Feds say heroin, fentanyl remain biggest drug threat to US
By MICHAEL BALSAMO
Friday, November 2
WASHINGTON (AP) — Drug overdose deaths hit the highest level ever recorded in the United States last year, with an estimated 200 people dying per day, according to a report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Most of that was the result of a record number of opioid-related deaths.
Preliminary figures show more than 72,000 people died in 2017 from drug overdoses across the country. About a week ago, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said overdose deaths, while still slowly rising, were beginning to level off, citing figures from late last year and early this year.
The DEA’s National Drug Threat Assessment, which was released Friday, shows that heroin, fentanyl and other opioids continue to be the highest drug threat in the nation. But federal officials are concerned that methamphetamine and cocaine are being seen at much higher levels in areas that haven’t historically been hotspots for those drugs. The DEA is also worried that people are exploiting marijuana legalization to traffic cannabis into the illicit market or to states that don’t have medicinal or recreational-use marijuana laws, according to the report.
The preliminary data also showed 49,060 people died from opioid-related overdose deaths, a rise from the reported 42,249 opioid overdose deaths in 2016.
President Donald Trump has declared the U.S. opioid crisis as a “public health emergency” and just last week pledged to put an “extremely big dent” in the scourge of drug addiction.
Fatal heroin overdoses rose nationwide between 2015 and 2016, with a nearly 25 percent increase in the Northeast and more than 22 percent in the South. Most of the heroin sold in the U.S. is being trafficked from Mexico, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seize the most amount of heroin along the Mexico border, near San Diego, California, the report said.
Fentanyl and other related opioids, which tend to be cheaper and much more potent than heroin, remain one of the biggest concerns for federal drug agents.
The DEA has said China is a main source of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids that have been flooding the U.S. market. China has pushed back against the characterization, and U.S. officials have stressed they work closely with their Chinese counterparts as they try to stem the flow of drugs.
Legislation that Trump signed last week will add treatment options and force the U.S. Postal Service to screen overseas packages for fentanyl.
Azar said in a speech last week that toward the end of 2017 and through the beginning of this year the number of drug overdose deaths “has begun to plateau.” However, he was not indicating that deaths were going down, but that they appear to be rising at a slower rate than previously seen.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary figures that appear to show a slowdown in overdose deaths from December to March. In that period, the figures show that the pace of the increase over the previous 12 months has slowed from 10 percent to 3 percent, according to the preliminary CDC figures.
Even if a slowdown is underway, no one is questioning the fact that the nation is dealing with the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history. While prescription opioid and heroin deaths appear to be leveling off, deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines are on the rise, according to CDC data.
The DEA’s report also noted that methamphetamine is making its way into communities where the drug normally wasn’t heavily used, the report said. Chronic use of meth, a highly addictive stimulant, can cause paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations and delusions, studies have shown.
As the government enacted laws that limited access to cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine — the ingredient used to cook meth with other household chemicals — or required the medications to be placed behind pharmacy counters, officials discovered the number of meth labs began to drop.
But the DEA has found the gap is being filled by Mexican and Latin American drug cartels that had primarily dabbled in heroin and cocaine trafficking. A saturated market on the West Coast is now driving the cartels to peddle methamphetamine into the Northeast, using the same routes they use for heroin and other drugs.
Officials also warn that because of more cocaine production in South American countries including Colombia, they expect to see larger shipments at the Mexican border.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.
Follow Michael Balsamo on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MikeBalsamo1 .
This story has been corrected to show that the preliminary data indicated there were 72,000 drug overdose deaths, not specifically opioid-related overdose deaths, and that Azar spoke last month, not this month.
Iran president warns of ‘war situation’ as sanctions resume
By NASSER KARIMI and AMIR VAHDAT
Monday, November 5
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran greeted the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Monday with air defense drills and a statement from President Hassan Rouhani that the nation faces a “war situation,” raising Mideast tensions as America’s maximalist approach to the Islamic Republic takes hold.
The sanctions end all economic benefits America had granted Tehran for its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, though Iran for now continues to abide by the accord that saw it limit its enrichment of uranium. While at the moment not threatening to resume higher enrichment, Iranian officials in recent months have made a point to warn the controversial process could resume at any time, faster than before.
The new American sanctions particularly hurt Iran’s vital oil industry, a crucial source of hard currency for its anemic economy. Its national currency has plummeted over the last year, sending prices for everything from mobile phones to medicine skyrocketing.
“Today, Iran is able to sell its oil and it will sell,” Rouhani vowed Monday as the sanctions kicked in.
However, the noose of American sanctions appeared to be tightening. Iranian officials, meanwhile, reported a cyberattack targeting the country’s communication infrastructure, blaming the purported attack on Israel.
Iranian state television aired footage of air defense systems and anti-aircraft batteries in two-day military maneuvers underway across a vast stretch of the country’s north. It included surface-to-air missiles shooting down a drone.
The drill was to continue through Tuesday. Iranian army Gen. Habibillah Sayyari said both the national army and the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard were taking part in the exercise.
Rouhani, meanwhile, pledged to government officials in comments aired on state TV that Iran would overcome the sanctions.
“We are in the war situation, ” Rouhani said. “We are in the economic war situation. We are confronting a bullying enemy. We have to stand to win.”
He further stepped up the rhetoric, comparing Iran’s situation in the 1980s war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein with the current one and President Donald Trump’s move to reinstate U.S. sanctions.
“Yesterday, Saddam was in front us, today Trump is front of us. There is no difference. We must resist and win,” he said.
Iran is already in the grip of an economic crisis. Its national currency, the rial, now trades at 150,000 to one U.S. dollar, down from when it traded around 40,500 to $1 a year ago. The economic chaos sparked mass anti-government protests at the end of last year which resulted in nearly 5,000 reported arrests and at least 25 people being killed. Sporadic demonstrations still continue.
Rouhani separately said leaders from “four powers” met with Iran on the sidelines of the September meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to try to save the deal, including brokering a possible meeting with Trump. He did not name those countries, but was likely referring to China, France, Russia and Britain, which along with Germany made up the world powers involved in the 2015 nuclear deal.
“This issue does not require a mediator,” Rouhani said, blaming America for unilaterally pulling out of the accord.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi also predicted the sanctions will actually work against America’s interests.
“Many countries from Europe to Russia and China have opposed the sanctions,” Ghasemi told journalists, adding that Iranians “have experienced more extensive sanctions” and that they are “not a new issue.”
The United States says the sanctions are not aimed at toppling the government, but at persuading it to radically change its policies, including its support for regional militant groups and its development of long-range ballistic missiles.
However, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, both have made public statements supporting overthrowing Iran’s theocratic government.
Also Monday, Iran’s Telecommunication Minister Mohammad Javad Azeri Jahromi and his deputy, Hamid Fatahi, both tweeted about a cyberattack targeting the country’s communications infrastructure, without elaborating. They blamed Israel for the attack and both referenced Stuxnet, which destroyed thousands of centrifuges involved in Iran’s contested nuclear program in 2011. Stuxnet is widely believed to be an American and Israeli creation, though neither country has acknowledged being behind the attack.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the Iranian claim. Last week, Gen. Gholam Reza Jalali, the head of country’s military unit in charge of combatting sabotage, said Rouhani’s cellphone was tapped recently.
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman welcomed the newly restored U.S. sanctions, saying in a tweet that they will deal a “critical blow” to Iran’s military presence around the Middle East.
The Trump administration’s decision to restore sanctions “is the sea change the Middle East has been waiting for,” he said.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
US sanctions on Iran take force; major oil importers spared
By MATTHEW LEE
AP Diplomatic Writer
Monday, November 5
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration’s tough new sanctions on Iran took effect on Monday but eight major importers of Iranian oil were spared from immediate penalties.
The sanctions target Iran’s energy, financial and shipping sectors and are aimed at crippling the country’s economy following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. The measures restore all the U.S. sanctions that had been lifted under the accord that gave Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
The sanctions freeze any assets that those targeted have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from doing business with them. They will also affect non-Iranian companies that deal with sanctioned Iranian firms and officials.
In what the U.S. said was the largest-single sanctions designation, the Treasury imposed penalties on more than 700 Iranian and Iranian-linked individuals, entities, aircraft and vessels. The move brought to more than 900 the number of Iran-related targets sanctioned by the Trump administration in less than two years.
Among those are 50 Iranian banks and subsidiaries, more than 200 people and ships, Iran’s state-run airline Iran Air and more than 65 of its planes.
“Treasury’s imposition of unprecedented financial pressure on Iran should make clear to the Iranian regime that they will face mounting financial isolation and economic stagnation until they fundamentally change their destabilizing behavior,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. “The maximum pressure exerted by the United States is only going to mount from here. We are intent on making sure the Iranian regime stops siphoning its hard currency reserves into corrupt investments and the hands of terrorists.”
Yet as the administration seeks to cut off Iran’s oil revenue completely it is allowing some of its closest allies — Greece, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey — and rival China to continue to purchase Iranian oil as long as they work to reduce imports to zero.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the waivers, which expire in six months, were necessary to avoid disruption of world oil markets and to give the eight countries more time to eliminate their imports. During those six months, the importing country can buy Iranian oil but must deposit Iran’s revenue in an escrow account. Iran can spend the money but only on a narrow range of humanitarian items.
Seeking to deflect criticism from some Iran hawks concerned that the sanctions don’t go far enough, Pompeo stressed that U.S. pressure on countries to stop buying Iranian oil had already reduced its exports by more than a million barrels of crude per day.
“Rest assured, Iran will never get close to obtaining a nuclear weapon under President Trump’s watch,” he said.
Pompeo also said limited waivers had been issued to allow European and other firms to continue conversion work on two of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Trump has repeatedly denounced the 2015 deal, one of former President Barack Obama’s biggest diplomatic achievements, as the “worst ever” negotiated by the United States, saying it gave Iran too much in return for too little.
But proponents as well as the other parties to the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union — have vehemently defended it. The Europeans have mounted a drive to save the agreement without the U.S., fearing that the new sanctions will drive Iran to pull out and resume all of its nuclear work.
Lincoln recycling processors hike rates after China decision
By NANCY HICKS
Lincoln Journal Star
Saturday, November 3
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — China’s decision to require cleaner recyclables has put some U.S. recyclers out of business or forced them to limit the kind of materials they will take.
But in Lincoln the China decision has had a more limited impact, so far.
Recycling processing companies — which buy from local haulers, sort and resell material — have raised their rates, but they are still taking all the traditional recycling products, except for glass and plastic bags.
In January, China, the world’s leading recyclables buyer, closed its doors to waste paper, metals or plastic unless they’re 99.5 percent pure.
That’s an unattainable standard at most U.S. single-stream recycling processing plants.
“(China’s decision) affected everyone, but it probably has had a different impact here than on the coasts, largely because we haven’t had the same luxury of sending everything off to China,” said Dale Gubbels, CEO of First Star Fiber, a Nebraska processor.
Both First Star Fiber and Mid America Recycling have raised their rates to haulers, who handle Lincoln’s curbside recycling, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.
In some cases the rates are higher than the city landfill fees.
In Lincoln, recycling companies relied more heavily on domestic companies to purchase their recyclables and have built up relationships with domestic mills, Gubbels said.
So local processors still have a market for recyclables. But, because of supply and demand, the prices for recyclable products have dropped.
“We don’t have much choice. We have to cover our costs,” Gubbels said, about recycling processors raising their rates.
The city has been less affected because the recyclable material from the public sites is already sorted, giving it a higher value, said Donna Garden, assistant director at Public Works and Utilities.
“The materials we take to the processors are clean and separated,” she said.
But the city has seen a drop this year in the price it is reimbursed for recyclable material. The combined value for total recyclables has dropped from about $40 a ton at the beginning of the year to about $28 a ton, according to Garden.
Because of the increase in recyclables being taken to city centers, the city’s revenue of about $16,000 a month has not changed.
The city has also seen an increase in costs, from an average of $37,000 per month to $55,000 per month, for hauling recyclables from the city sites because of the dramatic increase in cardboard recycling since the city banned corrugated cardboard at the landfill April 1.
The city pays hauler Von Busch for pulling each container from a recycling center, under a three-year contract. The cost per pull hasn’t changed but the amount of material dropped off at city sites has increased, Garden said.
But recycling is not just about the money, according to Garden. Recycling is important because it diverts material from the landfill, saves natural resources, provides jobs and “is a good thing for the environment.”
“We have to keep that in mind,” she said.
Local haulers are concerned as they see some processors in surrounding states refusing to take some plastic and other material and raising rates.
“Glass is gone. Plastic’s on the way out,” said Ryan Hatten, with Paragon Sanitation and president of Lincoln Solid Waste and Recycling Association.
What happens in surrounding states usually finds its way to Nebraska, he said.
But Gubbels and Kelley McReynolds, with Mid America Recycling, are optimistic that U.S. companies will find more ways to use recyclable material, increasing demand.
First Star Fiber is working on a program where consumers will be able to buy a bright orange Hefty Energy bag that they will fill with non-recyclable plastic, like bags, bread wrappers, straws and items that degrade the value of recyclable material.
The plastic will be sent on to be used as a fuel or to a company that can use it for making fence posts, railroad ties, landscaping timbers and parking lot bumpers, Gubbels said.
Gubbels said he is also seeing some investments in the domestic market, a hopeful sign that there will be some new markets to replace China.
But McReynolds said he expects the fees to remain high and pressure to keep contaminants out of the recycling stream will continue.
Recycling companies moved to single stream (where consumers do not have to separate the plastic from the paper and the cardboard) because they wanted to increase the level of recycling by making it more convenient, Gubbels said.
Recyclers, like him, didn’t take into account the cost of putting in the sorting system or that commodity prices would drop, he said.
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Lincoln Journal Star.
N. Korea threatens to resume nuke development over sanctions
By KIM TONG-HYUNG
Saturday, November 3
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea has warned it could revive a state policy aimed at strengthening its nuclear arsenal if the United States does not lift economic sanctions against the country.
The statement released by the Foreign Ministry on Friday evening said North Korea could bring back its “pyongjin” policy of simultaneously advancing its nuclear force and economic development if the United States doesn’t change its stance. The North sopped short of threatening to abandon ongoing nuclear negotiations with Washington.
Still, it accused Washington of derailing commitments made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump at their June summit in Singapore to work toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. It was the first time the North said it could potentially resume weapons tests and other development activities since Kim signaled a new state policy in April.
In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he plans to talk next week with his North Korean counterpart, apparently referring to senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol. Pompeo did not provide the location and date for the meeting, which will likely be focused on persuading North Korea to take firmer steps toward denuclearization and setting up a second summit between their leaders.
“A lot of work remains, but I’m confident that we will keep the economic pressure in place until such time as Chairman Kim fulfills the commitment he made to President Trump back in June in Singapore,” Pompeo said.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry statement, released under the name of the director of the ministry’s Institute for American Studies, said the “improvement of relations and sanctions is incompatible.”
“The U.S. thinks that its oft-repeated ‘sanctions and pressure’ leads to ‘denuclearization.’ We cannot help laughing at such a foolish idea,” it said. The ministry described the lifting of U.S.-led sanctions as corresponding action to the North’s “proactive and good-will measures,” apparently referring to its unilateral suspension of nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and closure of a nuclear testing ground.
Following a series of provocative nuclear and missile tests last year, Kim shifted to diplomacy when he met with Trump between three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who lobbied hard to revive nuclear diplomacy.
However, the North has been playing hardball since the summits, insisting that sanctions should be lifted before any progress in nuclear talks, which fueled doubts about whether Kim would ever deal away a nuclear program he may see as his strongest guarantee of survival.
Ahead of his first summit with Moon in April, Kim said the country should shift its focus to economic development as the “pyongjin” policy had achieved a “great victory.” He also declared that the North would stop nuclear and long-range missile tests. The North dismantled its nuclear testing ground in May, but didn’t invite experts to observe and verify the event.
“If the U.S. keeps behaving arrogantly without showing any change in its stand, while failing to properly understand our repeated demand, the DPRK may add one thing to the state policy for directing all efforts to the economic construction adopted in April and as a result, the word ‘pyongjin’ may appear again,” Friday’s statement said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“Pyongjin” means “dual advancement.”
Moon has described inter-Korean engagement as crucial to resolving the nuclear standoff. A large number of South Korean CEOs accompanied Moon in his September visit to Pyongyang, when he and Kim agreed to normalize operations at a jointly run factory park and resume South Korean visitors’ travel to the North when possible, voicing optimism the international sanctions could end and allow such projects.
But South Korea’s enthusiasm for engagement with its rival has also created discomfort in the United States amid growing concerns that the North is dragging its feet with its promise to denuclearize. South Korea last month walked back on a proposal to lift some of its unilateral sanctions against North Korea to create diplomatic space following Trump’s blunt retort that Seoul could “do nothing” without Washington’s approval.