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War on Drugs

11/02/12 1:24pm

"Rachel's Law" Protects Police Informants

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Rachel Hoffman became a CI after she was
arrested for drug possession. Photo via

Earlier this fall, the New Yorker profiled Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old from Tallahassee, Florida who was arrested for minor drug possession and then coerced by cops into becoming a confidential informant in a sting operation. She was killed by dealers in May 2008. Since then, her parents have been fighting to alert the public to law enforcement's widespread use of confidential informants (CIs) in order to rack up drug arrests. By some counts, up to 80% of all drug-related arrests in the US involve CIs that were recruited after committing non-violent, usually drug-related offenses. Typically, Rachel Hoffman had been arrested for possession of pot and ecstasy pills. Less typically, she was white: young people of color from lower-income communities are more often pressured into becoming informants. 

Rachel’s parents, Irv Hoffman and Margie Weiss, and their lawyer Lance Block successfully lobbied to pass “Rachel’s Law” in Florida—the first bill in the US that deals comprehensively with confidential informants. It requires officers to undergo special training on informants, and to take into account a new recruit’s age and emotional state, as well the level of risk involved in a given operation. But following pressure from law enforcement agencies in Florida, crucial parts of the bill were removed. So Weiss and Hoffman are now working to strengthen Rachel's Law—including a proposed amendment to prevent under-18s from being used as CIs. “I’ve heard about so many kids caught with an ounce of pot, or pot and some pills, and then asked to do dangerous undercover operations," Hoffman tells The Fix. "We do not mind people assisting law enforcement, but we do not want kids out there in dangerous drug deals…They have no idea what their rights are. Police coerce them—they say things like, ‘If you don’t do this for us you’re going to jail, and we’re going to tell your parents.’” 

Weiss and Hoffman also hope to add a stipulation that substance abusers in treatment be exempt from undercover drug deals. “Some [people] who are struggling with addiction may have cognitive impairments, not understand what their rights are, not know they are entitled to a lawyer, or not have economic and social resources to protect themselves," Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants, tells The Fix. Natapoff adds that when a person in recovery is pressured into becoming an informant, they’re risking their sobriety by "being sent back into the drug milieu right when they’re trying to heal themselves.” Natapoff believes that the criminal justice system must shift towards prioritizing recovery over the gathering of information, if the ultimate goal is to reduce drug use.

But Hoffman argues that the War on Drugs isn't actually about stopping drug use, but rather about making money: "It’s an unfair, unjust system. That’s how [law enforcement officials] pay for their vans, for their prosecutors—they get money from the War on Drugs. They put zero dent in the supply. They just focus on small-town, small-time arrests.” Still, he isn't without hope, believing that people are “waking up in this country a little bit,” especially after the New Yorker brought the issue some much-needed national attention. Eventually Hoffman hopes more states and the federal government will adapt laws on CIs, to save the “thousands and thousands of Rachels out there" from the dangers that ended his daughter's life.

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By Sarah Beller

drug busts

11/02/12 12:12pm

Quebec Cops Decimate Major Drug Network

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One of the 106 arrested Photo via

Quebec police have arrested 106 suspected gang members in one of the biggest crackdowns on organized crime in the Canadian province's history. Authorities say "Operation Loquace" (loquacious) targeted a major drug ring, led by a seven-member consortium, which has overseen the distribution of massive amounts of cocaine throughout Quebec and across Canada. Several of those arrested yesterday included members of the Italian mafia and the Hells Angels—the notorious biker gang is thought to control much of Canada's drug trade. "The consortium did not hesitate to use violence to spread its market," says Jean Audette, vice-director of Quebec's police force. "Many parallel cases are being investigated in Quebec and elsewhere in the country." Police also seized $255,000 in cash, 6,000 pills, nine kilograms of cannabis, three kilograms of cocaine, 35 vehicles and 13 barrels of GBL (a solvent used to create date rape drugs) in yesterday's sting. Authorities believe the large-scale drug network, which is estimated to have netted $50 million in the past six months, has also been partnering with Mexican drug cartels to smuggle drugs in to Canada from Mexico via US ground transit. Those accused face charges including conspiracy, trafficking and working for a criminal organization.

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By May Wilkerson

addiction vaccines

11/02/12 11:01am

Early-Stage Meth Vaccine Shows Promise

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Could this kind of image be banished to the
past? Photo via

Scientists are cautiously optimistic about the progress of a new vaccine for methamphetamine addiction. Meth is both devastating and commonly used—with over 400,000 current users in the US and around 25 million worldwide. Scripps Research Institute researchers have been testing an experimental vaccine on rats and seeing promising results. The idea is to block meth intoxication, preventing such effects as a rise in body temperature and hyperactivity. “This is an early-stage study, but its results are comparable to those for other drug vaccines that have then gone to clinical trials," says senior research author Michael A. Taffe, associate professor at the institute's addiction science group. The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, began two years ago, when scientists developed a total of six potential vaccines. Each contained a chemical cognate of the meth molecule to help build an antibody to the drug. Early research showed three of the six evoked a strong initial antibody response. From there, Taffe’s research team found one—designated "MH6"—that not only created an antibody response, but also stayed in the bloodstream longer. There's a long way still to go: “These are encouraging results that we'd like to follow up with further animal tests, and, we hope, with clinical tests in humans some day,” says research associate Michelle L. Miller. Taffe adds, “Extending the duration of protection is the next big scientific challenge in this field.”

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By Valerie Tejeda

headlines

11/02/12 5:00am

Morning Roundup: November 2, 2012

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Warning: undead drunks may appear dead.
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By The Fix staff

Legalization of Marijuana

11/01/12 5:00pm

Washington on the Brink of Legal Pot

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Is this how it'll go on Nov. 6?
Photo via

It looks likely that Washington state will vote to legalize marijuana on November 6, but that doesn't mean the picture is entirely clear. Confusingly, some pot legalization advocates are actively campaigning against the proposed bill, I-502. The initiative would allow people over 21 to possess up to one ounce of weed for recreational use. But some critics say I-502 is too restrictive, as it doesn't allow for home growing other than for medical marijuana patients, and non-medical sales will only be permitted at state-licensed stores. A DUI provision that could allow convictions based on THC in a driver’s bloodstream also worries many pot smokers. “We now have anti-prohibitionists who are opposing anti-prohibitionists, which is kind of strange,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the pot advocacy group NORML, tells The Fix. “It does feel rather odd when you find yourself attacked for having money and time spent on the efforts to legalize marijuana not by sheriffs, or other obvious opponents, but to have fellow anti-prohibitionists arguing for the status quo. Not many people could have predicted that.”

Those who back the bill offer many reasons for their support: “It’s my belief that one of the real tragedies is how misinformed young people and adults are about the dangers of marijuana,” Roger Roffman, a co-sponsor of I-502 and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tells The Fix. “[The initiative] will earmark hundreds of millions of new tax dollars from regulation and selling marijuana to public education, prevention, treatment and research. It will provide data concerning the impact of this new law that the states can then use to adjust pricing and then tax policy to undercut the black market but also discourage use among young people.” Others are just tired of what they see as unfair consequences: "I'm voting for making marijuana legal because I've seen way too many of my friends get unfairly punished for getting caught with weed,” Jake, a Seattle resident in his twenties, tells us. “They haven't been able to get jobs because of it, and they punish possession way too harshly." 

While the no campaign is relatively uncoordinated due to its wildly differing motives, various groups are working hard. Douglas Hiatt of the marijuana reform group Sensible Washington calls the measure a “ridiculous waste of time and money” because it only makes an exception to existing laws and doesn't repeal any current laws banning pot. And Steve Sarich, of No on I-502, spoke to students about the dangers of the DUI provisions, saying, “They can take you to the hospital, they can take your blood. And if they find any trace of THC in your system, there goes your Pell grant, there goes your college.” More traditional prohibitionists naturally oppose I-502 too: “Don’t be fooled folks. There are people out there who will advocate the same arguments for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and every other kind of drug that is out there,” wrote Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson in an open letter that was endorsed by many other law enforcement officials in the state. Nelson added that legalizing marijuana would lead to an increase in crime and would essentially be surrendering the War on Drugs.

Despite the controversy, experts agree that Washington has the best chance of a yes vote of the three states with legalization measures on the ballot. Recent polls show residents favoring legalization by between five and 16 percentage points. “I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d have to throw a quarter on the table for Washington, because the polling is clearly indicating it’s the strongest,” says St. Pierre. “Particularly in the last two weeks before the election, the wheels usually fall off right off from underneath these things. And that is not happening [in Washington]. It is remaining strong.” He also cites mainstream political support for the measure including the mayor of Seattle, the entire city council and the sitting prosecuting attorney for Seattle. “I know a lot of people are frightened by the implications of it but I’m hoping that over time, people will see that we are failing so badly that we’ve got to be open to the possibility that a different way of preventing harm may in fact work better,” Roffman says. “I think that Washington state’s model offers just that approach. I don’t think any other state in its way of designing legalization has what is necessary, but this one does.”

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By Chrisanne Grise

health scare

11/01/12 3:58pm

Many HIV Patients Skip Meds to Drink

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Drinkers shouldn't skip their HIV meds.
Photo via

Just over half the HIV-positive participants in a recent study skipped their medications in order to drink—largely due to misconceptions about the dangers of mixing antiretroviral meds and alcohol, researchers believe. The University of Connecticut study followed 200 people taking antiretroviral drugs for HIV over the course of a year, and found that 51% halted their medication regimes while drinking, showing higher viral loads as a result. Researchers blame a widespread belief that mixing alcohol and HIV drugs is dangerous, which they say is false. Although doctors do often discourage HIV patients from boozing, this is because it can interrupt the effectiveness of the drugs, not because it's actually a "toxic" combination. In fact, it's far more dangerous to skip these meds than to drink while taking them. "The harms caused by missing their medications far outweigh the harms caused by mixing the two, if the person doesn't have liver disease" says Seth Kalichman, professor and lead author of the study. Stopping medication is dangerous for patients as it can allow the virus to surge; taking the meds inconsistently can also lead to drug resistance and prevent the pills from working at all. The study highlights a need for better education and clearer instructions from doctors. Kalichman is optimistic: "We think it may be a pretty simple fix, just educating patients."

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By May Wilkerson

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