Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Looking Out for the Drug Dealers

Somebody has to, right? It’s not like they have a union, or unemployment insurance, or health benefits. So why not the federal government? Just because illegal drug dealers are often violent and dangerous criminals doesn’t mean they don’t deserve protection from economic hardship, does it? And who better to protect them than Uncle Sam?

In case you didn’t know it, the U.S. government, under the guise of enforcing the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, is lending a helping hand to some of our society’s worst scum. And they are openly admitting it. The government uses the Commerce Clause as justification for the Controlled Substances Act and the war on drugs.

Article I, Section 8 (the Commerce Clause):
The Congress shall have power . . . To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;

I’ve often wondered how regulating interstate commerce could, by any stretch of the imagination, have anything whatsoever to do with individuals who grow marijuana for their own personal consumption or for medical use within a state. How could interstate commerce possibly be involved in such circumstances?

Well, I’ve finally discovered the answer and, let me tell you, it has to be one of the most insane “loopholes” the government has ever come up with to justify their unconscionable behavior. Here’s the way their pretzel logic works: Even if you grow marijuana only for yourself with no other human being or exchange of money involved, you are still affecting “commerce” because when you grow and consume marijuana yourself, it’s that much less that you are buying from illegal drug dealers. The same applies to medical marijuana, because its price undercuts what the illegal dealers are charging and cuts into their profits. Why buy from a dealer when you can get it from a clean, safe, and relatively inexpensive dispensary? So what the government is saying is that you’re going to put illegal drug dealers out of business if you’re allowed to grow your own or buy it from a legal dispensary. And that, in a nutshell, is how regulation of interstate commerce fits into the picture. It doesn’t matter that the commerce being regulated is illegal, or that the government technically doesn’t want that commerce to even exist. If the government wants to do something, and a Constitutional amendment is too much trouble, they will always find a loophole in the Constitution. (For more information on the U.S. Supreme Court decision that justifies this position, check out Raich v. Ashcroft, which uses as a precedent Wickard v. Filburn.)

OK. In a twisted, perverted sort of way the government’s logic is, at least in this case, internally consistent. But it is definitely not consistently applied. A good example of the inconsistency would be the situation with homegrown versus mass-produced vegetables. I grow my own tomatoes and, as a result, rarely purchase supermarket or farm stand tomatoes. By the logic applied to marijuana, I should not be allowed to do this because none of my money goes to the commercial tomato industry. Yet the Commerce Clause is not applied to the tomato situation. Could it be that our government cares more about criminal drug dealers than the domestic tomato industry? Or could it be that homegrown tomatoes will soon be illegal? Either way, I wouldn’t be too surprised.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On The Job For Your Protection

The DEA’s press release web page is kind of like a “brag book.” They get to show the world how their diligence, perseverance, and good old fashioned hard work is paying off (if high-profile arrests are any indicator). But more importantly, how all of their devotion is entirely in the name of protecting us from ourselves. Well, huzzah for them! I feel so much safer knowing they are getting this scourge, this assassin of youth, off our streets. Especially since I know (as the DEA informed me) that “more young people today are in drug treatment programs for marijuana dependency than any other drug.” So let’s just take a look at some of the things our DEA, defenders of truth and of those incapable of looking after themselves (i.e., everyone), have been up to.

Here’s a victory for public safety: California Marijuana Dispensary Owner Convicted. This is a fairly well-known, recent case that the DEA seems especially proud of. And why not? They put in lots of undercover hours and spent tons of money to prove that a medical marijuana dispensary open to the public and licensed by the state of California to distribute marijuana, was in fact distributing marijuana. Now that’s some police work they should all be darn proud of. Not to mention keeping all that evil weed from improving the quality of life for thousands of sick people.

Here’s a scary one: Marijuana Dispensaries Linked to Fatal Car Crash. Yes, it’s true. An individual who had recently purchased marijuana from a legal (under California law) dispensary admitted to “being under the influence of marijuana” at the time of a fatal accident. This is even worse than killing someone while driving under the influence of alcohol because… Well, just because. And just like when a person under the influence of alcohol kills someone, the owners of the dispensary that sold him the intoxicating substance were also indicted. Oh, wait a second. They don’t prosecute the liquor store owner when a drunk driver kills someone. But this is different. How is that again? Oh yeah, because the medical dispensaries involved were “enterprises designed to generate profits for those who chose to ignore federal law and flout state law.” (Is “flout” even a word?) Ignoring and flouting will absolutely not be tolerated by the DEA.

And it’s not just the dispensaries that need to be taught a lesson about flouting laws: California Doctor-Lawyer Couple Get Five Years For Growing and Selling Marijuana. Even physicians need to be reminded that how they practice medicine is under the control of the DEA. And who better, since they have so much medical experience, not to mention all that experience with protecting people from themselves? And you know what really seemed to have pissed the DEA off? That the defendants made money from the sale of their medicine. I mean, who do they think they are? A big pharmaceutical company? But the DEA is, as always, not being judgmental. After all the good doctor’s “judgment got clouded” by his “passion for the drug.” Or maybe it was his passion for helping to ease people’s suffering. Either way, it just can’t be allowed.

But to be fair, not all of the DEA’s big busts are medical dispensaries licensed by the state and operating in the open. For example, Three California Marijuana Distribution Centers Shut Down. This 9 month investigation shut down three major marijuana “distribution centers” in San Mateo, California. They wanted to send a message that “illegal operations within San Mateo will be shut down and the property owners held accountable and liable.” See, these were some really bad people. And it really did take a lot of work to bust these distribution centers, since it would appear that they were clandestine operations. But wait a minute. An article from another source about these very same raids says that they were in fact medical dispensaries. And the DEA made no indication that these dispensaries violated any state law. I wonder why the DEA neglected to mention the medical connection in this article. I guess they felt it wasn’t relevant, just like that information was not relevant in the federal court these people were tried in.

And just one more to give you a fair sample of the kinds of things the DEA has been up to: Oakland Landlord Sentenced for Allowing Marijuana to be Grown on Multiple Commercial Properties. See, the clever DEA is using every trick in the book. Why limit yourself to doctors and dispensaries when you can go after the dispensary’s landlord. Make an example of a few landlords and pretty soon those law-flouting dispensaries will have no place to operate out of. That’ll hit ‘em where it hurts. And what an example. This 62-year-old man lost almost $400,000 in assets and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Why pretty soon it will get so all the DEA has to do is give a landlord a threatening call to put a dispensary out of business.

I think you get the idea. But I encourage you to check out the DEA’s press releases for yourself. You’re sure to be impressed by their investigative expertise. That and their heroic and highly successful efforts to rid our country of the scourge we call marijuana. And you’ll certainly feel more secure in your homes knowing all those sick people will no longer be receiving a medicine that the DEA says they should not be using. Unless of course these patients end up going to one of the few thousand other legal dispensaries still operating. Or buy their medicine illegally from one of countless black market dealers. Either way, they’ll be really inconvenienced. Sort of like when someone illegally parks in a handicapped parking space.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

a/k/a Tommy Chong

This is not exactly a movie review, but more about the significance of this film with respect to the war on drugs. In case you haven’t seen a/k/a Tommy Chong, it is a documentary that tells the story of the federal government’s investigation, arrest, prosecution, and subsequent imprisonment of Tommy Chong for selling glass pipes.

You see, there is a federal law that makes sales of “drug paraphernalia” a criminal offense in the U.S. There are also a few states that have similar laws. However until recently, that federal law had not been enforced. So a number of retailers, including Mr. Chong, had been selling a variety of so-called paraphernalia for many years with no legal repercussions. Unfortunately, what these pipe vendors didn’t anticipate was an ambitious young U.S. Attorney, Mary Beth Buchanan, who wanted to make a name for herself. Of course if the government really wanted to shut down these vendors, they could have simply sent them “cease and desist” letters letting them know that the federal law was going to be enforced once again (as is pointed out in the film). But that’s not how you make headlines. And when one of those vendors is a famous pro-marijuana celebrity, the headlines make you look even more impressive.

As part of the investigation (which cost taxpayers $12 million), undercover agents repeatedly called Mr. Chong’s company trying to get them to ship their products to Pennsylvania, one of the few states in which selling glass pipes is illegal. After being refused over and over again, the agents eventually came up with a way to “encourage” shipment, and that, as they say, was that. Several heavily-armed federal agents raided Mr. Chong’s home and place of business. For some strange reason though, only Tommy Chong was charged with a crime, and that was some time later. After a brief trial and some plea bargaining, Mr. Chong ended up serving 9 months in a federal prison, for his first criminal offense. Approximately 50 other retailers were targeted as part of this operation, but they served little or no prison time.

Interestingly enough, a conviction for a first-time DUI offense in California, which is a crime that endangers lives, will only get your license suspended for four months. Even three DUI convictions will not land you in jail. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if Mr. Chong’s punishment fit his crime.

So, what was the point of “Operation Pipe Dreams” (cleverly, the government chose a name that sounds a lot like the title of a Cheech & Chong movie, which coincidentally was also the name of Mr. Chong’s business), other than advancing some careers? I think it’s safe to say that the government was trying to send a message. As the government is wont to do, they believed that the use of threats, intimidation, prosecution, and imprisonment would show people that they mean business. Surely after such a large-scale operation, no one would dare sell these items in the U.S. ever again. And by going after Mr. Chong in particular, they would show that no one, not even a stoner celebrity, is above the law. In fact, the prosecutors and judge made no secret of the fact that Mr. Chong was targeted because his career has been based on pro-marijuana entertainment.

So what were the results of this massive operation? Well, for one thing, drug paraphernalia is just as easy to buy in this country as it always has been. But the government doesn’t really care about that. The war on drugs has never been about showing results. A more significant result, also not intended by the government, is that Mr. Chong’s career has been revitalized. And that, more than anything, seems to have pissed them off. Won’t they ever learn that when you try to make an example of someone, especially someone who really isn’t a bad person, that you only end up making them a martyr? (Maybe those religious right-wingers should have spent some time reading their New Testament.) This 70-year-old hippie, who hasn’t been doing much lately other than selling glassware, is now a hero to a whole new generation of stoners. The film (from which Mr. Chong makes no money) has won awards at the HBO Comedy Arts Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival, the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, and of course, the High Times Stony Award, to name just a few. He’s back on the road again doing stand-up comedy and has even reunited with Cheech Marin, his old partner, for a tour. In fact, getting busted is the best thing to happen to Tommy Chong’s career in many years.

And that’s most certainly not a result the government was anticipating. I’d say they are completely mystified by this turn of events. How could Operation Pipe Dreams, which was motivated purely by the egotistical self-importance and career aspirations of a few government officials, have gone so wrong? Just because they targeted someone who exercised his constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech to disagree with the government, surely no one would hold that against them. The government does that sort of thing all the time. No big deal. And surely no one could fault them for targeting an entertainer beloved by the last few generations of stoners. More importantly, since things did turn out this way, how can the government let Mr. Chong get away with profiting from their misguided ignorance and incompetence? Well, they can confiscate 10,000 of his DVDs for starters. I’m not sure why, since Mr. Chong is only the subject of the documentary and makes no profit from it. But I’m sure it makes somebody feel better that they are at least doing something to show that they are not taking the repercussions of their actions lying down. No one should be allowed to profit from the government’s stupidity and vindictiveness.

In retrospect, I’d have to say that things turned out pretty good for Tommy Chong and the American people in general. Mr. Chong’s career has been given new life. A whole new audience is now aware of his work. And the American people have had a chance to see what really motivates their government in the ongoing war on drugs. Ironically, the government is their own worst enemy when it comes to defending their war. A few more high-profile busts of harmless, beloved celebrities will do more to end this senseless war than all the protests and petitions of pro-pot groups combined. So my hat’s off to Ms. Buchanan and her crew. Don’t stop showing the people what the war on drugs is really all about. Keep up the good work!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hey Kids, Let’s Learn The Truth About Smoking Weed

Imagine, if you will, a web site that’s a cross between the movie Reefer Madness and the children’s magazine Highlights. That should give you a pretty good idea of what the DEA’s web site for kids is like. That’s right, those hep cats at the DEA are down with the drug scene. Much like The Fonz, they are cool in a far out, happening sort of way. Such a groovy web site surely must be chock full of accurate and totally truthful information in a format the kids will say is really rad. Nome sayin’? How could it not be? Isn’t it the DEA’s mission to inform and warn people about the dangers of (certain) recreational drugs? (That, and arresting them when they don’t heed the warnings.) In keeping with that objective, this site debunks the common myth that marijuana is relatively harmless (maybe that should be an episode on Mythbusters). And it does so in a kid-friendly way. Come on kids, how could you not trust kindly old Uncle DEA?

So let’s take a little look-see at what marijuana myths your friendly neighborhood DEA is debunking. First of all, some headlines: it’s just a plant—how could it be bad 4 me. Using a “4” like that makes it easier for the kids to relate to—it’s modern and edgy. And the use of all lower-case letters makes it very informal and downright friendly to kids of all ages. And then there’s totally lame (and dangerous and illegal) things to do on pot and the frightening extreme grades: from A to D in six months. Using words like “totally” and “extreme” will surely catch the kids attention because it’s speaking their “lingo.” I don’t know about you, but with titles like those I just can’t wait to hear the facts and have those nasty old myths debunked. And if I have anything to say about it, they will be good and rebunked before I’m through.

Did you know that the AMA (that’s the American Medical Association to you and me) has rejected marijuana as medicine? The always-helpful DEA even provides a link to the AMA web site that further explains their position on medical marijuana. But I guess you’re not really supposed to click that link, because if you do you’ll see that the DEA ever-so-slightly misinterpreted the AMA’s position on medical marijuana. What the AMA actually says is that more research is needed, and they go on to recommend how that research should be carried out. They further state that “The AMA believes that effective patient care requires the free and unfettered exchange of information on treatment alternatives and that discussion of these alternatives between physicians and patients should not subject either party to criminal sanctions.” Oops! Sounds like the DEA didn’t read the article they used as a reference. But who can blame them? After all, arresting medical marijuana users and their caregivers does occupy a fair amount of their time.

And I’ll bet you didn’t know that the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes the legalization of marijuana. If you follow the link provided you will see that this is indeed true. But if you read a little bit further you’ll find that, “The American Academy of Pediatrics supports rigorous scientific research regarding the use of cannabinoids for the relief of symptoms not currently ameliorated by existing legal drug formulations.” Golly, it seems that they too think medical marijuana research is important. Is mentioning that little detail something else that was overlooked by the DEA? Surely this oversight was not intentional.

Then there’s the U.S. Supreme Court, who the DEA tells us “rejected medical marijuana.” This too is true, although the court has not been very consistent in its decisions. Even so, I guess I didn’t realize that the Supreme Court was qualified to make medical recommendations. What’s that you say? They’re not? Could it be that they were just interpreting the current federal law and not really making a statement about the medicinal value of marijuana? Perhaps the DEA could explain that a little better. When they get the time.

And my personal favorite—Smoking marijuana not only makes you a criminal, but makes you violent as well. This is according to statistics provided by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health report from January, 2004. And their data do indeed show that the more marijuana kids in their survey smoked, the more likely they were to commit a variety of nonviolent and violent crimes. One possible conclusion that someone (i.e., someone who doesn’t understand statistics or who wants to intentionally misinterpret their meaning) might come to based on these statistics might indeed be that marijuana causes crime. But as we all know, a correlation between two variables does not imply a cause and effect relation. Either of the variables could be the cause or the effect, or neither of them could be either. The correlation statistic can’t tell you which is true. Based on my personal experience, I’d guess that it’s the other way around, that being a criminal is what makes you more likely to smoke, rather than smoking makes you more likely to be a criminal. And that perhaps people with violent tendencies may smoke to mellow themselves out a bit. Equally valid conclusions based on these statistics. And I’d further guess that you’d find the same correlation between crime and smoking cigarettes. (Or between crime and being a member of a minority.) But I don’t think anyone would suggest that smoking cigarettes makes you a criminal. But they could, which is what makes playing with statistics so much fun. See kids, we’re having fun! And learning that a good science and math education is important because it helps prevent people from playing those hilarious statistics tricks on you.

There you have it boys and girls, some myths badly in need of debunking finally having the bunk kicked out of them once and for all. And in a fun, far out, and solid kind of way. See, the truth doesn’t always hurt.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Unique and Solitary Crime

If you ask someone to define the concept of crime, they might give you a definition involving a behavior that violates a law. Technically, that is correct. But what is it that makes our legislators decide one type of behavior is criminal while another isn’t? What is it that all criminal behavior has in common and distinguishes it from non-criminal behavior?

I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of crimes involve one person doing harm or causing injury to another. Most actions that you can think of that involve one person intentionally harming another are illegal. And for most crimes, that harm involves either violence or theft. For the violent crimes—murder, rape, assault—the harm is physical. Someone is injured or killed. For the crimes of theft—robbery, burglary, embezzlement, fraud—the harm involves property. Someone’s property is damaged or destroyed or taken away from them.

But what about the so-called “victimless” crimes? For the most part, they don’t result in anyone being harmed. Does that make them an exception to my definition of crime? Indeed it does. Which means I need a new, broader definition. While most crimes involve one person harming another, virtually all crimes require the involvement of two or more people. Regardless of whether those people are perpetrator and victim or willing participants, it is nearly impossible to commit a crime alone. You can’t gamble or engage in prostitution alone in your home any more than you can commit a murder. As they say, it takes two to tango.

In fact, some behaviors are criminal solely because they involve others. Drinking alcohol is perfectly legal, but driving under the influence isn’t because it endangers others. Speeding is another crime you can commit alone, but it potentially endangers other as well. Whether the harm is actual or potential makes no difference.

It therefore seems to me that it is virtually impossible to commit a crime without involving someone else. I say “virtually” because there is one crime I can think of that you can commit entirely on your own. Can you guess what that crime is? It’s not all that hard to figure out, given the nature of this blog. Possession of marijuana is the only crime that does not require the involvement of another individual. (I consider growing for personal use essentially the same thing, even though the government doesn’t. The same would apply to other “natural” drugs that you can grow and consume yourself without involving others.) If you think about it for a second, you’ll see that it’s true. You could be all alone, in the privacy of your remote mountain cabin, miles from civilization, causing no actual or potential harm to a single other living thing, yet still be committing a crime. Is that crazy or what? (Don’t bother answering, as that was a rhetorical question.)

For the sake of completeness, there is one other “crime” you can commit that could potentially endanger just you and no one else. That would be driving without wearing a seatbelt. Of course you’re not going to go to federal prison for that violation, nor lose your job or be denied a variety of government services. At least not yet.