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back in the spotlight

10/14/14 7:30pm

CIA-Crack Cocaine Scandal Resurfaces in New Film, Documentary


Jeremy Renner as Gary Webb. Focus Features

It’s been over 18 years since journalist Gary Webb first investigated the Central Intelligence Agency’s ignoble connection with the cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles and the CIA’s army in Nicaragua. Now those involved in the age-old scandal are finally stepping into the limelight to share their stories.

In his 1996 investigative series “Dark Alliance,” Webb claimed money from an L.A. drug ring was being siphoned to the CIA’s Nicaraguan Contra fighters. While Webb’s work spurred public outcry and acted as the catalyst for various federal investigations, major media outlets worked vigorously to discredit his allegations. Webb was ultimately edged out of journalism and later committed suicide, but an upcoming documentary, Freeway: Crack in the System, and recently released film, Kill the Messenger, may ensure the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist gets the last word after all.

The investigations launched subsequent to Webb’s "Dark Alliance” series exonerated the CIA, but Webb’s primary source, Coral Baca, said Contra leader Adolfo Calero knew exactly where his money was coming from. “If he was stupid and had a lobotomy [he might not have known it was drug money],” Baca told the Huffington Post. “He knew exactly what it was. He didn’t care. He was there to fund the Contras, period.”

Others, like the CIA’s inspector general Frederick Hitz, confirmed the agency’s possible complicity in the Contra-cocaine scandal. “Let me be frank about what we are finding,” Hitz said during a congressional testimony in March 1998. “There are instances where CIA did not, in an expeditious or consistent fashion, cut off relationships with individuals supporting the Contra program who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity to take action to resolve the allegations.”

In an interview for Freeway: Crack in the System, Danilo Blandon, a Contra supporter and one of the most significant Nicaraguan drug importers during the 1980s, confirmed the allegations against him are true, but said his role in the overall Contra-cocaine scheme was insignificant. “The big lie is that we started it all - the crack epidemic – we were just a small part,” Blandon said. “There were the Torres, the Colombians and others. We were a little marble, pebble, rock and [people are] acting like we’re a big boulder.”

Kill the Messenger, in theaters now, chronicles Webb’s work uncovering the CIA's role, and the smear campaign that drove him out of journalism and to his eventual suicide.

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By Brent McCluskey

drug treatment

10/14/14 5:30pm

Drug Czar Grants Maine $7.5 Million to Tackle Opioid Abuse



The U.S. drug czar announced that Maine will receive $7.5 million in funding to fight opioid abuse on a visit to the state last week.

Speaking to a town hall forum about the state’s opioid epidemic in Bangor, Michael Botticelli, the acting director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, announced that 19 community coalitions in Maine will receive $7.5 million to fight substance abuse.

Under the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, a total of $84 million will be awarded to 680 program grantees this year, including the communities in Maine. The program, under the ONDCP, is motivated by the philosophy that local drug problems require local solutions.

In Portland, where the drug czar visited people in recovery and their family members at the Portland Recovery Community Center, Botticelli said communities must focus on access to jobs, housing, and education for those with criminal records related to substance abuse.

The drug czar, who has been public about his own recovery from alcoholism, emphasized that addiction is a disease and that the stigma surrounding it is harmful, preventing people from seeking opportunities for a new start.

Botticelli’s remarks reflect the Obama administration’s approach to drug policy, which favors prevention over incarceration. “We can’t arrest and incarcerate our way out of this problem,” he said earlier on his visit.

Botticelli explained that this draconian approach has resulted in high recidivism rates and crippling expenses for courts and jails across the country. He said his office has worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide better access to housing for those who are released from jail, as well as the Department of Education to help people with criminal records obtain financial aid and loans.

Botticelli said he chose Maine to highlight the program’s approach to preventing drug abuse because, like many other states, it is in the midst of a substance abuse problem spurred by prescription painkillers.

In 2012, Maine doctors wrote 21.8 prescriptions per 100 residents for long-term, extended-release opiate medications such as OxyContin, which is more than twice the national average of 10.3 prescriptions per 100 people, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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By Victoria Kim

electronic cigarettes

10/14/14 3:30pm

U.S. Senators Want Stronger Warnings for E-Cigarettes



Last week, six U.S. senators signed a letter addressed to U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg urging her agency to require tobacco companies to label e-cigarettes "listing all of the health threats the products pose."

Signed by Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Jack Reed (D-RI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Edward Markey (D-MA), the letter stressed the importance of FDA regulations "in the absence of a clear federal standard," despite the agency's proposal to regulate certain aspects of electronic cigarettes back in April 2014.

"E-cigarette manufacturers owned by big tobacco companies are beginning to concoct their own health warnings about their products that lack uniformity and are not comprehensive," the letter said.

The letter went on to cite examples of the health risks posed by electronic cigarettes and pointed out the risks of nicotine use, including "risks to adolescent brain development and pregnant women, as well as the dangers posed by additives and other chemicals that may be in e-cigarettes, such as benzene and formaldehyde."

The six co-signers of the letter have been some of the most vocal critics of electronic cigarettes. Back in April, they signed a joint House-Senate letter denouncing Big Tobacco for targeting youth in their marketing campaigns. They also introduced legislation to curb such practices.

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By Shawn Dwyer

legalize it

10/14/14 1:00pm

New York Times Declares Support for Marijuana Legalization



In light of the coming November general election, The New York Times editorial board declared its support for the legalization of recreational marijuana, which will be considered by voters next month in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia.

Published last week, the editorial called the federal ban on marijuana “misguided” and summed up the consequences of the war on marijuana in one sentence: “Decades of arresting people for buying, selling and using marijuana have hurt more than helped society, and minority communities have been disproportionately affected by the harsh criminal penalties of prohibition.”

The editorial board cited not only the social benefits of legalizing “a drug that is far less dangerous than alcohol,” such as ending “the injustice of arrests and convictions that have devastated communities,” but also the fiscal benefits such as having a new source of tax revenue. “This year, from January to June, Colorado collected about $18.9 million,” the board wrote.

Since Congress “shows no sign of budging,” the board said the better strategy is for states to take the lead on marijuana legalization, as Washington and Colorado succeeded in doing in 2012, when voters in both states approved recreational marijuana.

This November, voters in Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia—where medical marijuana is already legal—will decide whether to legalize the drug for recreational use in their own jurisdictions. The board summarized the ballot measures that will be presented to voters in these jurisdictions on November 4.

In Alaska, Ballot Measure 2 would allow the cultivation, use, purchase, and possession of up to one ounce and up to six marijuana plants for those 21 and older. Initial oversight would be under the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, but the legislature would be able to establish a marijuana control board at any time. The plant would be taxed at $50 per ounce wholesale. Localities would be able to ban marijuana establishments but not prohibit private possession and home cultivation in the state, where current policies allow Alaskans to possess small amounts of marijuana in their homes.

Oregon’s Measure 91 would allow adults 21 or older to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana, purchase up to one ounce, and grow up to four marijuana plants in their household. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission would have the authority to regulate marijuana as it does alcohol. Tax rates have been initially set at $35 per ounce for flowers and $10 per ounce for leaves. The Oregonian noted that the proposed tax rates are low enough to compete with black market prices. If taxed too heavily, people would have an incentive to keep buying marijuana on the black market. Tax revenue from marijuana sales would be distributed to schools, mental health and addiction services, and local law enforcement.

The Oregonian editorialized in August that the measure would “be worth supporting for reasons of honesty and convenience alone,” as almost 65,000 Oregonians have the easily accessible medical marijuana cards. “Recreational marijuana is all but legal in Oregon now and has been for years,” The Oregonian editorial board wrote. “Measure 91, which deserves Oregonians’ support, would eliminate the charade and give adults freer access to an intoxicant that should not have been prohibited in the first place.”

In the District of Columbia, Initiative 71 would allow adults 21 and older to possess up to two ounces for personal use and grow up to six plants at home. The law would repeal all criminal and civil penalties for personal possession of the drug.

A recent NBC4/Washington Post/Marist poll found support among Washington, D.C. voters for the measure at 65%. However, unlike the other initiatives, a mechanism for regulating retail sales of marijuana would not be established because “the District of Columbia Home Rule Act does not allow a tax to be imposed by referendum,” the board explained.

“[T]he sky over Colorado has not fallen, and prohibition has proved to be a complete failure,” the board wrote in response to detractors of legalization who fear the worst outcomes from freeing the weed. In 2016, even more states are expected to consider legalization, most likely including California, Arizona, Nevada, Montana, Maine, and Massachusetts.

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By Victoria Kim


10/14/14 10:30am

Home Visits Reduce Depression, Drug Use In Pregnant Teens



A new study centered on American Indian communities in the Southwest has found that home visits for pregnant teenagers significantly decreased their overall drug use and depression.

Researchers at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health conducted the project with 322 pregnant teenagers in four American Indian communities. They all received optimized standard care, including referrals to local services and transportation to prenatal, as well as well-baby clinic visits.

Half of the participants, however, also received 63 in-home education sessions known as Family Spirit. The visits occurred weekly through the last trimester of pregnancy and then gradually tapered off until the child turned three, addressing issues such as the benefits of breastfeeding and creating sleep schedules.

The teens that entered the program had high rates of substance abuse at around 84%, but the study concluded that those in the Family Spirit program were less likely to use illegal drugs and exhibit depression or behavior problems. Their children also had higher rates of meeting emotional and behavioral milestones than those in the control group, as well as better eating and sleeping patterns. The findings were published in the latest issue of the Journal of American Psychiatry.

“For years in public health we have been working on immunizations and other medical interventions to set the course for the health of disadvantaged children, and we have turned the tide,” said the study’s lead author, Allison Barlow, M.P.H., Ph.D., associate director of the Center for American Indian Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Now the burden is in multi-generational behavioral health problems, the substance abuse, depression, and domestic violence that are transferred from parents to children. This intervention can help us break that cycle of despair.”

Barlow believes the key to continuing the success of the program is boosting the population of local community health workers. With Family Spirit now eligible for federal funding after being approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as an evidence-based program, the program could ultimately create jobs and boost the workforce in some of these often-struggling communities.

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By McCarton Ackerman

molly overdose

10/14/14 8:30am

Austin Music Festival Mourns Latest Molly-Related Death


Wiki Commons

The latest Molly-related overdose death at a music festival made its way to the Austin City Limits Music Festival, where 21-year-old Jessica Hunter took a fatal overdose of the drug.

The incident took place on Oct. 5, when police were flagged down by Hunter’s friends. Her body was described as rigid with her hands and feet flailing. She was transported to Seton Medical Center and eventually died on Oct. 8. Her friends also took the same drug and suffered adverse reactions, though not as severe.

Hunter was a student at Texas State University in San Marcos. Her mother, Debra, said she will begin to visit schools and share her story in order to help create awareness of the dangers of drug use.

The death of Hunter occurred despite the best efforts of music festivals across the country to prevent drug-related tragedies from happening. New York City’s Electronic Zoo, which canceled the final day of its 2013 festival when two concertgoers died from a mixture of Molly and other unregulated stimulants, employed additional pat-downs, and other measures for drug screening this year. Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival also took extra precautions on site.

A major electronic dance music festival known as the Electric Daisy Carnival has also had several Molly-related tragedies over the years. The festival was originally held in Los Angeles, but relocated to Las Vegas in 2011 after a 15-year-old girl died from an MDMA overdose. Two people died from Molly-related complications at the 2012 edition of the event, but after the festival added extra measures such as medical stations staffed with professionals, there were no deaths in the 2013 edition of EDC.

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By McCarton Ackerman


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