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?