Monday, December 25, 2006

Cocaine on 94 Percent of Spanish Banknotes

The New York Times

Madrid (Reuters) - Traces of cocaine can be found on 94 percent of banknotes in Spain, a country that has one of the world's highest rates of users, according to a study published on Sunday.

The 100 notes tested were collected in gyms, supermarkets and pharmacies across Spain, where increased affluence and falling street prices have made the drug more and more accessible.

Cocaine now sells for as little as 60 euros ($80) a gram, or 5 euros ($7) a line, and it is regularly used by 1.6 percent of Spaniards, up from 0.9 percent in 1999, a government report said this month.

Law enforcement agencies say cocaine is getting cheaper and more popular in Europe because of efforts to boost production by Colombian paramilitaries and rebels who need money for weapons. Spain is a major entry point to Europe for the smugglers.

It was not clear how many of the notes had been used to snort cocaine and how many had picked up traces from other bills, according to the study by the Sailab laboratory, published in the daily El Mundo.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Afghanistan Opium Crop Sets Record

Opium production in Afghanistan, which provides more than 90 percent of the world's heroin, broke all records in 2006, reaching a historic high despite ongoing U.S.-sponsored eradication efforts, the Bush administration reported yesterday.

In addition to a 26 percent production increase over past year -- for a total of 5,644 metric tons -- the amount of land under cultivation in opium poppies grew by 61 percent. Cultivation in the two main production provinces, Helmand in the southwest and Oruzgan in central Afghanistan, was up by 132 percent.

White House drug policy chief John Walters called the news "disappointing."

The administration has cited resurgent Taliban forces as the main impediment to stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military investment has far exceeded anti-narcotic and development programs. But U.S. military and intelligence officials have increasingly described the drug trade as a problem that rivals and in some ways exceeds the Taliban, threatening to derail other aspects of U.S. policy.

"It is truly the Achilles' heel of Afghanistan," Gen. James L. Jones, the supreme allied commander for NATO, said in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. Afghanistan is NATO's biggest operation, with more than 30,000 troops. Drug cartels with their own armies engage in regular combat with NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan, he said. "It would be wrong to say that this is just the Taliban. I think I need to set that record straight," he added.

"They have their own capability to inflict damage, to make sure that the roads and the passages stay open and they get to where they want to go, whether it's through Pakistan, Iran, up through Russia and all the known trade routes. So this is a very violent cartel," Jones said. "They are buying their protection by funding other organizations, from criminal gangs to tribes, to inciting any kind of resistance to keep the government off of their back."

Any disruption of the drug trade has enormous implications for Afghanistan's economic and political stability. Although its relative strength in the overall economy has diminished as other sectors have expanded in recent years, narcotics is a $2.6 billion-a-year industry that this year provided more than a third of the country's gross domestic product. Farmers who cultivate opium poppies receive only a small percentage of the profits, but U.S. officials estimate the crop provides up to 12 times as much income per acre as conventional farming, and there is violent local resistance to eradication.

"It's almost the devil's own problem," CIA Director Michael V. Hayden told Congress last month. "Right now the issue is stability. . . . Going in there in itself and attacking the drug trade actually feeds the instability that you want to overcome."

"Attacking the problem directly in terms of the drug trade . . . would undermine the attempt to gain popular support in the region," agreed Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. "There's a real conflict, I think."

The Afghan government has prohibited the aerial herbicide spraying used by U.S. anti-narcotic programs in Latin America. Instead, opium poppy plants in Afghanistan are destroyed by tractors dragging heavy bars. But only 38,500 of nearly 430,000 acres under cultivation were eradicated this year.

Because of security concerns and local sensibilities, all eradication is done by Afghan police, and corruption is a major problem at every level from cultivation to international trafficking. Although the drug trade is believed to provide some financing to the Taliban, most experts believe it is largely an organized criminal enterprise. According to a major report on the Afghan drug industry jointly released last week by the World Bank and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, key narcotics traffickers "work closely with sponsors in top government and political positions."

The report drew specific attention to the Afghan Interior Ministry, saying its officials were increasingly involved in providing protection for and facilitating consolidation of the drug industry in the hands of leading traffickers. "At the lower levels," the report said, "payments to police to avoid eradication or arrest reportedly are very widespread. At higher levels, provincial and district police chief appointments appear to be a tool for key traffickers and sponsors to exercise control and favor their proteges at middle levels in the drug industry."

Opium cultivation was outlawed during Taliban rule in the late 1990s and was nearly eliminated by 2001. After the overthrow of the Taliban government by U.S. forces in the fall of that year, the Bush administration said that keeping a lid on production was among its highest priorities. But corruption and alliances formed by Washington and the Afghan government with anti-Taliban tribal chieftains, some of whom are believed to be deeply involved in the trade, undercut the effort.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently noted that "once we thought terrorism was Afghanistan's biggest enemy" but said that now "poppy, its cultivation and drugs are Afghanistan's major enemy."

Eradication and alternative development programs have made little discernible headway. Cultivation -- measured annually with high-resolution satellite imagery that is then parsed by analysts using specialized computer software -- is nearly double its highest pre-Karzai level.

"There is supposed to be a tremendous energy associated with this," Jones said of the counter-narcotics programs, "but it needs a fresh look because . . . we're losing ground.

Marijuana-like Drugs Help Treatment of Nervous System Diseases

Sofia News Agency

Many scientists believe marijuana-like drugs might be able to treat a wide range of diseases.

Researchers have already presented evidence that cannabinoid drugs can help treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS, Parkinson's disease and obesity. Other researchers are studying whether the compounds can help victims of stroke and multiple sclerosis.

Although the chemicals work on the same area of the nervous system, the new drugs are much more refined and targeted than marijuana, with few of its side effects.Like all neurotransmitter networks, the cannabinoid system consists of a series of chemical pathways through the brain and nervous system.

Marijuana produces its effects by activating this pathway, primarily through the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the drug's main active ingredient.

Researchers have learned that endogenous cannabinoids play a role in tissue protection, immunity and inflammation, among other functions. The cannabinoid system also appears to exert wide influence, modulating the release of dopamine, serotonin and other neurotransmitters.

Cannabinoids might slow down ALS, which destroys neurons that control muscles until victims become paralysed, research showed. Marijuana treatment delays disease progression by more than three years and may extend survival. That's a significant improvement over the only existing ALS drug, riluzole, which extends life by two months.

Researchers at the Institute of Neurology in London announced results showing cannabinoids have also helped some human ALS patients in one small trial. If cannabinoids can shield human neurons from harm, researchers say, they might prove useful against other neurological diseases, including mental illness. Scientists are looking at whether cannabinoids can treat multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and Huntington's disease.

Test Strips For The Rapid Detection Of Cocaine

Medical News Today

Saving the life of a poisoning victim is often a matter of minutes. It is best when the emergency doctor can perform a reliable diagnosis on the spot to determine which poison or what type of drug overdose a patient is suffering from. Complicated laboratory analyses and a complex apparatus are out of place in the emergency room. A team at the University of Illinois in Urbana has now laid the foundation for a new generation of rapid diagnostic tests that are as easy to handle as a pregnancy test: just dunk them in the sample and see if a colored band appears. These test strips are as reliable as laboratory methods. As a prototype, the researchers led by Yi Lu developed a test strip for the detection of cocaine in biological samples such as saliva, urine, and blood serum.

"Our method is based on tiny gold spheres and aptamers," reports Lu. Aptamers are single-stranded nucleic acid molecules that bind to certain target molecules with the same strength and specificity as antibodies. From a large number of DNA strands with random sequences (a library), it is basically possible to find a suitable aptamer for almost every target molecule. Says Lu: "The broad practical application of aptamers has thus far not realized its promise in practical diagnostics because the corresponding tests could not be made sufficiently user-friendly for the average user, who has not had laboratory training."

The new test strips for cocaine are different. When the end of the strip is dipped into a sample, the liquid travels along the strip to reach a zone with small gold-aptamer clumps. The trick lies in the special structure of these clumps: they are aggregates of nanoscopic gold spheres coupled to short DNA strands, some containing the biomolecule biotin. The DNA sequences are complementary to two regions of the cocaine-specific DNA aptamer. The aptamers bind to these strands, linking the gold spheres into larger aggregates. When the cocaine-containing liquid reaches these aggregates, the cocaine molecule instantly binds to the aptamers and removes them from the network; the aggregates fall apart into individual gold spheres. These free spheres are red. When the liquid travels further along the strip, it reaches a membrane. While the larger gold aggregates are stopped by the membrane, the red gold spheres are small enough to pass through it. They end up stuck to a narrow strip of streptavidin, a biomolecule that grabs onto the biotin on the gold surface like a hook onto an eye. The gold spheres get concentrated on the narrow strip and become visible as a distinct red stripe on the test strip.

"Our method is universal," stresses Lu. "Based on this principle, we should be able to develop rapid tests for the emergency diagnosis of a large number of drugs and poisons, as well as physiological molecules. The same method is also applicable to environmental monitoring."

Marijuana fan wants to roll the biggest joint


Los Angeles - A medical marijuana user plans to see in the new year on an all-time high - by rolling the world's biggest joint.

Los Angeles resident Brett Stone said he aims to usher in 2007 by rolling a 91cm cigarette using around 112 grams of marijuana.

Stone said he was inspired to try for a record after learning that the previous biggest joint was made with 100 grams.

"I thought the world's largest joint would have been a lot larger," said Stone, 48.

Medical marijuana use has been legal in California since 1996, when voters passed a law allowing the drug to be used as a pain reliever.

Stone said he would be careful to ensure that his record attempt would remain legal, indicating that the joint would be smoked in a local medical marijuana collective.

"We're probably going to do it as a fundraiser," he said. "And the mayor and police chief would be most welcome if they have a doctor's note to consume cannabis."

Stone said he plans to roll an even bigger joint to mark the US football final at the Super Bowl next February - and has asked companies if they can provide custom made rolling papers to help the attempt.

"I think a metre would be a good, smokeable size joint," Stone said. "I'm not looking to make a torpedo... I'm looking to make a smokeable joint."

Ecstasy study turns dance floor into lab

ABC Science Online

The idea of being followed around a nightclub by a researcher bent on taking a blood sample and measuring your temperature may not be your idea of a good time.

But 'field' studies like this may be the only way to get the full picture of the effects of the drug ecstasy, or MDMA, says University of Adelaide pharmacologist Professor Rod Irvine.

Irvine, whose unique recreation-setting study of ecstasy was presented at the Australian Health and Medical Research Congress in Melbourne today, says real-life studies of ecstasy paint a very different picture to conventional, controlled, low-dose laboratory studies.

"I'm not saying that we must go out into clubs and do naturalistic studies and that they're the only things to do, but those sorts of studies must be included in the spectra of what we're doing," he says.

"People out there will use much higher doses of the drugs than would ever be allowed ethically in a controlled clinical setting.

"So it gives you the opportunity ... to perhaps pick up data that you could never replicate in a laboratory."

Taking the lab to the club

Irvine's study, conducted with the PhD student Kate Morefield, analysed 10 people who took ecstasy in a party setting.

The subjects, aged around 27, had taken one to five pills.

Blood samples were collected just before taking the ecstasy and once an hour for the next four hours. Heart rate, temperature and blood pressure was also regularly monitored.

The study showed that using the drug in a recreational setting produced higher elevations in heart rate, blood pressure and skin temperature than previous laboratory studies had shown.

The concentration of MDMA, or methylenedioxymethamphetamine, in clubbers' blood also exceeded those reported in clinical research, Irvine says.

"In recreational settings, individuals experience or tolerate physiological effects of greater magnitude and achieve considerably higher blood concentrations of MDMA ... than those reported in controlled clinical studies," the research, contained in a poster presentation, says.

By Judy Skatssoon

Marijuana petition drive for 2008 ballot is under way


Lansing, Mich. Michigan residents could legally use marijuana on private property for under a measure proposed for the 2008 ballot.

The Board of State Canvassers today approved the form of a legislative petition proposed by an Eaton Rapids-based group backing the proposal.The measure would make it legal for those 18 and older to use marijuana on private property. Those found using the drug in public would be guilty of a civil infraction punishable by a 50-dollar fine.The measure also would allow people to grow marijuana at their residences.Supporters of the measure must gather about 304-thousand valid petition signatures to get on the 2008 ballot.
Previous signuture-gathering attempts failed in 2000, 2002 and this year.