Monday, December 14, 2009

A Constitutional Loophole?

Marijuana and other recreational drugs are illegal everywhere in the U.S. of A. because of a piece of federal legislation passed in 1970 called the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). So how is it, you might ask, that criminalizing alcohol in 1919 required a Constitutional amendment, yet criminalizing any and all other drugs required nothing more than Congress passing a law? The answer involves what you might call “finding a loophole” in the Constitution. After briefly explaining that so-called loophole, I’m going to outline what I think is another loophole that might just negate the first.

To begin with, the 10th amendment to the Constitution states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In other words, any powers not specifically given to the federal government by the Constitution are given to the states or the people. That’s why alcohol prohibition required a Constitutional amendment: the power to criminalize alcohol had to be specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution.

But those tricky folks in the Nixon administration figured out a way around that pesky old 10th amendment. They justified the CSA with the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States.” Since a lot of recreational drug use involves international and interstate commerce, the CSA can be seen as Congress exercising its power to regulate the drug market. It doesn’t matter that it is a black market, ironically because of the CSA. The law doesn’t distinguish–a market is a market–so the Constitutionality of the CSA has been upheld.

But what, you may be wondering, about drug-related activity that occurs entirely within a single state, or even entirely within one’s home? Believe it or not, the Supreme Court has decided that the national and/or international market is still involved. Yes it’s true. If, for example, you were to grow your own marijuana in your own home and consume it there, you are still affecting the market because you’re not spending your money in it. Hard as it is to believe, the Supreme Court supports the Constitutionality of the CSA because it helps protect the business interests of black market drug dealers. In other words, the CSA created and now protects the black market for illicit drugs.

But what about the medical marijuana market? Couldn’t it be said that states that currently allow medical marijuana have created a brand new market? Actually a set of new markets, each entirely self-contained within its state. Markets that do not involve interstate or international commerce. Legitimate markets that are entirely different from the illicit black market created by the CSA. Markets that do not fall under the federal government's authority to regulate commerce.

So it seems to me (I am not a lawyer) that the Constitutionality of the CSA could be challenged on these grounds. Granted, the Supreme Court decided that the illicit drug market can be “controlled” by the federal government. But we’re no longer talking about that market. The legal, state-controlled markets for medical marijuana are completely separate and different, and in no way involve any commerce outside of their respective states. What do you think? Could this be a legitimate loophole? Any Constitutional lawyers out there care to comment?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Canada’s Our Bitch

It’s been a while since I’ve felt motivated to write something for my blog, but a recent development in the drug war has gotten my creative juices flowing again. What I’m talking about is the situation with Marc Emery. In case you haven’t heard, Mr. Emery ran a successful mail-order cannabis seed operation for many years in Canada. He paid his taxes, and the Canadian government was (mostly) happy. That is, until they were approached by the good ol’ U.S. of A., who considered Mr. Emery a major drug kingpin and a threat to the American way of life (i.e., prohibition). So when the DEA asked for Mr. Emery’s head on a platter (figuratively speaking), surprisingly, the Canadian government was more than happy to oblige. After a lengthy legal battle, Mr. Emery surrendered himself last week to be extradited to the U.S. Once here, he will spend years in an American prison for what is a minor offense in Canada. That is, if the Canadian government had ever bothered to prosecute him. Which they didn’t. (Now that I think about it, this would make a great episode for that TV show, Locked Up Abroad).

Let’s face it, Canada may have at times seemed like a independent-minded country, but deep down they’ve always wanted to be just like us. And with their now-conservative government, there’s no longer any need to pretend. It’s kind of nice actually, having things out in the open like this. I mean where else are we going to find a country where when we say, “jump,” they ask, “how high?” It’s especially refreshing at a time when we just can’t seem to get any respect around the world. Maybe Canada’s new motto should be, “What’s OK in the U.S. is fine with us.”

It’s sort of like when you were a kid and you had a little brother. You know, the one that’s always tagging along, wanting to play with the big kids. Sure they’re annoying at times, but having someone that’s willing to do just about anything to get into your good graces can be kind of fun. You want them to go fetch something, they hop to it. You need somebody to do your chores, they’re more than happy to. Of course, no matter what they do, they’re still that annoying little brother, and you can never really take them seriously. But you pretend to, and everybody is happy. If that little brother were a country, he would be Canada.

The main reason we can’t ever take them seriously is because they do things that we would never, ever do ourselves. (Or at least admit to doing.) For example, what do you think would happen if the situation were reversed? Let’s say that someone in the U.S. was selling liquor over the internet to people in Iran, where alcohol is illegal. What do you think would happen if the Iranians wanted to come over here and arrest those liquor peddlers with an armed paramilitary force, and then haul them off to an Iranian prison? Not a chance in hell we would allow that. I have no doubt that the U.S. government would stand up for the rights of its citizens and tell the Iranians to take a hike. But the Canadians have no problem with handing one of their own law-abiding citizens over to a foreign country to sit for years in a foreign prison. That’s what makes them fun to have around, but we can never accept them as equals.

And I almost forgot the best part, the aspect of this situation that shows how big and important we really are. At least compared to Canada. You see, Mr. Emery was not arrested for anything he’s done. There are hundreds of cannabis seed vendors in Canada and around the world that are still in operation and still selling their product to Americans. Turns out Mr. Emery was singled out and arrested for what he said. And for how he spent his profits. The DEA even admitted it. Publicly. When speaking to the press after Mr. Emery’s arrest, did the DEA mention the impact of their bust on the flow of illegal drugs into our country? Did they mention the impact on drug production in our country? Did they mention the impact on drug use in our country? No, no, and no. Their only comment was on the impact the arrest had on the marijuana legalization movement, now that one of its major spokesmen and funders was out of the picture. I guess it just goes to show that freedom of speech applies only to American citizens, at least as far as we’re concerned. After all, we can’t allow foreigners to go around criticizing our government and its policies, now can we? And who else but Canada is going to let us lock up their citizens for criticizing us? It’s nice not to have to invade a country to make them see things our way.

So now that we’ve made Canada our bitch, I wonder how else we can make them bend over and take what we’re pushing. More importantly, how can we insure that after we have our way with them, they stand up and politely say, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” You know, they’ve got that universal health care system that we hate so much (damn socialists!). Maybe we ought to start arresting Canadians who speak out on the benefits of their health care system. I’m sure we could find an excuse. And that’s only the start. Before you know it, Canada will be just like our 51st state. Without any of the benefits, of course.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Another Three Bite the Dust

History was made last week. What? You didn’t hear about it? Maybe that’s because this particular story doesn’t fit in too well with the message the mainstream media is trying to sell you. What I’m talking about is the decriminalization of drugs in Mexico. People can no longer go to jail for personal possession of small amounts of any controlled substance. At least not after the new law goes into effect. And when I say “small,” I’m talking really small. The limit for marijuana is five grams, and for cocaine it’s half a gram. If you are caught with the specified amount or less, you are encouraged to seek treatment. If you are caught three times, treatment is mandatory. That’s it. No jail or criminal record.

Granted, this is a very small step. It will likely do nothing to impact the extreme violence in Mexico caused in big part by the U.S.’s prohibitionist policies. Cartels will continue to kill and be killed by the authorities in record numbers. So other than refocusing the efforts of the Mexican police, there will probably be very little immediate effect. “So, what’s the big deal?” you might ask. Well, I’m glad you asked. The big deal is that this very same legislation was proposed in Mexico less that three years ago. The result? The good ol’ U.S. of A. threw a hissy fit. It might have been a conniption, I’m not sure. But the point is, the U.S. told Mexico that such a law was not acceptable. Prohibition was the one and only way to deal with the drug menace. And of course Mexico said, “Yes sir. Thank you sir, may I have another.” End of story.

But things seem to have changed here in the land of the free. This time, the Mexican legislation was proposed and passed with nary a word from the bully to the north. Zip. Nada. No response whatsoever. In fact, you might even think that we are trying to avoid the issue entirely. It’s kind of like if we just ignore the Mexican’s attempt at a sensible drug policy, it will just go away and leave us alone. But that’s OK. Progress is progress, no matter how small or how quiet it’s kept.

But wait, there’s more. At the same time that Mexico was making history, drugs were decriminalized in Argentina as well. Well, sort of. The Argentinean supreme court unanimously ruled that it is unconstitutional to punish an adult for the private use of marijuana as long as that use doesn't harm anyone else. Now this is not quite the same as actually changing legislation, but it’s pretty close. This ruling will force the Argentinean legislature to reconsider their drug laws. As if that wasn’t enough, earlier this year a Brazilian court made a similar ruling. That’s right, possession of a controlled substance for personal use is no longer against the law in Brazil.

So that makes three – count them, three – nations in this hemisphere that have eliminated criminal penalties for the personal possession of controlled substances. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel just a little optimistic again. Just when I thought things were back to normal and there was no hope. If this keeps up, my optimism might just become a habit. Now if they’d just stop raiding medical marijuana dispensaries in this country, as was promised, I might very well become downright giddy. Nah. That’ll never happen.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Grounds for Dismissal?

You may recall me talking about our Drug Czar and his role in keeping illegal drugs illegal. Pretty sleazy if you ask me, this whole thing about him stifling research and opposing all legalization efforts. But at least he’s doing his job. And, like it or not, we taxpayers are getting our money’s worth out of him. Which is more than can be said about a lot of other civil servants

Just to refresh your memory, Mr. Kerlikowske recently told some folks in Fresno, CA that “Marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit.” He also included the standard required statement, “Legalization is not in the president's vocabulary, and it’s not in mine.” He’s made these very same statements in public on other occasion in recent months as well. Fair enough. The guy’s just saying what he is required to say, being the good puppet. I may not agree with his message, but when someone is paying you to do a job, I believe you should do that job to the best of your abilities. In this case, that would be lying, preferably with a straight face. And so far, our czar has been doing just that. Good job, Mr. Kerlikowske. Way to earn that paycheck.

Unfortunately, that was then, and this is now. Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we find our beloved czar in Seattle for a roundtable discussion on drug policy. You would expect Mr. Kerlikowske to continue being the good puppet and repeat the standard message yet again. At least I would, since that’s what he’s being paid to do. But no. During an interview with local news our czar backpedalled on his previous statements, and said:

“I certainly said that legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary nor is it in mine. But the other question was in reference to smoked marijuana. And as we know, the FDA has not determined that smoked marijuana has a value, and this is clearly a medical question, and that's where I've been leaving it.” He continued his mixed message with, “Sometimes you make a mistake and you work very hard to correct it. That happens. I should’ve clearly said ‘smoked’ marijuana and then gone on to say that this is clearly a question that should be answered by the medical community.”

WHAT!?!?!?! What do you mean you were talking about “smoked” marijuana? What do you mean the issue of medical marijuana should be decided by the medical community? That’s not the way we do things here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Nosiree. Whether or not people have access to a medicine that improves the quality of their lives has nothing whatsoever to do with the medical community. Where have you been for the past 70 years, Mr. Kerlikowske? When it comes to marijuana, the opinion of the medical community, or any other community outside the Beltway, is irrelevant. If the medical community had anything to do with it, medical marijuana would have been legalized long ago. Or, at the very least, would have been extensively studied for the past 40 years. What could Mr. Kerlikowske have been thinking? What could possibly explain his very un-czar-like behavior? Could he have been self-medicating with an illegal substance?

Well, he did also say, “We had been hiking in 107 degree weather in the Sierra Nevadas...” OK, that explains it. He was suffering from heat stroke and was confused. But wait, that was in reference to his original statement that marijuana was dangerous and had no medical value. Now I’m the one that’s confused.

But one thing I’m not confused about is our Drug Czar’s blatant disregard for a Congressional mandate. He is required to oppose medical marijuana research and any other efforts toward making marijuana, and all other Schedule I drugs, legal in any way. That’s what he’s being paid to do. Seems to me if any other public servant so cavalierly disregarded the mandate of the people (i.e., Congress), they would probably be forced to resign. In shame. So what do you say Mr. Kerlikowske? After embarrassing yourself and your government so publicly, don’t you think it’s time you passed the torch to someone better suited to the job? I think Barry McCaffrey is available.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Do We Really Need a Schedule I?

For those of you that don’t know, the Controlled Substances Act places all controlled substances into one of five categories, or schedules, with each schedule having its own set of criteria for inclusion. Schedule V is the least restrictive for the safest, least abused drugs, such as cough medicine. Schedule I, on the other hand, is the most restrictive and reserved for only the most dangerous drugs that have no medical use. Schedule I substances, which include heroin, LSD, and marijuana, are strictly forbidden under virtually all circumstances, including research. That’s not to say that absolutely no research is ever done with these substances. But it’s very limited and subject to the approval of the DEA. Marijuana, for example, is at this time legally available for research purposes from only one source, and then only in a very low-grade form. What that means is that even if someone were to get to the point of conducting the large-scale clinical trials necessary for FDA approval, enough of the drug would not be available.

So what I’d like to know is why we even need a Schedule I. What’s the point? From a control standpoint, substances in Schedule I are restricted only to those doing legitimate research. Others can easily acquire them from the black market. Substances in Schedules II through V are strictly controlled, but they are legally available for research or through prescription.

So it looks like the answer to my question is that the point of having a Schedule I is to restrict research, not unauthorized, recreational use. Whether or not anyone would actually admit to that being the reason, it is certainly the result. And restricting research of any kind is not the sort of thing a free society should do. The whole point of scientific research is to further human knowledge. That’s a good thing. Restricting the generation and flow of knowledge only serves to stifle a society.

Now I can certainly understand restricting, or at least strictly controlling, certain types of research. Obviously we can’t have high school kids trying to build nuclear devices in their garages. But medical research? I think you’d be hard pressed to find too many people that believe we shouldn’t do everything we can to find new medicines and new cures. Unless of course that medicine involves marijuana (or stem cells, but that’s another story). Of course those people are probably not doctors. They have no way of knowing what might be discovered if marijuana and other Schedule I substances were able to be freely studied. And of course there’s no way to convince those people otherwise because the research cannot be done.

And it’s not only research that suffers from there being a Schedule I. Substances that have been shown to be beneficial under certain circumstances cannot be prescribed by doctors if they are in Schedule I. And it’s not just marijuana. For example, heroin is one of the most effective pain killers known. Yet only its less effective relative morphine can be prescribed. LSD and other psychedelics have been shown to have some uses in psychotherapy, yet they cannot be prescribed either. While substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine are in Schedule II and can be used therapeutically. Seems like a pretty arbitrary distinction.

So the whole existence of a Schedule I seems pretty crazy to me. What’s crazy about it is the government telling the medical community what drugs they can and can’t prescribe. Any such policies should be determined by physicians based on science, not politicians based on politics. Even crazier is restricting medical research of any kind. Regardless of where a particular line of research might lead, it will at the very least generate new knowledge. And today, just as it has been throughout human history, knowledge is power.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Writing On The Wall

Just last week the National Institute on Drug Abuse (i.e., the federal government) published an RFP. That’s a “request for proposals” to you and me. Nothing unusual about that, as the government is always soliciting proposals for grants and government contracts. But what is unusual is the nature of this particular contract. Perhaps the title of the RFP will give you an idea of what I mean: Production, Analysis, & Distribution of Cannabis & Marijuana Cigarettes. Yes, that’s right. The federal government is looking for someone to grow marijuana for them.

But what, you might ask, about the University of Mississippi? Haven’t they been the sole supplier of all legal medical and research marijuana in this country for the past 40 years? And wasn’t it just a few short months ago that this very same federal government, after a protracted legal battle, declined a legitimate application from the University of Massachusetts to produce marijuana and other Schedule I drugs for research? And wasn’t it the DEA who, in spite of support from a number of Congressmen and a favorable ruling from their very own DEA Administrative Law Judge, ruled that ending the government’s sole-source monopoly on marijuana would lead to increased illicit use? And besides, claimed the DEA, the University of Mississippi provides all the (low-grade) marijuana that researchers in this country could ever want.

So what’s happened in the past 7 months to change things? Well, for starters, just a few days after the DEA’s decision was handed down, a new president was sworn in. But neither he nor his new attorney general reversed or overruled the DEA’s decision. I think it’s something bigger than just a new administration, although that certainly has a lot to do with it.

I think the people in our government are finally starting to see the writing on the wall. In the past few years a number of legitimate scientific papers have been published on the medical benefits of the various compounds found in marijuana. The science is getting pretty hard to deny, even for hard-core drug warriors. But helping cancer patients alleviate their nausea or stimulate their appetites is not enough to change these people’s minds. Not when there are plenty of other expensive alternatives provided by the pharmaceutical industry. What is starting to get their attention is the research focused on cannabis compounds as a cure for cancer. That’s right, a cure for cancer.

You see, I believe that within the next 5-10 years a real cure for cancer will be found. By “real” I mean one that doesn’t practically kill the patient to rid them of cancer. And I believe that cure will be based on compounds derived from marijuana. More importantly, that cure will come from somewhere other than the good ol’ U.S. of A. How embarrassed will we be when the world learns that we had a cure for cancer right under our very noses all this time while we did our best to prevent anyone from discovering it. Boy, will our government’s face be red. What are they going to say? Sorry? Our bad?

It’s true you know, CBD and other cannabinoids (the active compounds in marijuana) have been shown to kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed. Unlike current chemotherapy alternatives, which kill all cells indiscriminately, the only side effect of CBD treatment is a relaxed feeling. And here’s the kicker: almost all of this research is being done somewhere else. It’s yet one more area where our country is falling behind the rest of the world, medicine. How embarrassing indeed.

So I believe that not wanting to look stupid in the eyes of the world just may be responsible for the changing attitude of our government with respect to medical marijuana research. Not that looking stupid has ever stopped us before. But this is different. In most cases, like wars, right or wrong can be pretty subjective. But when it comes to suppressing research that might lead to a cure for cancer, there’s no two ways about it. That’s a bad thing. Oh well, at least it will give all those government propagandists something to do—spin it so it looks like our war on drugs really was a good thing, and show how smart we were by putting an end to it.

FYI, here are a few studies that have come out in the past few years that show promising results with respect to using cannabinoid compounds to treat cancer. Notice where most of this research has been done?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Who’s The Boss?

All this talk recently about and by our Drug Czar (aka, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy) has got me wondering: Who exactly does this guy answer to?

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was officially created by the “National Drug-Abuse Act of 1988” (not to be confused with the “National Drug-Abuse Act of 1986”). So the office was created by an act of Congress. But the office itself, and its director, are a part of the executive branch. And, up until the current administration, the Drug Czar was a cabinet-level position.

And then in 1998, Congress passed the “Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 1998.” That act stated, in part:
The Director ... shall ensure that no Federal funds appropriated to the Office of National Drug Control Policy shall be expended for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812) and take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance (in any form) that ... is listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812); and has not been approved for use for medical purposes by the Food and Drug Administration.
OK, sounds clear enough. The Drug Czar’s job has nothing to do with setting policy or providing factual information to citizens. Pretty shameful, if you ask me. But at least we know where the Drug Czar stands on national drug-control policy: Exactly where the federal government tells him to stand.

But wait, there’s more. In March, 2009 the President issued a “Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies” that stated, in part:
Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.
As you can see, the plot has thickened considerably. What was once clear and unambiguous is now confused and contradictory. Congress has mandated that the Drug Czar oppose all efforts to reschedule Schedule I drugs (i.e., legalize them). Science has nothing whatsoever to do with his position on the subject. On the other hand, the President has mandated that science must guide all relevant decisions of his administration, and that policy makers must not lie to the public about science.

So what’s a Drug Czar to do? And I have to ask again, who’s the boss? Does the Czar answer to Congress, who created his position in the first place and who wrote his job description? Or does he answer to the president, who appointed him to a position in the executive branch? For now, at least, it looks like the President’s mandate to tell the truth about the science behind policy decision is trumped by Congress’s mandate to ignore science and stick to the official party line. Not that anybody really believed politicians would suddenly start telling the truth about the reasoning behind their policy decisions. But it sounded good on paper. So to answer the original question, it looks like the Drug Czar answers to the president but must follow the rules laid down by Congress. He is, as I’ve said before, nothing more than a shill for the federal government’s anti-drug propaganda machine. Sad, but true.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Meet the New Drug Czar, Same As The Old Drug Czar

Soon after taking office, our current president appointed a new director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, otherwise known as the Drug Czar. Nothing really surprising about the appointment, other than for the first time it is no longer a cabinet-level position (no explanation for that). But at the time, the marijuana news and blog sites were buzzing with facts and speculations about the new appointee, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske. Based on his history, some were actually hopeful that this new guy would be more sympathetic to the anti-prohibition cause than his predecessors. Sadly, these hopes were soon dashed as Mr. Kerlikowske has since stated publicly on more than one occasion that decriminalization and legalization are not in his vocabulary (nor in the president’s), and that marijuana is a dangerous drug with no medical uses. Period. End of “discussion.”

Apparently all these hopeful people were not aware of the Drug Czar’s job description, which which was modified by Congress in 1998 to read, in part:

The Director ... shall ensure that no Federal funds appropriated to the Office of National Drug Control Policy shall be expended for any study or contract relating to the legalization (for a medical use or any other use) of a substance listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812) and take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance (in any form) that ... is listed in schedule I of section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 812); and has not been approved for use for medical purposes by the Food and Drug Administration.

What this means is that the Drug Czar is required by law to oppose any efforts toward ending prohibition, and to even oppose medical or other research of schedule I substances (e.g., marijuana). So, when he says that certain words are not in his vocabulary, he means that literally. By law, he cannot speak in favor of any change in policy. You see, it doesn’t matter who the Drug Czar is, or what his personal opinions might be. His job is to do everything he can to maintain the status quo. In other words, to keep schedule I substances in schedule I. It wouldn’t have mattered if Woody Harrelson had been appointed Drug Czar, the message would have been the same. Any public statement contrary to the official position of the federal government would, at the very least, get him fired. My only question is, what’s the president’s excuse?

I don’t know about you, but this institutionalized lying seems just a tad blatant to me. Sure, all politicians lie. Much like death and taxes, it’s inevitable. But they typically don’t like to admit it, unless they get caught and have to. What’s unusual in this particular case is that lying is part of the job description. Regardless of any scientific evidence or public opinion, the Drug Czar must oppose any change in the current state of prohibition. Even if marijuana were widely accepted as having great medical value, he must say it doesn’t. Even if every citizen in the country were to be in favor of ending prohibition, he must say that it will never happen. So don’t blame Mr. Kerlikowske too much. He’s just being a good civil servant and fulfilling his job responsibilities as best he can.

The people you should be blaming are those that created the office of Drug Czar in the first place. And those that made the person holding that position into nothing more than a PR shill for the federal government. Once you understand the situation, you really can’t get too upset over what the Drug Czar says. Granted, some Czars have been more enthusiastic about it than others. OK, they’ve all be pretty enthusiastic crusaders for prohibition. But what can you expect? Given the job description, anyone with any contrary opinion (or self respect) probably wouldn’t even accept the appointment. Or be nominated in the first place.

To summarize, the Drug Czar has nothing to do with drug policy in this country, other than doing his best to make sure that it doesn’t change. No need to even listen to what he says, as it’s the same story we’ve been hearing for over 70 years now. So any time the Drug Czar makes a public statement, just move along, nothing to see here.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On The Other Hand...

I wrote a rather optimistic piece a short time ago (Thank You, Mary Beth Buchanan) about how the tide was changing and things were starting to happen on the re-legalization front. If you’ve been reading my stuff for a while, you probably know that I am nothing if not pessimistic, at least when it comes to prohibition. So I thought I’d mention some recent developments that are less than positive. Just so you don’t think I’m starting to view things through rose-colored (or is that weed-colored?) glasses. Or going soft (that’s what she said).

One major blow to the movement came just a couple of weeks ago when the governor of New Hampshire vetoed the most restrictive medical marijuana bill ever drafted. And by restrictive I mean, for example, it applied to only to terminal patients and did not allow patients to grow their own medicine. The bill ended up being so limited because of objections by the governor to earlier drafts. In spite of changes that addressed all of the governor’s concerns, he still vetoed the bill. And it’s not a sure thing that the state Senate and House will be able to override the veto. Sad.

That same week an Illinois Congressman announced a bill that would specifically target the new devil’s weed, so-called “kush,” with stiffer penalties compared to just plain old regular marijuana. Helpfully, this Congressman explained how hydroponic growing techniques and controlled environments make this weed so dangerously potent. You learn something new every day. These proposed new penalties would put someone convicted of selling this killer weed in prison for up to 25 years. Yes, you heard me right, 25 years for selling good pot.

And let’s not forget some of the drug war’s latest martyrs. There’s Charlie Lynch who was recently sentenced for his convictions related to operating a legitimate medical dispensary in California. Clearly the federal judge was reluctant to impose the mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. He delayed the sentencing and even wrote to the Attorney General to question whether the newly-announced hands-off policy applied in Mr. Lynch’s case. It did not. But the judge won out, sort of, by only sentencing Mr. Lynch to one year and one day in federal prison. So I guess there’s something positive in this otherwise sad, and unnecessary story.

Unfortunately, Eddie Lepp was not so lucky. He recently did receive the mandatory minimum 10-year sentence. This is a 56-year-old man in ill health who did nothing but grow and distribute medicine. The judge did allow for Mr. Lepp to receive another hearing if the laws ever change. That’s mighty white of him.

I guess my point is that, although we might (just might) have turned a corner, there’s still a long way to go. And if often seems that for every step we take forward, we take two back. Not that that’s anything new. Pretty much the same thing that’s been going on for the past 40 years. Same shit, different day.

There, now I feel better. Too much optimism makes me feel unsettled. Off balance. So don’t worry, I won’t go getting all positive again anytime soon. Back to business as usual.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

That’s What They Say—Part 2

The other part of the pro-drug war argument is the actual, once-and-for-all, definitive way to make it really work: get tough(er). In other words, the solution to our drug problem is stiffer penalties (sounds a lot like the first President Bush). Some qualify that by saying that the severe penalties should be aimed not at users, but at the rest of the people that make up the recreational drug black market—the producers, smugglers, dealers, and such. If you make the penalties severe enough, that will certainly discourage people from producing and selling drugs. Granted, it just might discourage a few, but I think the negative side effects of such an approach would be far worse than its doubtful benefits.

For one thing, higher risk means higher prices. And the one thing we can be certain of is that if addicts have to pay more, crime will go up. Higher risk also means that only the most hard-core, serious criminal types will continue to be involved in the business. The drug black market attracts some pretty bad individuals already. If the stakes are higher, they’re only going to get worse, mainly because the less serious will find other means of making a living.

And of course stiffer penalties don’t address the fact that once something is made illegal, the government loses all control over it. Legal drugs are regulated—their sale and distribution is controlled. You have to be 21 years old to buy liquor and, as a result, it’s not so easy for kids to get it (not impossible of course). Responsible merchants, which most are, won’t sell liquor without proof of their customer’s age. However, illegal drug dealers are generally not quite so responsible. They tend to be equal-opportunity vendors, and will sell to anybody with money. And if the risk is higher, even the ones with a bit of a conscience might relax their standards to make all they can as fast as they can. Even now, for most kids illegal drugs are easier to come by than legal ones. Stiffer penalties are not going to change that, other than possibly making the situation worse.

In conclusion, I don’t think it’s our government’s job to protect people (i.e., competent, sane, adults) from themselves. Nor do I think it’s even possible. Legislation will never prevent stupidity. And I don’t think stiffer penalties will help either. Other than the law enforcement and prison industries, who certainly welcome all the money thrown their way. If you think that’s crazy talk, then just look at the historical data. Anti-recreational-drug legislation has, at best, maintained the status quo. In some cases it’s exacerbated the problem, and even created new problems. What’s crazy is expecting the government to solve all of our social and medical problems.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

That’s What They Say—Part 1

From time to time I read about or hear someone discussing the war on drugs. In fact I read an editorial in a local paper about it just the other day. And I’ve noticed that pro-drug war arguments tend to focus on two aspects: why it’s a just cause and how to make it work.

The war on drugs is a just cause because it’s the duty of the government to protect people from themselves. Interesting concept, and arguably a noble ideal. It also sounds like a pretty liberal idea to me (i.e., the nanny government), although I doubt conservatives view trying to stop people from using drugs in quite that way. However it is not the role of our government. I’m not talking theoretically, but in terms of the duties granted to the federal government by our Constitution. The Constitution clearly enumerates the powers of the federal government, and states that any powers not specifically granted to the federal government are left to the states or to the people. Many of the powers granted to the federal government could be described as intended to protect people from others (e.g., piracy, treason, international trade). But none could even remotely be interpreted as protecting people from themselves. So, while it may sound to some like something our government should be doing, protecting people from themselves is not something that our government has the power or authority to do. And if you think about it, you just might realize that in practice it is virtually impossible. People always have and always will do really stupid things and no legislation will ever stop them. Nor in my opinion should it even try, because doing stupid things is a big part of our unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Not to mention a very fundamental part of human nature.

Here’s the other thing about trying to use legislation to prevent people from hurting themselves: Not only does it typically not accomplish what it is intended to, but it tends to hurt the people who have no need of such protection. Just because one or two people burn themselves with hot coffee, does that mean coffee shouldn’t be served hot ever again? Just because a small percentage of people who consume alcohol become alcoholics, does that mean we should prevent the vast majority of responsible drinkers from enjoying their frosty beverages? Likewise, because a few people abuse other recreational drugs, should we deprive everyone of the right to enjoy and use those drugs responsibly? Not only deprive them, but turn them into criminals? Well, apparently the answer is yes—punish many in a futile attempt to help a few.

To be continued…

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thank You, Mary Beth Buchanan

Back in September of last year I wrote about Tommy Chong’s run-in with the feds and his subsequent incarceration. It hasn’t been that long, and yet a lot has happened since Mr. Chong’s imprisonment. After giving that unfortunate incident and some more recent events some serious thought, I’ve decided to go out on a limb and make a prediction. At some point in the future, when prohibition has ended, we will look back and mark the bust of Tommy Chong as a major turning point in the war on the war on drugs. I believe that the national publicity that surrounded the unreasonable treatment of Mr. Chong at the hands of our federal government finally brought the situation (i.e., the horrors of prohibition) to the attention of the American public. And that is a significant accomplishment.

So what exactly has happened since then that makes me want to go a-predictin’? Well, for starters we got ourselves a new president. I won’t go so far as to attribute any credit for that to what happened to Mr. Chong. But it didn’t hurt that this new president came into office when the media’s interest in the prohibition issue is at an all-time high. It’s getting so you can’t hardly turn on the TV or read a blog without seeing a news report or editorial about some aspect of prohibition. Mostly against. Then shortly after taking office, our new president appointed a new attorney general, as new presidents are wont to do. Although nothing is official yet, that new AG has stated publicly that the federal government is not interested in raiding law-abiding medical marijuana dispensaries. (A few have been raided since then, but that’s another story.) And let’s not forget our new Drug Czar, who said he doesn’t like the term “war on drugs,” and thinks we should probably call it something else. Again, nothing earth shattering (or even real), but at least people in the executive branch are talking about the issue. That’s something that hasn’t happened since the 70s.

As for actual legislative activity, just a few weeks ago Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) along with 9 co-sponsors introduced legislation that would protect medical marijuana patients from federal prosecution. Then a week later, Frank and others introduced a bill that would remove federal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. This isn’t the first time such bills were introduced only to die, but clearly some momentum is shifting.

At the local level, the number of states that allow medical marijuana now stands at 14—two of which were added to the roster along with the election of that new president of ours, and one, NH, was added just this week. Three of those states now permit the operation of dispensaries, and together they are home to over one third of our population. And at this very moment 12 more states have medical marijuana legislation pending. It’s looking like within the next couple of years well over half of the people in this country will have access to medical marijuana. No matter how you look at it, these are some significant, unprecedented developments.

And just a few of days ago the United Nations, in an abrupt 180 to their long-standing policy, made a statement in favor of drug decriminalization (sort of). That’s especially surprising seeing as how not that long ago the UN’s position was that prohibition could end all drug use in the world within 10 years. Seems kind of sudden to give up now, seeing as how they were so close. Who knows, another 10 years and their prohibitionist polices might have worked.

But what does all this have to do with Tommy Chong’s imprisonment. As I said, it’s all about the media. Not to mention the effect a martyr can have on a movement. And what better martyr could the cause have? Mr. Chong is well known, beloved by young and now old alike, viewed as mostly harmless, and (here’s the biggie) was clearly singled out and treated more harshly because of who he is and what he stands for. An ambitious young U.S. Attorney who wanted to make a name for herself ended up making a martyr of a beloved American icon. Which also, incidentally, did wonders for his career. And of course, most importantly, gave the anti-prohibition movement some much-needed attention. People, including politicians, are now talking openly about the issue, where not too long ago an elected official wouldn’t dream of using the “D” word, let alone the “L” word, in public. Even the anti-drug, conservative governor of California recently stated that it’s time for an open debate. Decriminalization and even legalization are now in a lot more people’s vocabularies. Unfortunately, they are not yet in our Drug Czar’s.

So a hearty thank you to Mary Beth Buchanan, the prosecutor who I predict will go down in history as the one responsible for getting the anti-prohibition movement off the ground. Keep up the good work! And if I might make a suggestion to all ambitious prosecutors throughout the land: Find a few more harmless, beloved, elderly American icons and bust them for something marijuana related. Single them out and make examples of them. I’m thinking perhaps someone like Walter Cronkite or Doris Day. Or how about Oprah? She’s not elderly, but quite beloved nonetheless. A few more of these high-profile busts, and we’ll be buying weed right alongside alcohol and tobacco at our local convenience stores before you know it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Who Is Tony Aroma?

A while back I wrote a piece about where my pseudonym came from (Tony Who?), but I think it’s time I tell you a little bit more about the person behind the pen name. Like why do I even use a fake name in the first place? Why not just be myself? Who is the real Tony?

Well, there are two main reasons for the made-up name. First, I would be a bit embarrassed if my family or friends knew what kind of stuff I am writing. Aside from a few close friends, no one even knows I have any interest at all in the devil’s weed. If they found out what I was writing, most would probably decide (if they hadn’t already) that I was stupid, silly, crazy, pathetic, obsessed, drug-crazed, or all of the above and then some. Granted, I may be any or all of those things, but that doesn’t mean I have to flaunt it. So no one, not a single living soul, knows that I write this blog.

Second, although I have never admitted to committing any crimes in my writings, nor have I encouraged others to do so, I do nevertheless criticize my government. That alone may not be a crime at this particular point in time, but it sure has gotten a lot of people in a lot of trouble. And with all the fear of terrorists and other threats to our national security these days, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if our government were keeping an eye on anyone who is critical of their policies. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Not that anyone can really be totally anonymous on the internet. But I do what I can to remain unknown and hope it works.

So, what can I say about myself without compromising my anonymity? I think it’s safe to say that most people that know me would be surprised, shocked even, to know what I’ve been writing about. I can say that I am not a youngster, nor would I be referred to as elderly or spry. I guess that makes me middle-aged. I’m pretty well educated and have what would probably be considered a white-collar or professional job. I don’t consider myself a conservative, but then again I don’t like a lot of liberal polices. If I had to pick a political label, I’d have to say I’m a libertarian. I believe in the Constitution and the limited federal government it describes.

I was pretty rebellious when I was young(er). Some might even have labeled me a “hippy.” But I’m not old enough to have been a real hippy, so I don’t think that label really applies. But now I’m just your typical member of “the establishment.” Although I like to think I’m not all that typical. And for the record, I am not (overly) lazy or a slacker, I don’t lack ambition, I am reasonably successful, I am a generally well-adjusted and happy person, and I rarely ever say things like “man” or “dude” in a conversation. And I hope you’ve determined from reading my work that I am reasonably intelligent and have a pretty good grasp of the English language. So much for the stereotypes.

But I think the best way to describe me is the last person in the world you would expect to write such a blog. Picture in your mind the type of person that you might imagine writes about this sort of thing, and then picture the exact opposite. That’s me. Picture the “person next door” in suburbia U.S.A. Really, like I said in my blurb, I’m pretty much your average Joe. I could be somebody you know. I could be that neighbor that you see every once in a while and say hi to or maybe exchange some small talk with. I could be that person in the next cubicle that you talk to on breaks and have the occasional lunch with. I could be that old friend that you grew up with and wonder what ever happened to. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Then again, this could all be a product of my overactive imagination and not be an even remotely accurate description of me. I hope this answers all those burning questions that you’ve been too afraid to ask.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Smiley Face — Friend or Foe?

I saw Smiley Face (the movie) a while back and never got around to writing about it. But I’ve seen it several times since and decided it was about time I got around to doing a review.

First, let me just say that I loved this movie. And I love Anna Faris. Not in any kind of weird, stalker-ish, John Wayne Hinckley kind of way. She may not be a great actor (then again, maybe she is), but she is cute and funny, and thus far in her career has chosen roles that make the most of her comedic acting talents. The part of Jane in this film is no exception.

Smiley Face is a modern take on the classic stoner movie. Ms. Faris plays Jane, a “pothead” who accidently eats a plate full of marijuana-laced cupcakes, and then goes about her day in a less-than-optimal state of mind. She only really has to do two things that day: pay her electric bill and show up at an audition (she’s an aspiring actress). And even that turns out to be a little too much for Jane on this particular day. Driving—forget it. Not spending her roommate’s electric bill money on more pot—not likely. Impressing the casting agent with her acting skills—not exactly. Getting the money to pay both her dealer and her electric bill—ain’t gonna happen. As you might expect, hilarity ensues.

And, like all good movies, it’s the details that make this one really stand out. There are lots of little things that make it apparent that the writer, director, and actors really know their subject matter. Anyone who’s ever smoked pot (about half the adult population of the U.S.) will instantly relate. Like when her dealer comes over and she drifts off while he’s talking and forgets he’s there. And while waiting for “Mrs. C” (Marion Ross, whom I will always think of as the mom on Happy Days), a photo of corn sets her off on this hilarious stream of consciousness rambling. Or when she thinks she is giving this eloquent, moving speech, but in reality never completes a sentence. Or the boredom, the paranoia, the daydreams, the craving for Doritos and orange juice. These are some people that know what it’s like to be stoned.

Also in the cast are Danny Masterson (Hyde from That 70s Show) as her nerdy/scary roommate, John Krasinski (Jim from The Office) as the ultra-nerd who has a crush on Jane, and John Cho (Harold from Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle) as the driver of a truck she stows away in. All in all, a great cast, great writing, great directing, and great comedic acting. As a screwball/adventure comedy, Smiley Face is top notch.

So what could possibly be wrong with such a fun movie? Well, I hear tell that some in the anti-prohibition community feel that this film, and films like it, portray pot smokers in a negative light. And I guess that’s true. And “they” feel that such portrayals hurt their cause. Maybe, maybe not. It’s true that pretty much all the characters in this film are blatant stereotypes—the stoner, the nerd, the various authority figures. So I can certainly understand how some people might not like having these stereotypes perpetuated. It might make some people think that everyone that smokes pot is like Jane. And they’re probably right–that some people might think that. There are certainly some people out there who really believe all pot smokers are like Jane (or Cheech and Chong). Some of those people are running this country.

But not enjoying this delightful comedy for those reasons is like being a vegetarian because you don’t want animals to be killed. I’d guess that virtually all of those people that think every pot smoker is a dazed and confused danger to themselves and society would think so regardless. So screw them. Let those of us who enjoy this sort of thing do so, and let those others wallow in their own delusions.

And just for the record, every pot smoker is not like Jane. Or Cheech and Chong. Or James Franco’s character in Pineapple Express. Any more than every one who consumes alcoholic beverages is like Otis Campbell (the town drunk on The Andy Griffith Show) or Jim Lahey (the drunk trailer park supervisor on Trailer Park Boys). It’s comedy, people. That’s where you take some little thing, some little trait or quirk or behavior, and you exaggerate it. The characters in comedies often say and do things that no human being in real life would ever conceivably even think of saying or doing. That’s what makes it funny. You can’t take them seriously, as if that needs to be said. So enjoy Smiley Face and films like it for what they are—mindless entertainment. Not social or political statements. If it makes you laugh, that’s a good thing. And this film made me laugh, a lot.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Killer Marijuana!!!!!

OK, I’m exaggerating to get your attention. Much like they’ve been doing in England recently with their stories of the new, super-potent “skunk” weed that is sweeping their nation. And although they haven’t actually said this skunk is killing people (as far as I know), there have been reports like this one that claim it is causing schizophrenia and violent behavior. That’s some scary weed. Indeed.

Could this reefer-madness-esque sort of thing really be true? I don’t know about modern marijuana causing murderous rampages and such but, according to the U.S. government, marijuana potency has been rising for the past 30 years and is now at an all time high (pun intended). Surely this statistic, at the very least, must be true. Surely our government wouldn’t lie to us. Not about marijuana, anyway. But, just for the sake of argument, let me play devil’s advocate here. As I am wont to do.

First, let’s think about the history of marijuana. We know people have been growing and ingesting marijuana for its psychoactive properties for at least 2700 years. And, although there is no hard evidence, I’d bet people have been using marijuana for a lot longer than that. It’s probably one of the oldest domesticated, non-food crops known to mankind. So, why is it that all of a sudden about 30 years ago marijuana suddenly started getting more potent? Is there something we discovered at that time that growers and breeders had missed for the past several thousand years? Granted, modern marijuana breeders know how genetics works. But farmers have known about selective breeding for a long, long time. You don’t need to know about genes and DNA to be able to select the best specimens to use for breeding.

Just a minute there buckeroo, the government might say, you’re forgetting about modern technologies, like hydroponics. Sounds reasonable. After all, so-called “hydro” weed is much sought after. And there are certainly some advantages to growing under perfectly-controlled conditions. Plants do grow quicker and produce higher yields. But, contrary to the hype surrounding hydroponically-grown marijuana, the potency of marijuana is determined almost entirely by its genetics. And where did these modern-day genetics come from? Did some new species of cannabis suddenly appear around 30 years ago? Hardly. Did somebody use some high-tech gene-splicing technique to create a super race of cannabis? Guess again. The genetics that people are growing today are the same genetics that have been developed and improved upon for thousands of years. Granted, there are a lot more varieties around today, but they can all trace their ancestry back to a relatively few strains that have been around for a long time.

So what could explain the finding that the potency of marijuana has been steadily increasing over the past 30 years? As is often the case, our government likes to play fast and loose with statistics. You see, this report refers to the average potency of marijuana that the government has confiscated and tested. And it is true that with more people than ever growing marijuana, and more high-quality genetics more widely available, there is a lot more good weed around. At least in places like California which, coincidentally, is where the federal government conducts a lot of its raids. So, overall, the average potency may have indeed gone up. But, and this is the crux of the biscuit, the highest potency has not really changed. True, there is marijuana today that tops 20% THC (that’s a lot). But there has always been marijuana that topped 20% THC. The Sadhu of Nepal have been smoking this high-potency stuff for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And today, there is also marijuana that is much less potent, just like there always has been. It’s just that at this point in time, there is a greater proportion of good, compared to bad. Hence a higher average. (The government has also started including hash in their statistics, which raises the average, but that's another story.)

So don’t be misled by more of the same from your government. Marijuana today is not some completely different substance than it was 30 years ago. Or 50 years ago. Or even 1000 years ago. It’s the same pot that your parents smoked. And their parents. And so on. It’s just that where your parents might have gotten lucky and scored some really good smoke every once in a while, the good stuff is a lot more readily available today. At least in some places. And just so you don’t go off half-cocked worrying about your kids getting ahold of too much of a good thing, it’s not that bad. Research has shown that the more potent marijuana is, the less of it people tend to smoke. And achieving the same effect with less smoke entering your lungs can only be a good thing. So in reality, if the government’s claims of more potent marijuana are really true, it should make them very happy. Since its citizens’ health is the main reason for prohibition, the government should be celebrating. In spite of everything they’ve done, people will be smoking less of the new, super-potent weed. When you think about it, there’s really no downside.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Oldest Profession

It occurred to me one day that smoking marijuana is in many ways a lot like prostitution. Before I go on, I want to put those jokes that immediately spring to mind behind us. Here’s one to get you started: They both involve putting something in your mouth and sucking on it. OK? Satisfied? Got it out of your system? Now we can move on.

First of all, people have smoked marijuana and engaged in prostitution, in one way or another, as long as there have been people. If you want to get all scientific about it, agriculture is probably the oldest profession, but I’d guess prostitution comes in a close second. And we know that people have been using marijuana both recreationally and medically at least since the beginning of recorded history. The oldest known medical manuscript mentions the medicinal properties of cannabis, and a 2700-year-old tomb was recently uncovered in China that contained, among other things, almost two pounds of marijuana that had clearly been cultivated for its psychoactive properties.

Both have been legal throughout much of human history, but recently have been outlawed. Why? No particular reason, other than on moral grounds. Some people believe you shouldn’t do these things, and that making them illegal is the most effective way to make people stop doing them. Apparently, in a civilized society, we all need to follow the same moral code, even in private.

They are both, in most cases, victimless “crimes.” Unlike most crimes that involve one person doing harm to another, no one is really harmed by engaging in these activities. Granted, that’s not always the case. But I think it’s safe to say that reasonable, intelligent adults can commit these acts without doing anyone, other than possibly themselves, any harm. Most of the problems associated with these activities are the result of them being against the law, rather than the activities themselves.

And in both cases, if the activity were legal and regulated, much of the danger would be eliminated. As we know, in the case of prostitution, a legal industry is much safer for all involved. Consumers do not have to deal with criminals. The spread of disease is drastically reduced. And people do not have to worry about a criminal record for doing something that is really nobody’s business but theirs. Similar things could be said about legalized and regulated marijuana (except for the part about spreading disease).

Making these activities illegal also brings the government into the privacy of one’s home, which is supposed to be protected by our Constitution. Somewhere along the line, our government got the idea that it was within their power to tell consenting adults what they can and cannot do in private. I guess I missed the part in the Constitution that gives the government the power to tell its citizens what kind of sex they are allowed to have. Or what kind of home remedies they can use. When you get right down to it, people really should be able to do whatever they want in private, as long as all parties involved are agreeable and the activity doesn’t harm or otherwise affect other people.

It’s also the case that arresting and imprisoning people for these activities has no demonstrable effect on the number of people engaging in them. Will outlawing prostitution make it go away? Will prohibition make people stop smoking marijuana? It hasn’t so far. Of course, who knows? Maybe in another 10,000 years the laws will finally start to have an effect, and we just need to be patient. But I tend to doubt it.

Which brings me to my last point. Paying for sex and ingesting psychoactive compounds is what people do. They always have done it, and always will. It’s human nature. As I’ve said before, legislation that goes against human nature will always fail. Threatening people with punishment will not make them stop being people. It’s like passing a law that forbids dogs from relieving themselves on fire hydrants. Ain’t gonna happen. So what’s the point? Don’t we have enough criminals already? Why do we need to make up laws that make even more people into criminals. Why can’t the government stay out of people’s personal lives? More importantly, why does the government insist on legislating morality? Why does it bother some people so much when others do something they don’t approve of? Why can’t we just live and let live? Anybody? Bueller? I’m waiting for some answers. I haven’t got all day.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court Decides Not To Decide—Again

A while back I wrote a column, U.S. Supreme Court Decides Not To Decide, about the case of a California man whose medical marijuana was taken by local authorities who then refused to return it even though the man was a legal medical marijuana patient under California law. That case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, who refused to hear it. Case closed, federal law does not trump a state’s medical marijuana law. Chalk one up for the good guys.

Well it’s happened again. Back in 2006, two counties in California that had refused to issue medical marijuana ID cards filed suit. They claimed they didn’t have to issue these cards because it was a violation of federal law. They lost their case in the state superior court and in the state appeals court. The state supreme court refused to hear their appeal, so they took it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Funny thing, just like the previous case, the highest court in the land decided against hearing this one too. Case closed, yet again. Lots of taxpayers’ money wasted, yet again. (Good thing California has so much extra money to throw around.)

So what does this second landmark non-decision mean? Basically, the same as the first one. Let me say it again, just so we’re clear: federal law does not trump a state’s medical marijuana law. The U.S. Supreme Court has now made this point quite clearly and unambiguously. Twice. The immediate effect of this law will (or at least should) be that San Diego, San Bernadino, and the seven other California counties that have refused to comply with state law must now do so. In theory. In practice however, I’m not so sure it will make much of a difference. The elected officials in these 9 counties quite clearly do not want to honor the people of California’s decision to allow medical marijuana. I’d put my money on them delaying and wasting more taxpayers’s money on additional pointless legal battles. As we all know very well, drug warriors do not give up easily. Things like laws and supreme court decisions are of little consequence when keeping drugs out of the hands of sick people is the issue. I mean after all, what kind of message would it send the children if we allowed sick and dying people to take any drug they want to just because it makes them feel better? If sick people want to feel better, let them take the more expensive and less safe drugs offered by the pharmaceutical companies just like everyone else. Our children need to know that this is the only reasonable alternative in a civilized society. (As far as I can tell, a civilized society, according to our government, is one in which the government, rather than the people or the medical community, decides what medications its citizens are permitted to take.)

There’s not much more to say about this, other than it’s another small step in the right direction. While it may have little immediate impact in those California counties, it does send a message to the rest of the country. Perhaps some of the people in states hesitant to pass medical marijuana laws because they conflict with federal law will reconsider. Assuming of course that such reasoning is sincere and not just an excuse to avoid doing the right thing. Regardless, it’s one less leg for the prohibitionists to stand on. Knock out a few more legs, and they will hopefully collapse under their own (dead) weight. I know, I’m the eternal pessimist. But perhaps, just maybe, there is finally the tiniest bit of very faint light at the end of the seemingly endless tunnel.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Busting The Biggest Myth Of All—Part 2

In last week’s column I discussed the myth that decriminalization leads to increased drug use. People who believe in this myth have no basis for their prediction. It’s just common sense. But, as I also pointed out, some real, solid evidence does in fact exist that would enable us to make a more informed prediction. For the past 8 years, all recreational drugs have been decriminalized in Portugal. Granted, Portugal is not the U.S., but I think what’s been going on there is still pretty relevant when it comes to making a prediction of what would happen here. The Portuguese are, after all, a pretty conservative and religious people. It might not be a perfect comparison, but better than just going on a hunch.

So, what’s been happening in Portugal over the past 8 years? Are dogs and cats currenlty cohabiting? Has it been a tragedy of biblical proportions? The simple answer to this complex question is, no. Not a single, observable bad thing has happened. In fact, just the opposite is true. Some really good things have resulted from Portugal’s insanely-tolerant drug policy. Not that that’s relevant to the good ol’ U.S. of A., where we base our drug policy on fear and baseless speculation rather than facts. So even though it’s pointless, let’s see what the results of decriminalization really are, minus the fear and baseless speculation.

A study of the drug situation in Portugal was recently completed by the CATO Institute, a non-profit public policy research foundation. They’ve posted a video on their web site that discusses the history of decriminalization in Portugal and the results of their study. So you don’t have to view the entire video, I’ve summarized the main points here. But please do check the video out, so you’re not basing your opinion entirely on my interpretation of it.

Drugs were not decriminalized in Portugal for socially progressive or libertarian reasons. The drug problem there was out of control in the 1990s as their criminalization efforts intensified. They decided to try decriminalization out of desperation, because what they had been doing was not working. So they formed an apolitical commission in 1998 made up of scientists and medical professionals to examine their drug policy and figure out how to fix it. The commission decided that decriminalization was the best way for the government to get the drug problem under control. Legalization was not an option because of international treaties. Not surprisingly, they heard the same arguments against this “experiment” as we hear in this country—that drug use would go up, that they would become a haven for drug tourists, etc. All those dire predictions turned out to be false. Now it’s pretty unanimous among the citizens as well as the government that decriminalization is a success, and there is no longer a movement to return to prohibition.

So what exactly is the current law in Portugal? Personal use or possession of small amounts (enough for 10 days usage) of any recreational drug is still prohibited by law, but is not a criminal offense. If you are caught, you will not be tried, convicted, sent to jail or receive a criminal record. (This is not at all like the situation in The Netherlands, where the existing laws are not enforced under certain circumstances.) Drug trafficking and selling to minors is still illegal. If you are cited for possession, you are given the opportunity for treatment, but treatment is optional. A recommendation is made at an informal hearing, but it is up to the individual what to do. Police still do issue citations for possession, even more now than before. That’s because now there’s a possibility it could help the individual, whereas imprisonment never really did anyone any good.

There are basically two reasons the Portuguese believe decriminalization is working: (1) If using/abusing drugs makes you a criminal, you’re not going to go to the government for help. Decriminalization removes the fear of government and the barrier to help. More people are now in treatment and government addiction programs are now far more effective. (2) Imprisoning nonviolent offenders costs lots of money (Portugal is a relatively poor country) without helping anyone. Freeing up much of that money allows the creation of education and treatment opportunities not previously possible.

Sounds good, right? But what about some hard data? Prevalence rates of the use of all drugs in adolescents and post-adolescents decreased between 2001 and 2006, and for some drugs the decrease was dramatic. There is no evidence whatsoever that drug use has increased in the dramatic way decriminalization opponents predicted. Portugal now has the lowest marijuana usage rate across all age groups (age 15-64) among EU nations. It has the sixth lowest cocaine usage rate across all age groups. That alone may not sound so great, but the EU nations with the most severe penalties have cocaine usage rates 5-6 time higher than Portugal. Drug deaths in Portugal have also dropped dramatically from their all-time high in the 1990s. And Portugal has not become a drug tourist destination.

Whether or not these decreases are just a reflection of world-wide trends, it still remains true that drug use did not dramatically increase with decriminalization. Just to be clear, this result clearly and unambiguously refutes the dire predictions made by the prohibitionists. This is in spite of the fact that in Europe overall, marijuana and cocaine use are at all time highs. So if decriminalization reduces the intrusiveness of the state and doesn’t favor the arrest of minorities while at the same time not increasing drug use, what’s the problem? Even if there are no major positive consequences of decriminalization, there are at the very least no negative consequences.

So there you have it. Solid evidence that, contrary to the baseless speculation of drug warriors everywhere, decriminalization does not lead to increased drug usage. Regardless of the other pros and cons of decriminalization, this outcome is quite clear. So every time you hear someone in favor of prohibition spouting off about the rampant drug use decriminalization would cause, politely ask them, “What about Portugal?” If they don’t have an answer, then go right ahead and educate them. There’s nothing prohibitionists like more than hearing about facts that show how wrong their uninformed opinions really are.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Busting The Biggest Myth Of All—Part 1

If I were to ask you which country in the European Union has the most lenient recreational drug laws, what would you say? I’m no pollster, but if I had to put money on it, I would bet virtually everyone in the U.S. would answer that question with The Netherlands. Is that what you were going to say? I thought so. But you, and most people in this country, would be wrong. The Dutch have not decriminalized marijuana or any other recreational drug (except of course for alcohol). They just have an unwritten policy of looking the other way under certain circumstances.

If however you had answered my question with Portugal, you would have been absolutely correct and would have won a valuable prize. You didn’t, so don’t try to change your answer now. But it is in fact true. In 2001, Portugal became the first western nation to decriminalize the personal possession and use of all recreational drugs. Don’t confuse this with outright legalization. They still arrest people for producing, importing, and selling drugs. But they no longer treat casual users, or even addicts, as criminals.

Time now for another quiz. (I know, if I would have told you in advance you could have studied. Sorry.) What is the one consequence of decriminalization that even intelligent, well-educated people almost always assume without question is true? If you said that drug use would increase, you are correct. (OK, technically there is no right answer, but this is my quiz so I decide what’s right. Kind of like our federal government.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that decriminalizing, or god forbid legalizing, recreational drugs would lead to an out-of-control society where drug abuse is running rampant. Everyone would be high all the time and our nation would be in ruins. It would be a catastrophe of biblical proportions. Dogs and cats living together. And this is what the more intelligent people think.

Of course expecting the worst from decriminalization is purely speculation, at best. We really don’t have any evidence to support or refute that prediction. I mean just because recreational drugs have been legal for the entire history of mankind, up till 70 years ago, means nothing. Somehow civilization has managed to progress quite nicely in its first 20,000 years with all those drugs being freely available. But that’s ancient history. We are now much smarter and just “know” that the consequences of freely-available recreational drugs would be devastating to our society. We don’t need no stinking evidence. It’s so obvious that actual scientific study, let alone trying decriminalization and seeing what happens, would be pointless.

But wait. What was that I said earlier about Portugal having decriminalized drugs 8 years ago? We don’t even need to try it here. We already have a place where we can see first hand the effects of decriminalization over a period of several years. That is, if we care to look. Which we clearly don’t.

But let’s say we did look. What’s been happening in Portugal over the past 8 years? Are dogs and cats now living together? Is the country in ruins? You’ll have to come back next week to find out the answer.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court: Molesting Children OK?

I thought there was no new prohibition-related insanity that could still surprise, let alone shock, me. I was wrong. It looks like it is now acceptable to molest a 13-year-old girl in the name of the war on drugs.

On October 3, 2003 a 13-year-old honor student at an Arizona school was accused by a friend of giving her Ibuprofen, an over-the-counter aspirin substitute. Apparently, that is a banned drug. When a search of her locker, backpack, and clothes failed to turn up any of the drug, the student was stripped to her underwear then forced to remove even that to satisfy school officials. This was without her parents’ permission. And the girl had never been in any trouble before. All over an aspirin. Were they afraid that some child would experience unauthorized headache relief?

My first response to this, after recovering from being shocked and stunned, is why would such a case end up in an appeals court, let alone the U.S. Supreme Court? This is a criminal matter. Upon hearing from their child what had happened, the girl’s parents should have immediately contacted the police and had everyone involved arrested. Surely there must be some laws in Arizona against molesting little girls. And as far as I’m concerned, when an adult forces a 13-year-old girl to remove her clothes without the presence, or even permission, of her parents, it is sexual assault. Period.

In what universe would there even be a discussion of whether or not such an act is acceptable? I mean, what could these people possibly say on a witness stand to justify such behavior? We were looking for an aspirin? I’m sure all pedophiles have similar excuses. These people are child molesters, plain and simple. They belong behind bars and their names added to the national and local registries of convicted pedophiles. They are a danger to children, and should not be allowed anywhere near a school ever again.

What shocks me almost as much as what happened to this little girl is the fact that this case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. I guess these people really want to prove to the world that they are not perverts and what they did is perfectly alright. Just to show you what kind of a world we live in, the Court may actually find in favor of these child molesters. After hearing arguments, comments made by our esteemed Supreme Court justices suggest they are leaning toward overturning the lower court’s decision. Believe it or not, they might just decide this sort of behavior is OK. For example, Justice Stephen Breyer didn’t seem to understand how a strip search could harm a child. Justice Breyer was reported as saying, “why is this a major thing to say strip down to your underclothes, which children do when they change for gym?” But wait, there’s more. Justice Breyer went on, “In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day. We changed for gym, OK? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear. Or not my underwear. ... I mean, I don't think it's beyond human experience.” And then there’s Justice David Souter who said he “would rather have the kid embarrassed by a strip search ... than have some other kids dead because the stuff is distributed at lunchtime and things go awry.” Dead? Really? From an aspirin? Now maybe if it were a bomb or a gun, OK. But I don’t think a strip search would be required to find a deadly weapon. Unless it was really, really small.

There’s more, but I think you get the point. And don’t forget, we’re talking about an aspirin here, not a bomb or even a particularly dangerous drug. If this situation doesn’t fall under the 4th Amendment, which guarantees that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...”, then I’d like to know what does. Surely forcing a little girl to take off her clothes to find a suspected aspirin is unreasonable under any and all circumstances. My only remaining question: What have these people, in particular our esteemed Supreme Court justices, been smoking and where can I get some?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Historic First: Politicians To Be Trusted

On March 9, 2009 our president did something that no other leader in recorded history has ever attempted. He officially declared that elected officials must tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Well OK, not in so many words. Nor as a general rule. But specifically in regard to science that guides national policy.

What the president did was issue a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies that stated, in part:
Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public. To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking. The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.
In other words, we should be able to trust those we elect to office not to lie to us about scientific justifications for their policies. Apparently, this needed to be explicitly stated. I guess the oath of office doesn’t cover honesty. Am I naive, or could this be relevant to the war on drugs? Could this, along with the recent proposal to review our entire criminal justice system, the case currently before the Ninth Circuit Court, and a few other apparently unrelated developments, actually be small steps in an indirect route toward the end of prohibition? Maybe the current administration really is on our side, and they are approaching the prohibition issue in a roundabout, non-confrontational, path-of-least-resistance sort of way? Or not.

Not that this memorandum is going to make a difference, but just imagine a perfect world where it would. First, let’s consider some of the major scientific studies commissioned by the government itself. Starting with The LaGuardia Report, virtually every major study conducted in the U.S. has at the very least recommended rescheduling of marijuana. For example, let’s looks at some of their conclusions:
  • The LaGuardia Report (1944)—“The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking ... is unfounded.”
  • The Consumer’s Union Report (1972)—Recommended “the immediate repeal of all federal laws governing the growing, processing, transportation, sale, possession, and use of marijuana.”
  • The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (1972)—“Marihuana’s relative potential for harm to the vast majority of individual users and its actual impact on society does not justify a social policy designed to seek out and firmly punish those who use it.” (This is the study Nixon commissioned to justify the Controlled Substances Act.)
  • The American College of Physicians Policy Paper (2008)—“Given marijuana’s proven efficacy at treating certain symptoms and its relatively low toxicity, reclassification would reduce barriers to research and increase availability of cannabinoid drugs to patients who have failed to respond to other treatments.”
It’s clear that the vast majority of studies conducted in the U.S. in the past 60 years have come to similar conclusions. And these are just a few of the biggies that addressed prohibition in general. What about the hundreds of reputable scientific studies on the medical uses of marijuana conducted over the last decade (most of them done outside the U.S.)?

A thorough review of the latest medical marijuana research, The Endocannabinoid System as an Emerging Target of Pharmacotherapy, was published in Pharmacological Reviews in 2006. It summarizes recent findings on the medical uses of the various compounds found in marijuana. Not surprising, there are many conditions that can be effectively and safely treated with marijuana-based compounds. Even the Institute of Medicine, the group that the federal government is always quoting to justify their prohibition, concluded in 1997 that scientific developments indicate marijuana and its various cannabinoid compounds have therapeutic properties that could potentially treat many illnesses and conditions. And did I mention the patent that the federal government holds on medical marijuana, U.S. Patent 6630507 - Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants?

In a perfect world, this consensus among the scientific community and the overwhelming evidence that supports the medical benefits of marijuana would be more than enough to satisfy the president’s mandate that policy be based on actual science. It would result in an immediate rescheduling of marijuana and a retraction of the blatant lies the government has been spreading over the past 70 years. Unfortunately, we live in the good ol’ U.S. of A. where if a politician is speaking, chances are pretty high that they are lying. Presidential memoranda notwithstanding.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Trying To Make The Government Tell The Truth

Ever hear of the Information Quality Act (IQA)? Not many people have, and many in the government wish they hadn’t. Passed in 2001, the IQA requires information disseminated by federal agencies to be accurate and objective. It also establishes a mechanism by which people affected by inaccurate information can seek to have it corrected. Basically, it’s saying that the federal government must tell the truth and when it doesn’t, there’s a way to make them correct their “mistakes.” Pretty crazy, eh? The government telling the truth! What’s next? Flying monkeys?

As it turns out, one group in particular is aware of the IQA and is using it as a new tactic to try to end the federal government’s war on medical marijuana. Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a medical marijuana advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in February, 2007 demanding that the federal government cease issuing misinformation and correct its statements on medical marijuana. In particular, they want the government to stop saying that there is no accepted medical use for marijuana in the United States. This is important because it is one of the criteria that is keeping marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance. If there are indeed medical uses for marijuana, then it can should be rescheduled. Makes sense. To me anyway.

On April 14, 2009 (only a little over two years after the lawsuit was filed) the Ninth Circuit Court heard oral arguments for this case. There’s a reasonably decent audio recording of those arguments here, in case you’d like to listen to them for yourself. (It’s a little garbled in spots.) It is however a lot of legal mumbo jumbo to wade through, so I’ll take the liberty of translating those arguments into plain English for you. Please be aware though that I am not a lawyer.

The attorney representing the Department of Health and Human Services (the defendant) seemed to be making two main points. One is that the DEA is already considering a petition to reschedule marijuana, and that’s where this issue should be resolved. She argued that the DEA proceedings make the IQA irrelevant in this case. The second main point she made is that the IQA is not enforceable. It is up to individual agencies how or if they respond to requests to correct information, and there is no recourse if they deny a request. In other words, the HHS is saying it's not their problem, and even if it was, there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

ASA (the plaintiff) are basing their entire argument on the IQA. The information that the government has been disseminating on the medical uses of marijuana is wrong and, according to the IQA, must be corrected. ASA are representing the “affected persons” in this case—someone must be affected by the inaccurate information in order to request it be corrected. Being affected gives one “standing” to bring such a case before the court. He also pointed out that the DEA proceedings the HHS attorney mentioned are not actually ongoing. There has been a request to reschedule, but after several years it has not been acted on. So the issue is not really being decided by the DEA at this time, and the IQA is indeed relevant.

What it boils down to is the same old government response used whenever anybody tries to tell them they are wrong. I like to call it the “you're not the boss of me” argument. Either the individual or group does not have “standing,” (i.e., they are not permitted to bring such a case before the court in the first place) or the decision of the court is not enforceable by anyone. Reminds me of that Mel Brooks line, “It’s good to be the king.” In this case, it might be more appropriate to paraphrase that saying: “It’s good to be the U.S. government.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Criminal or President?

Sometimes I just don’t understand how politics in this country works. According to our Constitution, a president can be removed from office upon conviction of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Yet admitting to having committed such a crime does not prevent one from being elected president. I guess the important distinction is whether or not you are convicted. That is, caught.

You see our current and previous two presidents have (more or less) admitted to committing one or more crimes prior to their election. They were never convicted (as far as we know), but still. Do we really want a president in office that is an admitted criminal? Apparently, the answer is “yes.”

The crime of which I speak is the possession and use of a controlled substance. Depending on the location and the circumstances, our future presidents’ offenses could have been civil infractions, misdemeanors, or even felonies. If a president committed such a crime in office, it would certainly be grounds for impeachment. At least according to the Constitution. But in reality, no one takes these crimes very seriously. Except of course for law enforcement officials and those who are caught and convicted and must live with a criminal record for the rest of their lives.

So I can’t help but ask, what kind of message is this sending to our children? You can ignore, disregard, violate, and even flout the laws regarding recreational drugs, and as long as you don’t get caught you can become president. Get caught though and you are screwed. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like a bit of a mixed message: Drugs are bad. If you use them and get caught, you are branded for life as a criminal. But if you use them and don’t get caught, then it’s really not so bad. Sounds to me like they are telling us that the actual ingesting of certain drugs isn’t what’s bad. It’s doing it in violation of the law that’s the bad part. So that must be the message: Drugs are OK, breaking the law is not OK. So, why is it again that we have a law that makes these drugs illegal if they're really OK?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that anyone should be denied a career in public service just because they admitted to committing this particular crime. What I’m suggesting is that our government make up its mind. Is possession of a controlled substance a serious crime? It would look that way since hundreds of thousands of people in this country are in jail for it. Yet when a presidential candidate admits to committing this crime, it’s barely a blip on the media’s radar. That suggests to me that, to the public anyway, this crime is about as serious as driving without a seatbelt. So which is it, serious crime or barely worth mentioning?

But then again, maybe the government isn’t as confused as their message would make them appear. Maybe this mixed message is intentional. That crafty government of ours. Could it be a sort of weeding-out process? A way to thin the herd? Only those smart enough to elude law enforcement and commit the perfect crime can go on to become president. They would certainly prove that they have what it takes to lead this country. I guess the same would apply if you get caught but have the connections necessary to make it appear that you didn’t. That would be another way to pass the test and prove that you are presidential material. On the other hand, if you’re so dumb that you do get caught and don’t have what it takes to make your criminal record go away, then you don’t even deserve to go to college or live in public housing, let alone be president. Your future lies in the retail or service industries. Now that I think about it, that really is the only sensible explanation. Once again, message received, loud and clear. And understood.