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Medical marijuana

War on Drugs targets natural medicine sources while meth epidemic worsens in the U.S.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007 by: Ben Kage
Tags: medical marijuana, war on drugs, meth

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(NewsTarget) Methamphetamine is a highly addictive psychostimulant drug that can have horrifying side effects, but perhaps the most shocking thing about this drug is that the FDA and Big Business may be contributing to its spread in pursuit of profits.

While dietary supplements containing ephedra were banned in 2003, when the FDA stated use of the herb presented "an unreasonable risk of illness or injury," pseudoephedrine-containing over-the-counter medicines from Big Pharma remain on the market. These products are used for far more than relieving sinus pressure, because a relatively simple (albeit very dangerous) refining process can turn sinus medicines into crystal methamphetamine. A further indicator of the FDA protecting Big Pharma interests is the fact that methamphetamine itself is prescribed as an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder drug under the brand name Desoxyn, although usually only as a last resort.

Many states are restricting access to pseudoephedrine-containing products by limiting the number of these products that can be purchased, and requiring customers to provide government-issued identification and sign a logbook before receiving them. Oregon has even returned psuedoephedrine to prescription-only status. Despite these actions, meth continues to plague the United States.

When methamphetamines are used -- either injected directly into the blood stream, smoked in their crystal form (also known as "ice"), or through some other method -- they act directly on the brain's reward mechanisms and release massive amounts of norepinephrine, dopamine and a smaller amount of serotonin, and causing euphoria and excitement.

The side effects of meth abuse include diarrhea, nausea, sudden weight loss and kidney damage caused by hyperkaemia -- dangerously elevated blood/potassium levels that can cause kidney failure and death. Users have also been observed engaging in compulsive behavior such as obsessive cleaning or breaking down and rebuilding things, as well as obsessive sexual behavior. The drug lowers inhibitions and, in some users, increases sexual appetite while simultaneously decreasing sensitivity, leading the user to try almost anything to achieve release. Additionally, meth use has been linked to STDs such as HIV, possibly because some users exhibit reckless sexual behavior and may take on more than one partner. One study conducted by the University of California, San Diego in November found that meth users were a sixth as likely to employ a condom during sex as a non-user.

Another dangerous side effect of "ice" is abnormally rapid tooth decay, known as "meth mouth," which the American Dental Association says is probably brought on by the "combination of drug-induced psychological and physiological changes resulting in xerostomia (dry mouth), extended periods of poor oral hygiene, frequent consumption of high calorie, carbonated beverages and tooth grinding and clenching." Some experts theorize that the acidic nature of the drug may also contribute to tooth decay.

The reported use of meth is dropping, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Applied Studies, which show 5.3 percent of the U.S. population aged 12 and up reported using meth at least once in their lifetime in 2002, while 4.3 percent of the demographic made the same claim in 2005. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) progress report on the fight against meth stated that there was a 30 percent drop of meth lab seizures between 2004 and 2005. Despite these figures, the drug remains a primary concern for drug agencies across the United States.

Of the 500 law enforcement agencies that responded to the 2005 National Association of Counties' meth epidemic survey, 87 percent reported an increase in meth-related arrests since 2002. Meth was named as the largest drug problem in 58 percent of counties, followed by cocaine and then marijuana. The survey also revealed that an estimated 20 percent of all prison inmates were serving time for meth-related crimes in half of the counties surveyed, while the other half reported the number exceeded 50 percent.

Meth is especially a concern in Hawaii, which has the highest population of meth users per capita in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. The Honolulu Police Department's Narcotics/Vice Division head Maj. Kevin Lima said in an email interview that crystal methamphetamine was one of the two most widely abused illicit drugs in the state, the other being marijuana. A 2002 Department of Health study revealed 49.5 percent of people who sought treatment for meth addition in state-funded, community-based programs were Hawaiian, with Caucasians the next closest ethnic group at 14.2 percent. In an interview with the Honolulu Advertiser, Lima reported that about 55 to 60 meth-related arrests were made in Honolulu every month. Lima told NewsTarget that meth use has been linked to property crimes such as burglaries and auto thefts, and that the paranoid behavior caused by the drug can sometimes lead to violent crimes.

How the war on drugs makes the meth problem worse

Despite massive efforts to combat methamphetamine production and use, some critics claim that government intervention has only served to exacerbate the problem. In 1986, the Hawaiian authorities began working with the DEA on Operation Wipeout, a campaign to eradicate marijuana with aerial pesticide sprayings. Although the process did not literally eradicate marijuana, it was much more effective at destroying cannabis crops than the manual eradication methods used before. The problem, many say, is that the reduced availability of marijuana, however temporary, caused an increased interest in meth.

As marijuana was eradicated, its price soared, while the ability to obtain meth from pseudoephedrine products rendered it the cheaper alternative, say critics. A 1994 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse lends credence to this theory, as interviewed meth users reported they had tried the more dangerous substance after eradication raised marijuana prices. The study concluded that the popularity increase of methamphetamines was due to both eradication and aggressive marketing from meth dealers.

The authorities are not generally convinced by this argument. In an interview with the Advertiser, special agent Chris Tolley, public information officer for the DEA in Honolulu, said that marijuana is considered a gateway to harder drugs like meth, because meth users almost always report starting with marijuana. Lima said his department had experienced meth users saying they started with marijuana, "but these solicited questions were anecdotal, completely unscientific," he noted.

"It is difficult to connect the two drugs without any hard evidence," Lima told NewsTarget. "This is a very complicated social question besides involving numerous variables, such as, but not limited to: overall supply; overall demand; short and long-term market availability; underground market pricing; inconsistent purity levels; smuggling success; marijuana cultivation success (including the weather); a competitive illegal drug market; eradication success; individual agency and multi-agency enforcement efforts; public drug education; drug treatment availability and funding; and federal and state incarceration.

"Further, forming a conclusion to address (a link between marijuana eradication and increased meth use) based on only law enforcement statistics is difficult," he said.

Plenty of other criticisms have been launched at the eradication process, not least of which is the noise caused by the crop-dusting helicopters. The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources claims on its web site that none of the complaints it has received for noise have meshed with scheduled eradication sprayings, nor have complainants provided their identities or evidence of DLNR aircraft causing a problem. Even so, critics note that enduring the inconveniences of eradication has ultimately changed little. According to the DEA website's by-state drug information for 2006, marijuana is still the second leading drug threat in Hawaii behind meth, and Hawaii is the "national leader in the production of high-grade cultivated marijuana."

The U.S. government is still tilting at meth officially, but has not banned the trademarked ephedra derivative as it did the herb itself. Indeed, one thing that marijuana and ephedra have in common is that neither can be trademarked and sold exclusively by private businesses, and therefore cannot provide America's corporate sector with more money. However, the extract psuedoephedrine can be given a proprietary name and generate profits for various companies, with its links to meth simply accepted. Even extracts of marijuana -- classified as a Schedule I drug that has no accepted medical use -- are being researched as possible medication ingredients. For many, this brings into question what FDA is really protecting: public health or corporate profits.


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