Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Three Journalists Worth Reading

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist for Substance.com and one of the nation’s leading neuroscience and addiction journalists. She blogs for Healthland.com, and has contributed to Time, The New York Times, Scientific American Mind, The Washington Post and many other publications. She has also published three books, including Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006).

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and Reason.com and a nationally syndicated columnist.See his reason archive here.
He also blogs about drug policy for Forbes magazine.

Quite frankly, Sullum is among the best journalists covering the war on drugs. His view of drug policy closely mirrors my own, which is a libertarian approach to drug policy (that means ending prohibition with little to no regulation of the drug markets).

While Sullum doesn't discuss addiction as much as Szalavitz, when he does occasionally turn his focus to addiction, it is often with a skeptical look at claims of addiction being a chronic brain disease  (see here for one example). His writing on this topic often reminds me of other critics of official claims of addiction as a disease like Stanton Peele and Thomas Szasz.

Sullum calls himself a conscientious objector to the war on drugs, and his writing reflects someone who has a clear understanding of the absurdities (and more than a few tragedies) that result from our drug laws.

Sullum is also the author of Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, a truly excellent book. One I own, but haven't gotten around to reviewing.

Radley Balko is a former contributing editor at Reason magazine and Reason.com. He currently blogs for the Washington Post.

Previously, Balko was a policy analyst for the Cato Institute specializing in civil liberties issues, where he published a paper on alcohol policy and a groundbreaking study on paramilitary police raids.

Balko has been covering civil liberties, focusing on issues of law, police and prosecutor abuse, and the drug war. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."

While Balko doesn't focus on drug policy as much as Sullum and Szalavitz, his coverage of the US criminal (in)justice system is unsurpassed by any other journalist I am aware of. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Nectar of God - Patrick Sky


    It's a dirty old world it'll make a man cry
    All the do-nothings live....God almighty now
    And the good people die

    When I left home my mother said son
    Go into the world...God almighty now
    But don't you go wrong

    So here I sit in a world without pain
    While the nectar of God.....God almighty now
    Flows through my veins

    Late in the evening, Early in the Fall
    The mist on Dog Mountain hangs low
    And the voice of my mother
    Rides in on the down wind
    Sayin' son,  Don't stay too long

    The green leaves of Autumn they fall from the floor
    And the inside is outside...God almighty now
    And I can't find the door

    Well you ask what's the blues, I'll tell ya if I can
    It's a ten dollar women...God almighty now
    And a five dollar man

    Got the blues in my coffee got the blues in my head
    If I die in the gutter....God almighty now
    At least I'd be dead

    I don't much like livin' but I don't wanna die
    Cuz if I was dead....God almighty now
    I'd miss gettin' high

Nectar of God--Patrick Sky

Saturday, December 28, 2013

William S Burroughs' The Junky's Christmas

I'm a couple of days late posting this, but here's William S Burroughs' The Junky's Christmas, in claymation.

The Junky's Christmas (plot summary from Wikipedia)

Penniless and withdrawing from opiates, Danny emerges from a 72-hour stay in a police holding cell. Hoping to make enough money to buy his next hit of heroin, he scours the streets looking for something to steal. After an unsuccessful attempt to break into a parked car, he discovers an unattended suitcase sitting in a doorway. He makes off with the case and takes it to an abandoned park to examine its contents. There he finds that the case contains two severed human legs. Disgusted, he discards the legs and tries to find a buyer for the suitcase. He finds a buyer who gives him three dollars but also informs him that the local heroin dealer has been arrested.

Unable to find heroin anywhere Danny decides to visit a doctor with the hopes of obtaining some morphine. When he reaches the doctor’s house he pretends to be suffering from facial neuralgia. The doctor is suspicious but gives Danny a quarter of a grain of morphine free of charge.

Drugs in pocket, Danny rents a room for two dollars. As he prepares to inject the morphine, he hears groaning coming from the next room. Distracted, he follows the sound of the groaning across the hall to find a young man suffering from kidney stones. Danny offers to call an ambulance, but soon realizes that the paramedics will not come as they believe the young man is faking illness to obtain opiates. Danny selflessly administers his morphine to the young man. The morphine immediately alleviates the young man’s pain. Danny returns to his room. All of a sudden he begins feeling the effects of heroin; it appears that his good deed has been rewarded with “the immaculate fix.” Danny nods off to sleep.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Opium Production in Afghanistan

According to a recently released report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, acreage dedicated to opium production in Afghanistan has reached an all time high. Every year the UN releases these reports, and they are a testament to the massive failure of global drug prohibition. While poppies grow almost anywhere, the illicit market is largely supplied from three areas: Afghanistan, Southeast Asia (mostly Myanmar) and Latin America (mostly Mexico and Colombia). Of these three, Afghanistan is by far the largest supplier, accounting for 85-90% of worldwide production. 

Opiates are popular worldwide, unfortunately the majority of consumers use the semi-synthetic derivative heroin instead of opium. There are still opium users and even markets, but worldwide the market for heroin (an estimated $55 billion) dwarfs the market for opium (an estimated $7-10 billion). Worldwide illicit consumption of opium is estimated to be around 5,000 tons annually, most of which is ultimately consumed as heroin.

The price of opium varies depending on the season and region. The price of opium is naturally reflective of supply and demand, it is lowest during times of harvest, and in regions that grow a lot of poppies. In 2013 the price per kg varied between $100-200, averaging around $150. Crop eradication has had a negligible impact. In 2010 bad weather in Afghanistan adversely affected crop productivity, causing a spike in prices toward the end of 2010. Ironically the increase in opium price enticed more farmers to grow poppies, contributing to the increase in acreage dedicated to opium production.

The price of opium is artificially high, yet still relatively cheap compared to the price of heroin on the streets of the United States. In a previous review of an Afghan heroin production yields of heroin from opium were reported to be 6%. Other sources indicate 10% is more usual, other papers report yields as high as 12-16%. The morphine content of the opium can vary and is probably the largest factor effecting the yield. According to the UN world drugs report, Afghan opium has a higher morphine content and requires 7kg of opium to produce 1 kg of heroin. At an average cost of $150 per kg, it costs a little over a thousand dollars worth of opium to produce a kg of heroin, or about a dollar a gram. Even using the more modest 6% yield, the final cost is only $2.50/gram. 

Graph from Brian Bennett's Truth: the Anti-Drug War
Heroin obtains almost all of its value near the end of the distribution chain, after it is smuggled into the consumer country. Within the United States, I previously reported costs of $500/gram at the retail level. Brian Bennet, using data from the ONDCP, reports somewhat lower costs around $400/gram (with per pure gram costs as low as $150 for those buying weight of 10+ grams).

Afterword, why the trade in opium should be legalized:

Production of opium is driven by the worldwide demand for opiates. Trying to eradicate the drug supply is not only pointless due to the balloon effect, but it leads to unintended consequences that violate human rights. Farmers have a right to live a life of dignity, even if their crop is used to manufacture politically disfavored intoxicants. Moreover it is futile to destroy the crops, as even if the price of opium increases four- or five- fold, the cost to produce a gram of heroin would only increase to $5-10. This is why the cost of production has almost no effect on the street price. When heroin is selling for $400 per pure gram on the streets of US cities it doesn't matter if the cost of opium goes up or down.

The "Iron Law of Prohibition" states that prohibition results in forms of the drug that are more concentrated, which is why the vast majority of the world's illicit opium is ultimately consumed as heroin. While opium is usually eaten or smoked, heroin is often injected. The high cost of heroin also increases the utility of injection use, which combined with laws criminalizing injection equipment brings along other health harms like HIV and Hep C.  

Instead of being able to order opium directly from the Afghan farmers over the internet, opiate users must purchase their drugs from black market suppliers who rely on criminal drug trafficking organizations to get the product to the markets. Opiates represent an illicit commodity worth an estimated $65 billion dollars, money which goes exclusively to criminal organizations. 

The high cost of opiates in the black market causes many people dependent on illicit opiates to fall into abject poverty. When addicts are able to access opiates at reasonable prices, prices close to the real cost of production, many are able to live relatively normal lives. If heroin was sold at $10/gram, there would be no black market. Addicts would no longer commit crimes to raise money for their habits. The "junkie" stereotype is a product of our drug laws, after prohibition the popular image of an opiate user will hopefully be different.

There are other arguments for why opium should be legalized, but preventing Afghanistan from becoming a narco-state is a powerful one. The only way to do that is to bring the drug trade into the legitimate economy, by legalizing opium.

Further Reading:

Just Say No (to Afghan Counternarcotic Efforts)
By Sam Kierstead

Record Opium Poppy Acreage Means Victory Is Just Around The Corner (As Usual)
By Jacob Sullum

Documents from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime:

The Global Heroin Market

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Opiates are not Highly Addictive

SAMHSA: National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2008

In most news stories about prescription opioids or heroin, the drugs are usually described as "highly addictive." Heroin in particular is considered among the most addictive, supposedly immensely pleasurable and causing an insatiable craving for more. And yet according to data collected by SAMHSA, only 13.4% of people who first try heroin are dependent on the drug one year later. For "non-medical" users of prescription opioids, the number is only 3.1%. Interesting, based on the SAMHSA data, marijuana is almost twice as addictive as oxycodone.

One may wonder why heroin users become dependent at a rate more than four times that of pharmaceutical opioid users. This may be explained in part due to the heroin shift, users of pharmaceutical opioids switching to heroin following the nationwide crackdown on "pill mills." Secondly heroin is so demonized that that those who use it are a self-selected population. Compared to cannabis or cocaine, there just aren't as many recreational heroin users out there (people who might get high occasionally on weekends or special occasions).

Defenders of the drug war claim that drug prohibition is the only thing holding back legions of potential addicts. The truth is that the response to opioids is highly individualized, many people experience only negative effects (nausea and headaches are common) and no euphoria.

The Prescription Painkiller Experience: Less than a Third Say They Like It
by Maia Szalavitz

Many people fear that mere exposure to prescription painkillers like Vicodin or OxyContin will set them down the road to addiction. But new research on the response to opioid medication suggests that most people don’t particularly like the experience of using the drugs — a key factor in future addiction risk.

Researchers led by Dr. Martin Angst of Stanford University studied 114 pairs of identical twins aged 18 to 70, none of whom had chronic pain or addiction. Participants received intravenous infusions of either placebo or the opioid alfentanil, a drug that is approximately 10 times stronger than heroin and is used as an anesthetic during surgery. IVs are known to be the most addictive route of drug administration.

According to the findings, published in the journal Anesthesiology, 14% of participants said they disliked the opioid experience outright. About 6% found it neither pleasant nor unpleasant and 52% had mixed feelings about it; 23% of those with mixed feelings said they disliked it more than they liked it. Less than one-third (29%) of volunteers said they liked the opioid experience unreservedly. “If you would split it up, you would say about a quarter really didn’t like it and a quarter really liked it a lot,” says Angst, a professor of anesthesia at Stanford.

Researchers study drug liking as a sign of addiction risk; not surprisingly, people do not usually become addicted to drugs they don’t like. But liking alone doesn’t necessarily lead to addiction; otherwise addiction rates would be at least double what they appear to be now: research on recreational use of heroin finds, for example, that 69% of those who try the drug are not using it at all a year later, while 13% are addicted. For prescription opioids, 57% who try the drugs non-medically aren’t using them a year later; 3% are addicted.


Meanwhile, another new study published in the journal Addiction [see results and link below- Ed] reviewed the literature on addiction risk following exposure to opioid medication for pain. The data on the subject are not very strong, the review suggests, but they do show a wide range of risk: anywhere from 0% to 24% of people treated for chronic pain or cancer pain can expect to develop a new addiction. However, the average risk found in the data is less than half a percent, meaning that the studies showing extremely high percentages represent outliers.

“We have an immense problem because we don’t understand who is at risk and under what circumstances,” says Clark in reference to the rates of prescription painkiller overdose and addiction, which have been skyrocketing in recent year.

Numerous studies have been done which look at the rate of addiction in patients treated with opioids for chronic pain. Cited below are two reviews, one done by the prestigious Cochrane Review, found that iatrogenic addiction was rare, occurring in less than 1% of the patients. A more recent review published in Addiction found an average rate of 0.5% (though some studies did have unusually high numbers, up to 24%). Both studies concluded that iatrogenic addiction was rare in patients treated for chronic pain.

The irony behind this is that there exists in the public mind two groups of people who consume opioids: "legitimate" pain patients and "illegitimate" addicts. And yet the most evidence-based treatment for opioid addiction is to prescribe an opioid, usually methadone or buprenorphine, and rarely heroin. The major difference in treatment is that the addict's access to the drug is far more restricted, and there are additional requirements involving some form of psycho-social support . The result is a massive medical bureaucracy around the dispensing of narcotics, pain clinics on one end and methadone clinics on the other. Drug testing industries profit from both systems, monitoring the patients for any use of the naughty substances (but never tobacco, which has a higher burden of disease and death than all illegal drugs combined). All of this over a substance that grows naturally from the ground and has been legally traded for most of human history!


Long-term opioid management for chronic noncancer pain
The Cochrane Library
Published Online: 20 JAN 2010
DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006605.pub2

Main results

We reviewed 26 studies with 27 treatment groups that enrolled a total of 4893 participants. Twenty five of the studies were case series or uncontrolled long-term trial continuations, the other was an RCT comparing two opioids. Opioids were administered orally (number of study treatments groups [abbreviated as "k"] = 12, n = 3040), transdermally (k = 5, n = 1628), or intrathecally (k = 10, n = 231). Many participants discontinued due to adverse effects (oral: 22.9% [95% confidence interval (CI): 15.3% to 32.8%]; transdermal: 12.1% [95% CI: 4.9% to 27.0%]; intrathecal: 8.9% [95% CI: 4.0% to 26.1%]); or insufficient pain relief (oral: 10.3% [95% CI: 7.6% to 13.9%]; intrathecal: 7.6% [95% CI: 3.7% to 14.8%]; transdermal: 5.8% [95% CI: 4.2% to 7.9%]). Signs of opioid addiction were reported in 0.27% of participants in the studies that reported that outcome. All three modes of administration were associated with clinically significant reductions in pain, but the amount of pain relief varied among studies. Findings regarding quality of life and functional status were inconclusive due to an insufficient quantity of evidence for oral administration studies and inconclusive statistical findings for transdermal and intrathecal administration studies.

Authors' conclusions

Many patients discontinue long-term opioid therapy (especially oral opioids) due to adverse events or insufficient pain relief; however, weak evidence suggests that patients who are able to continue opioids long-term experience clinically significant pain relief. Whether quality of life or functioning improves is inconclusive. Many minor adverse events (like nausea and headache) occurred, but serious adverse events, including iatrogenic opioid addiction, were rare.

Development of dependence following treatment with opioid analgesics for pain relief: a systematic review
Addiction. Volume 108, Issue 4, pages 688–698, April 2013
DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2012.04005.x


Data were extracted from 17 studies involving a total of 88 235 participants. The studies included three systematic reviews, one randomized controlled trial, eight cross-sectional studies and four uncontrolled case series. Most studies included adult patients with chronic non-malignant pain; two also included patients with cancer pain; only one included patients with a previous history of dependence. Incidence ranged from 0 to 24% (median 0.5%); prevalence ranged from 0 to 31% (median 4.5%).


The available evidence suggests that opioid analgesics for chronic pain conditions are not associated with a major risk for developing dependence.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Phoney War

It seems to me that the chief problem here is that the state has taken on the role of a ‘nanny’ and is wont to issue various stern moral commandments - even though, of course, that is not the function of a (secular) state. Politicians (whose wages are paid by us) are stuck in an outdated mindset which views psychoactive drug use as immoral and they feel obliged to promote their dislike of such behaviour (apart, that is, from alcohol use, the acceptance of which is evinced by the four subsidized bars in the House of Commons). Even the word ‘drug’ has become pejorative, at least in the UK. So as soon as you mention drugs, there are negative associations.

In thinking about all this, one is reminded of the hatred and malice once meted out to gay people. Being gay was (and still is in certain quarters) proffered as some kind of moral degradation, so much so that homosexuality was criminalized and punished. As a case in point, not many people know that the grandfather of modern computing, Alan Turing, was publicly ridiculed to the point of suicide on account of his homosexuality. So you get this finger wagging and demonization, as if the ills of the world are caused by a certain subset of the population engaging in a behaviour that the state views as immoral and improper. It is oppression pure and simple and no different in kind to, say, racist oppression. You pick some behaviour (or physical attribute in the case of race) that you are afraid of, or that unsettles you in some way, or that you do not really understand, or that you know nothing whatsoever about, and then you vilify and condemn that behaviour, you drag people in front of judges, and maybe you jail them for good measure.

This is classic subjugation, a classic power game that ends up supporting a veritable industry of oppression. Think of all the police manpower used chasing drug users, all the organized dawn raids, the court costs and extortionate lawyer fees, and the privatised prisons that profit from a sizable incarcerated population from which free labour can be drawn. And that is not to mention the vast webs of organized crime that thrive the world over on the back of drug dealing. The black market trade in illicit drugs is right up there with arms sales and oil sales.

The irony here is that prohibited drugs are referred to as ‘controlled’ drugs. Yet they are well and truly out of control. There is no control over production, no control over distribution, no taxes are paid, no educational leaflets are handed out - the situation is appalling and has been so for over forty years. And yet it rolls on and on and we still hear the cry of ‘zero tolerance to drugs!’. It is an oppressive mess.

To reiterate: the central issue is health. If you are addicted to heroin you have a health problem that needs to be treated. It's the same with any other drug addiction. If, on the other hand, you don’t have health problems and you are not hurting anyone, then there is no problem (about 90% of all drug use is considered to be non-problematic). What is totally out of order and has no place in society is unwarranted oppression and demonization. Yet this is what the war on drug users entails.

As far as I can see, the immediate decriminalization of all and any drug use is a no-brainer. Thereafter, we would need to address how best to properly control all drug manufacture and distribution away from the hands of unscrupulous armed cartels and the like. Society needs to take back control. The so-called ‘war on drugs’ is a scam, a pernicious folly that does not stand up to close scrutiny. The sooner ordinary people ‘come out’ and declare drug use to be a health issue and not a criminal issue, the better.

A Phoney War  by Simon G. Powell

Thursday, November 14, 2013