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11/26/14 7:30pm

Brain Neuron Is Linked to Nicotine Addiction



According to a new study, a neuron in the brain that is triggered by nicotine withdrawal may provide scientists with the key to understanding why individuals become addicted to cigarettes and other drugs, as well as a neurological means of ending the addiction.

The study, conducted by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is the end result of research that began five years ago in conjunction with a staff scientist at the University of Toronto. The team discovered a neuron in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, located just below the center. The VTA is responsible for producing dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the reward system that produces a sensation of pleasure. The neuron, which produced a peptide called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), was previously believed to be non-existent in the VTA.

The new research sought to discover what role these neurons play in nicotine addiction by studying brain samples from mice and rats that had a nicotine dependence equivalent to a human who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, as well as brain samples from humans. The team discovered that the CRF-producing neurons in the VTA were activated during a period of withdrawal, which underscored the idea of a connection between the reward and stress systems.

The paradoxical connection could be viewed as a “motivational system” in which the activation of the CRF-producing neurons not only keeps a person smoking by producing dopamine, but also prevents them from quitting by increasing stress levels. Senior study author Oliver George of Scripps Research commented on the ultimate goal of the study findings by saying, “If we can find a way to target those neurons in humans, maybe we can reduce the 'high' produced by the drug and reduce the withdrawal symptoms."

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By Paul Gaita


11/26/14 5:30pm

ATF Stash House Stings Come Under Fire for Racial Profiling



Since 2003, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have utilized a controversial means of taking what they describe as “violent, hardened criminals” through “stash house stings,” in which individuals with histories of drug-related crimes are lured to an alleged stash house for the purpose of stealing drugs and money, and then arrested by ATF agents.

These efforts, which have become one of the bureau’s key strategies over the past decade, have sent more than 1,000 suspected criminals to jail on conspiracy and weapon charges. But a new investigation from USA Today reveals that at least 91% of the individuals arrested in these operations were racial or ethnic minorities—a rate much higher than arrests for urban-based violent crimes or other federal robbery, drug and weapon charges—which has raised concerns about issues of profiling. The operations have already faced opposition from a number of federal and district court judges, who have overturned the arrests on the grounds of constitutional violations.

In March 2014, Federal District Court Judge Otis D. Wright II dismissed 2012 charges against two defendants due to what he described as “outrageous government conduct,” adding that the bureau was “trawling for crooks in seedy, poverty-ridden areas, all without an iota of suspicions that any particular person has committed similar conduct in the past.”

Similar charges have been challenged and new trials and investigations have been initiated in Chicago among other locations. The allegations are the latest in a series of criticisms levied against stash house stings. In 2013, the ATF reportedly used mentally disabled individuals in stings and then arrested them for the very actions they were asked to perform in those operations.

A 20-year prison term was also dropped against an alleged Las Vegas motorcycle gang member without a criminal record who was subjected to a three-year campaign by an ATF agent to participate in a fake cocaine sale. The agency has vigorously defended their actions in these cases, and in the case of the Chicago allegations, refused to comply with a judge’s order to produce information about their actions.

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By Paul Gaita


11/26/14 3:30pm

How Europe's Cocaine Habit Fuels Radical Islam in West Africa



In a recent issue of Newsweek, writer Alex Perry traces the source of Europe’s appetite for cocaine to West Africa, where the trade has infiltrated countries like Guinea-Bissau and Mali, breeding corruption and unrest.

Islamist militant organizations have also benefited from the lucrative cocaine trade as well. The Lebanese Shia militia, Hezbollah, has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from cocaine trafficking in West Africa; al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) escorts cocaine convoys across the Sahara desert.

These trans-Sahara cocaine trafficking convoys involve 15 to 22 cars traveling across the desert, according to a colonel in the Malian secret service, who told Perry that the corruption reached the very top—smugglers were in business with government officials and Malian soldiers, all the way to former President Amadou Toumani Touré.

Touré, who fled Mali to Senegal in early 2012 when faced with a rebellion spurred by a group of low-ranking officers in the army protesting corruption in the upper ranks, led a corrupt narco state that was in business with drug smugglers and, by extension, the foreign donors who funded him. Despite this, Mali was showered with special treatment—foreign aid rose 50% of the government’s budget under Touré—who is considered a symbol of democratic West African leadership.

“The same Malian government to which the West gave hundreds of millions of dollars and which the U.S. was training in counter-terrorism had been business partners with an al-Qaeda group that kidnapped and ransomed Westerners and smuggled billions of dollars of cocaine to Europe,” Perry wrote.

“By failing to connect aid with fighting crime…donors may also be fueling the sort of popular frustration that, as in Mali, leads directly to Islamic revolution.”

A few months after Touré’s departure, al-Qaeda, which happened to have a branch in northern Mali, had occupied the entire north of the country, resulting in a “de-facto al-Qaeda state the size of France” about an hour’s flight south of Europe.

“You know, this is not some small game. This is about financing terrorism on Europe’s southern border, about drug money from Guinea-Bissau and Mali being used for a bomb in London,” a Western diplomat in Guinea-Bissau told Perry, whose article explores this issue in much greater detail.

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By Victoria Kim


11/26/14 1:00pm

Problem Gamblers With Personality Disorders More Difficult to Treat



Gamblers who struggle to control their impulses often suffer from a variety of personality disorders, making their successful treatment and rehabilitation that much more difficult.

Meredith Brown of Monash University in Australia reviewed existing research to explore the link between gambling addicts and personality disorders. Her review, published in Springer’s Journal of Gambling Studies, states those addicted to gambling display traits of antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders.

While each of the aforementioned disorders can certainly add to a gambling addict’s struggle, borderline personality disorder (BPD) may be the biggest culprit for their impulsivity.

Drawing the connection between gambling addiction and personality disorders can help clinicians more accurately determine the best treatment method. For instance, those gambling addicts diagnosed with BPD could recover from their addiction by utilizing dialectical behavior therapy, a therapy with a proven track record for treating BPD.

But clinicians must first be able to recognize which gambling addicts are suffering from personality disorders before they can administer the proper treatment, and Brown believes the best way to do that is through due diligence.

“The fact that problem gambling and high levels of psychopathology often go together indicates a need to undertake routine and systematic screening and assessment of problem gamblers who sign up for treatment,” said Brown. “Because the clinical picture of people with gambling problems who also suffer from personality disorders is more complicated, their successful treatment is also more difficult.”

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By Brent McCluskey


11/26/14 10:30am

Prescription Heroin Now Available in Vancouver



Prescription heroin has arrived in Vancouver, where doctors will begin administering the drugs this week. Doctors at the city’s Providence Medical Clinic, where a shipment of the drug arrived last week, received permission to provide doses of the drug to a group of 120 severe addicts.

Patients will visit the clinic two or three times a day, at set times, where they'll receive the drug and sterilized supplies to inject the heroin. For 20 minutes, the patients sit in a lounge-like area and are monitored for adverse effects.

The trial has overcome a battle with the country’s Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, who opposes prescription heroin. Ambrose tried to block doctors who had been prescribing heroin within a study—The Study to Assess Longer-Term Opioid Medication Effectiveness—from prescribing the drug outside of the trial. They sought authorization to continue prescribing it to keep addicts who did not respond to more common treatments, such as methadone, from illicit heroin use and associated harms.

In October 2013, Ambrose introduced regulations to make prescribing the drug outside of a clinical trial illegal. Since then, about 30 of the severely addicted patients left the Providence doctors’ care, some relapsing into illicit heroin use. But David Byres, Vice President of Acute Clinical Programs at Providence Health Care, said the clinic is optimistic it can re-engage them.

Ambrose ultimately lost the battle, as B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson granted the injunction sought by Providence and five plaintiffs. Hinkson agreed that the risks associated with severe heroin addiction “will be reduced if [the addicts] receive injectable diacetylmorphine (the chemical name of heroin) treatment from Providence physicians.”

It’s no surprise that Vancouver is the setting for the groundbreaking experiment, as it is one of the most progressive cities in respect to drug policy in North America. The city’s harm reduction approach has effectively reduced illegal drug use, while improving public health and safety.

Prescription heroin produced similar results in Europe, where it has been in practice since as early as 1993

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By Victoria Kim


11/26/14 8:30am

Robert Downey Sr. Says Son Getting Sober Is His 'Highlight'



Robert Downey Jr. has become one of the highest-paid and most successful actors in Hollywood, but his father is just happy to see him clean and sober.

Robert Downey Sr. said he is more proud of his son getting sober than his acting career. The filmmaker recently told the New York Post that “when my son turned his life around, that’s my highlight moment.”

Of course, his drug issues likely started from Downey Sr. reportedly giving his son drugs starting at the age of eight. In 1996, Downey Jr. was found at a traffic stop with a handgun, heroin and both powder and crack cocaine. Several drug-related issues with the law resulted in numerous rehab stints and a prison sentence in 1999. Downey Jr. was then arrested two more times after his prison sentence before finally getting clean.

“Job one is get out of that cave,” he said last September to Vanity Fair. “A lot of people do get out but don’t change. So the thing is to get out and recognize the significance of that aggressive denial of your fate, come through the crucible forged into a stronger metal.”

Downey Jr. also recently opened up about the drug issues of his son, Indio, who was arrested last June for possession of cocaine. The 18-year-old spent two months in a treatment program and later pled guilty to felony cocaine possession, but will have the charges dropped if he completes his drug program and remains sober for 18 months.

Downey, Jr. released a statement about his son’s arrest, declaring that “there’s a genetic component to addiction and Indio has likely inherited it. We’re grateful to the Sheriff’s Department for their intervention, and believe Indio can be another recovery success story instead of a cautionary tale.”

He will also use his past experience with drugs as the premise for a movie. Downey Jr. is onboard to produce a drama for Showtime that takes place in a Venice Beach rehab during the 1980s.

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By McCarton Ackerman


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