Saturday, December 26, 2009

In the Dark Depths of Winter

The winter solstice is here: the day on which the night stops growing and the days start lengthening with their promise of eventual spring. From the beginning of history, cultures in the European tradition have marked this date with festivals of hope and renewal. The Romans had their Saturnalia that the Christians turned into their Christmas. The heathens and Druids – and the modern Wiccans – celebrate this date with lighted fir trees and mistletoe. They all looked forward to a growing light and a hopeful future.

Those drug law reformers who have found themselves in the deepest chill of winter since the early 1980s may finally passed their solstice and find the warming rays of dawn breaking early. The thaw seems to be on the horizon.

The first ray of light was California’s adoption of a medical marijuana referendum in the mid-90s, now followed by thirteen other states. Two more states have passed medical marijuana bills, only to see them vetoed by recalcitrant governors. At least six states now have bills under active consideration.

By 2004, California had seen the need to regulate a system for the medical marijuana the people had mandated. The legislature created laws governing marijuana dispensaries. In Los Angeles today medical marijuana dispensaries outnumber McDonalds or Starbucks. Three other states – Colorado, New Mexico, and Michigan also have dispensaries operating, and Rhode Island and Maine have passed a law enabling them, although the first one is yet to open in either state. At least one governor has vetoed a dispensary bill. Their rate of growth in Colorado seems to be following that in California.

Public opinion has followed the spread of medical marijuana. By 2005, opinion polls nationwide had swung so that medical use was favored by a majority of voters. The favorable opinion has continued to grow since then. Michigan voters in 2008 approved medical marijuana by 62%.

Opinion also is swinging toward legalizing the possession of marijuana even without medical need. Surveys now consistently show around 45% in favor of legalization; and in California, where legalization will probably appear on the 2010 ballot, 56% of the voters are in favor.

In fact, state action on legalization is the hot topic of conversation. In addition to the referendum petition, the California legislature has a legalization bill before it this session. A similar bill, but with more sponsors, has also been filed in Oregon. Passage of either of these bills is unlikely, but they have generated editorial page conversations across the country. This topic was unheard of just a few years ago, and now it is discussed as a routine matter, with a surprising part of the comments being favorable.

Massachusetts is a bit of a wild card when it comes to legalization. It decriminalized possession of less than one ounce through a 2008 referendum. All of the other states that have decriminalized did so in the mid- to late-1970s, so one has trouble deciding whether Massachusetts is showing a liberalized attitude tending toward legalization or a retrograde move to the past.

But the real crack in the cold grip of Drug War winter is happening in Washington, D.C. Both the executive and the legislature seem to be loosening their death-holds on prohibition.

The executive branch has moved on three fronts. Shortly after his appointment, the new Attorney-General announced that the United States would abstain from prosecuting those acting in compliance with state medical marijuana laws and followed that with a formal memorandum so instructing U.S. Attorneys. So far, the USAs seem to be acting in compliance with that memorandum. The new head of ONDCP quickly announced that the concept of “War on Drugs” would no longer be used. So far, he has refused to go further in public, but his new assistant director has a professional background in treatment and rehabilitation, not in enforcement. The State Department has also lowered the temperature of discourse and seems to be looking at international alternatives to the failed source suppression policies.

The administration’s main failure has been its neglect in filling judicial vacancies and replacing U.S. Attorneys. However, Obama’s reluctance to face Senatorial filibuster battles over these lower level appointments is understandable.

Congressional action this year has been the most surprising. With no fanfare and little dissent, both houses approved funding for needle exchange programs as part of the pending health care bill and removed the legislative obstacles to medical marijuana in the District of Columbia. Both houses have pending bills to establish National Commissions, the Senate bill covering penal law and policy, including drugs; and the House bill aimed specifically at drug policy. In addition, bills have been filed in the House to decriminalize possession of personal amounts of marijuana and to recognize state medical marijuana laws. Some of this activity should result in some kind of more progressive drug legislation in this session.

The solstice of the long winter of drug prohibition has passed. Light is creeping back into some of the dark corners of oppression. Soon spring will be here. It is time to celebrate.

Happy holidays!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Drug-Free Communities?

One of the callers to my television show this week asked what those people like him who wanted to live in drug-free communities should do. I brushed him off by pointing out that every known human society (except for some Arctic groups living in extremely impoverished environments) has used some kind of intoxicant. But then as I was driving home and passed a municipal sign declaring the town to be a “drug- and gun-free zone”, I started wondering what these people mean by “drug-free community”.

They can’t mean it literally. An inspection of their houses would almost certainly turn up aspirin or acetaminophen and some kind of cold or sinus remedy. Most of the houses would have at least one bottle of prescription drugs. The kitchens would have (unless the residents were members of the Latter Day Saints) coffee, tea, chocolate, and cola drinks. Their children are vaccinated and most of them got flu shots this year. When these drug protesters go to the dentist, they are probably grateful for his use of nitrous oxide and the follow-up prescription for Vicodin. The children most likely attend schools where almost ten per cent of the students take stimulants (including the methamphetamine the DEA scares everyone with) to treat some Attention Spectrum Disorder. Their world is far from drug-free.

Perhaps they mean free from dangerous drugs. But that can’t be true either. All of the communities from which my call might likely have come allow the sale of alcoholic beverages in restaurants, clubs, and bars; and cigarettes, beer and wine are sold in their grocery stores and drug stores. Alcohol and tobacco are by far the most dangerous drugs in our society. (And I say “tobacco” rather than “nicotine” because the smoke inhaled from burning the whole plant is much more problematic than is the nicotine it contains.) Tobacco-related illnesses cause over 400,000 deaths each year. Alcohol only kills about 150,000 by alcohol-related illnesses and acute intoxication each year, but it manages to score another 15,000 or so deaths in alcohol-caused car wrecks. These drunk-driving deaths each year total more than the deaths resulting from all of the illegal drugs combined. Alcohol is also the only drug whose consumption has been causally connected to any violent crimes. Aspirin and acetaminophen can’t even reach 1 % of the number of alcohol deaths, and yet they kill more than any of the so-called dangerous drugs. Marijuana has never been shown to have caused a single death, and Switzerland has not had an opiate overdose death in the ten years that the Swiss have been giving heroin to addicts.

Perhaps they are making the lesser claim that they are keeping illegal drugs out of their community. But that claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Making drugs illegal does not make them unavailable. It just makes them more expensive and less pure and makes society more dangerous and corrupt. Stimulants (amphetamines and Ritalin) are now used, legally and illegally, by at least as many people as they were in their legal heydays of the 1960s. The percentage of the population addicted to opioids today is greater than it was before passage of the Harrison Act in 1914. Millions of doses of MDMA – outlawed by a panicked congress in 1986 – are used in the U.S. each week. And marijuana? The government claimed that fewer than 100,000 people used marijuana when it asked congress to outlaw it in 1937. Now the government claims that over 100,000,000 people have used marijuana and that almost 15 million use it at least once a month. These numbers add up to a lot of drugs being used in communities that claim to have banned them.

These statements of “drug-free communities”, whether made as claims of fact or as aspirations for the future, are doomed to be false. The problem is that they all use the term “drug” to refer to harmful chemicals with biological effect. They seem to be creating a dichotomy between drugs and medicines.

The chemicals themselves are neither good nor bad: they just are. Some can be used beneficially; some (often the same ones) can be used detrimentally. The methamphetamine the DEA has been scaring people with for years is the same Methadrine that is prescribed for kids with ADHD and substantially the same as the Dexedrine the Air Force gives to its combat air crews for increased performance. One recent survey showed that twenty per cent of working scientists used these or similar “brain boosters” to improve their work.

Medical practice would be severely hampered without morphine and other opioids to control pain. But heroin (diacetyl morphine) is converted back to morphine in the body. In fact, long-term experienced addicts cannot distinguish between injections of these two drugs. Heroin can be used as a pain killer in some patients who are allergic to morphine.

In addition to heroin, the DEA has many other “evil” drugs in Schedule I, classified as having no significant medical use. Of these, marijuana, LSD, MDMA (ecstasy), mescaline (peyote), and psilocybin (magic mushrooms), among others, have well-documented histories of medical research and use.

Both the drug-free community wishers and the law because they focus on the chemicals instead of the users. The first American drug laws – the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 – were reasonably effective in decreasing both drug dependency and harms resulting from drug use. But when alcohol was prohibited in 1920, the emphasis shifted from the users to the chemicals themselves; and the heroin acts of the 1920s started the country down the disastrous road of drug prohibition.

Now is the time to recover from that disastrous, vicious, and corrupting attempt to create drug-free communities, and instead start looking at the users. Now is the time to create communities free from the harms of irresponsible drug users.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Where Are the Bodies?

Where Are the Bodies?

For more than forty years Drug Warriors have argued that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer and that since marijuana is also smoked, it must cause cancer too. The most effective response to that argument has been to ask: “Where are the bodies?” because there are no bodies. Thirty-five years of documented heavy marijuana smoking by millions have not produced a single case of lung cancer that doctors are willing to attribute to marijuana. That statistic conclusively rebuts their argument.

Another Drug Warrior argument is now ripe for a “Where are the bodies?” rebuttal.

Prohibition zealots, from the very beginning have argued that drugs must be made illegal because drug use is associated with increased crime. The more rabid even repeat the 1930s “Reefer Madness” idea that a single puff on a joint will send a nice, innocent young man off on a rampage of rape and murder with a wild glint in his eye. The less extreme still show up at city council meetings and write letters to the editor protesting medical marijuana dispensaries because they will increase crime in the area. They don’t seem clear about whether all marijuana users, including those who use it to combat illnesses, are criminals who will knock over a convenience store when they pick up their meds or whether marijuana itself is a crime magnet that, by its very presence attracts all the miscreants who learn of its location.

Enough hard data now exists to rebut this argument. It’s time to start looking for the bodies.

California now has had legal medical marijuana for over a decade and several years of open operation of marijuana dispensaries. Colorado, Oregon, and Michigan also allow dispensaries, although for shorter periods of time.

Almost all of those dispensaries operate in towns or cities that participate in the FBI’s Uniform Reports of Major Crimes. For even finer scale analysis, police reports in most towns and cities are either open to the public or available through some kind of open records request. These reports show every crime reported to the police and even the address at which it occurred.

In cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Oakland, with large numbers of active dispensaries, longitudinal comparisons within the cities can be made. How was crime different in San Francisco in 1980-89 and 1999-2008? Comparing a decade before medical marijuana with one after it has been established should show whether it has affected either the rate of crimes or their locations. Los Angeles, like many cities, has followed New York in basing its police posting procedures on weekly statistical reviews of incident reports around the city. Those reports should be available and should provide a detailed picture of the relationship, if any between marijuana distribution and the incidence of crime.

Comparisons between cities could be even more telling. While Los Angeles and San Francisco have been liberal in their approach to medical marijuana, San Diego has resisted allowing any legal marijuana outlets of any kind. Comparing the crime report data between San Diego and the other two cities should be very revealing.

Other sources of data should be available as well. Numbers of court-ordered admissions to marijuana rehab programs is one statistic that should be available over an extended period of time. The number of marijuana-related DUIs should be publically available and is probably a surprisingly low total.

Local regulation of marijuana dispensaries is creating civil litigation in both California and Colorado. All of these public safety records should be obtainable through the discovery process, and their use as evidence would require the same kinds of statistical analysis discussed below.

These kinds of data are almost meaningless in their raw state. Intensive sophisticated statistical analysis is necessary to make them meaningful. That kind of analysis is normally done in universities. But certainly some sociology professor is looking for a tenure piece, and the data holds the potential for many Ph.D. dissertations. The mountain of numbers will provide meaningful employment for generations of graduate students. Universities are, as a rule, also experienced in open records access and are willing to fund the search for them.

Although this kind of detailed statistical analysis may take years, the where’s-the-body argument is useful now. The “Marijuana causes crime” argument belongs to the prohibitionists. Since they advance that argument, they also have the burden of proving it. And they cannot. Anytime that argument is advanced, the response should be: “What do the crime reports show?” One can point out that the police have the data and can provide the answers. A city council can be pushed to study their own records to determine the truth about crime and marijuana. They can be asked to delay repressive actions until the records are examined.

Health care has made fantastic advances by insisting on evidence-based medicine. Now is the time to insist on evidence-based laws as well. Facts are the sharpest tools in any reasonable argument. The facts are on the side of ending prohibition. It’s time to wield them vigorously.