results from the legal pot states of Colorado and Washington are striking.

In Colorado, the number of traffic stop searches dropped by nearly two-thirds for whites, 58% for Hispanics, and nearly half for blacks. In Washington, the search rate dropped by about 25% for whites and Hispanics, and 34% for African Americans.

Still, racial disparities in search rates persisted in both states. In Colorado, the search rate for black drivers was 3.3 times that for whites, and the rate for Hispanic drivers was 2.7 times that for whites. In Washington, blacks were twice as likely to be searched as whites, while the search rate for Hispanics was 1.7 times that of whites.

The traffic stop search data parallels what happened with marijuana arrests in legal states. In Colorado, for instance, a 2016 Department of Public Safety report found that while the number of pot arrests dropped by nearly half after legalization, the arrest rate for blacks was still nearly three times that of whites.

"Legalizing marijuana is not going to solve racial disparities," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. "We need to do a lot more before we get at that."

But legalizing marijuana does reduce the number of traffic stop searches, and given the fraught relationship between police and the citizenry, especially communities of color, that is a good thing in itself. 

 

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Ohio Councilman Would Let Repeat Overdose Victims Die to Save Money

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 11:25
Reviving those who are ODing just costs too darn much money, he says.

An Ohio city is considering whether dispatchers should send ambulances to every overdose call they get, after the number of overdoses this year has already exceeded last year’s total.

Dan Picard, a Middletown city councilman, proposed a “three strikes” limit for opioid addicts after the number of overdoses jumped from 532 last year to 577 so far this year, including 51 deaths, compared to 74 in all of 2016, reported the Journal-News.

“I want to send a message to the world that you don’t want to come to Middletown to overdose because someone might not come with Narcan and save your life,” Picard said. “We need to put a fear about overdosing in Middletown.”

The 61-year-old Picard, who isn’t seeking re-election, suggested issuing a court summons to overdose victims and require them to complete community service to work off the cost of their emergency medical services call and a dose of the life-saving Narcan drug.

If they fail to do so following two overdoses, 911 dispatchers could refuse to send help on their third call.

“If the dispatcher determines that the person who’s overdosed is someone who’s been part of the program for two previous overdoses and has not completed the community service and has not cooperated in the program, then we wouldn’t dispatch,” Picard told WLWT-TV.

The city councilman pointed out that cancer patients don’t get free chemotherapy, and he said patients suffering heart attacks don’t get free bypass surgery on an EMS run.

The city budgeted $10,000 this year for Narcan, which revives overdose patients, but is on pace to spend $100,000 on the drug.

The fire chief said he understood Picard’s frustration, but the state law requires first responders to administer Narcan to overdose patients, and he pointed out that medics took an oath to care for those who are hurt, sick or injured — regardless of the cost.

“This is our standing order,” said Fire Chief Paul Lolli. “Our guys operate under standing orders and protocols set by the medical director. Unless directed otherwise, that’s what we have to do.”

First responders in southwest Ohio, which has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, are suffering compassion fatigue from the frequency of overdose calls, reported the Cincinnati Enquirer.

“The situations that we’re coming upon have not been dealt with before,” said Lt. John Williams, of the Cincinnati Fire Department.

First responders are themselves in danger from overdosing on powerful synthetic opioids they may come into contact with, and they must remain hyper-vigilant about blood spatter and needle sticks to avoid hepatitis C and other blood-borne illness.

The state’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse received $26 million in grant money, and some of that money will go toward helping first responders deal with the trauma they experience on the job.

Picard admits his proposal wouldn’t solve the city’s drug problem.

“We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to maintain our financial security, and this is just costing us too much money,” Picard said.

The fire department is applying for grants and accepting donations to pay for Narcan.

The city manager declined to comment on Picard’s proposal until the city’s legal department could review it.

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Sessions Wants to Get Tough on Crime, But He's Got It All Wrong

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 11:15
The US attorney general is facing push-back not just from civil rights advocates, but also prosecutors, lawmakers, judges, and more.  

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to crack down on crime by sending more criminals to prison for longer periods of time. "Every one of our citizens, no matter who they are or where they live, has the right to be safe in their homes and communities from the scourge of criminal gangs, rapists, carjackers and…

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Watch: Shocking Video Released of Minnesota Drug Task Force Cop Brutally Assaulting Motorist

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 13:13
Click here for reuse options! It took nearly a year for damning video to emerge, but now the heat is on.

Worthington, Minnesota, resident Anthony Promvongsa, 21, had a run-in with an angry motorist as he drove through the streets of town last July 28. Promvongsa went on his way, but that agitated motorist—who turned out to be an off-duty cop—called on his colleagues to go after the young man, and this is what happened:

The cop doing the cursing, kicking, and punching in the video is Agent Joe Joswiak, a city of Worthington police officer and a member of the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force.

“I had no idea what was going on when I was approached and attacked by this officer,” Promvongsa said in a statement released Thursday by the ACLU. “I did not even have the opportunity to take off my seatbelt before I was literally blindsided with this unnecessary attack. I immediately pulled over for the Worthington squad car and before I knew what was happening, I was beat and ripped from my vehicle.

"I know I am not the first person to have this type of traumatic experience with law enforcement in Worthington,” Promvongsa added.

Not only did Joswiak brutalize the young man, he and local prosecutors then charged Promvongsa with multiple felonies over the alleged traffic incident. He faces charges of fleeing in a motor vehicle and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon (his car), but, as the ACLU notes, "no matter what happened before the dashcam video began rolling, Anthony did not deserve to be abused by the police in this way."

Joswiak claims that Provongsa refused his order to leave the car, but the video makes clear Joswiak never gave him any chance to do so.  Instead, the ACLU notes, "it shows a textbook case of excessive force."

There was no mention of any drug offense in original police reports, although police searched Promvongsa's vehicle after assaulting him. Later in the video, Joswiak can be heard hopefully asking Promvongsa  "Have you been in trouble with narcotics?" He received a negative response.  

The ACLU says it and Promvongsa are weighing their options, and calls on the Worthington Police and the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force "to immediately investigate the incident, take all appropriate personnel actions, and ensure this never happens again." It also calls for Agent Joswiak to be "held accountable for his actions, up to and including termination and prosecution."

The ACLU's concern that "this never happens again" suggests that it has happened before. "Based on additional complaints that we are receiving, this does not appear to be an isolated incident," the ACLU said. "Rather there’s evidence that racial profiling and police brutality are systemic problems that span the Worthington Police Department, Nobles County Sheriff’s Office, and the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force as Worthington becomes a much more diverse city."

The incident has drawn the attention of U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who represents the area. “Like many Minnesotans, I found the video released today deeply disturbing," he said in a statement Thursday. "I have had a chance to speak with local officials and leaders in the community and believe all parties are passionate in pursuing justice. I will continue closely monitoring this situation. Addressing situations like this one in our communities and in Minnesota is an absolute necessity and we are all in this together.”

The Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force, Worthington Police Department and the Nobles County Attorney’s Office issued a joint press release Thursday afternoon that amounted to hunkering down and evading the issue of excessive force altogether.

“The July 28, 2016 video released by ACLU is one piece of evidence in a pending criminal case,” the release begins. “Release and discussion of evidence in pending criminal cases is limited by the data practices law and criminal court procedural rules. The video, viewed in a vacuum, shows only a short segment of the incident that is the basis of the criminal charges.

“Because the case is now awaiting a jury trial date, the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force, Worthington Police Department and the Nobles County Attorney’s office feel it is inappropriate to comment further.”

The Buffalo Ridge Drug Task force lauds itself for "aggressive enforcement" and brags about "seizures of vehicles, firearms, jewelry, and large amounts of cash." But now it's becoming known nationwide because of the "aggressive enforcement" actions of one of its officers.

 

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A Heroin Addict’s Appeal to President Trump

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 09:21
Click here for reuse options! You have an opportunity to save countless lives.

I didn’t vote for you. You see, I was born with a brain injury. Doctors at Children’s Hospital in Boston told my parents I would never be able to walk normally.

Young children are mean. As a young boy, insults, and laughs became a daily ritual. When I walked into a classroom, a restaurant, or down a street, people didn’t look into my eyes. They always looked down as I limped awkwardly along.

But I overcame and became a varsity athlete at a prep school outside of Boston. As a teenager, I grew strong, and anybody that made fun of my limp or my awkward gate became irrelevant.

Frankly, Mr. President, the day you mocked a disabled reporter should have been the end of your presidential candidacy.

That said, I for one am all for giving you a chance to “Make America Great Again.” Mr. President, I implore you to focus more of your efforts on the heroin epidemic that is crushing the American dream in every state in the Union.

I understand that the stigma and moral issues of heroin addiction run deep. Today’s heroin epidemic parallels the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The old school philosophy back then was, “Men having sex with men. It’s not natural. That’s God’s punishment.”

Although the diction has changed, the sentiment remains constant today. “I didn’t force them to stick a needle of heroin into their arm. Why should I be forced to pay for their rehabilitation?”

But you see, we are not just junkies, Mr. President. I am three decades clean, have won the prestigious du-Pont-Columbia as a journalist, written a bestseller, became a WGA screenwriter and worked on The Fighter, a feature film that won two Academy Awards.

I have spoken to organizations and recovery centers all across America. And what amazed me the most were the rooms were filled with middle-class kids whose fathers were chief’s of police, firefighters, teachers, lawyers, and doctors.

Heroin addiction is insidious: in several states across this country, young women are selling themselves as sex-slaves to maintain their daily heroin habit.

Just recently, NPR did a radio program about heroin addicts that are purposely committing crimes, so they’ll be arrested and locked up to get the treatment they need.

Treatment is just not available on the streets because there aren’t any beds available in recovery centers. The medical community could never have prepared for the onslaught of heroin in their neighborhoods.

Mr. President, this epidemic was given birth by Purdue Pharma and their owners, the Sackler family. In fact, the Sacklers became known as the Godfathers of OxyContin and rang in at number 19 on last year’s Forbes annual list of America’s richest families.

Through Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family acquired a fortune with the blood of young Americans. Although, a judge convicted Purdue Pharma’s top executives in Federal Court of knowingly and willfully misleading consumers, unfortunately, your old friend Rudy Giuliani’s law firm got them off with a sweetheart deal.

As President of the United States, you have an opportunity to save countless lives. Please consider creating a “sin tax” similar to the cigarette and alcohol tax levied by several states. If big Pharma wants to do business on the backs of the American consumers suffering from chronic pain, force them to pay a “recovery tax.”

Please consider creating a work program for heroin addicts that want help. A simple, we’ll pay for your thirty-day recovery hospital and continued care, and you’ll work cleaning up roads or run down areas of your community to pay for it.

Finally, why not designate a line on the IRS tax forms for people to donate a dollar or more to help put an end to the suffering brought on by the countless deaths of promising young men and woman.

Mr. President, you have a daunting task in front of you. But you can’t “Make America Great Again” by sitting back and watching 4,380 Americans die every month from an accidental overdose of heroin. That’s right, 144 people a day die from an accidental overdose of opioids.

I have an 11-year-old son that is on the brink of growing up in a society that will be the most dangerous environment in America’s history. You see, Mr. Trump, not since your predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, has the youth of America been more in jeopardy.

Think about it; not since the Vietnam War has a generation been at greater risk to die between the ages of 18 to 25. Please help them. An entire generation is on the verge of being wiped out.

Follow Ritchie Farrell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ritchiefarrell1

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

 

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How America's Idiotic Drug Prohibition Helped Kill Philando Castile and Give the Policeman Who Killed Him an Excuse to Walk Free

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 12:01
Click here for reuse options! Drug war madness strikes again.

The Minnesota cop who was acquitted last week of killing Philando Castile used the fact that he smelled marijuana in the car as part of his defense. Whether Officer Jeronimo Yanez really believed Castile's presumed pot use made him more dangerous or whether the testimony influenced the jury's decision to acquit remains unknown, but its use in his defense illustrates the enduring demonization of the plant and its users.

Castile's killing last year sparked angry demonstrations and made national headlines after his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, live-streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, with a mortally wounded Castile moaning as Reynolds cries, "That police just killed my boyfriend, he's licensed, and he was trying to get his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet, and the officer just shot him in his arm."

In the video, Yanez is visibly agitated: "I told him not to reach for it; I told him to get hand up!" he yells.

"You told him to get his ID, sir," Reynolds responds, as her four-year-old daughter in the back seat attempts to comfort her. "Oh my God, please don't tell me he's dead," Reynolds moans. "Please don't tell me my boyfriend just went like that."

Castile did go just like that, though. He was pronounced dead at the Hennepin County Medical Center 20 minutes after Yanez opened fire, shooting seven bullets at him.

Dashcam video from Yanez's patrol car, not released until Tuesday, shows it only took 30 seconds before Yanez opened fire:

Yanez didn't mention marijuana in Reynolds' video, but in court transcripts of his testimony, Yanez said he opened fire on Castile in part because he could smell marijuana and he assumed Castile had been using it in front of the child.

"I thought I was gonna die and I thought if he's—if he has the guts and audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke, and the front-seat passenger doing the same thing, then what—what care does he give about me?" Yanez said.

The argument is that smoking pot in front of kids makes one a stone-cold killer. Never mind the hyperbole; in Yanez's mind, someone who would smoke pot around kids is not only endangering his own life, but would be willing to kill a cop over a pot charge or a broken taillight (the original reason for the traffic stop).

Police later did find traces of marijuana in the vehicle, and defense attorneys used that fact and the marijuana odor to insinuate that Castile was so high he was slow to comply with Yanez's demands. That made Yanez even more suspicious, the defense claimed.

But Yanez's claims about secondhand smoke border on the bizarre. Yes, ingesting secondhand pot smoke can be harmful, but secondhand smoke is quite different from intent to harm a police officer. And the most notorious source of unwanted secondhand smoke is cigarettes, yet no one insinuates that smoking tobacco around kids makes one more likely to be a cop-killer. Yanez and his defense attorneys were singing a Reefer Madness tune with this claim.

Despite Yanez's claims and phobias, pot smokers are no more likely to behave violently than non-users, and in fact, some research shows they are less likely to. A 2014 study in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that marijuana use among couples was associated with lower risk of domestic violence.

Philando Castile was black. That was strike one. He was armed (and admitted it). That was strike two. And he was a pot smoker. That was strike three. Reefer Madness, either in the mind of Officer Yanez or the minds of the jurors, or both, helped kill Phil Castile. 

 

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Senate Health Care Bill is a Disaster for Dealing With the Opioid Crisis

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 10:41
The bill would roll back Medicaid, which pays for half of addiction treatment in many states, and it proposes very little in return. That's not all.

WASHINGTON — The health care bill unveiled by Senate Republicans on Thursday includes funding to help tackle the nation’s opioid crisis — but dramatically less than the amount sought by two GOP senators and recovery advocates.

Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) at one point had requested $45 billion over the course of a decade to keep the battle against opioids on the nation’s front burner. The bill instead would allocate only $2 billion, all in 2018.

“Well, they did say there’s some opioid funding,” Capito said as she emerged from the meeting in which GOP leadership walked through the bill with members. But, she added, the number falls far short of what she wanted.

The massive influx of money would have at least partially helped make up for the Senate’s proposed rollback of Medicaid, which pays for roughly half of addiction treatment in many states. In West Virginia, it funds nearly 45 percent of addiction treatment costs. In Ohio, the figure is 49.5 percent.

While the opioid epidemic is not limited to that pair’s states, most other Republicans did not join the call for including a major opioid epidemic funding stream through their health bill.

“I think it’s not unreasonable to think carefully about how much money you can add to the system all at once,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who chairs the Senate’s health appropriations subcommittee. “We tripled the money two years ago, then doubled the tripling. So we’re in a fairly fast trajectory, and I don’t know how much money you can effectively spend here.”

Blunt, however, acknowledged Capito and Portman’s expertise on the issue and maintained that funding addiction treatment was a priority for his subcommittee and for Congress in general.

Some advocates for the recovery community suggested the proposal for $45 billion in funding overlooked the complicated spiral in health issues that can be brought on by addiction. The additional funding, for instance, wouldn’t help cover treatment for conditions that are common among those struggling with addiction and that would otherwise be covered by Medicaid.

Senate drafters of the bill, by not including the new funding, could give either Capito or Portman — both of whom hail from Medicaid expansion states and have shown resistance to major cuts to the program — a sturdier stack of reasons to vote no. They could also use their resistance as leverage with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Or, in the outcome that worries those combating the opioid crisis the most, the issue could simply fizzle.

“The proposed $45 billion was not going to come close to being sufficient to address the epidemic that’s ravaging our country and taking more lives every day,” said Gary Mendell, the CEO of the addiction-focused nonprofit Shatterproof. “Shatterproof will continue to pressure senators to vote no on this bill that would have devastating effects for Americans with substance use disorders.”

The bill’s elimination of the Affordable Care Act’s essential health benefits provision, which largely mandated that insurers cover mental health and substance abuse treatment, was also cause for concern for stakeholders in combating the crisis.

“Eliminating requirements for coverage of key benefits, including mental health and substance use disorders and other patient protections that are part of the Affordable Care Act, will have detrimental impacts for millions,” Dr. Altha Stewart, the president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, said in a statement.

The White House, which has said it sees efforts to address the opioid epidemic as a priority, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Watch Aubrey Plaza Smoke Weed With the Chillest Nuns Ever

Thu, 06/22/2017 - 10:28
Plaza hit the icky with the sisters for her comedy "The Little Hours," out June 30

If you want to see something positively delightful, check out comedian Aubrey Plaza’s new video in which she smoked pot with the so-called “Weed Nuns.”

As Plaza and the two Sisters of the Valley light up, Sister Kate tells Plaza how she was inspired to become a nun after hearing that Congress had declared pizza as a vegetable to make school lunches seem healthier than they are.

“I said, ‘If pizza is a vegetable, I’m a nun,” Sister Kate recalls.

Plaza and the nuns also talk about how Jesus Christ probably smoked weed himself, assuming he had access to the delightful bud. The topic is particularly appropriate considering that Plaza and Brie Larson star in an upcoming raunchy comedy in which they play a pair of nuns, “The Little Hours.”

Despite their nickname, the weed nuns do not actually belong to the Catholic Church, according to a report by Reuters. They instead claim that their holy trinity centers around hemp, which they cultivate on their own and they convert into cannabis-based ointments and balms.

As Sister Kate told Reuters, “We’re against religion, so we’re not a religion. We consider ourselves Beguine revivalists, and we reach back to pre-Christian practices.”

She added, “A sister becomes a sister through a commercial relationship and earning a wage or a commission and we want to grow this way because we want to free the women, we don’t want to make them more dependent.”

Sister Kate also said that the group earned $750,000 in sales in 2016, which was the year that California legalized recreational marijuana.

Their message is especially relevant in the Trump era, considering that the president’s attorney general Jeff Sessions has doubled down on the war on drugs and openly stated that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

Ease into the video below.

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Vermont House Republicans Kill Last-Chance Marijuana Legalization Bill

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 18:07
Click here for reuse options! But the state could still become the first legalize pot legislatively.

Vermont will not become the first state to legalize marijuana through the legislative process—at least for now. House Republicans on Wednesday evening killed a last chance effort to get it done this year by refusing to take up a compromise legalization bill that had been passed by the Senate earlier in the day.

A marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 22, had passed the legislature earlier this year, setting the state up to be the first the free the weed legislatively, only to be vetoed last month by Gov. Phil Scott (R). In his veto message, Scott said he was not philosophically opposed to legalization, claiming "a libertarian streak in me," but had public safety concerns about marijuana and driving and marijuana and kids. The veto message contained specific recommendations for crafting a bill the governor would find acceptable.

The bill passed by the Senate today, an amendment to House Bill 511, which has already passed the House, attempted to address Scott's concerns. Like S.22, it would have legalized the possession of up to an ounce and the cultivation of up to two mature and four immature pot plants by adults, but not create a legal marijuana market. Instead, it would have created a legislative study commission to develop legislation for taxed and regulated cannabis commerce.

Changes to the bill to appease the governor included giving the study commission a broader membership and extending the time given for it to issue its report, as well as stiffer penalties for driving while high, providing marijuana to children, or exposing it to them in cars. The bill didn't contain a roadside marijuana "impairment testing mechanism" desired by Scott, mainly because there are none on the market.

But all of that is moot for now. For the bill to pass during the veto session, House Republicans would have had to agree to waive normal legislative rules, but in Wednesday evening's GOP members largely refused. A motion to waive the rules needed 107 votes to pass (out of a House of 150), but with only 83 Democrats, it needed substantial support from GOP House members to pass. It didn't get it; failing on a vote of 78-63.

Vermont will not legalize marijuana in 2017, but H.511 remains alive. It can and will be taken up by the legislature when it reconvenes next year, and Vermont could still end up being the first state to legalize marijuana legislatively. It's just not happening this year. 

 

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Cameron Douglas Smokes Pot, Violates Probation

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 14:10
Click here for reuse options! “Please God, please, don’t let me go back!"

It was inevitable. I knew he was going to relapse, after all it’s an acceptable part of drug addiction. Cameron was released from prison and doing well. He was working, writing his new memoir and just enjoying his life after serving 7 years hard time for a drug sale. Then his world almost fell apart just three months later.

The 38 year old Cameron was asked to give urine during a random drug test conducted in April. The results were positive for marijuana.

I remember when the exact thing happened to me when I was on parole after serving 15 years to life for a non-violent drug crime in NYS. My parole office called and left a message and asked me to give her a urine sample. I panicked! I knew I was dirty. In my new memoir “This Side of Freedom: Life after Clemency I detail my feelings:

“Oh my God,” I cried, as I fell to my knees. I screamed to the ceiling. “Please God, please, don’t let me go back! I knew my urine was dirty and I would fail that test. An all-consuming feeling of doom blanketed my being. I totally freaked out. My heart began beating wildly and I prayed that I would not return to prison. I had heard that the majority of prison admissions came not from arrests for new crimes, but from probation and parole violations, like dirty urine tests. Nationwide, roughly two-thirds of parolees fail to complete parole successfully and returned to prison. I did not want to be one of them.”

According to the NY Post after Cameron Douglas tested positive for pot his probation officer gave him a break and did not send Cameron back to prison. He told the judge that relapse was an acceptable part of rehabilitation and said that “We would like to provide Mr. Douglas an opportunity to be in the community to see how he responds to setbacks, according to court transcripts.

The NY Daily News reports that Cameron tried to manipulate the urine test several times. I don’t know the facts of this. But I know for sure that one would try almost anything not to violate their parole. One old trick used by people who are dirty when trying to beat drug testing is to use someone’s clean urine. In fact you can purchase clean urine on line. In its advertisement of Clear Urine its website declared “Be sure you’re in the clear. Call 877-REAL-PEE and place your order for a frozen or dehydrated kit.” The website does have a disclaimer that says:

* THESE PRODUCTS ARE NOT INTENDED TO VIOLATE ANY FEDERAL, STATE, OR LOCAL LAWS. PRODUCTS AVAILABLE THROUGH THIS WEBSITE ARE NOT TO BE USED FOR ANY ILLEGAL PURPOSES,

INCLUDING USE FOR LAWFULLY ADMINISTERED DRUG TESTS. THE PRODUCTS AVAILABLE THROUGH THIS WEBSITE ARE TO BE USED AS A CONTROL SAMPLE WHEN CONDUCTING PRIVATE AT HOME TESTS.

Cameron was ordered to wear a sweat patch that was designed to detect drug use. He also was attending a drug treatment program which included Narcotic and Alcohol meetings. So why you might ask made him slip and smoke some herb? His lawyer Benjamin Brafman, told the court that Cameron was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder related to his time served in prison, and that he is seeing a psychiatrist to deal with it. While in court his lawyer took the opportunity to ask his judge to allow Cameron to visit his famous grandfather legionary actor Kirk Douglas who lives in California and is 100 years old. He has not seen him in over eight years.

Whatever the reason he slipped, I support Cameron, as I have in the past writing 14 op-eds that defended him always saying he needed treatment not prison. When his father Michael was not allowed to visit his son I started a petition on Change.org to help him see Cameron.It generated thousands of emails to then Attorney General Holder and the warden of the gulag that kept Cameron a prisoner. The petition worked and generated tremendous publicity in support of Douglas to see his only son. Soon after Michael was allowed to visit Cameron.

I pray for Cameron and support him and hope that he continues to be free to live a fruitful and productive life.

 

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Mexico Just Legalized Medical Pot Nationwide, Leaving America in the Dust

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 11:07
One year after Mexican President Peña Nieto began speaking out and criticizing the global drug policy, Mexico embraces therapeutic cannnabis.

As a growing number of individual states in the U.S. stand up to the federal government on marijuana prohibition, Mexico legalized medical marijuana nationwide on Monday.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto issued a decree, following the bill’s overwhelming approval from Mexico’s Senate in December, with a vote of 98-7, and from Mexico’s Lower House of Congress in April, with a vote of 374-7 vote.

“The ruling eliminates the prohibition and criminalization of acts related to the medicinal use of marijuana and its scientific research, and those relating to the production and distribution of the plant for these purposes.”

The decree stated that the nation’s Ministry of Health would be in charge of “public policies regulating the medicinal use of pharmacological derivatives of cannabis sativa, indica and Americana or marijuana, including tetrahydrocannabinol, its isomers and stereochemical variants, as well as how to regulate the research and national production of them.”

 The measure was also applauded by Mexico’s Secretary of Health, Dr. José Narro Robles. “I welcome the approval of the therapeutic use of cannabis in Mexico,” he wrote on Twitter.

While Peña Nieto was once a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization, he appears to have changed his tune, following a nationwide public debate on legalization in early 2016. He is now encouraging the U.S. to follow Mexico’s lead.

During a speech at the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Sessions, Peña Nieto called for a change in global drug policy, and said he believes drug use should be viewed as a “public health problem,” and users should not face criminal charges.

“So far, the solutions [to control drugs and crime] implemented by the international community have been frankly insufficient,” Peña Nieto said. “We must move beyond prohibition to effective prevention.”

Peña Nieto introduced a measure in April 2016 that would have decriminalized the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis. It would have also freed anyone who was on trial, or serving time for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. The bill was stalled in Congress.

“We Mexicans know all too well the range and the defects of prohibitionist and punitive policies, and of the so-called war on drugs that has prevailed for 40 years. Our country has suffered, as few have, the ill effects of organized crime tied to drug trafficking. Fortunately, a new consensus is gradually emerging worldwide in favor of reforming drug policies. A growing number of countries are strenuously combating criminals, but instead of criminalizing consumers, they offer them alternatives and opportunities.”

As The Free Thought Project reported, Grace Elizalde, an 8-year-old girl with epilepsy, became Mexico’s first legally recognized medical marijuana patient in September 2015. Her family said they sought out the treatment, after their daughter began suffering from up to 400 seizures in a single day.

Mexico’s decision to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, accompanied with Peña Nieto’s newfound support for a change in global drug policy, serve as a reminder that after nearly 50 years of battling a failed “War on Drugs,” the U.S. federal government is still refusing to acknowledge the real answer to the problem.

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Could Weed Be Used to Treat Period Pain?

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 10:29
New York legislators are about to approve marijuana to treat period pain. The evidence is unclear, but that doesn’t mean the drug can be ruled out.

According to reports this week, marijuana is about to be approved to treat period pains by legislators in New York. Cannabis is already allowed for medicinal use in 29 American states for a variety of conditions such as cancer, HIV or Aids, severe nausea, seizures and persistent muscle spasms (for example with people who have multiple sclerosis). Could period pains really be joining that list, and is there any evidence that it works?

Solution

It is certainly clearly stated in bill number A582: “Medical marijuana can alleviate many of the painful effects of dysmenorrhea.” The bill also states that “Not only will this improve women’s wellbeing and productivity during menstruation, but it will advance New York State in one of the country’s fastest growing industries.” So cannabis will help women, and industry too. It’s win win.

Green dreams: the growing case for medical marijuana Read more

Except that Dr Penny Whiting, the lead author of a large systematic review in Jama on the medicinal uses of cannabinoids confirms my suspicion that there is no research showing that cannabis relieves period pains – though she points out that because of the lack of research, there’s also no evidence it doesn’t work ... Her review found moderate evidence that cannabinoids work for chronic pain and spasticity (severe cramps such as in multiple sclerosis) and “low quality evidence” that it relieves nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy and sleep disorders. Another review published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found similar results.

Period cramps are caused by the release of prostaglandins that trigger muscle cramps in the uterus. These cramps reduce the blood supply to the uterus and cause painful spasms. There’s not much in the medical armory to help dysmenorrhea. There are oral contraceptives that stop ovulation and therefore prostaglandin production, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (that inhibit prostaglandins being made) or paracetamol. Meanwhile, in Colorado and California women can use ‘marijuana tampons’ made by Foria – which smell of cookie dough. The tampons combine two active ingredients from cannabis – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The cells lining the vaginal wall absorb the cannabinoids and may block the nerves from carrying pain signals to the brain. Local absorption is also meant to reduce any psychoactive high from the drug.

There’s anecdotal evidence from women that these cannabis tampons work within 20 minutes. However, they are not available legally in the UK. And like any drug, cannabinoids can have side effects. Writing in the BMJ, Dr Giles Newton-Howes, of the University of Otago in New Zealand argued the case for making it easier to conduct trials for the use of cannabis at medicine. He says that we can only speculate on their usefulness for dysmenorrhea. But it is welcome speculation at that.

 

Dr Luisa Dillner is a writer and doctor, and heads BMJ Group Research and Development.

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Is Big Alcohol Taking a Hit From Legal Weed?

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 01:47
Click here for reuse options! According to one survey, 20 percent of Gen Xers and eight percent of boomers are making the switch from alcohol to pot.

The legal weed market appears to be impacting booze’s bottom line.

Consumer trend data compiled by OutCo and Monocle Research finds that many California twenty-somethings, post-legalization, are switching from beer to pot. Marketers surveyed 2,000 cannabis consumers in seven major California cities. One-third of millennial respondents said that they are choosing cannabis over beer. One out of five acknowledged substituting weed for wine, and 14 percent admitted consuming herb rather than hard alcohol.

Older respondents, including baby boomers, also reported making the switch from booze to pot. According to the survey, 20 percent of Gen Xers and eight percent of boomers similarly acknowledged substituting pot in place of alcohol.

The findings provide further credence to a December 2016 report from the Cowan & Company research firm which determined that beer sales by major distributors – including Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors – have “collectively underperformed” over the past two years in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. In Denver, arguably the epicenter for the marijuana retail sales market, beer sales have fallen nearly seven percent, analysists concluded.

A March 2017 research report by the Cannabiz Consumer Group similarly indicates that cannabis is cutting in on beer’s popularity. Researchers reported that 27 percent drinkers surveyed said that they had either substituted cannabis for beer, or that they would do so in the future if retail weed sales become legal. The company estimated that beer sales could decline by as much as $2 billion if cannabis was legal nationwide.

Questions concerning whether cannabis typically acts as a substitute or as a complement to alcohol remain ongoing. But a 2014 literature review published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism indicates that the weight of the available evidence supports the former theory – particularly among young adults. Authors concluded: “While more research and improved study designs are needed to better identify the extent and impact of cannabis substitution on those affected by AUD (alcohol use disorder), cannabis does appear to be a potential substitute for alcohol. Perhaps more importantly, cannabis is both safer and potentially less addictive than benzodiazepines and other pharmaceuticals that have been evaluated as substitutes for alcohol.”

Survey data from states where medical cannabis has long been legally available frequently report declines in alcohol consumption. For instance, a 2011 patient survey from California reported that those qualified to access medicinal cannabis used alcohol at rates that were “significantly lower” than those of the general public. More recently, a study published this year in the Journal of Psychopharmacology reported that over 40 percent of state-registered medical marijuana patients acknowledged reducing their alcohol intake after initiating cannabis therapy.

Polling data finds that most Americans, and those between the ages 18 to 40 in particular, now believe that cannabis is far less harmful to health than alcohol. Their belief is supported by the relevant science. For example, alcohol possesses a dependence liability that is nearly twice that of cannabis, is a far greater contributor to traffic accidents, and is capable of causing organ failure and even death by overdose. According to a 2011 study comparing the physical, psychological, and social impact of the two substances: “A direct comparison of alcohol and cannabis showed that alcohol was considered to be more than twice as harmful as cannabis to [individual] users, and five times more harmful as cannabis to others (society). … As there are few areas of harm that each drug can produce where cannabis scores more [dangerous to health] than alcohol, we suggest that even if there were no legal impediment to cannabis use, it would be unlikely to be more harmful than alcohol.”

The fact that the legal marijuana market may pose potential challenges for the alcohol beverage industry is hardly going unnoticed. The topic was front and center at the 2016 Beer Industry Summit, according to reports from attendees. And last year, industry players contributed funds against voter-initiated legalization measures in Arizona and Massachusetts. (The Massachusetts initiative passed while the Arizona measure was defeated.)

Yet, given the ubiquitous role alcohol plays in American culture, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the emerging legal marijuana market presents a serious threat to Big Booze any time soon. After all, while federal lawmakers have endorsed Congressional resolutions “commending” US beer sales, they simultaneously refuse to amend federal law to even permit marijuana businesses to have relationships with banks or take standard payroll deductions. In short, as long as booze remains king on Capitol Hill, the cannabis industry will continue be engaged in an uphill battle for both respectability and market share.

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Giving People a Second Chance with California's Marijuana Legalization Law

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 12:23
64 is retroactively reducing or eliminating people's records and changing their lives.

I am what you call a policy wonk. I work to end the war on drugs and dismantle the criminal justice system through polices based on health and human rights. The best days in this work are when you pass a policy or law. It’s a feeling that reignites your passion for this work that can often be spiritually draining. For me, though, there is no greater joy than witnessing that policy save and change lives.

In 2011, my friends and I turned 21. We were excited about finally being able to go into bars, traveling, and all the wonders of finally being 21. This was an exceptional year for all my friends – except my friend Vincent. Shortly after his 21st birthday, Vincent was arrested for possession with intent to sell marijuana because it was packaged in a certain way.

At the time of his arrest, his offense was considered a felony and the penalties were very punitive. He was ultimately convicted and sentenced to serve time in LA County’s Men’s Central Jail, and placed on three years’ probation.

After being released, Vincent tried his best to reenter society and obtain meaningful employment, but was met by barriers that were nearly impossible to overcome. He earned certificates in solar panel insulation and design, but was unable to work in the field because of his marijuana conviction. That conviction prevented him from getting meaningful employment leaving him unable to support himself.

Unable to earn enough to pay for his probation fees, housing and food, Vincent ended up homeless, hungry, and barely surviving. Because he could no longer afford to pay for his probation fees he stopped checking in, causing a warrant to be issued for his arrest. For years, he lived with this warrant on his back driving him to, as he called it, “live under a rock.”

Yesterday, I witnessed his life change because of a policy that I helped pass, Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act.

Prop. 64 legalized the possession, transport, purchase, consumption and sharing of up to an ounce of marijuana flower and up to eight grams of marijuana concentrate for adults 21 and over. Moreover, Individuals with prior marijuana convictions on their criminal record can apply to the court where they were convicted to have prior marijuana conviction(s) designated as a misdemeanor, infraction, or have it dismissed, no matter how old the conviction(s), at little to no cost.

In the state of California, there are 4,800 barriers that exist for someone who has a felony on their criminal record. Close to a million people in California qualify for Prop. 64 relief. As of March 30, 2017, 2,515 Californians have applied or petitioned the courts to have their marijuana convictions reduced or dismissed off their criminal records, and hundreds have been released from county jails across the state.

By reducing and removing these offenses from people’s records, Prop. 64 removes thousands of barriers that prevent people from reentering society after incarceration, obtaining employment, and getting a second shot at life.

For the past six years, my friend Vincent lived in what he called a “hole.” The trauma of incarceration and homelessness made Vincent distrustful of everyone, including people close to him. It took me months of conversation to convince Vincent to go to court. After several more calls and messages, I was able to convince him to go to court and apply for Prop. 64 relief.  Within minutes of being in front of a judge, Vincent no longer had a felony on his record and had his probation terminated.

After having his marijuana felony reduced Vincent said, “When I heard the judge say that I was okay, and then walking out free felt like a dream. It felt like it really didn't happen, but it did. It was surprising to know that there's actually a chance for people like me to get a second chance to succeed and continue with they were doing before the conviction, like having a life.”

He is excited about the opportunity to work in the solar panel field, getting housing, and enjoying life. The opportunities for him are endless now.  Vincent will apply to get his marijuana case expunged in July, erasing the scarlet letter society places on those who are impacted by the criminal justice system. 

Prop. 64 gave my friend a second chance at life.

For more information on how to reduce or remove your marijuana offense please visit www.myprop64.org.

This piece first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog

 

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She Was the Town's Leading Heroin Dealer. She Was 19 Years Old

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 10:23
In West Virginia, a young woman and a privileged physician lived very different lives. But they shared a crushing addiction.

Breanne McUlty knew about Dr Rajan Masih long before she met him.

McUlty was still a teenager, hooked on whiskey and methamphetamine and soon to be dealing heroin, when she first heard about the doctor. Masih was a respected, prosperous family man running a hospital emergency room.

But McUlty knew from those of her friends who preferred to get high on painkillers – effectively heroin in a legal pill – that Masih was the go-to doctor for illicit opioid prescriptions in Grant County, West Virginia.

“Everybody knew him as pretty much the top drug dealer around here,” said McUlty “Maybe he got greedy. Everybody makes mistakes just like I did. He’s a decent person now, trying to make up for it.”

But Masih was more than a dealer. The doctor was also hooked on the pills he was feeding to other opioid addicts.

The lives of the privileged physician and the young woman whose upbringing set her on the path to addiction and selling hard drugs while she was still a child eventually crossed after each was freed from years in prison. They shared a parole officer who drug tested them, and approved where they lived and worked. They also shared a belief that incarceration saved them from early deaths.

“Arrest was the best thing that could have happened to me because I could not and I would not stop,” said Masih. “It was a downward spiral and I would have died.”

McUlty was 25 when she finally returned to her home town of Petersburg, the capital of Grant County, two years ago. Masih was 51 when he was released a few months earlier, stripped of his licence to practice medicine and with little idea what his future held in the struggling rural town of about 2,500 people.

Freedom from prison and drugs gave the two former inmates clearer perspectives on the epidemic that has hit their state harder than any other. It has by far the highest overdose death rate in the country at double the national average. Opioids kill more West Virginians than guns and car accidents combined.

The crisis reaches across generations, from former coal miners to students, although doctors increasingly notice a trend among the young to go straight to heroin whereas many older people come at it through prescription opioids.

In their own ways, McUlty and Masih determined to do what they could to combat the epidemic they contributed to. But they have been daunted by the scale of the challenge.

“I came home from prison thinking I was going to make a difference. I’m going to help all these people,” said McUlty. “Because I’m different now they’re going to see that they can be different too. It was a slap in the face when everybody was: ‘Screw you. You think you’re better than us now’. I think everybody accepted their fate. Nobody really wants help. The people I really want to get to, they just turn their heads. They say: ‘I’m not that bad off. I can stop when I want to stop’.”

‘I just wanted to be free’

Masih, who was born in Chicago and is married to a former police officer, was working as an emergency room doctor a decade ago when he crashed a racing car and hurt his back. He self-medicated with samples of an opioid painkiller, hydrocodone.

“It was unbelievable. Not only did it take my pain away but I immediately felt this is amazing. I like my job. I like talking to people. I’m not irritated and angry with patients all the time,” he said.

When the samples ran dry, Masih wrote fake prescriptions in the names of his mother, wife and children.

“After a few months I crossed that line where if I don’t have pills every four to six hours I’m in withdrawal. I have no energy. Everything hurts. I can’t think straight. Just getting more pills would immediately bring me back to my new normal,” he said.

Masih was well aware of the danger of addiction and conducted ultrasounds on his own liver to check for damage. But he kept taking the pills even as they left him ever more physically and emotionally detached from his family of five children.

“I wanted my life back. I’d look at people sitting on their porch, playing with their kids. Here I am obsessed with getting my next pills and staving off withdrawal. I was caught in this trap. I just wanted to be free,” he said.

By then, Masih had gone from addict to dealer in a state with the highest demand for prescription opioids in the country. Rogue doctors across West Virginia were prescribing dangerous quantities of pills to just about anyone who paid cash. In some parts of the state, doctors ran “pill mills” that did nothing but issue prescriptions for opioids, making millions of dollars.

Drug companies were pouring opioids into West Virginia, delivering 780m painkillers into a state of just 1.8m people over a five year period to 2012, according to an investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Demand grew in part out of the physical toll of coal mining. Miners long used moonshine, marijuana and prescription pills to cope with the stresses and pain of work underground. But there had never been anything like the hydrocodone and oxycodone flooding onto the market in the 1990s. They were so effective and easy to get that miners often passed them out among themselves. Few were told how addictive these drugs were.

Before long, opioids were so widely prescribed doctors noted rising addiction among people who had taken them to deal with relatively minor conditions such as broken bones. The drugs were in so many bathroom cabinets that word spread among young people looking to experiment that opioids provided a powerful high. The pills began to displace meth amphetamine which had long been used as inoculation against the struggles of life in marginalised communities.

“Drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, they treat all kinds of pain,” said Masih. “The pain of being a single mom looking after a kid. The pain of that person who doesn’t have a job. The pain of, I’m 20 years old, nobody cares. The pain of being bullied. The pain of I’m gay. It treats all of those pains. It’s less about physical pain. It’s more about this social angst of there are no jobs. The economy’s crushed. This is a state that’s been marginalised in so many ways. Drugs are a solution to that.”

Opioids proved by far the most deadly.

Things fall apart

By the time Masih sank into addiction, McUlty was dealing in drugs even though she was barely in her teens.

She remembers her father using cocaine and meth amphetamine, and drinking heavily. Then he branched into prescription opioids. “He couldn’t get out of bed without them,” she said.

Eventually the abuse to his body put him in hospital in a coma.

Her mother left, taking her younger sister. McUlty describes struggling to find food in the house but said there was a steady stream of users and dealers passing through.

Drugs were so much part of the daily routine that when someone asked the 15 year-old to sell a bit of morphine it seemed a natural thing to do. Before long she was dealing regularly. By then, McUlty was also regularly drinking liquor.

McUlty’s father confirmed her description of his dependence on drugs and alcohol, and the part it played in pushing his daughter along the path of dealing and addiction. Although Petersburg is a small town, she managed to avoid arrest for drugs but was convicted of stealing a pair of shoes. She was also expelled from school for disruption.

At 16 she was pregnant. By then McUlty was homeless. “I was on probation. Some anonymous call said I was pregnant and I was walking the streets. Sometimes I was barefoot and looked helpless I guess. My dad was driving by one day and saw me and said ‘You’ve got a court order’ and gave me the papers,” she said.

The court made McUlty agree to move into a shelter for teenage mothers but she soon fled to Maryland where her daughter was born. Then she returned to Petersburg and slipped back into the old routine. “I really didn’t think there was a different way. I thought it was always going to be like that,” she said.

For a while, the important thing for McUlty was to hang on to her daughter and she got back together with her daughter’s father. But things quickly began to unravel. Her boyfriend was a heavy drug user and they fought a lot. McUlty moved in with her grandparents but was desperate for money so she started selling crystal meth.

She went to a party and woke in a cupboard with no memory of the previous few hours but certain she had been raped. It never occurred to her to call the police. Instead she fell back on crystal meth.

“It gives you a lot of energy but after a while your mental health starts floating away. You get really really thin. It eats away at your teeth. It messes with your brain. You start imagining things. Hallucinating. You hate it but can’t stop,” she said.

Salvation for Masih came from a pharmacist who called the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) with suspicions about his prescribing. Armed DEA agents arrested him at the emergency room.

“They asked me questions about an individual who overdosed on medications I prescribed. This individual died. They asked me: ‘Did you write these prescriptions?’. I said: ‘Yes I did’,” he said.

A DEA agent testified that of the 16 people who died from opioid overdoses in the area in the two years before Masih’s arrest, three were his patients. Masih prescribed one of them hundreds of opioid pills, far above recommended dosages, immediately before the man’s death. He also prescribed the fentanyl patches that killed a woman.

Masih faced 136 charges but reached a plea deal admitting a single count of illegally supplying opioids to a patient he knew to be injecting them. The doctor was jailed for four years and lost his medical licence.

“I think I got a very fair deal out of the whole thing,” he said. “I 100% accept responsibility for what happened to me.”

Many in Petersburg speak highly of Masih. Hundreds of people signed an online petition praising him as a doctor and calling for his release. Others are more sceptical, including the county sheriff who regards Masih as guilty of more than he was convicted of but said the former doctor turned his life around and is respected in the town.

Masih says he prescribed “recklessly” but not intentionally.

“Recklessly to me means my barometer is off because I just took six hydrocodone and obviously this is not a sane decision making process,” he said.

Does he feel responsibility for the deaths?

“I don’t. I realise that many people became addicted to drugs or dependent on drugs as a result of me. I believe that people may have overdosed on medications that I prescribed. But these were people who already had been on narcotics for years through other doctors. I basically continued to do what their physicians had prescribed for them,” he said.

‘Pure souls turn black’

By the time Masih went to prison in 2010, the authorities were finally responding to the epidemic and cracking down on pill mills. That drove up prices on the black market and cheap heroin filled the undiminished demand.

McUlty did not miss the opportunity. She hooked up with Mexican dealers in Columbus, Ohio, a five hour drive west. She turned a 3.5g “eight ball” of heroin for $600 into several thousand dollars worth of individual hits on the street in Petersburg.

“It was very easy. I had mules go to Ohio with me. They would use condoms to hide it. Put it inside themselves. We would give addicts money and some of the drugs to take us. They’d do anything,” she said. “There is just so much money to be made in West Virginia, it’s kind of hard to walk away once you get the hang of it.”

Before long, McUlty reckons she was the leading heroin supplier in Petersburg. She was 19 years old.

By then, McUlty had little contact with her daughter. If she had a family at all, she reckoned it was the Mexican dealers in Ohio. At the same time she was still using crystal meth.

“I was losing my mind, going crazy on it. I was watching the people I was selling meth to waste away and knew that would happen to me,” she said. “Addiction brings out the worst in people. Pure souls turn black. Even with the nicest person, the happiest person. They end up robbing and stealing. Hurting people.”

The end came when the police stopped a car she was travelling in and found a meth lab.

“We all went down because everybody was saying: ‘It’s not mine’,” she said. “One guy actually had business cards saying: ‘Can’t get up and go?’ with a picture of crystal meth on the card.”

A few months later, McUlty learned that another woman in the car was cooperating with the police. McUlty wrote her letters from jail warning that she would get killed and threatening to burn the woman’s house down.

“I guess if I’d had the chance, as mad as I was, I probably would have done something. But I don’t know if I would have burnt their house down,” she said.

McUlty was jailed for four years.

“Federal prison saved me. This was my way out. I grew up in prison,” she said.

For the first time in years, contact with daughter became more important than getting a fix or doing a deal.

“I wrote her every single day. I wrote her poems. I drew her pictures,” she said.

But McUlty did not see her daughter. Her grandmother, who was caring for the child, cut off contact. The young mother found missing her daughter the toughest thing about incarceration.

Prison helped Masih realise the scale of the epidemic. The former physician got an education from other inmates on the web of deception used by addicts to “doctor shop” in search of prescriptions using fake ID’s of changing one letter of a surname to bypass prescription monitoring programmes. Women used maiden and married names to double up on prescriptions. Artificial urine pumped through false penises to pass drug tests.

But it was the dealers who were most organised. They shuttled groups of hard up elderly people to the doctor for opioid prescriptions, paying them a few hundred dollars for half of the pills. And they brought buyers in from out of state by the bus load.

“The medical community has no idea how organised this is as you sit in your office. It was just unbelievable to me,” said Masih. “To someone who’s a diligent drug diverter, this is a business. They are able to see any number of doctors and scam them into prescriptions.”

Masih said they were not the only ones scamming. Pharmaceutical companies pushed opioid drugs designed to deal with pain caused by cancer as appropriate for less severe conditions, all with the complicity of federal medical institutions.

Today, he finds it astonishing that most of his education on treating pain came from pharmaceutical company salesman. Masih attended courses on diagnosing headaches, skin cancer and end-of-life care but said the only information he received about opioids was from a representative of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the powerful OxyContin pills at the heart of the epidemic.

The salesman, who had no medical training, arrived each week with pizza to assure Masih that claims of addiction were exaggerated and to press him to prescribe more of the drug.

“I got the bulk of my education about opioid narcotics from drug reps. They’d come in with a glossy brochure and tell us, you need to be writing this now,” he said. “It was aggressive.”

Among Purdue’s tactics, state investigators later found, were salesmen threatening to back legal action against doctors who resisted patients’ demands for OxyContin.

“I feel a tremendous sense of betrayal,” said Masih. “These companies misrepresented the research, glossed over things. That’s a travesty. These people have just profited endlessly from firing the gun off the shoulder of doctors.”

Complicity went down the line. The DEA’s investigation of Masih led to the prosecution of a local pharmacy, Judy’s Drug Store, for filling illegitimate prescriptions. It paid a $2m civil penalty to settle the case in 2014. That in turn prompted a wider investigation of a drug distributor, McKesson, for failing in its legal obligation to monitor deliveries of prescription drugs to pharmacies. McKesson paid $150m to settle the case earlier this year.

Masih emerged from prison determined to do apply the lessons he learned.

“Prison changed me. It made me have a life of gratitude. It’s given me a purpose. I want to give back. I caused a lot of damage,” he said.

Starting over

Today, Masih gives talks on ways to roll back the epidemic by changing opioid prescribing. He has patented a system to monitor prescriptions through retina scans and thumbprints to curb “doctor shopping”. He has also written two textbooks on what he learned about all the ways dealers and addicts get prescription drugs, and on substance abuse in prisons.

Masih struggled to find work as a convicted felon stripped of his medical licence but last year landed a post running an addiction recovery centre in Petersburg.

“What we are seeing is that there are those older people who started with narcotic pain pills, transitioned to heroin because it’s dirt cheap. Then there are those 18 or 20 year olds who went straight to heroin. They started smoking it. Very rapidly it evolves to injection,” he said.

What most alarms Masih is that for all the political statements about combatting the opioid epidemic, he doesn’t see any real change in the medical profession.

“Nothing has changed. Everyone’s radar is up but at the end of the day we know the number of prescriptions nationwide have increased from 2015 to 2016,” he said.

McUlty too has a better understanding of the epidemic now she is not in the midst of it.

“A lot of people I’ve talked to, they started doing drugs because of their situation. Products of their environment or something bad happened to them and they’re just trying to get over the depression. Sometimes they just look for entertainment. That’s what being American is about. I think people just live to party and don’t think about the things that really matter,” she said. “I know a lot of the people started really getting addicted to pain killers because a lot of the jobs in West Virginia you get injured a lot. A lot of labour. The doctors are just handing them out like candy. It just got worse. Their kids started using them.”

McUlty has rebuilt her life. Her daughter is living with her again. Last year she had another child, a son with her fiance who is also a recovering addict. She had trouble landing a job because of her felony conviction but eventually found work in a chicken factory, cleaning birds for $9.50 an hour.

She is part way through a photography course and is working on a film about her experiences. She is also volunteering to help refugees. Her father has fought back against addiction. He got onto medication and off the drugs. Still, the tragedy did not stop after prison. McUlty watched her brother, Bryan, die in hospital from heart disease brought on by the use of dirty needles. 

McUlty works to educate whoever will listen about drugs but says not many want to hear. She offered to give a talk to students at her former high school but the administration has yet to take her up on the offer.

“I never could get the word out. It seems like there’s more hopelessness than any one person can do anything about. I try,” she said.

She is not optimistic about Petersburg.

“You can’t trust anybody in this town. It’s a wreck. If you want to stay clean, you’ve got to stay alone,” she said. “I don’t know what can be done. I don’t think law enforcement can put a stop to it because people are always going to find a way. Even in the county jail, people were high. They smuggle it in. Pills. Weed.”

McUlty plans to leave after the summer and move to Atlanta where her fiance has transferred his job at a sanitation company.

“When I was a teenager, you’re not somebody unless you’ve got drugs in your pocket. I don’t want my kids to grow up in the same situation. I know it’s everywhere but here it’s everybody. I want to get away from that,” she said.

 

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How the DEA Triggered the Massacre of an Entire Mexican Town

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 11:42
Investigative journalists drop a bombshell about DEA complicity in the the murders of 300 people, and it barely makes a blip in the U.S. media.

The 2011 massacre carried out by the Zetas drug cartel in Allende, Mexico was a shocking reminder of the brutality of the black market, which thrives under governmental drug prohibition. The war on drugs does nothing to actually reduce drug supply or consumption, but it does keep the police state and cartels thriving, perhaps most notably the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

While stealing property from innocent people and ruining lives in the homeland, the DEA spreads its tentacles all over the world in its drug war crusade. This form of U.S. meddling, while contributing to corruption and economic sabotage in host countries, also has deadly consequences – including sparking the infamous Allende massacre.

An investigative report by ProPublica and National Geographic – barely mentioned in the mainstream media – describes how a gamble by the DEA in Mexico led to the Zetas cartel invading Allende and other towns to carry out mass murder and destruction.

“But unlike most places in Mexico that have been ravaged by the drug war, what happened in Allende didn’t have its origins in Mexico. It began in the United States, when the Drug Enforcement Administration scored an unexpected coup. An agent persuaded a high-level Zetas operative to hand over the trackable cellphone identification numbers for two of the cartel’s most wanted kingpins, Miguel Ángel Treviño and his ​brother Omar.

Then the DEA took a gamble. It shared the intelligence with a Mexican federal police unit that has long had problems with leaks — even though its members had been trained and vetted by the DEA. Almost immediately, the Treviños learned they’d been betrayed. The brothers set out to exact vengeance against the presumed snitches, their families and anyone remotely connected to them.”

Surviving residents describe how dozens of trucks with armed men descended on the town, rounding up family members for execution and burning the bodies. No mercy was shown to the young. Homes and business were demolished after being looted.

 

Despite the days-long rampage, the Zetas cartel never found the snitches they were looking for, because they were in the sheltering hands of the U.S. government as DEA informants.

While the cartel carried out the carnage, not a single policeman showed up, despite being deluged with calls about chaos and home invasions. Firefighters, responding to a blaze where bodies were being burned, were told to turn around or be killed. The mayor of one town was notified by the cartel beforehand, and did nothing to thwart the attack.

Much of the rampage occurred “within sight or earshot not only of passersby but also of government offices, police stations and military outposts.”

The gang of killers traveled 35 miles from Allende to Piedras Negras, rounding up people along the way. It’s estimated that about 300 people from 80 families were murdered.

When a 15-year-old boy, Gerardo Heath, who had nothing to do with the cartel or DEA informants was taken by the armed men, his mother called the mayor. According to the mother:

Within minutes, we called the mayor of Piedras Negras. He was at a wedding. He said that he felt terrible about what had happened to us, but there wasn’t anything he could do. Not a single police car came.

This corruption within the ranks of Mexican government – fueled by bribe money and fear of a horrible death – is, of course, well known by the DEA. The agency knew chances were high the Mexican federal police force would leak news of a Zetas snitch, identified as convicted Zetas operative Jose Vasquez, now serving a prison sentence.

The DEA boasts of having captured the Treviño brothers, but says nothing of its own culpability in the mass murder campaign. The federal agency is no stranger to threatening family members, either. When pressuring Jose Vasquez, who lived in Dallas, to reveal the cell ID numbers, agents told Vasquez they’d arrest his mother and wife unless he snitched.

There’s going to be a lot of murders that come behind this,” Vasquez insisted before finally giving in.

I got all the numbers — for [cartel leaders] 40, and 42, and all of them. I didn’t know what they were going to do with them. I thought they were going to try to wiretap them or something like that. I never thought they were going to send the numbers back to Mexico. I told them not to do that, because it was going to get a lot of people killed. Not only that, I was still there. I was still hanging around those people. They said they wouldn’t. Richard told me I had to trust him.

ProPublica interviewed Richard Martinez, the DEA agent who led the investigation resulting in the fateful intel sharing with Mexican police. According to interviews, Martinez gave the numbers to his boss, who gave them to a DEA supervisor in Mexico City, who then shared them with Mexican police.

 

Martinez, now suffering from aggressive cancer, reportedly welled with tears when asked about his role, saying in the interview:

How did I feel about the information being compromised? I’d rather not say, to be honest with you. I’d kind of like to leave it at that. I’d rather not say.

Another convicted Zetas operative named Cuellar told how the DEA admitted their primary cause in initiating the mass murder in and around Allende.

I remember my first meeting with the DEA. I was telling them what was happening in Coahuila, about all the violence. I remember Ernest [Gonzalez] getting up from the table, going outside and confronting one of the DEA bosses. He started shouting at him. He said something like, ‘Did you hear what’s going on? All this because you sent those numbers to Mexico.

The ultimate fault lies with those dark souls who carried out the atrocities, but this black market web of corruption and violence thrives because of prohibition.

Agencies like the DEA thrive on the injustice of the drug war. Criminalizing the victimless behavior of ingesting a substance, and attempting to ban that substance from existence, was first proven wrong with alcohol prohibition — yet government is repeating the same mistake with drug prohibition.

Drugs will always be available, people will always want them, and violent cartels will always persist in a black market.

We know, however, that legalization cripples cartels and improves public safety on a number of levels, including products being made in a legal free market. State-level cannabis legalization in the U.S., while tremendously boosting economies, has also hurt cartels, which have increasingly turned to heroin and other opiates.

Incidentally, the American opioid epidemic, which cartels are now preying upon, is a direct result of American Big Pharma knowingly getting the nation hooked on opioid painkillers. And this couldn’t have happened without the complicity of federal regulators who grant monopolies to drugmakers and turn a blind eye at their crimes against humanity.

As the sheer insanity of prohibition becomes ever more obvious — such as DEA’s decision to keep cannabis classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic despite its proven medical benefits — the DEA is exposed as nothing more than a protection racket for legal drugs and pharmaceuticals. There are strong calls in Congress to examine the DEA’s deliberate slowing of investigations into opioid drugmakers.

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, recently told an audience that expelling the DEA from Bolivia was one of the best things the country could have done for itself, allowing it to recover economic and political sovereignty.

The United States used the war on drugs in order to control the country’s politics and loot our natural resources,” Morales said bluntly.

The DEA and other agencies involved in the drug war are not unlike the cartels they help create – stealing cash and property from innocent people, killing people during raids and confrontations, threatening family members of targets, and so on. Now we know they bear some responsibility for the Allende massacre, and possibly other atrocities carried out as the black market continues to evolve under the war on drugs.

 

 

 

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