Top Five Drug Stories of 2014

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

2014

Look at any list of the top news stories of 2014, and you’ll be left wondering how we made it through. From ebola outbreaks to Ferguson protests, the ice bucket challenge and tragic celebrity deaths, it’s been quite a year in news and pop culture. It’s also been an eventful year for those of us who care about our nation’s drug policy—and the millions of men, women, teens, and families who are affected by it every day. That’s why we’ve created our own list. A lot has happened on the drug front in the past 12 months; here are the highlights.

  1. The first legal marijuana sales took place in Colorado and Washington, and additional states followed their lead.

After legalizing pot in 2013, Colorado began retail sales on January 1st. Ten months later, Oregon and Alaska became the third and fourth states to legalize recreational marijuana, and Washington, D.C. legalized the drug’s use but not sales. These laws reflected a change in public opinion that none other than President Obama gave voice to when he told the New Yorker that he didn’t consider marijuana more dangerous than alcohol and viewed it as “bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked.” The New York Times went a step further when its Editorial Board came out in favor of legalization on the federal level, sparking intense debate.

But there were signs that legalization isn’t as inevitable as its advocates would like to think: An amendment to allow medical marijuana failed to pass in Florida, and several local legalization measures were voted down. (Perhaps problems surrounding edible pot products in Colorado led voters to question whether we are truly ready for legalization on a grand scale.) It was also a year filled with cautionary tales about the dangers of a prominent “Big Marijuana”; the message legalization sends to teens; and some disturbing findings about effects of pot on the adolescent brain.

  1. Measures to combat the opioid addiction epidemic were put in place—but more work remains.

People were surprised when Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State address to the opioid epidemic, and then were shocked when Philip Seymour Hoffman fatally overdosed on heroin—but both events brought a national spotlight on the opioid addiction crisis, prompting action on a variety of levels. For example, naloxone, a heroin overdose “antidote,” became more widely distributed among first responders and families of individuals struggling with opioid addiction; Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York implemented a “Combat Heroin” campaign; New England governors combined forces to devise a regional strategy to combat opioid abuse; and 2,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the FED UP! Rally to demand a federal response to the opioid crisis. A number of media reports also brought attention to the role that the overprescribing of opioid painkillers plays in fueling the epidemic.

These steps have greatly strengthened the fight against opioid addiction and overdose deaths; however, more work to expand access to treatment and curb painkiller prescribing will be necessary in 2015 and beyond to more effectively address the epidemic, which has claimed 125,000 lives over the past decade.

  1. Two states deal with drug-dependent babies by criminalizing their mothers…or decriminalizing them.

Last year, Tennessee legislators passed the Safe Harbor Act, which prohibits the Department of Children’s Services from placing the children of drug-addicted mothers into state custody (based on the addiction alone), provided the mom is actively seeking treatment. But this year, the state passed a law making it a crime to take drugs while pregnant—and 26-year-old Mallory Loyola became the first person to be charged under the law when she and her baby tested positive for methamphetamines after the baby’s birth. New Jersey, on the other hand, did an about face in the opposite direction. In 2013, a court found a woman guilty of abuse and neglect after her baby showed symptoms of withdrawal from the methadone she took as part of a treatment program prescribed by a licensed healthcare professional. Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed that ruling, with Justice Barry T. Albin writing that the finding could not be sustained and that the court was also concerned about discouraging “women from entering detoxification programs that will likely improve their children’s health prospects”—which is exactly what medical and treatment providers fear will be the effect of Tennessee’s law.

  1. Drug cartels are becoming ever more violent.

We heard more and more this year about kidnappings and killings by foreign drug kingpins and their operatives—some of whom are government authorities. Most notably, Mexican police abducted 43 students from the Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa in Iguala, a town in southwest Mexico, in September. Although their fate remains largely unknown, the prevailing theory is that they were turned over to a drug gang and murdered. More recently, police dispatchers in La Joya, Texas, received a call on Christmas Day claiming that a Mexican drug cartel member had kidnapped a U.S. Border Patrol agent (the claim is still being investigated). And three purported members of a Mexican drug cartel are accused of kidnapping a man right here in the U.S.

  1. Attitudes and laws about providing treatment are shifting—in the right direction.

2014 was a year of triumph for those who favor treatment over incarceration (the abovementioned Tennessee law notwithstanding). Many states and municipalities decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, while California passed landmark legislation that, among other things, made it the first state to effectively decriminalize the possession of drugs like heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines (turning felonies into misdemeanors). Known as Proposition 47, the California law also puts the money saved into education and treatment services. Equally important is the fact that Prop. 47 passed with 59 percent of the vote, signaling a change not just in legislative chambers, but also in the court of public opinion.

Another noteworthy piece of legislation was the Excellence in Mental Health Act, designed to improve and expand mental health and substance use disorder treatment by increasing access to qualified community programs; and a promising Pew Survey revealed that 67% of Americans believe our government’s drug policy should focus more on providing treatment than prosecuting drug users. A number of steps have been taken to make that happen this past year; let’s hope the trend continues in 2015.

Happy New Year!

Liana Johnson and Renée Riebling

Blog Editors, Phoenix House

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