Wednesday, November 24, 2010

DEA moves to ban synthetic cannabinoids sold as "K2" and "Spice"

DEA announced it is going to ban 5 synthetic cannabinoids using emergency powers Congress granted in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 (21 U.S.C. 811(h)). (Yes, I handled this legislation.)

Does the government have any scientific burden of proof to demonstrate danger or harmfulness before it bans a product?

What, exactly, is the evidence that these synthetic cannabinoids are harmful? There are news reports that some poison control centers report that they have had telephone calls from persons saying that they are having some kind of reaction to ingesting something that they report to be K2 or Spice. Of course, the callers have no certainty about what they in fact have ingested. These are completely unverified anecdotes by persons who are in fear.

Considering that K2 and Spice are legal and cannabis is illegal, some persons may be selling cannabis claiming it is K2 or Spice to minimize their risk of arrest, and the demand is probably higher since buyers will believe what they have acquired is not contraband and won’t get them into trouble. An unethical drug seller may be selling Cannabis as K2 or Spice to maximize profit.

Considering that a feature of K2 and Spice is that they supposedly are not detected in the usual drug screens of probation departments or the military, K2 and Spice are much more valuable to many customers that cannabis. Again, an unethical drug seller may be selling Cannabis as K2 or Spice to maximize profit. Of course this lack of routine and inexpensive detectability really annoys drug court judges, probation officers, etc.

Someone may have a joint or pipe passed to them and told it is K2 or Spice, but it may actually be Cannabis.

It is entirely plausible that some or many of those who are calling poison control centers with reports of adverse reactions are reporting reactions to strong forms of Cannabis. After all, the government says there are thousands of reports of adverse reactions to very potent forms of cannabis every year, and certainly some of those result in calls to poison control centers.

To summarize, the government is attempting to ban a legal substance on the basis of unsubstantiated second hand claims that unidentified materials are causing unspecified and unquantified harms.

It may be the K2 or Spice are causing problems, but the government has not offered any legitimate scientific evidence that this is the case.

Anyone who has picked up High Times over the past 25 years or so, has encountered ads for “legal highs.” Most readers assumed that these ads are bogus rip offs. Many people have also assumed that K2 and Spice were equally bogus rip offs. DEA’s action today will establish K2 and Spice as drugs that people can get high on. The ban is being reported from The Wall Street Journal to WTOP radio.

DEA has no evidence that K2 or Spice is harmful, but state legislators are passing bans based on unverified anecdotes. DEA is being embarrassed by questions about why it has not banned them.

DEA’s ban is being conducted in manner that is almost exactly like the situation in 1985 when DEA banned MDMA on a temporary basis. Then, instead of following the scientifically based administrative process for determining appropriate scheduling (21 U.S.C. 811 (a) - (c)), DEA used its power to ban a chemical on a temporary basis. At that time, DEA’s action took an almost completely unknown compound, used in a very small subculture, and through its press releases and banning transformed it into a global brand, ecstasy! Instead of following the advice of doctors and scientists and scheduling MDMA as a medicinal compound, DEA’s emergency scheduling on schedule I glorified the potency of MDMA. DEA is shamefully, once again advancing its institutional agenda at the expense of public safety and due process of law.

Penn State Professor Michael Kenney explained this dynamic succinctly in his excellent book, From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation. In describing the way in which the drug bureaucracy makes sense of the intelligence that it gathers, Kenney explains,

“Prosecutors construct plausible narratives of criminal activity that satisfy the evidentiary standards of trial law procedure, convince jurors to convict defendants, and secure additional resources to continue their efforts. Policymakers create memorable narratives of organized criminality that capture the public interest, build support for bureaucratic and legislative agendas, and communicates messages laced with political symbolism that the United States is fighting, and ultimately winning, a war against drugs.”

DEA could not figure out a strategy to control K2 or Spice, and fell back on their traditional failed strategy. Sadly, this is the completely expected reaction of a bureaucracy like DEA. This action is another example of why Michelle Leonhart is not clever enough to be a modern, effective Administrator of DEA.

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Monday, November 08, 2010

Drug Policy Goal? "Managing" the problem.

With the the bloodletting of the drug prohibition business and cartel-government wars in Mexico, Newsweek looked back on the "never-ending drug war" on October 29, 2010. It noted the futility from the "balloon effect" of drug supply enforcement against as a means to control drug availability in the U.S.

After reciting the latest facts that document the well known problems of the continuing production of drugs in Latin America and the Carribean, however, they noted what may be the signs of a realistic policy:

Over the past 18 months there has been an unprecedented shift among U.S. policymakers away from focusing on mostly drugs in one country or another to a comprehensive, regionwide strategy to strengthen law enforcement, the judiciary, and prison systems. “You’ll always have drug smuggling in this world,” a senior State Department official told NEWSWEEK. “The question is how do you make that manageable so it doesn’t threaten the state?”
Make the problem manageable. Yes! At last we may becoming clearer about establishing the rule of law as a goal independent of simply "warring" on drugs.

On September 30, 1989, Law Enforcement News published my op-ed, "Harm management, not drug- free nation, should become USA's anti-drug objective." This was not an appeal for "harm reduction" public health policies, but to re-conceptualize what we were doing about all aspects of drugs to shrink organized crime, reduce user-related street crime, and protect kids in a half dozen ways. "We need to approach this issue as managers, not moralists," I wrote.

On April 13, 1991, I addressed the Board of Governors of the Colorado Bar Association. My remarks were titled, "What Should We Do About Drugs? Manage the Problem Through Legalization." They were reprinted in Vital Speeches of the Day on August 1, 1991. I called my program "comprehensive intoxication management," and set forth Ten Principles Of Intoxication Management.

This paper was expanded for the May 15, 1995, Atlanta conference, "Cities Against Drugs." [Aside: That conference was sponsored and hosted by Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, then posturing as an anti-drug zealot. In October 2008, Campbell was released from Federal prison after serving 26 months for felony tax evasion.]

The concepts were further developed in the concluding section of my paper "The Sentencing Boomerang: Drug Prohibition Politics and Reform" (40 Villanova Law Review 383-427 (1995)), for the Villanova Law Review Symposium in 1995, "The Sentencing Controversy: Punishment and Policy in the War Against Drugs." The section, beginning on p. 415 was called "The Foundations of a Realistic Drug Strategy: Twelve Principles for Managing the Drug Problem."

It is very pleasing that after so many years of trying to establish a new framework for a drug policy, senior officials in the State Department are telling Newsweek (anonymously) that they recognize that management of the drug problem seems to be the way to go.

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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Contemplating the caffeine overdose death of a 23-year old man in Britain.

In my speeches about drugs, for many years, I have often started by asking the audience about caffeine as a drug. Show of hands -- how many of you have ever had a caffeine overdose? I'll ask. I'll note the symptoms: grinding teeth, nausea, and rapidly beating heart. I suggest we call the ceramic or disposable "coffee cups" that many audience members are using a type of drug paraphernalia.

I try to build self-awareness around our near-universal intention to use coffee for three typical drug-use motives: (1) for chemical stimulation before a demanding task; (2) to revive ourselves from morning sleepiness or later-in-the-day drowsiness; and (3) to avoid the common withdrawal symptom of intense headache by all of us who are genuinely addicted to caffeine. (I usually leave out the common drug effect of stimulating the bowels.)

I usually mention that psychotic episodes can be experienced by those susceptible to large doses of caffeine to illustrate that even compounds that are benign as widely used can be "dangerous" under some circumstances.

The premise I am trying to establish is that in the law-abiding, hard-working, straight society most of us are part of, we are (1) routinely exposed to potentially risky drugs, (2) familiar with those risks, having learned about them through personal experience, and (3) addicted to the drug. The conclusion I want to draw is that as a society we manage those risks through cultural norms. We typically drink caffeine deliberately for stimulation, and many of us consciously stop later in the day in order to avoid interfering with sleep. Until recently, we consumed coffee and tea in fairly standardized dosage vessels, and colas in 12 oz. bottles or cans. (The coffee and espresso craze has thrown that out.) And even though caffeine content is not stated on beverage labels, we operate on our experience and hope that the caffeine concentration is standardized in coffee, tea or soft drinks.

Nevertheless, even though our behavior in the use of caffeine reflects an understanding of it as a drug, we are not often conscious or aware that we are using it as a "drug" because the concept of "drug" is so stigmatized and caffeine use is so normal.

While considering these risks over the years, I don't think I ever thought of caffeine as potentially lethal in the overdose sense. I had never read of such a case . . . until now. reports on the death in Britain of Michael Lee Bedford who swallowed two teaspoons of pure caffeine with an energy drink. They report a toxicology estimate that this quantity of caffeine was equivalent to the amount of caffeine in 70 Red Bulls!

Of course this is a tragedy, and a preventable tragedy.

ABCNEWS also reports that there is actually little research on the effects of this compound. That should be corrected. Caffeine is not only ubiquitous in our diet -- in coffee and tea, of course, colas, but Mountain Dew(R) and other "soft drinks" -- but it is routinely offered to children.

Not surprisingly Michael's grandmother is quoted as proposing a ban! (But she may have been asked a leading question by a reporter.) Being somewhat cynical, I can imagine she may be thinking about whether she should start a foundation to ban it so that her grandson's tragic death "won't be in vain."

The old mantra is "If only one life can be saved if we ban it, it is worth it." Right? This is a little like the campaign of the Delaware family to ban Salvia because their son committed suicide after using Salvia and had no one to talk with about the intense experience he had.

In some sense this desire to ban is like the current cry to ban "Spice," "K2" or other "synthetic marijuana." We don't have any real research about its effects or dangers -- long-term or short-term; we know that "drug users" use it and that it is not detected by cheap drug tests. What happens is that some people, who may lack good advice (or lack good judgment) use it wrongly, or use something that they were told was Spice or K2, have a bad reaction to whatever they used, and call the poison control center to report that they were poisoned by "spice." No one knows if they actually used "spice" or catnip and PCP sold as "spice." But those anecdotes become, in the hands of ambitious legislators and their law enforcement allies, "evidence of the drug's harmfulness," and the flimsy justification for banning it. This abridgment of liberty, without evidence, is called foresight. If just one life is saved...

Well, perhaps Michael's grandmother or someone can parlay his death into a run for Parliament. "Ban it!" -- such a typical, knee-jerk over-reaction.

Before we decide to heed the cry to ban caffeine powder, or even "regulate caffeine," we should more fully research its effects.

We need better education about about effects, dosage, etc. but it seems that we lack the actual scientific basis for such education.

To be constructive, Michael's grandmother could push for government-funded research, or campaign to get the caffeine industry to research the effects of their products. She could push for expanded education about caffeine use.

In the interim, we could have some labeling with some kind of warning. The education doesn't have to be in school. It could be a cartoon or a rap or a video.

"Don't be a guinea pig! Medical science has not yet determined that how much caffeine you need to take to hurt yourself. Does the idea of taking at once dozens of doses of a powerful drug make sense? BTW, some research shows that taking too much caffeine doesn't lead to more alertness, but to drowsiness, so maybe you shouldn't take a lot anyway!"

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