Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What Do You Say, DEA?

On April 29, 2008 representative John Conyers (D-MI), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to DEA administrator Michele Leonhart asking a number of questions about the DEA’s raids of California medical marijuana dispensaries and threats directed against their owners.

Conyers’ questions included:
  • Is asset forfeiture an appropriate tactic to use against the sick and their caregivers?
  • Is the DEA making the best use of its limited resources by raiding medical dispensaries when violent drug cartels in Mexico and South America are out of control?
  • How are the DEA’s raids impacting the state of California’s ability to collect taxes?
  • What role, if any, does recent research on the medicinal value of marijuana play in the DEA’s decision to target medical marijuana users and dispensaries?
  • Would the DEA agree to forming an outside commission to review policy and make recommendations to help bring federal and state laws into agreement?
  • Conyers also asked for an accounting of the costs and legal status of 60 specific cases resulting from the recent raids of California dispensaries (a list of those raids is attached to the letter). 
The deadline for Leonhart's response was July 1. So what happened? Did Leonhart actually respond to Conyer's questions? If so, I have not been able to find anything about it. If you know about a DEA response, please post a comment and let me know where I can find the response.

My guess is that Conyer’s request for information has been and will be ignored. And why not? The DEA does not answer to Congress. They are under the direction of the attorney general who answers only to the president. There are no checks and balances for any of those involved with the classification of drugs or the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act. That’s why the DEA is able to get away with such deplorable behavior in the name of enforcing the law. Only in America.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An Oxymoron? Or Is It Sarcasm?

What exactly does “controlled substance” mean? It’s in the name of the federal legislation (The Controlled Substances Act) that declares certain recreational drugs illegal. But it seems to me that the government throws this term around willy nilly without really thinking about its meaning. In what way are controlled substances controlled? In particular, I’m talking about the Schedule I substances. How in their wildest imaginations can the folks in our government refer to these drugs as controlled? You’d think they’d always be cracking up about it. Like during speeches. At the very least, snickering whenever they said it. But I digress.

Substances classified in lower schedules which have medicinal uses are controlled by requiring a prescription for their possession and use. Their manufacture and distribution are fairly strictly controlled by the government, the pharmaceutical industry, and physicians. But because Schedule I substances have no medical uses, none of those groups have any involvement in their manufacture or distribution. Schedule I substances are grown/manufactured and processed under unknown conditions by unknown, and often unskilled, people. Their quality and purity are not guaranteed nor consistent. They are imported freely. They are sold anywhere, anytime to anyone regardless of age and with no concern for possible health risks. And of course “control” for the government must include a tax. Any commodity that is not taxed in one way or another by the government cannot be considered controlled.

So maybe Schedule I substances should have their own separate legislation. Why lump them in with the other substances that really are controlled? Something like the “Substances We Don’t Want You To Use, But Can’t Stop You If You Really Want To” Act. Or possibly the “We Could Be Collecting Taxes, But Instead We’ll Spend Lots Of Money Trying To Stop You From Using These Substances” Act. Or maybe the “Hey Kids, These Substances Are Much Easier To Get Than Alcohol” Act. I could go on.

On the other hand, if we keep the legislation as is, including it’s name, perhaps we should come up with some equally fanciful job descriptions for the people and institutions who derive their livelihood from it. For example, although the title “Drug Czar” does conjure up images of oppression and brutality, which is an appropriate metaphor in this case, it’s too reality-based. How about Exalted Grand Poobah of Altered Consciousness? The DEA could be called the Mystical Order of the Holy Truth. That would make DEA agents Defenders of The Truth. And of course prisons would be called Labyrinths of Lost Souls. And then when the EGPAC and the DTTs got together (wearing long robes with stars and moons on them and pointy hats) they’d talk about controlled substances while trying to keep a straight face. And maybe play some D & D or cast a spell or two.

Sorry, I seem to have drifted off into a fantasy world where the government actually calls things what they really are. (I think in that world, the Patriot Act had another name too, but I can’t remember it.) But I’m back now. Back to the real world where, fortunately, controlled substances are not.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Super High Me

No, I’m not doing an impression of Yoda describing my current state of consciousness. I’m referring to a major motion picture, Super High Me, which stars stoner comedian Doug Benson. The title and concept are a spoof of the documentary film Super Size Me, in which Morgan Spurlock eats nothing but food from McDonald’s for 30 days. Benson thought it would be funny (or interesting or something) to do the same sort of thing, but substituting marijuana for fast food. One twist he adds is that prior to smoking pot non-stop day and night for 30 days, he goes entirely without for 30 days first. Throughout the 60 days over which the film was shot, Benson was under the care of a physician who periodically ran him through a battery of physical and psychological tests (and psychic too, just in case), just like Spurlock did. Interspersed with Benson’s visits to his doctor are clips of his stand-up act, visits to various California dispensaries, and even some footage of DEA raids on a few of those dispensaries.

Now this is not what I’d call a great movie. The concept is pretty clever, and Benson is reasonably funny at times, although the pot jokes do get a little old after a while. Not being familiar with his work, I’m not sure if that’s his entire act or if they selected just his dope humor bits for this film and left out his other material. Either way, I did get a few chuckles out of the film and would recommend it as a must see for any stoner. Non-stoners will probably not be amused and/or really very interested.

What did stand out for me in this movie though were the results of his little experiment. All of the various tests administered to Benson during his 30 days of abstinence and 30 days of non-stop smoking showed no significant differences between the two periods. His health did not deteriorate dramatically (or at all), nor did his mental abilities during the month of constant smoking. He didn’t become stupid, or lazy, or psychotic. In fact, some of his psychological test scores improved slightly after he started smoking again. I was a bit disappointed that the film didn’t make more of these results. They did comparisons of the two period’s results along the way, but a summary of all the various results at the end would have been nice. Not only between the two 30-day periods covered in the film, but with the results of the film Super Size Me. In that film, Spurlock’s doctor recommend he quit living on fast food before the 30 days were even up. A constant diet of McDonald’s had caused his health to deteriorate to such a degree that his doctor was getting worried. I think that is a big deal. Fast food is more hazardous to your health than smoking marijuana. I believe that is the single most important thing about this film and should have been stated more explicitly.

Coincidentally, a few weeks earlier I wrote a little satire piece about declaring war on fast food. Little did I know how close to home I was hitting with my attempt at humor. Maybe we really should be more concerned with real, as opposed to imaginary, threats to the public health when passing legislation designed to protect people from themselves. Or maybe we should just let adults decide for themselves how they want to live their lives. Or maybe that’s just crazy talk, and we should just let things go on the way they have been. After all, we can’t go around putting people in jail just because they consume something that some people think they shouldn’t. Oh wait. Of course we can. This is America after all.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Show Me The Money

One of the major factors contributing to the continuation of the war on drugs is money. (There are a few others, but I’ll save those for another day.) No matter what else you might think or say about the war on drugs, you would have to admit that it supports a pretty significant chunk of our economy. This year alone, the federal government will spend over $20 billion on it in this country and almost that much in other countries. You can add to that the $30 billion that will be spent by individual states. Much of that goes to law enforcement, making it possible to arrest about a million people this year for marijuana alone. And another significant portion goes to building prisons and housing all of those drug offenders. And let’s not forget the “aid” we give to foreign countries to help them combat drug trafficking. No matter how you look at it, $70 billion is a pretty good chunk of change. No doubt, a lot of people’s lives would be impacted financially by an end to the war on drugs. Of course a lot of people’s lives are being impacted now, but in a way much worse than the loss of a job. So I believe a change is needed. And the only way something so big will ever change is if it is economically feasible. I think it can be.

Consider the fact that marijuana is currently the fourth largest cash crop in the U.S. It is the number one cash crop in 10 states, and among the top 5 in 29 others. That’s in spite of all the money that’s been spent over the last 70 years trying to eradicate it. Just imagine the economic potential of legal marijuana. And then there’s hemp, which also has the potential to be a major cash crop in this country. Lots of jobs would be created just in agriculture alone. There would also be a number of related industries created to process the crops. Hemp in particular would require a variety of manufacturing capabilities, creating more jobs.

Some argue that the pharmaceutical companies don’t want marijuana legalized because they would lose business to an easy-to-grow medicine. That may be true to some extent, but they are not making any money on marijuana now, so the only real loss would be if it became preferred over current drugs. I don’t really see this as a problem though, since nothing would prevent the pharmaceutical companies from producing and selling marijuana themselves. They’re already developing synthetic marijuana-based drugs, so why not include the real (i.e., natural) thing? I think the vast majority of people would prefer to get their medicine from a “reputable” company that assures quality control, rather than going to the trouble of growing it themselves or buying it “on the street”. That is, if the price from these reputable dealers is reasonable. After all, the ease with which tomatoes can be grown at home has not wiped out the commercial tomato industry. So it seems to me that pharmaceutical companies would be the most logical manufacturers and distributors of medical marijuana, and that there should be a fair amount of money to be made from that business.

As far as recreational marijuana, it seems to me the logical choice is the tobacco industry. In fact I can’t understand why, with all the concern about the health hazards of tobacco these days, that the tobacco industry isn’t lobbying hard for the legalization of marijuana (I’m assuming they’re not since they have a way of getting what they want). They already have a lot of the expertise and infrastructure in place. Growing and distributing recreational marijuana should be a no-brainer for the tobacco industry. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up making them more money than tobacco. And just think of all the great advertising we’d get to see. Something like this maybe?

And finally, there’s the government’s cash flow problems. Perhaps you’ve heard of a little thing called the national debt? (Don’t get me started on that.) Rather than spending money, the government would be making money in the form of new taxes. I don’t think you have to be an economist to know that spending less and taking in more is the only way to reduce a debt. And I think a net annual gain for the government of a few hundred billion would make a significant difference.

So you see, money doesn’t have to be an issue when it comes to ending the war on drugs. Yes, some jobs would be lost, most of those in the law enforcement field. And of course the black market would be impacted, putting a lot of drug dealers and smugglers out of business. But I believe in the long run, far more jobs would be created. And there would be a net gain in government revenue as well. More importantly, the people running our government would also come out ahead. They may lose some “income” from a few special interest groups, but that would quickly be replaced by money from others. So the pockets of our leaders would still be just as stuffed as ever. And when you get right down to it, isn’t that what our government is all about?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tony Who?

I’m often asked where the name Tony Aroma came from (and by “often,” I mean at least twice). For the answer to that question you’ll have to ask my parents, Estelle and Sergio Aroma. Just kidding. And before you ask, the name is in no way related to the similar-sounding name of a popular chain of rib joints.

Actually, it came from an old friend who used to use that term to refer to a certain medicinal herb. It’s just one of those countless code names that I’ve heard over the years. But it’s always been my favorite and also, coincidentally, one of the few that I thought sounded good as a pseudonym. And just so you don’t think I made a hasty decision, I did consider a number of alternative code names that I’ve used or heard.

I thought using Mary Jane might be a little trite, not to mention the fact that I’m not a girl (as far as you know). And of course referring to myself as Bob Marley might cause some confusion and possibly litigation. I was afraid that calling myself the Assassin of Youth, although kind of cool sounding, might send the wrong message to younger or more sensitive viewers. Other terms I found equally inappropriate for various reasons. I also considered and rejected the following: Reefer Man, Muggles, Wacky Tobacky, Alice B. Toklas, Aunt Mary, Doobie Brother, Bogart, Acapulco Gold, Don Juana, Fatty, Green Goddess, Smokey McPott, Jolly Green, Juan Valdez, Lubage and/or Doobage, Mighty Mezz, Panama Red, Puff the Magic Dragon, Square Mackerel, Sweet Lucy, and the White-Haired Lady. What do you think? Did I make the right decision?

Oh, and if you’re wondering if you might be that “old friend” from whom I appropriated my name, you very well may be. In fact, you probably are. He (or she) has to be somebody, so why not you? If not you, then who? And if it is you, I hope you don’t mind me using your code name for my pen name.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Hemp ≠ Marijuana, Alcohol = Drugs

I ran across a clip on You Tube the other day while looking for information on the candidates’ views on the war on drugs. It showed a portion of a town hall meeting in New Hampshire recorded on July 14, 2007 in which Senator John McCain, Republican candidate for the presidency, said the following:

“When first I came to New Hampshire in 1999, a young woman stood up and said, ‘What do you think about the use of hemp?’ Being an old Navy man I said, ‘It’s great. It’s wonderful. You make ropes out of it.’ It was only later that I learned that there’s other uses for hemp besides making rope.” [at which point the conservative crowd chuckles knowingly]

I don’t think he was talking about using hemp as a petroleum substitute or in the manufacture of paper or cloth. To me, this is a little bit scary. How can an individual that I believe is reasonably well educated and intelligent not know the difference between one of the most valuable industrial crops known to mankind and a popular recreational drug? (Yes, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt in assuming he’s just plain ignorant.) If that’s what he really believes, how many other legislators (and citizens) also don’t know the difference? And if such ignorance is as pervasive as I fear it to be, how are we ever going to make any progress toward a more sensible system of legislation and control of either crop?

Just so we’re clear, hemp and marijuana are related. They do share a lot of DNA. But so do humans and chimpanzees. Granted we don’t physically resemble our great ape relatives as much as hemp resembles marijuana (you can’t really tell them apart based on the plant’s physical appearance), but that’s no excuse. Marijuana contains a number of psychoactive substances and is, and always has been, a popular recreational drug. Hemp on the other hand, by definition, has no psychoactive properties and therefore cannot be used recreationally. Unless of course you consider the recreational uses of rope, cloth, fuel, and plastics. The two crops may look alike, but they have no overlap whatsoever in how they are used.

And speaking of psychoactive substances, Mr. McCain made another statement that (I hope) further illustrates his ignorance. He made a clear distinction between drugs and alcohol. Sadly, I know from personal experience that many others make this same distinction. For some reason that I don’t fully understand, many people today do not consider alcohol a “drug.” It probably has something to do with the fact that it’s legal, while recreational drugs are illegal. Or because it doesn’t come in small, plastic pill bottles with child-proof caps and is never prescribed. Maybe it’s because it’s a liquid while most drugs people use on a regular basis are in pill form. Whatever the reason, there’s simply no excuse in this day and age for so many people to be consuming a recreational drug and not even knowing they are doing so.

Again, just to be clear, ethyl alcohol is a psychoactive (i.e., having a significant effect on mood or behavior) substance, aka a recreational drug. If you want to get technical about it, so are caffeine and nicotine. But unlike marijuana, alcohol is highly toxic. It is essentially a poison that if you don’t consume enough to kill you, will temporarily alter your consciousness. It has no medicinal value (other than as an antiseptic—a benefit of its toxicity) and is used purely recreationally, often with disastrous consequences. Using the phrase “alcohol and drugs” is like saying “apples and fruit.” If you want to make some kind of distinction between the two, at least insert the word “other” after “and.”

It’s not just Mr. McCain either. Even scarier, the DEA appears equally ignorant, or so they’d like us to believe. In an official news release , the DEA states that “many Americans do not know that hemp and marijuana are both parts of the same plant and that hemp cannot be produced without producing marijuana.” I guess DEA administrator, Asa Hutchinson, would be one of those “many Americans” who is confused. You can produce hemp without producing marijuana. I think it would be kind of a good thing if the people responsible for enforcing the laws, knew what substances the laws referred to. It would also be a good thing if our government got their facts straight and stopped lying to the public. Perhaps someone should sit Mr. Hutchinson down and tell him the story about the boy who cried wolf.

So, Mr. McCain and everyone else holding or aspiring to public office, please get your facts straight. Marijuana and hemp are not the same thing. As they say, you can’t judge a house by its front door. And, regardless of what you call it, alcohol is most definitely a recreational drug. A rose by any other name...