Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Profiting From Crime

I read a lot and I’ve written a bit on the economics of the war on drugs. But there’s something I just learned that surprised me, which is pretty hard to do. Did you know that there are privately-owned and operated prisons in the U.S.? Not just a few, but lots of them? I guess I had heard about private prisons before, but never realized how widespread they really are. In case you don’t know, a private prison is a for-profit business. Just like many other “services” provided to the government by private industry, companies bid on and receive contracts to build and operate prisons. And make money doing it.

Maybe it’s just me, but that seems a little not quite right. I have no problem with the government contracting with private companies for other kinds of services, like building fighter planes or running the Senate cafeteria. But isn’t the criminal justice system supposed to be, you know, part of the government? I thought that, at the very least, profiting from crime was frowned upon. Criminals certainly are not allowed this privilege. For example, a convicted murderer isn’t allowed to write a book about his crimes. Why is it that big business is allowed to make big bucks on the incarcerated?

So how about some cold, hard facts on prisons in the U.S. of A.? On any given day there are over 1.5 million Americans in prison, one of the few things we still lead the world in. Not that we didn’t have to put in a little effort to achieve that honor. Why back in 1980, before we had administrations that were so “tough on crime,” we had fewer than 400,000 people in prison. But with a little hard work we managed to more than triple that number in less than 30 years. Pretty impressive.

It makes you think that crime must be running rampant in this country. Well, that’s not exactly the case. For example between 1975 and 1985 the serious crime rate actually decreased slightly while the number of people in prison during that same period nearly doubled. So how does that work exactly, when crime rates go down and prison populations go up? I guess that’s what being tough on crime is all about.

Although I have to admit, there is one type of crime that has been on the rise. Can you guess which type? That’s right, drug-related violations. Over a 25-year period starting in 1980, state and local arrests for drug violations rose from around 600,000 annually to almost 2 million per year. Of course over that same period actual drug use stayed about the same. Again, that’s just more evidence that being tough on crime is actually accomplishing something.

But what about private prisons? After all, that’s what this is all about. Thirty U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, DC have a total of over 150 private prisons. Those private prisons house 7.4 percent of the nation’s prisoners which, if you do the math, works out to about 116,000 people. At an average cost of around $25,000 per year to house a prisoner, that’s just under $3 billion going to private prisons each year. And I’m sure they’re getting a lot more than that.

Right now we are spending an estimated $6 billion per year on construction alone just to keep up with the rapidly-growing prison population. No wonder these private companies want a piece of that pie. In fact, they want it so bad that during the 2002 and 2004 election cycles they gave $3.3 million to candidates and state political parties across 44 states. And experts estimate that prison populations in 10 states will increase by 25 percent between 2006 and 2011. So there’s lots more money to be made.

And it doesn’t hurt when someone like the soon-to-be former Vice President owns stock in one of the largest private prison companies. There’s no one tougher on crime than Mr. Cheney. Coincidence? Maybe. Conflict of interest? Definitely. Seems only fair that Mr. Cheney was recently indicted in a private prison case. Makes you wonder how many other tough-on-crime politicians also make money in one way or another from the private prison industry.

With all this money being made in the business of incarceration, and even more to be made in the future, how can we ever expect things to change? There’s absolutely no incentive to reduce our prison population. And the best incentive of them all, money, to keep that population growing. You know what they say about money talking.

I guess we’ll just have to look on the bright side. At least we still have something left that we can lead the world in. No one builds more prisons or puts more people in them than the good ol’ U.S. of A. Suck on that Japan, Finland, and Canada. They think they’re so great just because they’re so far ahead of us in student math and science test scores. Let’s see them even try to compete with us when it comes to locking people up behind bars. Then we’ll see who has the last laugh.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

U.S. Government Admits to Supporting Terrorism

You know how “they” say that telling the truth is easier than telling a lie? Well, they do say it. When you tell the truth you never have to worry about your story being the same every time you tell it. And when you tell the truth, you will never contradict yourself; your story will always be internally consistent. Unfortunately, it looks like our government never learned this valuable life lesson. Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.

In their never-ending struggle to keep marijuana out of the hands of the American people, the U.S. government has told a few lies. OK, more than a few. Not surprising. But you’d think that after all this time they’d be better at it. I mean, they’ve had plenty of practice. Yet they’ve consistently failed to get their story straight. This is either out of ignorance, or more likely a belief that no one will check out their story too carefully. If you do, you can come up with some very confusing conclusions regarding the government’s war on drugs. What follows are two facts I’ve discovered, and I didn’t have to look too hard or resort to making stuff up or taking anything out of context. I’ve even included references so you can verify the “facts” for yourself. The conclusion that follows from those facts should be obvious to anyone (outside the DEA).

Fact 1: Illegal drug money supports terrorists

The first part of the story involves the government’s assertion that drug money supports terrorism. A few years back the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy even ran a series of public service announcements, one during the Super Bowl, that claim that if you buy illicit drugs, you are supporting terrorists. Here’s an example of one of those ads. And a little time spent with Google will easily demonstrate to you that this “drugs support terrorism” message has been spread by the government for some time now. It’s not just a few isolated ads. It’s a big part of their “drugs are bad” platform.

Fact 2: The U.S. government supports illegal drug dealers.

The second part of the story involves the U.S. government’s use of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution as part of its justification of prohibition. Even when the use of a particular substance in no way involves interstate commerce, such as medical marijuana use within a given state, the effects of that use are national in scope. When you grow your own marijuana or buy it inexpensively from legal dispensaries, you are taking business away from the illegal importers, distributors, and dealers. And so the government is acting to protect those dealers with the Controlled Substances Act. Don’t believe me? Here it is from the horse’s own mouth, the case of Gonzales v. Raich. Just to be clear, here is a quote from the Court’s decision: “the regulation [of marijuana] is squarely within Congress’ commerce power because production of the commodity meant for home consumption, be it wheat or marijuana, has a substantial effect on supply and demand in the national market for that commodity.” (The “national market,” in this case, refers to the black market.)

Conclusion: The U.S. Government supports terrorists.

Now I’m no rocket scientist. But it doesn’t take one to connect the dots, especially when there are only two of them and they can be connected with a straight line. The government admits to supporting and protecting illegal drug dealers. The government claims that money from the sales of illegal drugs supports terrorism. Therefore simple logic tells us that the U.S. government is supporting terrorism. If we were doing math, that would be called the transitive property. But since we’re not, let’s just call it painfully obvious. I’ve heard it said that the war on drugs is really a war on the American people. It looks like that is very true, in more ways than one. So I say, let’s get our government out of the business of supporting those that hate America and our way of life. And let’s get our government out of the business of standing between sick people and their medicine.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The NIH On Cannabis

In an earlier article I discussed the official government position on marijuana (i.e., it’s not medicine). According to the DEA, their position is in part based on studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since the NIH studies that I’ve been able to find don’t really support the government’s position, I thought I’d review one of those recent, major NIH studies on medical marijuana myself and see what they really have to say on the subject. This study, The Endocannabinoid System as an Emerging Target of Pharmacotherapy, was published in Pharmacological Reviews in 2006 and summarizes recent findings on the medical uses of the various compounds found in marijuana. For fun, let’s compare and contrast the findings of this NIH study with the research cited by the DEA.

First, the official position of the DEA, as discussed in one of my previous pieces, is about as straight forward as you can get: the best available science tells them that marijuana has no medicinal value.

Now let’s take a look at what was actually found in numerous recent studies, as reviewed in the article cited above. The main conclusion of this review is likewise very unambiguous: the family of chemical compounds found in marijuana can be used to treat a wide variety of diseases and pathological conditions. Curious how the DEA fails to acknowledge the hundreds of studies reviewed in the NIH article, isn’t it? Could it be because much of that research was conducted outside the U.S.A.? Possibly. Of course that sort of research is frowned upon here, but that's beside the point. Could it be that it contradicts the official position of the government? Probably. But I think another reason they neglect to mention this overwhelming evidence is simply the fact that it exists. When you’re trying to scare people, the existence of facts can tend to confuse the issue. Any facts, pro or con, make it more difficult to maintain a mindless, irrational fear. Kind of like the Wizard of Oz. Once you know what’s behind the curtain, the wizard isn’t nearly as scary. Just knowing there’s something behind the curtain is enough to tell you that things probably aren’t what they seem. Your government would prefer you didn’t even know about the curtain.

And just so you don’t think I’m exaggerating, below is a summary of some of the medical uses of marijuana-based compounds discussed in the NIH article. You know, the ones the DEA says don't exist. There’s a lot more in the article, but I think this will give you a pretty good idea of what medical marijuana researchers really think.

Physiological Effect

Treatment Applications

control of appetite and energy metabolism

cancer and AIDS patients, as well as anorexia

relief of pain and inflammation

a wide variety of conditions

protection from neurotoxicity and neurotrauma

traumatic brain and spinal cord injury, stroke, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, to name a few

control of mental disorders

schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression

regulation of sleep


regulation of addictive disorders

alcohol, cocaine, or opiate addiction

cardiovascular and respiratory effect

hypertension, atherosclerosis, and asthma

visual system effects

eye disorders such as glaucoma and retinopathy

inhibition of malignant tumor growth

several different types of cancer

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Happy Day After Election Day

I don’t have any insightful commentary or witty observations about yesterday’s election. Nor do I have anything to say about our country’s choice for a new president. If you want that sort of thing, check out the CNN web site (or Fox News, if you’re of that persuasion).

I just wanted to say congratulations to the people of Michigan! Their state has just become the 13th in the U.S. to have an active medical marijuana program. The measure passed with an overwhelming two-thirds majority. That means that nearly 25 percent of the American people now have safe access to their required medication. (Unless of course the DEA decides to go after them like they have in California and elsewhere.) It’s getting harder and harder for the federal government to claim that marijuana has no accepted medical use in the U.S. At least with a straight face.

I’d also like to acknowledge the state of Massachusetts, where the people just voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts (1 ounce or less) of marijuana. It will save the state millions of dollars, not to mention all those otherwise law-abiding citizens who will no longer have their lives ruined by a criminal record. Way to go Massachusetts!

These are small steps, but definitely in the right direction. Who knows, maybe with a new president things will change for the better all over this country. I’m skeptical, but not as pessimistic as I once was. I mean I never, ever would have expected to see a black president in my lifetime. Ever. But here we are. So I guess anything is possible.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Mother Of All Conspiracies

I recently read a story about Steve Tucker, the so-called “forgotten man.” In case you’re not familiar with Mr. Tucker’s story, and there’s no reason you should be, it is very tragic, to say the least, and more than a little scary. You see, Mr. Tucker was recently released after serving a 10-year prison sentence. Yes, that’s right, 10 years! This Steve Tucker must have been one dangerous criminal to be held in a federal prison for so long, right? I mean the average time a convicted murderer spends in federal prison is only 7 years. So what could Mr. Tucker have possibly have done to deserve such a severe punishment? Simple—he was convicted of selling electric lights. Yes, you heard me right. But just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, I’ll say it again. Mr. Tucker was sentenced to 10 years, without possibility of parole, in federal prison for selling electric lights.

Technically, the federal crime he was convicted of was “conspiracy to manufacture marijuana.” So, you might be thinking, marijuana was involved after all; that’s a different story. But wait. There was no actual marijuana directly involved in the crime Mr. Tucker was convicted of. He was not accused of, nor convicted for, buying, selling, growing, transporting, smoking, or even possessing marijuana. After a multi-million dollar, 18-month-long investigation, the DEA was not able to connect Mr. Tucker with even a single joint. But that’s where the conspiracy charge comes in so handy. You don’t have to commit a crime, or if you do, you don’t need to even be aware you did. When a prosecutor throws the word “conspiracy” in front of a charge, it’s just a matter of waiting for the fat lady to sing. It’s all over but the sentencing.

So what exactly did Mr. Tucker do to land himself in jail for 10 long years? He operated a hydroponics store in Atlanta. In case you don’t know, that means his business sold electric lights, fertilizers, and other gardening supplies. It was a legitimate business and Mr. Tucker was a law-abiding, tax-paying business owner, living the American dream. Or so he thought. As it turns out though, some of Mr. Tucker’s customers were using products purchased at his store to grow marijuana. Now Mr. Tucker didn’t promote the use of his hydroponics equipment for growing marijuana. He didn’t advertise products specifically made for growing marijuana, and in fact if anyone asked him about growing marijuana they were asked to leave his store. But beyond that, Mr. Tucker didn’t question his customers or try to insure they were only using his products for legal purposes. And that was his fatal mistake. Even though he was running a legal business, selling legal products, he was still responsible for what those products were used for after they left his store. And so he had to pay for his life of “crime.” Let that be a lesson to others committing crimes that they have no idea they are committing.

But I don’t think the DEA went far enough. I’ve been doing a little research and have discovered that marijuana growers don’t purchase all of their growing supplies at hydroponics stores. It’s true. The same lights sold at these specialty stores are also sold at home improvement stores, often at lower prices (very important when you’re in a for-profit business, like growing marijuana commercially). Not to mention plumbing and other gardening products. So why stop at shutting down a few mom-and-pop hydroponics stores when much bigger fish are just asking to be caught? National chains like Lowe’s, Home Depot, Central Hardware, Ace Hardware, to name a few, should also be investigated. I’d be willing to bet that they don’t routinely question people who purchase high-pressure sodium lights as to their intended use. And when it comes to gardening supplies like soil, fertilizer, and pots, there’s no better place to get them at a guaranteed low price than Wal-Mart. Or K-Mart. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve purchased potting soil at Wal-Mart and was not asked a single question about it. They were practically encouraging me to use that soil to grow marijuana. And, as I understand it, growing with hydroponics requires things like water pumps and air pumps. As someone who keeps tropical fish, I know that these items can easily be purchased at any pet shop. And I also know that pet shop owners could care less what you do with a pump after it leaves their store. How irresponsible can they be? They might as well have a big sign in their store that reads, “Our pumps work great in hydroponics marijuana-growing operations.”

So I think the DEA’s mission is clear. Any store anywhere any time that sells anything that could conceivably be used to grow marijuana needs to be shut down. Not only that, but their merchandise should be seized by the DEA. Isn’t that what the forfeiture laws are for? And their owners need to be held responsible for their actions—they need to be prosecuted and their assets seized. And here’s the really neat part about this: Most of these national chains are publicly traded companies. That’s right, they have thousands of owners—their stockholders. Each and every one of them must be held responsible. By owning even a small part of a business that sells to people who use their products to grow marijuana, they are all involved in a conspiracy as much as Mr. Tucker was. The mother of all conspiracies. And there’s no excuse for that. This is the U.S. of A. after all.

As if that wasn’t enough to make our government cream their jeans, it gets even better. Just think of all that “loot,” aka proceeds of crime, seized by the federal government. I bet when all is said and done, it would be the total assets of over half the population. Maybe three-quarters. That’d be enough to pay off the national debt, and then some. Of course a lot more prisons would need to be built. But since those are private businesses nowadays, it would be a great boost to our economy. It might be a little tricky to handle, what with more people being in prison than out, but since when has our government backed down from a challenge? And if that’s what it takes to finally, once and for all, rid our country of the scourge of marijuana, then so be it. If our government did anything less, what kind of message would it send to our children?