Opinion

The Great Debate

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the middle-aged drug epidemic

 

Celebrated actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death at age 46 from an apparent heroin overdose is yet another indictment of the ongoing failure of drug war officials, interest groups, and politicians to confront the rising, decades-long epidemic of middle-aged abuse of illicit drugs, which now kills an American age 40-64 every 20 minutes.

Press reports in the wake of Hoffman’s death and recent campaigns by politicians have claimed the increase in opiate-related deaths — which include both prescription drugs like Oxycontin, and street-level drugs like heroin — is recent. Yet opiate and other illicit-drug deaths have been increasing for three decades. Although public service campaigns have long invoked “new” scourges of heroin and opiates that afflict middle-class young people, the group that most frequently dies from the most-abused drugs — street and pharmaceutical opiates — is white, middle-aged adults, not teenagers and young adults.

Over the nearly 30 years that Washington has waged an intense “war on drugs,” more than 30 million Americans have been arrested and five million have been imprisoned for drug offenses. Yet deaths from illicit drug abuse have also skyrocketed during this time. Drug abuse is now the United States’ leading cause of premature death, topping traffic accidents, guns fatalities and AIDS.

In 1980, around 2,500 Americans age 40-64 died from abusing illicit drugs; today, that number has swelled to over 25,000 per year. Drug abuse has made midlife, a frequently affluent and stable time, the period when Americans are most vulnerable to premature death. It has spawned related crises of crime, imprisonment, suicide, family breakup, and violence in local and international communities.

Yet the White House, Partnership at Drugfree.org, and major drug war and drug-legalization interests seem unable to move beyond the stereotype that modern drug abuse is just a problem of teens stealing meds from their parents’ bathrooms. They continue to focus on how to keep increasingly legal marijuana away from youngsters, a goal that is both futile and irrelevant to the real drug epidemic.

The most dangerous mistake you can make during flu season

It’s that time of year again. Flu season is upon us, marked by public health campaigns and reminders to get vaccinated.

Every year, up to 5 million people worldwide fall severely ill due to influenza (flu), resulting in about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. In the United States alone, nearly 111 million workdays are lost every season due to the flu. That equals approximately $7 billion per year in sick days and lost productivity.

Flu is a highly infectious disease that is caused by a virus. It spreads rapidly through droplets coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. It is common, unpleasant and potentially fatal. Flu vaccines provide effective, though not universal, protection against the flu.

New Zealand’s bold experiment with regulating recreational drugs

It’s been nearly a century since the United States began its experiment in prohibiting recreational drugs besides alcohol, caffeine and tobacco — and virtually no one sees the trillion dollar policy as a success. A recent study [PDF] shows that drug prices have dropped more than 80 percent in the last two decades alone; purity and availability has risen; and overall addiction and death rates haven’t been cut, despite an exponential increase in incarceration since the 1980s.

Even the hardline U.N. drug czar admitted in the annual World Narcotics Report [PDF] that “the international drug control system is floundering,” citing specifically its inability to match the speed and creativity of Internet-enabled chemists who create and distribute new legal highs like “bath salts” and “fake marijuana” faster than governments can ban them.

But one country is trying a new approach. For the first time in history, New Zealand has created a regulatory body to oversee recreational drugs. Passed by parliament this summer on a vote of 119 to 1, the legislation has already granted interim approval to over 50 products with names like “Dr. Feelgood,” “4:20,” and “Everest Tibetan Toot.”

It is time to reclassify marijuana

Recent voting in Colorado and Washington exposes a striking discrepancy in the national legal status of marijuana. Under current federal law, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, which places it in the same category as heroin, peyote, LSD and Ecstasy. To be qualified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, a drug must have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.

The clause regarding medical benefits should immediately eliminate cannabis from this schedule, because numerous studies have proven its medical effectiveness, from glaucoma to pain relief to hunger stimulation during chemotherapy and in AIDS patients. For these precise reasons, 18 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of medical marijuana: It is a viable alternative to prescription medication that can often cause side effects more detrimental than the illness they are treating. For federal law to say that cannabis has no accepted medical use is to contradict the work of many doctors, studies and the actions of many state legislatures.

As for the second clause, it is surprising that a substance commonly used without medical supervision and that has reported zero deaths under current records would be deemed unsafe when used by patients under the care of a physician. Many of the drugs classified alongside marijuana would prove to be dangerous even with such care. It borders on absurd to say that a person using cannabis is at the same risk of dying as a person injecting heroin or using methamphetamines. No side effects of marijuana suggest a person is fatally at risk while using it.

Is Burma the next Mexico?

By Federico Varese
The opinions expressed are his own.

Hillary Clinton had many “hard issues” to tackle during her recent visit to Myanmar. Yet there was no mention of one of the most, if not the most, difficult issue Burma faces: their lucrative drug trade.

Northern Burma is the home of the “Golden Triangle,” a hub for opium production and the location of hundreds of heroin and amphetamine refineries. So how do political leaders and the international community plan to tackle this problem in the event that Burma truly becomes  a democratic country?

The totalitarian regime which has ruled Burma since 1962 has been, to a point, successful in keeping the production of illicit substances under control. In 1999, Burma’s notorious military junta (which is now dissolved) started a ruthless elimination plan of opium in the Golden Triangle (the Shan State, the Wa Region and the Kachin State). The region produced one-third of the world’s opium in 1998, but that figure was down to about 5% nine years later. From 2006 to 2007, the army eradicated 8,895 acres of opium fields. A 2007 United Nations Report trumpeted that “a decade-long process of drug control is clearly paying off.”

In drug war, the beginning of the end?

MEXICO/

Between 1971, when Richard Nixon launched the war on drugs, and 2008, the latest year for which official figures are available, American law enforcement officials made more than 40 million drug arrests. That number roughly equals the population of California, or of the 33 biggest U.S. cities.

Forty million arrests speak volumes about America’s longest war, which was meant to throttle drug production at home and abroad, cut supplies across the borders, and keep people from using drugs. The marathon effort has boosted the prison industry but failed so obviously to meet its objectives that there is a growing chorus of calls for the legalization of illicit drugs.

In the United States, that brings together odd bedfellows. Libertarians in the tea party movement, for example, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of former police officers, narcotics agents, judges and prosecutors who favor legalizing all drugs, not only marijuana, the world’s most widely-used illicit drug.

Obama, American guns and Mexican mayhem

During a visit to Mexico a year ago, President Barack Obama promised he would urge the U.S. Senate to ratify an international treaty designed to curb  the flow of weapons to Latin American drug cartels. It remains just that – a promise. Prospects for ratification are virtually zero.

Top officials in the Obama administration have called the cartels, and the extreme violence tearing apart Mexican cities on the U.S. border, threats to U.S. national security. Joining 30 other countries in the Western Hemisphere in an anti-arms smuggling accord would therefore seem a perfectly sane and logical thing to do. But logic often ends where American gun ownership begins.

The treaty in question is called the Inter-American Convention Against Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials. Known as CIFTA for its Spanish acronym, it was adopted by the Organization of American States in 1997. All but four of its 35 members have ratified it. Bill Clinton signed the convention but did not get the Senate to bless it.

Drugs, terrorism and shadow banking

The trouble with moving big amounts of cash, from a criminal’s point of view, is threefold. It’s bulky, it’s heavy and it smells.

A stash of $1 million in mixed bills weighs around 100 pounds (50 kilos). Specially-trained dogs can sniff out bulk cash in a heartbeat.

All of which helps to explain why drug cartels and financiers of terrorism appear to have been making increasing use of what FBI chief Robert Mueller calls a shadow banking system.

Government negotiations in drug prices are dangerous

Peter Pitts — Peter J. Pitts is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA associate commissioner. The views expressed are his own. —

On Tuesday, House Democrats released the Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, their comprehensive health reform package. As expected, the proposal to create a brand new government insurance program designed to directly compete with private plans is getting a great deal of attention.

An important power of this “public option” has yet to receive much scrutiny, though. The secretary of Health and Human Services will be given the authority to “negotiate” prescription drug prices for the public option.

The myth of drug “re-importation”

Peter Pitts — Peter J. Pitts is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA associate commissioner. The views expressed are his own. –

On Thursday, as part of the Department of Homeland Security funding bill, the Senate voted to make us less secure by allowing Americans to purchase prescription drugs from Canada over the Internet. The measure is now headed to conference, where House and Senate lawmakers will hammer out a final piece of legislation.

When he introduced the measure to his fellow Senators, Louisiana Republican David Vitter described it as a “re-importation amendment.” And over the next few weeks, as lawmakers deliberate on this, you’re likely to hear that phrase quite a bit. Supporters of foreign drug importation believe that such wording makes this policy more palatable to the American public.

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