Drug Policy

America’s opioid crisis

The drug-fuelled epidemic needs solutions fast

August 28th 2017 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Gatehouse Media

A recent article in The New Yorker painted a troubling and vivid portrait of the opioid crisis facing many areas of the nation. In her piece, Margaret Talbot details a number of graphic overdoses that have taken place in West Virginia, the U.S. state with the highest rate of opioid overdoses per 100,000 people (39.3). What is the cause of this phenomenon, and what can be done to alleviate it?


Dark numbers

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2015, there were more than 52,000 Americans killed by drug overdoses – or one every 10 minutes.

According to The Economist, about 33,000 of those can be attributed to opioids, the most common of which are prescription painkillers and heroin. While major cities feel some of the weight, it is actually areas such as Midwest America and Appalachia which are being truly devastated by this crisis.

In certain parts of the country, including Talbot’s focus of Berkeley County in West Virginia, overdoses are a daily occurrence. They seem to be taking place almost anywhere and at anytime. “Many addicts are collapsing in public – in gas stations, in restaurant bathrooms, in the aisles of big-box stores”, writes Talbot.

Graphic by The Economist

The number of overdoses has shot up dramatically around the country over the past several years as heroin has started to be laced with powerful prescription medications such as fentanyl. In the 21-country area surrounding Toledo, Ohio, there were only 8 overdose deaths in 2010. In the first six months of 2016, that same number was 127 deaths.

The burden placed upon paramedics has been so extreme that even entire teams of paramedics working 24-hour shifts are unable to reach every overdose in a timely manner. In those cases where they do, the main course of action is to administer a potentially life-saving dose of Narcan – a drug used to counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. Classes are now being offered to average citizens in areas with high overdose rates so that they know how to administer the drug themselves should the situation arise.


Pharmaceutical roots

The issue can be traced, at least in part, to the explosion in powerful prescription medications in the United States. In 1991, the number of opioid medications (Oxycontin, Vicodin, etc.) supplied to pharmacies was 76 million. In 2011, that number was 219 million.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact, according to The Economist, “in 2002 one in six users took a pill more powerful than morphine. By 2012 it was one in three.” Pharmaceutical companies and doctors have begun scaling back the prescriptions for painkillers, but that has turned people already hooked on opiates towards drugs like heroin instead, which is substantially cheaper than any prescription opioid.

Photograph via Getty Images

Certain officials, such as Governor Hogan, have pledged money and attention to the issue. Even U.S. President Donald Trump commented on America’s “terrible drug epidemic” during his speech before Congress in February, and in one of his few positive moves he set up a commission on drug addiction and offered $500 million to combat the problem.

Making matters worse is the aforementioned fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that is 50 times more powerful than heroin. The result is a dramatic increase in fatal overdoses in a number of states. In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency after the combination of heroin and fentanyl killed 1,468 Maryland residents in the first nine months of 2016, a 62% increase from previous year.


Solutions exist

It is not as if this is a problem we are mentioning for the first time. Highly regarded publications, including those cited in this article, have offered enormous spaces devoted to discussing this enormous issue.

Among others, The Economist firmly advocates the decriminalization of all drugs to replace America’s deeply-flawed policy of prohibition with a focus on health treatment and safe use centres:

Banning drugs is not just ineffective, it is also counterproductive. Fentanyl is a nasty substance, but prohibiting all illicit drugs, whether they are new or established, prevents the research that could distinguish between those which are more and less harmful. It also leads to topsy-turvy outcomes. Marijuana, which cannot lead to overdoses and which can be used as an effective pain-relief medicine, is classified by the federal authorities in America as a more dangerous drug than fentanyl, which is used in very controlled doses by cancer patients and abused fatally across the country.

It takes guts to legalise drugs when so many are dying from them. But it is better that addicts take safe doses of familiar substances under sanitary conditions than for them to risk their lives enriching criminals. Switzerland followed the legalisation path after a heroin epidemic in the 1980s, treating drugs as a public-health problem. Since then drug-taking and drug-related deaths have fallen. America should follow suit.

Every day that passes, 78 Americans die from an opioid overdose. And every day that passes without real solutions to this very real problem, those deaths will linger over the heads of those that have seen the problem, acknowledged it, and then decided to mire in inaction and rhetoric.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

US Election 2016

Bernie Sanders pulls Clinton towards progressive politics

The Presidential candidate from Vermont who represents the people

June 23rd 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Getty Images

When President Barack Obama first made his ascension to the highest office in the United States, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of American adults to see what word was most commonly associated with the president. The second most reported word was a ‘bad’ one: socialist.

To Americans, “socialist” is an unbelievably dirty word, a slur of sorts that can greatly ruin a potential political candidate’s chances of success. It is for this reason that the current popularity of Bernie Sanders, senator from Vermont and candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, is all the more surprising.


Progressive politics

Unlike President Obama, who was only called a socialist by his detractors, Senator Sanders actually describes himself with that label. He has championed the Scandinavian system of governance for decades, calling for higher tax rates, a single-payer healthcare system, free college education, increased wages, equal pay for women, stronger unions, campaign finance reform, and the expansion of social services among a litany of other leftist policies.

Friday night, appearing on Bill Maher’s show Real Time, Bernie Sanders said “It’s a very radical idea: we’re going to tell the truth. The truth is that, for forty years, the middle class of this country has been disappearing. And there has been a huge transfer of billions of dollars of working families to the top one-tenth of one percent. And what the people of this country are saying is: enough is enough, our government, our country, belongs to all of us, not just a few billionaires.”

His progressive style of politics recently became a tremendous selling point for him, allowing him to gain the support of millions of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30. Recently, Public Policy Polling (PPP) found that Mr. Sanders is currently supported by 22% of Democrats within that age bracket, beaten only by the heavily favoured Hillary Clinton.

Photograph by Oliver Parini

This may ultimately be his greatest hurdle, however, as the Democratic Party’s constituency extends far beyond the mostly white and affluent young adults who support Sanders. Clinton, who recently began to liberalise her social stances and highlight the plight of minorities within the party, is already seeing the fruits of such decisions as she currently polls at around 63% overall support rate according to PPP. Sanders, on the other hand, comes in second at a distant 13% overall.

The odds of Senator Sanders overcoming Clinton’s staggering popularity are slim, to say the least. Yet, given the nature of primaries, it is likely that his progressive views will have a wider and more important effect on US politics than his actual candidacy.

Most candidates for the Democratic nomination will be trying to play catch-up with Mr. Sanders, as his take on political issues, ranging from economics to the environment and social concerns, are more progressive than any other mainstream US politician today.


Changing the game 

On Friday, during Real Time, Bill Maher spoke in favour of Sanders for president, stating that he has “Hillary talking like Elizabeth Warren”. Indeed, Bernie Sanders could behoove Clinton to adopt many aspects of his economic philosophy as quickly as possible, as concerns of economic fairness and class mobility become central to the Democratic Party’s success in upcoming elections.

While the full scope of what his campaign will do to the American political sphere is yet to be seen, some of his ideas are already manifesting themselves in these fledgling campaigns. According to the Washington Post, Mrs. Clinton recently informed her top fundraisers that, if elected president, “all of her nominees to the Supreme Court will have to share her belief that the court’s 2010 Citizens United decision must be overturned”.

The case to which she is referring, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, infamously established that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a corporation. And whilst Clinton’s stance was widely acclaimed by supporters, Senator Sanders had already made the same proclamation several days earlier.

Photograph by Jonathan Ernst

“If elected president, I will have a litmus test in terms of my nominee to be a Supreme Court justice,” Sanders said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on May 10th. “And that nominee will say that we are all going to overturn this disastrous Supreme Court decision on Citizens United, because that decision is undermining American democracy. I do not believe that billionaires should be able to buy politicians.”

This was merely the latest in a continuing line of mimicry issued by Clinton’s campaign. On May 7th, after a federal appeals court ruled that the National Security Agency (NSA)’s collection of bulk call data was illegal and unauthorised under the Patriot Act, candidates sprung into action.

Clinton, who actually voted twice in favour of the Patriot Act during her time in Senate, tweeted that “Congress should move ahead now with the USA Freedom Act — a good step forward in ongoing efforts to protect our security & civil liberties,” before signing off with the letter “H” to indicate that she had authored the message herself.

This tweet, however, came just under six hours after Bernie Sanders had tweeted his own stance on the matter: “in my view, the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner”.


Towards election night 

Senator Sanders’ ability to make his opponents conform to his beliefs will be a tremendous game changer throughout the Democratic primaries. Having the opportunity to have his progressive views espoused on a national scale, by even more high profile and mainstream politicians than himself, could potentially allow socialism to finally drag itself out of the dregs of American political rhetoric.

Although he still has a great deal of ground to make up, Bernie Sanders is becoming more and more of a threat to Clinton’s campaign as the days go by. After a narrow defeat in a straw poll conducted by the Wisconsin Democratic Convention (the importance of which is disputed by some), Senator Sanders has started to etch fear into his opponents. His tremendous turnouts in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states hosting the first two primaries, will likely “cause the Clinton campaign to take Sanders seriously”, according to Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.

It will still be an uphill battle for Bernie Sanders, but regardless of whether he ultimately wins the nomination or not, he is sure to be a substantial progressive force in 2016 and in the future of US politics.

Nuclear Weapons

The resurgence of a nuclear USA and Russia

Rising tensions as Obama reverses his stance on disarmement

March 6th 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Jewel Samad

“It is now three minutes to midnight.”

So began the most recent press release, dated Jan. 22, 2015, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists regarding the latest adjustment of the historic Doomsday Clock. The symbolic clock represents humanity’s proximity to total extinction. Midnight represents a global catastrophe caused by either nuclear war or climate change.

Dating back to its origin in 1947, the closest the clock has come to midnight was three minutes to midnight in 1984, when the United States deployed large numbers of missiles to Western Europe, further intensifying the arms race between the US and Soviet Union. Now, humanity has once again found itself nearing the brink thanks to the resurgence of nuclear weapons.

Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, cited recent efforts by the US and Russia to modernise their nuclear arsenals as the reason for the clock’s adjustment. She stated that “global nuclear weapons modernisations and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity”.


Obama’s stance on the issue

In the eyes of many, the blame for this push toward human annihilation is the fault of 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, President Barack Obama. When Mr. Obama was given this award six years ago, just months into his presidency, the Norwegian Nobel Committee highlighted how his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations”.

At the time, the committee had every reason to believe this was his true vision. After all, Mr. Obama had given a speech in Prague about six months prior in which he expressed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Now, with the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency on the horizon, America finds itself in the midst of its most intense attempt to advance its nuclear weapons supply in decades. The Obama administration has initiated a program to modernise the almost 2,000 aging weapons of mass destruction that the United States can launch from an array of missiles, submarines and bombers.

According to a report released by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the plan will cost the US $1 trillion over the next 30 years, returning financial expenditures on nuclear weapons to Reagan-era peaks.

Jeffrey Lewis, a co-author of the report and member of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told the New York Times that Mr. Obama’s plan is fiscally unrealistic. “There isn’t enough money,” he said. “You are going to get a train wreck.”

For many supporters of disarmament, this incredible reversal in President Obama’s policy is not only a disappointment, but an outright betrayal. In an interview with the New York Times, Sam Nunn, a former United States senator whose writings regarding nuclear disarmament influenced Obama’s previous stance, expressed his confusion.

“A lot of it is hard to explain,” said Nunn. “The president’s vision was a significant change in direction. But the process has preserved the status quo.”


Russia as a military threat

The factor responsible for this plan of nuclear modernisation that most analysts point to is Russia’s renewed interest in nuclear weapons. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently bragged on state-run television that US missile defense systems “cannot stop” Russian ballistic nuclear missiles. He went on to assert that Russian technology “shows that neither the current, nor even the projected American missile defense system could stop or cast doubt on Russia’ strategic missile potential.”

This posturing has been dismissed by many as merely being hegemonic rhetoric meant to deflect views that the country is becoming weak under a failing economy. “If you’re Vladimir Putin and you’re trying to cling to and portray an image of Moscow as a superpower”, said former US ambassador Steven Pifer, “nuclear weapons is the only thing you have left to cite since the economy is suffering badly”.

Photograph by Getty Images

With the price of oil falling from over $100 a barrel at the end of 2013 to under $50 a barrel today, the Russian economy is struggling mightily. A recent series of studies conducted by the Economic Expert Group, a Russian consultancy, show that a $1 drop in the oil price per barrel leads to a massive loss of $2.3 billion in budget revenue.

Furthermore, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in the Donbass region of Ukraine have exasperated feelings of a “new Cold War”. Recent headlines have even featured mention of Russian spy rings being caught on American soil.


The world’s nuclear future

Sarah Lain, a research fellow and expert on Russia at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, believes that Russia’s behavior is bringing about Cold War-esque relations through aggressive attempts to assert dominance, not only internationally, but also domestically.

“A lot of the information and claims from the Russian government are in some ways more directed toward the domestic audience” she says, “given the economic issues, demonstrating strength when there is weakness in domestic management”.

With Cold-War era relations returning to prominence and countries’ reliance on the power of their nuclear weapons arsenals increasing once again, it would seem the world is ticking quickly towards midnight.

USA – Saudi Arabia Relationship

Politics trump issues of Human Rights

Obama visits Saudi Arabia amidst renewed tensions

February 6th 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

U.S. President Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman (Reuters)

Photograph by Jim Bourg (Reuters)

On Jan. 26 2015, former schoolteacher Moussa al-Zahrani likely spent much of his morning alone in his jail cell. If he had not already stirred by sunrise, he would have been awoken by prison guards – though he was almost certainly restless due to what awaited him. At that point, he was served his final breakfast and, if he was exceptionally lucky, was slipped a sedative to relax him.

Al-Zahrani had been convicted of sexually assaulting children in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Middle Eastern ally apart from Israel. Despite protests from human rights organizations asserting that a great deal of the evidence against al-Zahrani had been falsified, his execution by beheading was only a matter of minutes away.

Following morning prayers, al-Zahrani was quickly taken from his cell in the city of Jeddah, handcuffed and blindfolded, to his ultimate resting place in an effort to beat the stifling desert heat. In Jeddah, the location is a central square in town, though it lacks the notoriety of Riyadh’s Deera Square, better known by the surrounding citizens by its more ghoulish sobriquet “Chop Chop Square”.

When he arrived at the town square, a crowd undoubtedly gathered. English writer John R. Bradley wrote in his book “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside A Kingdom In Crisis” that in this particular area, “executions are the only form public entertainment…apart from football matches”.

He would then be led to the earthy patch in the center of the square. According to Muhmmad Saad al-Beshi, a prolific executioner notorious for allowing his seven children to clean his sword following an execution, it is at this point that the prisoner will acquiesce to the events occurring around him due to a combination of exhaustion and fear.

After all of the preparation has occurred without disturbance, as it did for al-Zahrani, death arrives swiftly for the condemned. “The head, upon detachment, appears to pop off the body, as with a doll that has been squeezed too hard”, wrote Janine Di Giovanni in Newsweek.

For many, however, the celebration of their death does not end once their head has been removed. A loudspeaker announces the crime for which the deceased has been executed, at which point people begin to applaud.

This macabre practice is nearly identical to the handiwork of the brutal Islamic State. However, Saudi Arabia, as one of the United State’s premier sources for crude oil and a widely cited asset against the war on terror, remains one of America’s closest allies. So close, in fact, that President Barack Obama deplaned the day after al-Zahrani’s execution.


Our so-called “allies”

Long before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but especially since their occurrence, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the more complex around the world. Osama bin Laden and 15 of 19 hijackers responsible for the attacks were Saudi nationals, initiating an enormous amount of American backlash against Saudi Arabia.

A 2002 report on terrorist financing conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations, an American non-profit think tank that has had more than a dozen Secretaries of State and numerous other high-level politicians on its board, found that “individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda. And for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem”.

Animosity toward the Saudi Arabians over this issue has persisted even to present day, as recent reports by CNN have been championing new allegations that members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaeda. In a sworn statement, Zacarias Moussaoui, the man frequently described as the 20th 9/11 hijacker, claimed he was tasked by Bin Laden with creating a digital database of al-Qaeda’s donors. According to Moussaoui, individuals such as Prince Turki al-Faisal Al Saud, the former director-general of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and ambassador to the United States, appeared on that list.

Max Rodenbeck, writing for the New York Review of Books in 2004, concluded that the American public and political system had a mental image of Saudi Arabia as a sort of “oily heart of darkness, the wellspring of a bleak, hostile value system that is the very antithesis of our own. America’s seventy-year alliance with the kingdom has been reappraised as a ghastly mistake, a selling of the soul, a gas-addicted dalliance with death”.

The relationship became so strained that, according to the Washington Post, a stunning proposal was made by the RAND Corporation, a prestigious think tank financed by the United States government, to the Defense Policy Board, an arm of the Department of Defense. In the proposal, it was suggested the United States should consider “taking [the] Saudi out of Arabia” by forcibly seizing the oil fields and delegating control of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca to a multinational committee of moderate Muslims.

“Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies”, argued Laurent Murawiec, the presenter of this idea and a protégé of Richard Perle’s, an advocate of war with Iraq who chaired the Policy Board. “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleaders”. He went on to describe them as “the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent” in the Middle East.

Sentiments of intense hostility were just as prevalent in Saudi Arabia. A survey taken by the Saudi intelligence service of “educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41” taken during Oct. 2001 found that “95 percent” of those surveyed supported the actions taken by Bin Laden.

Even the Saudi Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, repeatedly insisted that the Saudi hijackers from 9/11 were merely dupes in a Zionist plot to incite hatred against Saudi Arabia.

On Oct. 2, 2002, with tensions at an all-time high, President George W. Bush and Congress agreed on the joint resolution authorizing the Iraq War. It was under that context that a young, fresh-faced man who was a few months away from announcing his first campaign for the United States Senate stepped to the podium in front of the first high-profile anti-Iraq War rally in Chicago.

“Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hopes, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

The fiery conviction with which Barack Obama delivered these remarks serve only as a reminder of the naïve idealism that marked his earlier political career, a relic that President Obama likely no longer remembers as he is forced to deal with the complexity of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.


Balancing barbarism with stability

After the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Jan. 23, 2015, it was announced that President Obama would be visiting the country to pay his respects to the leader he praised, mentioning specifically “the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond”.

To the United States, Saudi Arabia is a key ally. So key, in fact, that the Obama administration has taken great lengths to assure the Saudi leadership that they are working together. Obama acquiesced to Saudi interests in regards to Egypt’s post-revolution political shift and the two are currently working together on combating the Islamic State as the group pushes toward the Saudi Arabian border.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have also worked together recently to plunge the price of oil, thereby tanking the weak oil-based economies of Russia and Iran. The move boosts both countries’ economies and severely weakens two of their biggest foes. It is a move of economic clout, showcasing just how powerful the U.S.-Saudi friendship is on the global stage.

It is for this reason that issues of human rights in Saudi Arabia have been set firmly on the back burner by the United States. In the wake of the Islamic State’s rise and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Saudi kingdom has received a great deal of scrutiny for their harsh and brutal retribution against criminals and political dissidents. Blogger Raef Badawi, for the crime of insulting Islam, was sentenced to 10 years in jail, fined $267,000 and ordered to receive 1,000 public lashes.

A recent article in the Washington Post compared the legal punishments doled about by Saudi Arabia with those administered by the Islamic State. The results were shockingly identical. For simple theft, both will amputate the hands and feet of the thief. For adultery while married, the punishment is death by stoning. For blasphemy, acts of homosexuality, treason or murder, the sentence is death, typically by beheading.

Both the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia are governed by strict interpretations of Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Quran. The obvious major distinction, however, is that Saudi Arabia is a close economic and political partner. It is for this reason that the Saudis do not have the president blasting them for what he said were “barbaric” punishments when the Islamic State performed them.


Political strategy

Before making this latest trip to Saudi Arabia, President Obama acknowledged it’s human rights record and, far from the idyllic rhetoric from 2002, asserted that America would have to overlook it for the sake of politics.

“Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counterterrorism or dealing with regional stability,” he told CNN.

The idea is not new, but the increasingly complex relationship between America and Saudi Arabia, as well as the willful ignorance toward their human rights policy only serves to drive home the fact that modern political strategy does not allow for idealism or helping people. It merely permits or, in some instances, limits those in power to striving to protect national interests and nothing more.

Click here to see BBC’s video on Saudi Arabia.