TIME New York

Pot Arrests Plunge in NYC After Policy Change

The policy is working

(NEW YORK) — New York City’s pledge to stop making many marijuana arrests is playing out on the streets, where arrests and summonses for small-time pot possession have plummeted since the policy change this fall.

After a mid-November turn toward violations and summonses instead of misdemeanor arrests for carrying modest amounts of pot, such arrests plunged by 75 percent in December compared to last year, from about 1,820 to 460, according to state Division of Criminal Justice Services statistics obtained by The Associated Press. The November numbers fell 42 percent, from 2,200 to 1,280.

Even summonses have fallen by about 10 percent since the policy change, to 1,180, compared to the same period a year ago, New York Police Department figures show.

“Since the inception of our policy in 2014, marijuana enforcement activity is trending down in all categories” for the bottom-rung marijuana charge, Deputy Chief Kim Royster told the AP.

Critics who decried the once-spiking arrests see the decline as promising. But they say it’s too early to draw lasting conclusions, especially since low-level arrests and summonses of all kinds plummeted for a few weeks after the deadly shootings of two officers Dec. 20.

“Clearly, progress is being made,” but it needs to continue and deepen, said Gabriel Sayegh, the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York state director.

The plunge in arrests caps dramatic shifts in recent years in how the nation’s biggest city polices small amounts of pot.

Arrests for the lowest-level marijuana charge — possession of less than 25 grams, about a sandwich bag full — shot up from about 5,700 in 1995 to 50,700 in 2011, spurring criticism of police tactics and priorities. Then the arrests started declining notably amid public pressure and some police instruction and procedural changes, hitting about 29,000 in 2013.

They were keeping pace this year until November, when de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton announced the new direction. With the sharp fall-off in the last two months, there were about 26,400 marijuana arrests in 2014, down about 9 percent from 2013, the state statistics show.

State law makes it a misdemeanor to have up to 25 grams of marijuana in “public view.” But the mayor said the city was choosing to treat that largely as a non-criminal violation — meaning a summons rather than an arrest, and a potential $100-plus fine instead of a possible three months in jail and a criminal record. (Under a 1977 state law, carrying the same amount of pot out of sight was already a violation, not a misdemeanor.)

Arrests were to continue in some cases, such as when people are allegedly seen smoking the drug in public.

“The law is a law, but what we’re trying to do is approach the enforcement of the law in a smarter way,” de Blasio said in November. Noting that the cases often get dismissed, he said the change would spare police time for more serious matters and spare people arrest records, which can affect public housing eligibility and some other aspects of life even without a conviction.

The head of the rank-and-file officers’ union was cool to the idea, suggesting it could tie officers’ hands in dealing with lawbreakers. But the captains’ union president expressed support for it.

Critics of the arrests suggest the summons strategy isn’t a perfect solution. Multiple marijuana-possession convictions can spur deportation even if the charges are violations — something defendants may not grasp if they decide to plead guilty, thinking the only consequence is a fine, legal advocates say. They also have concerns about how cases will be handled in crowded summons courts.

“A more meaningful change would be to de-emphasize enforcement of non-criminal violations across the board,” the New York Civil Liberties Union said in City Council hearing testimony last month.

But de Blasio put the difference simply when announcing the new policy: “Would you rather be arrested or be given a summons?”

TIME Research

People Think Expensive Drugs Work Better, Study Shows

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Even when there's nothing inside

We’ve all heard of the placebo effect: just believing in the healing power of a pill is sometimes enough to make a person feel better, even when there’s not medicine inside. Now, a new study shows that when people take a drug believing it’s more expensive than it actually is, they tend to think the drug is working—even when it’s just a placebo.

In a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers told 12 people with Parkinson’s disease that they were receiving two variations of the same drug, but one was more expensive than the other. They were told that the study was meant to assess whether the two drugs were in fact similar in efficacy, and that one drug was $100 while the other was $1,500. Instead, the researchers gave them all saline solution, with no effect at all.

Before getting the drugs, everyone completed tests of their motor skills and had brain imaging performed. When given the saline injection, the patients were told that they were either getting the cheap or expensive shot first.

Interestingly, those who were told they were getting the expensive shot first improved their motor skills by 28%. In one of the exams, their motor skills shot up seven points with the expensive drug, but only three points on the cheap drug. Afterward, when everyone was told what actually happened in the study, eight people told the researchers that they had greater expectations for the expensive drug and were surprised by the the improvements they felt just by believing it would work better.

It’s possible that the people in the study experienced so a great placebo effect because receiving a placebo has been shown to increase the release of dopamine in the brain, and dopamine also impacts movement.

Though the authors acknowledge that they had to deceive the people in their study to get the results, they say that findings like theirs could one day help improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s. “The potentially large benefit of placebo, with or without price manipulations, is waiting to be untapped for patients with Parkinson’s disease as well as those with other neurologic and medical diseases,” they write.

TIME Drugs

Report Predicts 18 States Will Legalize Pot by 2020

Whether that pans out depends on Colorado, cash and the federal government

A new report predicts that 18 U.S. states will have legalized recreational marijuana in the next five years, a huge increase from the four states that currently have or are in the process of creating legal markets for pot.

The report, set to be released in February from ArcView Market Research, a firm that pairs investors with marijuana-related businesses, was sponsored by marijuana-industry groups and has a prolegalization tone. But their prediction is not simply self-serving optimism. The map below shows the states where ArcView’s researchers believe recreational pot shops will open their doors:

This chart appears in the executive summary of Arcview Market Research's Marijuana Markets report, 3rd Edition.
This chart appears in the executive summary of Arcview Market Research’s Marijuana Markets report, 3rd Edition.

 

The map has a lot of overlap with the places where the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the group that helped launch legal weed in Colorado, already has workers on the ground in preparation for legalization votes over the next two years. Yet MPP is a bit more cautious in its outlook: the group believes 12 states could join Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska in allowing recreational pot by 2017. Unlike ArcView (whose executive director sits on MPP’s board), they’re not banking on legalization taking root in Montana, New Jersey or Connecticut over the next few years, according to spokesperson Morgan Fox. He says they’re concentrating current efforts in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada. They see Texas — yes, Texas —as an outside possibility.

In the report, ArcView claims that “2014 will be remembered as a year when … a sense of inevitability about national legalization became conventional wisdom among elected officials and the general public.” But the issue and the mood of the electorate are far from settled. In November, Gallup released a poll showing that a majority of Americans favor legalization. But it’s a slim majority of 51%, down from 58% in 2013, with many conservatives still balking at the idea.

As with so many other political issues, the speed at which states legalize marijuana is going to be affected by the rate at which donors are willing to pour money into elections and lobbying. In 2014, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson proved that there is a Republican with deep pockets willing to spend big to fight against legalization. In Florida’s midterm election, voters considered an amendment to legalize medical marijuana, and Adelson shelled out at least $5.5 million to defeat the measure. It failed by a 2% margin, just shy of the 60% required to pass.

Meanwhile, legalization advocates have lost stalwart funders like Peter Lewis, the chairman of Progressive Insurance who died in 2013. By one estimate, he had spent $40 on legalization efforts since the 1980s. His allies have been scrambling to fill the funding hole left by Lewis. In Florida, the effort to legalize medical marijuana was largely bankrolled by one man, personal-injury lawyer John Morgan, who was behind about $4 million in funds. He has vowed to try again in 2016, but legalization advocates fighting for reform in other states can’t necessarily count on his support. MPP’s Mason Tvert says that while money is obviously important for their cause, “there’s no one individual who is going to be responsible for passing these measures.”

Two other factors will be key to determining if the above map proves accurate: whether the federal government continues to keep its distance from state experiments with legalization (which remain illegal under federal law), and whether states with existing legal markets encounter any major problems.

In Colorado, for example, parties are gearing up for a political fight over edibles, which have led to children who accidentally ingested them being hospitalized. One of those groups is Smart Colorado, which includes parents concerned about the pace at which marijuana laws have been liberalized. “We’re looking out for public safety and our kids,” founder Gina Carbone told TIME in an earlier interview about edibles regulations, “not just expanding this huge market.” According to the new report, legal weed yielded $2.7 billion in retail and wholesale sales in 2014.

Tvert says there’s also the possibility of an “unexpected event” that could thwart or boost their cause, like an endorsement from a major, mainstream celebrity or a high-profile incident that could set the movement back. “A big part of this is really optics,” he says.

TIME Drugs

Drones May Soon Have a New Customer: Drug Cartels

A drone loaded with packages containing methamphetamine lies on the ground after it crashed into a supermarket parking lot in the city of Tijuana on Jan. 20, 2015.
A drone loaded with packages containing methamphetamine lies on the ground after it crashed into a supermarket parking lot in the Mexican city of Tijuana on Jan. 20, 2015 AP

"If it's not happening, it soon will," one expert says

A drone carrying 6.6 lb. of methamphetamine that crashed in a supermarket parking lot in Mexico close to the California border this week probably doesn’t signify a popular new method for transporting drugs, U.S. officials say. But it’s a reminder that cartels can use the increasingly popular aircraft just like any other business or government agency.

It wasn’t the first time drones have been used to smuggle drugs across the border. U.S. authorities who speak to TIME say they haven’t noticed a trend of cartels using drones. Carlos Lazo, a spokesman with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, calls it “an isolated incident.”

But Matthew Barden, a special agent and spokesman with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, says authorities are always on guard for new cartel methods and that drones might appeal to traffickers for a number of reasons. The most likely, Barden says, would be surveillance, not transportation. “They can be used to spy on border agents doing rounds,” Barden says, speaking about the issue generally but not the latest incident. “People can use them to set up an ambush.”

The drone that crashed was carrying a relatively small amount of meth — about 6 lb. worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000. It wouldn’t make sense for a cartel to send millions of drones across the border carrying tiny amounts of any drug when they could transport hundreds or even thousands of pounds in a commercial vehicle, Barden says: “It’s like the post office sending one letter at a time.”

A DEA spokeswoman in San Diego says authorities are “aware of this smuggling technique.”

“While we would not call using drones a new trend in smuggling, we do know that drug-trafficking organizations will use any and all means to get their drugs [into] the United States,” says the spokeswoman, Amy Roderick.

The drone could have been sent by an individual trying to send drugs to a friend or contact, rather than by a cartel, Barden speculates. If it was sent by a cartel, it could have been by a low-level member looking to go out on his own, or as a kind of research and development mission by the cartel. The crash is still under investigation by the Tijuana Public Safety Secretariat.

And if cartels do start to use drones for surveillance, they won’t be along in the skies: the U.S. now patrols the airspace above almost half the Mexican border, according to the Associated Press. Customs and Border Protection says it has nine drones in its arsenal.

“If it’s not happening,” Barden says of cartels using drones for surveillance, “it soon will.”

Read next: CNN Just Got Permission to Experiment With Drones

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Drugs

Drone Carrying Meth Crashes Near Mexico Border

A drone loaded with packages containing methamphetamine lies on the ground after it crashed into a supermarket parking lot in the city of Tijuana on Jan. 20, 2015.
A drone loaded with packages containing methamphetamine lies on the ground after it crashed into a supermarket parking lot in the Mexican city of Tijuana on Jan. 20, 2015 AP

The craft was carrying six pounds of drugs

A drone loaded with methamphetamine crashed in a Mexican parking lot near the California border on Tuesday.

The craft was carrying close to 6 pounds of meth, and officials say it may have crashed because it was overloaded, according to the LA Times. It fell in the parking lot of a supermarket in Zona Rio, near the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Drones that are used to carry drugs over the border are called “blind mules,” says the Tijuana Public Safety Secretariat. This recent incident is under investigation.

[LA Times]

TIME Drugs

Maine to Test Some Welfare Recipients for Drugs

TIME.com stock photos Health Syringe Needle
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

New law requires testing for those with prior drug convictions within the past 20 years who indicate potential for drug dependency

Maine will soon begin to drug-test some welfare recipients with prior drug convictions as a condition to receive government aid, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced Wednesday.

The new rule calls for testing of recipients with a drug conviction from the past 20 years who also indicate potential drug dependency on a separate self-assessment. People who test positive for drugs, or refuse to take the test, will be required to enter a rehabilitation program to continue receiving aid.

“[Governor Paul LePage] is respecting the wishes of hardworking taxpayers who want to know that the hand up they provide is being used appropriately,” said Maine DHHS commissioner Mary Mayhew in a statement. “The goal of these benefits is not to subsidize poor lifestyle choices, but to help Mainers transition from a life of poverty to a life of prosperity.”

The new drug-testing rule, which applies to federal funding provided through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, will go into force within weeks, and has been years in the making. The legislature approved it overwhelmingly in 2011, but implementation was delayed as the state’s attorney general considered how to implement it while minimizing litigation. Attorney General Janet Mills approved a modified version of the rule last week.

The state is one 18 across the country that has enacted some form of legislation calling for drug testing for welfare recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Such policies, while politically popular in some areas, have been criticized as bad regulations that are potentially unconstitutional.

DHHS spokesman David Sorensen maintains that Maine’s law is a “middle ground” when compared to the policies elsewhere. “The whole goal is an overall effort to ensure that welfare is getting people from welfare to work,” Sorensen said. “We’re not interested in helping people to maintain a lifestyle of welfare dependency.”

TIME Drugs

Marijuana-Infused Sex Spray To Hit Stores in Colorado

The product will be launched at the X Games next week.

As the marijuana industry evolves in Colorado, which legalized recreational use in 2012, so too are the product offerings.

The latest, according to USA Today: Foria, a spray containing marijuana extract that claims to improve sex for women. As part of an intensive marketing campaign, the spray will be launched at the X Games in Aspen on Jan. 22 and be available in Colorado for people 21 and older.

Foria, a product from the California medical marijuana cooperative Aphrodite Group, has been available in California for holders of medical marijuana cards for several months, and it doesn’t come cheap. While card holders don’t buy the product, they “donate” about $44 for a 10ml bottle, according to USA Today.

Colorado and three other states — Washington, Oregon and Alaska — and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana use, though recreational sales are currently only allowed in Colorado and Washington.

[USA Today]

TIME U.K.

A Dad Sent His Son to Daycare With Drugs Instead of Lunch

Lee Webb, 23, of Burrow Road, Folkestone, kent, U.K.
Lee Webb, 23, of Burrow Road, Folkestone, Kent, U.K. Kent Police

Now he's been jailed for four years

A British dad who mistakenly sent his three-year-old son to daycare with a tupperware container of drugs and knives worth $18,000 instead of a packed lunch has received a four-year prison sentence.

Lee Webb, 23, of Folkestone in Kent, meant to drop the toddler off at daycare with food, but instead handed him over with a bag containing a lunchbox full of mephedrone and cocaine along with weighing scales, assorted drugs paraphernalia and two knives.

Upon realizing his blunder, Webb returned to retrieve the bag and container, but staff refused to return it and instead telephoned the police. When officers arrived, they noticed he had scrawled the telephone number of a lawyer on his hand.

Webb pleaded guilty on Jan. 6 to two counts of possession of controlled substances with intent to supply.

Speaking after sentencing, Detective Constable Kay Brown said, “Stupidity does not even come close to describing the actions of this man. The consequences of his irresponsible, not to mention illegal actions, could have been severe. As a father his role is to protect and nurture, however he put his own child at serious risk of harm.”

TIME Research

Duke Researchers Hail Breakthrough After Growing Muscle Tissue in Lab

Advancement may form bedrock for future personalized medicines

Scientists at Duke University announced this week that human skeletal muscle has been successfully grown in the laboratory that is able to react to stimuli just like native tissue.

The lab-grown muscle will allow researchers to study the effects that drugs and disease have on muscle tissue without having to endanger the health of a potential patient, reports Science Daily.

“The beauty of this work is that it can serve as a test bed for clinical trials in a dish,” says Nenad Bursac, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University.

Bursac said the development would hopefully allow doctors to begin prescribing personalized medicine to patients in the future.

“We can take a biopsy from each patient, grow many new muscles to use as test samples and experiment to see which drugs would work best for each person,” he explained.

[Science Daily]

TIME Addiction

Why You’ve Never Heard of the Vaccine for Heroin Addiction

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Addiction is a growing epidemic in the United States. So why don't we have a vaccine?

Every week, the chemist Kim Janda at the Scripps Research Institute gets at least one email—from an heroin addict or a person who loves a heroin addict—that goes something like this:

“I know you have no idea who I am, but I, as any true mother, want to save my son’s life—as does he! The problem is he can’t beat the craving and we are out of money. I will do whatever it takes to help him…Is there any way that he can become a part of a study for this vaccine?”

Janda responds to each email with the bad news that he has no current trials to enroll them, despite the fact that he has created what is likely the most promising vaccine against heroin addiction ever developed. Unfortunately, as is the case with lots of promising addiction research, no one wants to bankroll it.

“No pharmaceutical company is going to fund trials for heroin, no way,” says Janda, who’s been working on addiction vaccines for decades. “For meth? No way. Forget about it.” Janda has also worked on a meth vaccine. He has one for cocaine and one for a date rape drug too, but the heroin vaccine is the one he’s most confident about because it was proven to work a in clinical trials on rats. “The heroin one has been our best success in over 25 years of working—it’s the best data we’ve seen,” says Janda.

In 2013, preclinical trials of the drug on heroin-addicted rats showed those vaccinated didn’t relapse into addiction and were not hooked by high amounts of heroin in their system. “It’s really dramatic,” says Dr. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) who was involved in the heroin vaccine research. “You can inject a rat with 10 times the dose of heroin that a normal rat [could handle] and they just look at you like nothing happened. It’s extraordinary.”

Meanwhile, heroin addiction and overdose deaths are sharply increasing in the United States. A record number of people now use the drug, many of them “graduating” to heroin from painkillers. In July 2014, the CDC reported that 46 Americans die from an overdose of prescription painkillers every day. Doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for pain killers in a single year—enough for every U.S. adult to have a bottle of pills. Painkillers and heroin both come from the opioid poppy, but heroin is considerably less expensive than painkillers and, while it’s illegal, it does not require a prescription.

“In the 60s and 70s, if someone was addicted to heroin, it meant they began by putting the needle in their arm,” says Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer of the rehabilitation nonprofit Phoenix House. “That’s different from the average person using heroin today. It’s affecting mainstream, white America.”

The heroin vaccine, should it go to market, would not be the first pharmacological attempt to treat addiction. There are a handful of FDA-approved drugs like naltrexone and acamprosate for drug and alcohol addiction, and buprenorphine, which treats opioid addiction by curbing withdrawal symptoms. But they’re imperfect. For example, the medications must be taken every day, and stopping too quickly can also cause withdrawal.

Lack of funding for vaccine research aside, success has been elusive for the trials that have tested addiction vaccines on humans. A 2014 cocaine vaccine study showed disappointing results, and in 2011 a late-stage trial for a vaccine to help nicotine smokers fell short.

Such setbacks in the field hinder Janda’s own work and hopes at getting funding for his vaccines, he says.

Creating a vaccine for addiction is tricky because addictive drugs toy with the body and the brain, tapping directly into the brain’s reward systems, which are needed for survival. Vaccines have to interfere with that—without causing a number of other problems.

Janda’s vaccine works a bit like a sponge in the blood stream. If a person—or, in this case, rat—is inoculated, that “sponge” sucks up the drug and prevents it from reaching the brain. Some drugs for addiction will block receptors in the brain so when a drug reaches the brain it can’t activate it like it used to; the heroin vaccine prevents the drug from reaching the brain at all.

Janda and Koob are hoping to get investigational new-drug (IND) distinction from the FDA so that they can test the vaccine in humans. They have backing from the National Institutes of Health experts—National Institute of Drug Abuse allocated $27.1 million dollars to addiction-vaccine research in 2014—but it’s not enough for a human clinical trial.

Addiction vaccines are not without skeptics. Some experts think that the vaccine approach to addiction is small minded, since addiction is physical and psychological—and a vaccine would only treat part of the problem. Others cite earlier trials of other vaccines that didn’t pan out, such as a recent one for cocaine addiction. “I understand why there are skeptics,” says Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Phoenix House. “We have this expectation that for every kind of medical problem, there’s a perfect pill out there. But I think vaccines do hold tremendous promise for future treatments of addiction.”

If the heroin vaccine is to make it to human clinical trials, and even to market, it needs more research and the research needs more money. And while our understanding of addiction has evolved in recent years, many still view addiction as a moral failure of the addict, not something that can be cured or prevented using the same framework used for any communicable disease.

“I am not sure Americans realize that if they treated alcoholism and drug addiction they would save quadrillions of dollars in health care costs,” says Koob. “Go into any emergency room on the weekend and you will see half are there for alcohol and drugs. If for no other reason, investing in research on addiction will reduce health care costs in the future. That’s something I believe in.”

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