The Federal Drug Administration has given accelerated approval to aducanumab as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, while asking the manufacturer, Biogen, to conduct a phase 4 confirmatory trial. ‘There remains some uncertainty,’ according to the director of the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, ‘about the drug’s clinical benefit.’
‘Old age’, ‘senile dementia’, ‘cerebrovascular disease’ and ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ are all designations of a process of dementia that occurs in older people. The name has changed over time in subsequent editions of the International Classification of Diseases.
Donald Trump said last year that migrant caravans, mainly of Hondurans, were coming to the US from ‘shithole countries’. But now he says that the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, is doing a ‘fantastic job’. Trump and JOH recently reached an agreement declaring Honduras to be a ‘safe place’ for asylum seekers trying to reach the US. JOH also promised to help the US tackle transnational criminal organisations. He’s well placed to do this. Last November, his brother Tony was arrested in Miami and accused of drug trafficking and possessing illegal weapons. At his trial in New York, which concluded last week, the jury found Tony Hernández guilty. He faces at least 30 years in prison for bringing 200,000 kilos of cocaine into the US between 2004 and 2018, in packets often stamped with his own initials.
Click here to read an expanded, updated version of this piece in the latest issue of the paper. While in Washington, DC, negotiations over a border wall remain at an impasse, a case is unfolding in a federal district courtroom in Brooklyn that casts President Trump’s ambition in a new light. Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman stands accused of running Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, and trafficking billions of dollars’ worth of drugs into the United States.
Six months after a peace accord was signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, coca production in the country is said to be at its highest level in two decades. Rafael Alcadipani, a public safety researcher at FGV university in Rio de Janeiro, says that the Colombian peace process could make Latin America less stable. ‘It has a definite impact in making the connection between Colombian and Brazilian gangs stronger and the illegal drug trade stronger,’ he told me. ‘We’re getting information from intelligence services that the Farc and the PCC’ – the Primeiro Capital Command, a São Paulo gang – ‘have been in touch. There are some particular drug routes in the Amazon where the two groups meet and negotiate. My understanding is that the war is ending in Colombia and a war is starting between drug gangs in Brazil, so retired guerillas could be hired.’
The fentanyl crisis in British Columbia continues unabated. There were 128 overdose deaths in November, the worst month on record until December’s figures were released this week: 142 deaths. There were nine fatal overdoses in Vancouver on the night of 15 December alone. Last year, 914 people died in the province from illicit drug overdoses, an increase of 80 per cent on the previous year. (The problem isn’t restricted to Canada. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘the death rate of synthetic opioids other than methadone, which includes drugs such as tramadol and fentanyl, increased by 72.2 per cent’ in the United States between 2014 and 2015. In 2013, more than 2000 people died from opiate overdose in the UK.)
Last April, British Columbia’s chief health officer took the unusual step of declaring a public health emergency after 200 people died from (suspected) fentanyl overdose during the first three months of 2016. By August the number of deaths had risen to 488. This is a record high, a 61.6 per cent increase on the same period in 2015 (302).
In 1998, after testing positive for high levels of testosterone, the American sprinter Dennis Mitchell blamed the result on alcohol (five beers) and sex (four times the previous night). It was his wife’s birthday, he said. ‘The lady deserved a treat.’ After failing three drugs tests in 2009 and 2010, the Olympic gold medallist LaShawn Merritt attributed the result to a ‘product I used for personal reasons’: the penis-enhancement drug ExtenZe. The Belgian cyclist Björn Leukemans, suspended for doping in 2008, claimed that high levels of testosterone appeared in his urine because drug testers interrupted him having sex with his wife. Anti-doping officials said that no amount of sex could explain the levels of synthetic testosterone in his blood.
In late 2009, the psychiatrist Friederike Meckel was arrested in Zurich and charged with multiple violations of the Swiss Narcotics Act. Meckel didn’t dispute the charges. She admitted that she and her husband, a lawyer, hosted group therapy sessions at their mountain villa, where therapist and patients – including doctors, academics and lawyers – took MDMA and LSD. The group was undone by an ex-patient, a woman who brought her husband to the sessions to work on their marital problems. He left her and moved in with Meckel and her husband; she told the police about the drugs.
In January 1983, police in Los Angeles arrested frogmen bringing 400 pounds of cocaine ashore from a Colombian freighter. But they missed their main target, the drug importer Norwin Meneses, who may have been tipped off by officials. In August 1986, a US Customs informant, Joseph Kelso, told his handlers that Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Costa Rica were sharing profits from Meneses’s LA drug shipments. The Costa Rican police arrested Kelso.
There’s been excitement this week at the announcement of a new antibiotic. Called teixobactin by its discoverers, it is produced by a soil bacterium, also new to science because it needed the development of a novel system to enable it to grow and be tested in the laboratory for antibiotic production.
A couple of years ago I went to the 25th annual Cannabis World Cup in Amsterdam. The cup, organised by High Times magazine, part trade-show and part awards ceremony, has been held in Amsterdam since 1987. In a large dank hanger in an old shipyard in the east of the city, hundreds of young men gathered under a thick fug of smoke. They discussed marijuana cultivation and argued about the terroir of their favourite strains of hashish. There were ‘cooking with weed’ demonstrations and lectures on the history of cannabis. Stands sold seeds and smoking paraphernalia. One man was pushing his stealth smoking pipes disguised as asthma inhalers.
Nembutal, an old friend of mine from other days, turns out to be pentobarbital, US executioners' drug of choice for lethal injections. Now a problem has arisen. The licensed manufacturer refuses to allow it to be sold for that use, and so it comes about that the state of Missouri, which has an inmate, Michael Taylor, on death row waiting to be dispatched this month, has no stocks to hand and can't get the wherewithal. Unable to source the real thing, they looked around for someone to cook it up for them. Homemade pentobarbital can apparently give you a very nasty death – on top of the already nasty death you get from judicial execution. In a recently recorded use of it, the victim's heart continued to beat for ten minutes after he had stopped breathing; last month another recipient of such an injection said after 20 seconds: 'I feel my whole body burning.'
Those who hold up the Netherlands as a beacon of toleration often cite Amsterdam’s ganja speakeasies as evidence. Last weekend I took a (coach) trip there to see them. On the coach our Dutch chaperones are Brian and Edgar. Brian (his real name) has lived in Brussels for the past eighteen months. He reckons that Brussels, and Belgium generally, suck the chrome off a bumper. Why? Everything is better in the Netherlands. ‘Amsterdam is like New York. Brussels is like a village in Arizona. Public transport is shit. Everything is dirty. Wifi coverage is crap compared with Holland. Vegetables in the shops are squashy or too hard. And the bureaucracy...’ ‘Don’t tell me about the bureaucracy,’ I say, but he does anyway, with a credible saga about his problems getting a Belgian bank card. I ask him about the coffee shops.
At the end of last year, Israel’s Ynet News ran an article headlined ‘Hezbollah's cocaine Jihad’. Eldad Beck, reporting from Mexico, described Chiapas as ‘a hub of radical Islamist activity’. The piece was quickly taken up by Pamela Geller and other like-minded commentators.
The president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, announced on Twitter on 2 December that the repatriation and immediate imprisonment of Manuel Noriega would enable Panamanians to ‘finally close this bitter chapter’ of history. Noriega arrived in Panama City nine days later, the third and final stop on a multinational extradition tour that began with his ousting by the US military in January 1990 in Operation Just Cause. Incarcerated for nearly two decades in Miami on drug trafficking charges, Noriega then performed a shorter stint in a Paris jail for money laundering and was convicted in absentia in Panama for the murder of two political opponents in the 1980s. He is now in the El Renacer prison in Gamboa. Residents of El Chorrillo, a poor area of Panama City, may not share Martinelli’s sense of justice and closure. It was bombed so heavily during Operation Just Cause that ambulance drivers referred to it as ‘Little Hiroshima’.
Last week, for the second year running, Forbes magazine declared the Mexican telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim Helú the richest man in the world. In 2010, Slim – who holds a near-monopoly on mobile and landline services in Mexico, and whose family fortune includes department stores, hotels, mining, chemical, oil drilling, tobacco, tyre, construction and financial services companies as well as substantial chunks of both the centre of Mexico City and the New York Times – edged past Bill Gates by $500 million. This year Slim enjoyed a more comfortable lead: in just 12 months, his net worth has swollen by more than 30 per cent to an estimated $74 billion. Gates trails behind with a measly $54 billion.
One of the most striking exhibits at the Wellcome Collection’s High Society exhibition is a set of images of webs spun by spiders on drugs – the results of an investigation commissioned by Nasa into the effects of narcotics on behaviour. Strangely, the most psychedelic web is the one spun on caffeine – an asymmetric tessellation of wonky polygons – while the one spun stoned on marijuana looks sloppy and unfinished. Drugs are habit-breaking, as well as habit-forming: the spiders had spun webs the same way for years, but were suddenly prompted to experiment. Bored of hexagons, why not try trapezoids?