Obligatory 2015 Marijuana update

The minimal evidence we have of marijuana usage harms keeps withering away under more careful study, but the very real harms of police enforcement go on. I’ve really stopped paying attention to this stuff because it never ends; one month of stories look like any other. I just pop in once in awhile to see the latest abuses. Yep, young women cavity searched on the side of the road; kids shot; tons of no-knock drug raids putting everyone in unnecessary danger

America’s criminal justice system is so brutal and resistant to reform that the only way to reduce harm is to lessen people’s contact with it: move regulation strategies away from criminal law. Thankfully, state referendums to get cops out of the pot business are all over and even nation candidates are being forced to take the issue seriously.

To think how much harm could’ve been avoided if the country hadn’t wrapped up marijuana with the war on crack in the 80s. Hard drugs truly were devastating some communities then and now, but the “smell of marijuana” gave the police practically unlimited power and financial resources to forcibly invade and ruin the lives of people, particularly in neighborhoods unlikely to afford decent lawyers. Very few upper class families receive the Cheye Calvo experience, but lots of the little people still do.

Cannabis criminalization helps law enforcement (perform unconstitutional searches)

Opponents of cannabis decriminalization often state we should keep it criminalized in order to help law enforcement catch bad guys, and indeed it serves as an important tool for justifying searches on individuals and premises. After all, these searches may turn up more harmful criminal activities or individuals with warrants. LEO’s will often admit that in many cases they are not really after the pot and may even ignore the offense if no other offenses are found.

From a public safety standpoint, allowing “I smelled marijuana” to serve as probable cause for search may on net improve safety, but we should reject this notion because these searches are basically unconstitutional. Cannabis use, after all, is not what most officers are really after; it’s a justification.

The Fourth Amendment was not created by accident; the power to search without cause can and often is abused by LEOs, and the especially militarized flavor of drug raids in the U.S. is often needlessly violent and deadly.

When cannabis is no longer criminalized, yes, searching individuals based on a hunch (without real cause) will be harder—the goal of the Bill of Rights was not to make policing easy—but consider if we had never criminalized cannabis and it had at least as many users as it currently does. Knowing what we now know about the mild harms of the drug, would we really choose to turn at least several million people into regular criminals in order to give LE the power to search them without cause and occasionally using violent SWAT raids?

No we would not and should not. If anything this “LE tool” argument is a reason to decriminalize.

For the 4-20 folks

Another year it still deserves saying… It’s long been clear the risks and harms of cannabis use are mild, and with that knowledge it should sicken us that people are regularly pulled into our criminal justice system because of cannabis use, sales, production, or political speech (see the example made of Marc Emery). Shame on us for keeping these unjustifiable laws on the books due to ignorance and inertia; each year they harm individuals far more than use of the drug, further erode our Fourth Amendment protections, and place otherwise law-abiding citizens at odds with the police.

Obama’s ONDCP still can’t be trusted

The Office of National Drug Control Policy under Bush, led by John Walters, was notorious for flat-out lies and evidence bending, especially regarding cannabis (it was a holy culture war for Ashcroft as well), but under Obama the office has mostly put focus on prescription drug abuse and “drugged driving”.

With 2012 bringing a host of cannabis-related ballot initiatives to voters, Walters’ style of deception is making a comeback. Look at this editorial.

Data also reveal that marijuana potency has almost tripled in the past 20 years. This is especially troubling for use among teens because the earlier a person begins to use drugs, the more likely they are to develop a more serious abuse and addiction problem later in life.

No studies I’m aware of link an increase in THC potency to anything mentioned in the second sentence. Also note that cannabis regulation could actually dictate potency, and kids are getting pot earlier under the current policy. The irony here is that higher THC potency reduces the amount of smoking (a good thing) the user needs to do to achieve the desired level of intoxication.

Would marijuana legalization make Tennessee healthier or safer? One needs to look no further than Tennessee’s current painful experience with prescription drug abuse.

Prescription drugs (generally highly pure synthetic opiates) are not cannabis.

…prescription drugs are legal, regulated, and taxed — and yet rates of the abuse…

Proposed cannabis regulation is generally not by prescription, so this sentence seems purely a distraction. Prescription drugs are scary!

Nationally, someone dies from an unintentional drug overdose — driven in large part by prescription drug abuse — on average every 19 minutes.

Prescription drug abuse is deadly, and is not cannabis use. Surely he forgot to mention cannabis is practically non-toxic.

What would America look like if we had just as many people using marijuana as we currently have smoking cigarettes, abusing alcohol, and abusing prescription drugs?

Why would we have that? It’s true that legalized cannabis would broaden the base of users, but there’s just not a lot of reason to cue scary music.

The bottom line is that laws that control substances have had a real and lasting effect on keeping drug use rates relatively low.

A gem of truth! Prohibition does reduce use, which is only one of many metrics by which you should judge public policy. We could certainly reduce alcohol use, premarital sex, masturbation, swearing, blasphemy and other ills by making them all illegal and giving police endlessly increasing funding and power to stamp them out.

Moreover, other addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco, which are already legal and taxed, cost much more in social costs than the revenue they generate.

It’s true, drugs that are not cannabis are not cannabis, and alcohol excise taxes should be raised considerably. Why has the ONDCP never taken up this cause? As Mark Kleiman put it, a drug policy that ignores alcohol is like a naval policy that ignores the Pacific. Further, you’ll not find a study that shows cannabis causes more damage than alcohol/tobacco.

This isn’t to say that we believe we can arrest our way out of our nation’s drug problem.

AFAIK in no way has the ONDCP or DEA promoted any policy that would lead to fewer arrests, and the federal grant programs that built up local drug task force militarization are still in place (with a nice boost in the stimulus act).

[blah blah diversion treatment programs]

Yes, a small percentage of daily cannabis users will find it difficult to quit, experiencing problems with sleeping, mood, and discomfort (think quitting tobacco). IMO introducing the criminal justice system as executed in the U.S. does not, on net, improve any user’s situation.

(BTW, evidence suggests that involuntary treatment is a waste of money for most people, who can and do quit even highly addictive substances by themselves with a credible threat of an immediate and short jail sentence. Sending cannabis users who happen to get caught to treatment is an incredible waste of money and hard-to-find treatment space.)

Marijuana legalization would be disastrous public health policy, because it would increase availability and increase the use of a substance that we know to be harmful.

While increase in availability and use is a certainty of commercial legalization (it’s not my preferred policy), there’s only a sliver of the accounting on display here. This may come as a shock, but people can enjoy and benefit from cannabis use, and of course the removal of the damaging aspects of prohibition reduce future damage.

On whole I see commercial “legalization” as being a small net win, and a large win if its mandated that users may only use vaporizers (or e-cigarettes); that higher CBD/THC ratios are required; and that it remains illegal to “spike” foods for unsuspecting eaters, which I suspect to be the leading cause of people “freaking out” and seeking ultimately unnecessary ER visits. There’s also some encouraging evidence that suggests that, in medical marijuana states, young adults and teens are substituting cannabis for alcohol use resulting in notable drops in traffic fatalities.

Decades of experience have shown that there are no “silver bullet” approaches to addressing our national drug problem.

So true, but discovering silver bullets requires firing a few; unless I’m mistaken we haven’t actually tried any other approaches over those decades regarding cannabis on the federal level. I think we should.

Where the murder of a thousand children is a sign of success

Only in the drug war.

“It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs,”
— DEA head Michele Leonhart

From 2009:

“There will be more violence, more blood, and, yes, things will get worse before they get better. That’s the nature of the battle,”
— U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza

Before that Bush’s drug czar made similar statements. Obama/Clinton will stay the course, as most certainly would a Republican successor.

If thousands of U.S. citizens were dying and living in a police state to keep goods out of Canada, we might start reconsidering our trade policy.

“Cartels don’t make any money on marijuana”

Opponents to CA’s Prop 19 ran pretty well with the narrative that legalizing cannabis would yield no reduction of the cartel violence in Mexico. After all, they don’t really make their money on pot; it’s all California-grown, they promised. They even were kinda sorta convincing me that might be the case.  Maybe—just somehow—they know that.

As if on schedule, the day after (mostly older) voters rejected the initiative, we find thirty tons of cartel cannabis—probably worth at least $20M—and a massive 600-yard tunnel from Tijuana to San Diego. (and today, more mass graves, of course)

But at least Prop 19 spurred a national conversation about cannabis policy like no other recent event has. Almost 3.4 million Californians voted for it (more than for Meg Whitman). In 2012, when the youth turnout will be more in force, who’s to say.

In the meantime, the proponents need to rewrite the damn thing, addressing all the B.S. non-issues that opponents dramatized. “You won’t be able to fire someone for showing up stoned!” And if you believe that, I have a border tunnel to sell you that’s never been used for cannabis trafficking.

$374B of Bloody Cartel Money Laundered through U.S. Banks

I’ve been waiting for a story like this to come along.

“It’s the banks laundering money for the cartels that finances the tragedy,” says Martin Woods, director of Wachovia’s anti-money-laundering unit in London from 2006 to 2009. Woods says he quit the bank in disgust after executives ignored his documentation that drug dealers were funneling money through Wachovia’s branch network.

“If you don’t see the correlation between the money laundering by banks and the 22,000 people killed in Mexico, you’re missing the point,” Woods says.

With our drug policy, guns, and even our bankers, we’re killing Mexico.

California’s upcoming Cannabis ballot initiative

In November Californians will see on their ballot the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. The act would basically “legalize” cannabis—all involved in such an industry would remain in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act, and subject to the whims of the federal DEA and Dept. of Justice—for adults 21 and up, and set up some initial regulations on use, sale, cultivation, and transport. The act is fairly short and readable and seems like a reasonable initial regulatory structure to me.

The Good:

  • Could greatly reduce the prevalence of violent raids on private homes
  • Would keep otherwise-law-abiding adults out of the criminal justice system
  • Would reduce the wasteful use of treatment facilities on individuals just choosing treatment over jail
  • Would restore more respect for law enforcement
  • Home growing might greatly reduce the market value of cannabis, which might keep cannabis selling industries smaller, less able to lobby for looser regulations, and less able to afford expensive advertising campaigns. Ironically this act might make large-scale dispensaries—who funded the signature drive—less likely to exist.
  • The legitimization of cannabis could result in safer usage practices becoming the standard of use.
  • Local governments could add regulations to force sellers to provide safety information (e.g. how long impairment could last, how to recognize signs of trouble, recommending the use of vaporizers, harm research results)
  • Users who medically benefit from the drug (a small but non-zero percentage of CA’s current users) would have less trouble obtaining it.
  • Could significantly shrink black markets, including those that will continue to serve minors. E.g. A teen who can more easily steal pot from adult siblings or friends is less likely to seek out a dealer who may sell other drugs.
  • Could reduce alcohol use and associated violence and overdose deaths.
  • Could nudge Congress toward more reasonable cannabis laws and more federal research of cannabis (not just limited to harms).

The Bad:

  • Commercialization and legitimization will yield increases in the number of users (though in many parts of the state there are plenty of adult users).
  • Would make some law enforcement activities more difficult. E.g. users and sellers of harder drugs are often caught due to possession of marijuana, which is generally harder to conceal.
  • Home growing doesn’t nudge users toward safer delivery methods or place users in contact with someone who could theoretically provide helpful education/intervention. I say “theoretically” because California’s current policy creates too much incentive for doctors to be “pot docs”, who do little more than sell handwritten licenses.
  • Many users will simply combine pot use with alcohol use.
  • Even though it would remain illegal, driving under the influence of pot will probably rise. This is concerning, but the best available research is still pretty weak on the notion that casual usage creates significant danger. Pot users appear to be more aware of their impairment.
  • Will probably not yield of windfall of tax revenue for California
  • More people smoking things. Learning to smoke pot lessons the difficulty and foreignness of trying other smoked substances, which are generally more harmful than pot, including tobacco. If “spliffs”—cannabis with tobacco—became popular, this could lead to more tobacco smoking (which is proven to be carcinogenic) and more complicated addiction.

I still think the good outweighs the bad. Bring on the great democratic experiment!

Shifting Morals and Shifting Laws

Blogger Classically Liberal shows how codifying the morality of the day (“societal justice”) can give you laws that abuse a slowly changing demographic of victims. With support of Christians, England at one time had criminalized homosexuality; but now that most brits openly accept it, England’s remaining Christians and their speech are becoming targets for abuse by today’s laws.

The desire to use the law to impose one’s morality has to be a human thing because it seems to have been pretty universal. Some have well-meaning reasoned intentions, but many want prohibitions simply because it’s wrong to let gays marry, use “drugs”, watch dirty movies, gamble, use alcohol, be gay, allow women to vote, marry out of race, education your slave… How morality shifts.

What if instead you had law based on the unchanging principle of positive personal liberty? Would society collapse in an orgy of sex, drugs, and Adult Swim marathons? We kinda tried this. The U.S. Constitution was radical in that it mostly limited the behavior of the government rather than of the individual, not that the Good Old Days of the U.S. were the golden age of personal liberty.

As the author of Last Call noted on Fresh Air, Prohibition was the first Amendment really limiting personal conduct, and we later got rid of it. I don’t drink, but I’ll have a sugary rum drink in celebration when DOMA falls.

Scathing AP Editorial on U.S. Drug War

AP IMPACT: US drug war has met none of its goals

This writer is obviously on fire about this issue, and while I appreciate the fact that it will expose more people to the wider effects and history of our drug policy, it’s simply unfair to claim that the drug war has met no goals. If the goal of drug prohibition was to completely wipe out drug usage, then sure, complete failure, but many people support prohibitions to keep prevalence of usage below a certain threshold, and they do work for that. The data in Drug War Heresies pretty clearly suggests that commercialization increases use, and illegality provides a non-zero deterrent to purchase and to use for a large part of the population. In that aspect, prohibitions very much likely have kept usage down.

That said, there are a lot of goals to public policy, and in the grand scheme of things, basing a drug policy mostly on reducing the prevalence of mainly marijuana use has had some horrible outcomes that have gone mostly unmeasured and unreported. Thankfully that’s starting to change.

I hope to give my thoughts on the White House’s new “strategy” soon. The Good: some real improvements in goal-setting, promotion of  proven ideas in parole/probation reform. The Bad: More federal dollars towards drug law enforcement; no explicit goals of measuring/reducing the use of militaristic SWAT-style policing; more, more, more foreign meddling shown mostly to cause a lot of harm to foreigners with little evidence of utility in the U.S.