Documentary film explores what’s at stake in the war on drugs – generic drugs | 

Fire in the Blood will be screened Saturday, 7 pm, at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue, Seattle, WA, 98122.

A prize-winning documentary film, Fire in the Blood, will be screened in Seattle this weekend to make the case that there is another war on drugs taking place across the planet – a still-raging war on generic drugs that began more than a decade ago over the price of AIDS medications.

Dylan-Mohan-Gray “We have a deeply flawed system of drug development and commercialization that affects everyone, including the United States,” the director of the film, Dylan Mohan Gray, told Humanosphere by Skype from his home in Mumbai, India. “This film, and this issue, is not just about AIDS. It’s about what’s undermining people’s access to medicines.”

Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and even a drug industry insider-whistleblower work to transform this documentary exploration of the complex politics of the pharmaceutical industry into something more like a murder mystery thriller.

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Potcast: The global implications of Washington state legalizing marijuana | 

Seattle Hempfest 2013
Seattle Hempfest 2013

Since Washington and Colorado voters approved the legal use of marijuana for recreational purposes, many are predicting other states will follow suit. The sober goal of this anticipated movement is to move away from the law enforcement approach to combating substance abuse through the public health strategy of ‘harm reduction’ – including reducing the harm of putting many people in prison for just using pot.

It’s still an experiment of sorts and what interests us here at Humanosphere is how this sea change in the U.S. is reverberating around the world. We talk with Alison Holcomb, a Seattle attorney with the local ACLU and the author of the successful ballot initiative that legalized weed in the Evergreen state, and Jake Ellison, author of SeattlePI.com’s widely read PotBlog.

We ask Holcomb to tell us more about her work in Uruguay assisting politicians and civil society in convincing the public to legalize marijuana as a means to undermine criminal cartels – and predict what is coming in other countries. Ellison talks about the likely challenges, and outright battles, to come – including international treaties that will need to be altered if the world at large seeks to move away from the arguably failed War on Drugs.

Before we get into the weeds of weed, Ansel and Tom discuss some of the news highlights in the Humanosphere this week. The conflict in South Sudan has remained high profile, in part because the U.S. government had invested so much in launching the world’s newest nation – but perhaps failed to deal with many of the underlying factors that led to its recent unraveling. Also noted was an article by Montreal-based journalist Judi Rever in which she makes the case for a less simplistic, cheerleading view of Rwanda and yet another spat in the Twitterverse centered on the chronic aid debate between economists Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Easterly. Enjoy!

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How the Evergreen state helped Uruguay legalize marijuana | 

Ken Kesey's bus at Seattle's Hempfest
Ken Kesey’s bus at Seattle’s Hempfest

Earlier this week, politicians in Uruguay voted to make the South American nation the first in the world to legalize marijuana – a bold move aimed at regulating the use of pot and disrupting the criminal drug trade.

But they might not have had it not been for a little help from Washington state, in the form of Alison Holcomb, a civil rights attorney in Seattle who led the successful citizen’s initiative here in the (appropriately named) Evergreen state that de-criminalized recreational use of pot.

Here in the U.S., where our policymakers tend to be as bold as lukewarm soup, it is largely the public (fed up with the failed War on Drugs, surveys say) that has been pushing for our political leaders to adopt a more rationale alternative to dealing with drug use.

In Uruguay, it was the politicians pushing the public. President José Mujica had decided that legalizing marijuana would reduce the harm, and the violence, caused by the drug cartels.

“But a poll done in 2012 showed that 64 percent of Uruguayans were opposed to the idea,” said Holcomb, who works for the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. As I noted earlier at this year’s colorful, sickly sweet-smelling August gathering of Seattle Hempfest, Washington state’s legalization of pot continues to have global implications. Continue reading

Providing alternatives to drugs may disrupt addiction in the poor | 

What if addicts were not really addicts? What if they were given other options than drugs?

Researcher Dr. Carl Hart says that people will respond to alternatives like cash in lieu of drugs. His findings turn the long held belief that drugs trapped the poor. He posits that drug use is more of a coping mechanism than it is a trap of addiction.

Some will not be surprised that Hart found that poverty, rather than drugs, is far more damaging to families and communities. From the New York Times:

Yes, he notes, some children were abandoned by crack-addicted parents, but many families in his neighborhood were torn apart before crack — including his own. (He was raised largely by his grandmother.) Yes, his cousins became destitute crack addicts living in a shed, but they’d dropped out of school and had been unemployed long before crack came along.

“There seemed to be at least as many — if not more — cases in which illicit drugs played little or no role than were there situations in which their pharmacological effects seemed to matter,” writes Dr. Hart, now 46. Crack and meth may be especially troublesome in some poor neighborhoods and rural areas, but not because the drugs themselves are so potent.

Hart is making the news rounds to promote his new book, High Price. It is being described as a equal bit autobiography (the crack epidemic that wrecked his community motivated his research into stopping drug use) and research study.

“If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart to the NYT. “The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats.”

Might this give pause to the idea of excluding men from microfinance programs? Could it be possible that well-designed loans could reduce alcohol consumption and drug use?

Did India beat Big Pharma in drug patents war? | 


Flickr, by Rodrigo Senna

The Guardian asks:  Did India beat Big Pharma in the patent wars?:

“Two recent court cases in India may have changed the rules of the game. On 1 April, pharma giant Novartis lost a six-year legal battle after the Indian supreme court ruled that small changes to its leukaemia drug Glivec did not deserve a new patent…. (O)nly one month before, India upheld a compulsory licence of Bayer’s cancer drug Nexavar, effectively allowing generics firms to copy a patented drug, reportedly bringing the price down from more than $5,500 (£3,540) per month to $175 (£112). Both rulings are landmark cases, vehemently criticised by both Big Pharma and major drugs-producing countries.”

So, this author asks, has India won the patent war with Big Pharma?

Answer: Not really. Continue reading

Novartis vs. India: Patents vs. the poor? | 

Flickr, Brooks Elliott

One of the biggest, thorniest dilemmas in global health is coming to a head in India.

(And the biggest player in this arena, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with a former top Novartis executive running the global health program, has no comment on it. More on that below).

At one level, it’s a narrow legal battle between the drug company Novartis and the government of India over an expensive cancer drug known in the U.S. as Gleevec, and everywhere else as Glivec.

Novartis has challenged India’s denial of patent protection for the drug and the case is now under consideration by the Indian Supreme Court. Those on either side of the argument say the case has major implications for all of global health.

Why? Because this legal battle pits one set of laudable goals, finding new and better drugs, against another equally critical aim, making sure all the people who need these drugs can afford them.


Paul Herrling

“If a breakthrough compound like this cannot be patented in India, that has major consequences for innovation in India and elsewhere,” said Paul Herrling, head of corporate research at Novartis.

“This isn’t really about Gleevec,” added Herrling. “This is just one part of a much larger issue.”

On that last point, many global health advocacy organizations and activists would agree.

Organizations like MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors without Borders) Oxfam and others focused on ensuring poor people have access to life-saving drugs see Novartis vs. India as central to a much bigger industry-wide push now taking place on a number of fronts.

Judit Rius, MSF

“This is part of a global strategy aimed at lowering the bar, of making it easier for these companies to extend their drug patent monopolies,” said Judit Rius, U.S. manager of MSF’s Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines.

A Novartis win in Indian court would seriously undermine the generic drug industry, Rius said, reducing the supply of cheap drugs that make a life-and-death difference in poor countries.

MSF, Oxfam and other health advocacy organizations have been fighting Novartis on this case for years. It has dragged on within the India court system since 2006, getting filed, denied and then re-filed, with advocates for the drug company arguing that India is improperly protecting its burgeoning generic drug industry while many public health advocates argue Novartis is profit-seeking at the expense of the poor.

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Seattle philanthropy seeks changed mindset in world murder capital | 

Flickr, Curtis Gregory Perry

Down with Drugs

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Mexico and soon will be on his way to Honduras, meeting with Central American leaders to figure out an effective strategy for combating the surging, deadly drug trade.

Many Latin American leaders say the so-called ‘War on Drugs,’ which emphasizes aggressive law enforcement, has failed and only led to increased violence. Some want to explore de-criminalizing drugs.

The Obama Administration and others remain steadfastly opposed to legalization, and appear to be planning stepped-up hemispheric drug enforcement actions.

But what if the illicit drug trade is just a symptom of the real problem?

“What’s really needed is a new mindset, about changing the culture so that the people with wealth and power in these countries invest in improving the lives of their own citizens,” said Mauricio Vivero, executive director at the Seattle International Foundation.

Puget Sound Business Journal

Mauricio Vivero

Vivero just got back from Honduras, which some have dubbed the current murder capital of the world, where he met with business leaders, politicians, philanthropists and development experts. He attended a meeting in San Pedro Sula called by the Honduran government and World Bank and featuring the Central American Leadership Initiative — an organization launched in 2007 by Bill Clapp, co-founder of the Seattle International Foundation, along with other business leaders in the region.

Biden is headed to Honduras Tuesday in part because the drug cartels are moving there, forced south due to the crackdown in Mexico.

The fight against drug cartels often resembles pushing on a balloon. Continue reading

Bridging the gap between industry and those fighting diseases of poverty | 

A new global initiative launched this week in Geneva aimed at combating neglected diseases in poor countries by getting drug companies to share their patents and discoveries can be credited in large part to one Seattle woman’s religious upbringing.

But probably not in the way you think.

Tom Paulson

Melinda Moree and colleague Don Joseph at work in Seattle's Caffe Fiore

“I grew up in a very religious household, with rabid ideology,” said Melinda Moree. “So I do everything I can to make sure any discussion I’m involved in is not driven by ideology but by a pragmatic focus on problem-solving.”

Moree, who I caught up with recently at a coffee shop on Queen Anne, is chief executive officer of BIO Ventures for Global Health. Yes, it’s a fairly boring name but what they do, which I’ll get to in a bit, is quite exciting with the potential for transforming biomedical research and saving millions of lives.

The ideology Moree is currently working against is not rabid religiosity but an ideological rift that she thinks prevents progress in global health. Namely, the ideological gap between the public sector or humanitarian organizations and the profit-seeking drug and biomedical industry.

“There’s been an especially rocky relationship between the private sector and public sector over intellectual property,” she said.

Activists contend patents protect drug company profits at the expense of the lives of the poor. The drug industry, in turn, say activists and humanitarian organizations simply don’t understand that drugs and vaccines don’t just appear by magic. Continue reading