Substance Abuse Newsletter April 2016

The following is a compendium of news reports over the past month that may be of interest to our AG offices who are dealing with substance abuse issues. Neither the National Association of Attorneys General nor the National Attorneys General Training & Research Institute expresses a view as to the accuracy of news accounts, nor as to the position expounded by the authors of the hyperlinked articles.

New Developments in Combatting Opioid Abuse

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane's office announced criminal charges have been filed against 43 individuals in connection with a drug trafficking organization responsible for distributing significant quantities of cocaine and heroin in Venango County. The charges are the result of a joint investigation conducted by the Office of Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Northwest Strike Force Unit. The investigation also relied upon the work of several local police departments that were part of an Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force assembled for this case. "This investigation is the result of great teamwork between law enforcement agencies," Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Tyree C. Blocker said. "The end result will make Pennsylvania a safer place by getting these individuals off the streets."

In an attempt to help slow the prescription drug abuse epidemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced on March 22, 2016 that immediate-release opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and fentanyl will now have to carry a "black box" warning about the risk of abuse, addiction, overdose and death. When a prescription is filled, the bottle should have a notification indicating there is a black-box warning for the drug and the consumer would need to go to the manufacturer's website for details.

At the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in Atlanta on March 29, 2016, President Obama announced additional public and private sector actions to address the prescription opioid abuse and heroin epidemic, including expanding access to treatment and increasing community prevention strategies. The White House issued a fact sheet detailing the actions.

33 attorneys general sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell urging the federal government to require methadone clinics to register, to query and to fully use Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs. New Mexico Attorney General Balderas noted in support of the letter that the federal government needs to act so doctors can screen out drug seekers and ensure that those struggling with addiction are able to obtain the treatment they need.

The treatment of opioid addiction in adults aged 18-25 years is fraught with challenging issues for clinicians, Dr. Marc J. Fishman said the annual conference of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “It’s very hard to reach them. They don’t necessarily want to be in ‘lame group or in rehab.’ They want to be out doing their thing, and so how can we be more engaging is part of the question,” said Dr. Fishman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In general, the standard of care for young adults with opioid addiction should include integrating relapse-prevention medications such as buprenorphine, extended-release naltrexone, and perhaps to a lesser extent, methadone.

To try to slow the dramatic rise in heroin deaths in the last few years, the Chicago field offices of the FBI and the DEA are unveiling a documentary aimed at educating high school students and young adults about the dangers of addition. "Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict" is being offered to educators at no cost. The 45-minutes film features stark, first-person accounts told by those who have abused opioids or whose children have done so with tragic consequences. "This epidemic does not discriminate," FBI Director James Comey said.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel reached a rebate agreement with Amphastar Pharmaceutical in which Amphastar will provide a $6 rebate for each of their naloxone syringes purchased by public entities in Wisconsin from late March 2016 through February 1, 2017. General Schimel noted that heroin and prescription narcotic painkillers cause more deaths to Wisconsin residents each year than car crashes.

Updates in Marijuana Issues

Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson testified in Washington, D.C. before the Senate Drug Caucus regarding the issues of marijuana potency and the targeting of young people by the marijuana industry.

Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin hosted a forum at Brown University Medical Center to discuss the issues surrounding making recreational marijuana use legal. Member of law enforcement and public policy makers were invited to offer their experiences and provide additional educational information.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is asking Massachusetts residents to vote no if a proposed ballot question comes before voters in November to legalize marijuana for general adult use. Massachusetts has already decriminalized the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

Pennsylvania has become the 24th state to legalize a comprehensive medical marijuana program. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bill into law Sunday afternoon surrounded by a jubilant crowd of supporters at the Capitol building in Harrisburg. The bill’s drafters say it could take two years to write regulations and get retailers opened, but a provision allows parents to legally administer medical marijuana to their children before the bill takes effect in a month. The new law sets standards for tracking plants, certifying physicians and licensing growers, dispensaries and physicians. Patients could take marijuana in pill, oil, vapor, ointment or liquid form, but would not be able to legally obtain marijuana to smoke or grow.

A new survey released today by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that a record-high percentage of Americans -- 61 percent -- say they support marijuana legalization. The survey uses the same question wording ("Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal, or not?") on marijuana as previous Gallup surveys, which had shown a previous high of 58 percent support for legalization last October.

Marijuana is illegal for any reason under federal law, but states have boldly experimented with allowing its use anyway, starting with California 20 years ago. Some states have made the drug legal for medical purposes; others have removed jail sentences for carrying small amounts; and some let adults 21 and older use it for any reason. Click here to review where the states are on marijuana as well as legalization developments in other countries.

The Drug Enforcement Administration's cannabis eradication program continued apace in 2015, new numbers released by the administration show. In 2015, local, state and federal authorities uprooted roughly 4.1 million cultivated marijuana plants in all 50 states, down slightly from the haul of 4.3 million plants in 2014. Federal spending on the program remained at $18 million dollars, consistent with levels seen in previous years. That works out to a cost-per-plant of $4.42, up slightly from a cost of $4.20 per plant in 2014. The DEA's program provides funding to 128 state and local law enforcement agencies to aggressively search for, seize and destroy illegal marijuana grows across the country. Much of the money for the program comes from the Justice Department's asset forfeiture fund.

Hospitals and treatment centers in Colorado have seen an increase in marijuana use among patients since recreational pot became legal in January 2014, while weed-related arrests have predictably plummeted significantly, a report reveals. While the author of a 147-page study released by the Colorado Department of Public Safety on Monday cautions that it’s too soon to measure perfectly the impact of the state’s first-in-the-nation recreational marijuana laws, statistics suggest that facilities have seen a surge with respect to patients who were hospitalized after consuming cannabis. From 2001 to 2009, around 809 of each 100,000 hospitalizations recorded within Colorado involved patients who admitted to marijuana use, according to the report. For the period from 2014 to June 2015, the statistic surged to 2,413 hospitalizations per 100,000. Phone calls made to poison control centers involving marijuana exposure increased as well, from 44 in 2006 to 227 in 2015, the report said.

Synthetic/Designer Drug News

Synthetic drugs such as "bath salts," "K2" or "Spice" have made unsettling headlines lately, with reports of violent, erratic behavior and deaths after people have used the substances. A new video has been created to address the questions of why these synthesized drugs are so dangerous, and why aren't there more regulations? Access the video here.

Other News of Interest

On April 20, 2016, the first U.N. General Assembly special session to address global drug policy in nearly 20 years heard major differences on the approach to drug use. Michael Botticelli, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, stressed that "law enforcement efforts should focus on criminal organizations - not on people with substance use disorders who need treatment and recovery support services." He called for drug policies in every country to address the needs of underserved groups including women and children, indigenous people, prisoners, and lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people. On the tough enforcement side, Indonesia's Ambassador Rachmat Budiman said "a zero-tolerance approach" is needed to suppress and eliminate the scourge of drugs. Read more here.


Joanne Thomka is the Editor of Substance Abuse News and may be reached at 202-326-6269. Substance Abuse News is a publication of the National Association of Attorneys General. Any use and/or copies of this newsletter in whole or part must include the customary bibliographic citation. NAAG retains copyright and all other intellectual property rights in the material presented in this publication. For content submissions or to contact the editor directly, please e-mail jthomka@naag.org.

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