Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Timing of Social Change

The Timing of Social Change


How long does it take for a society to change?  Marijuana Prohibition is now seventy-five years old, and War on Drugs was declared fifty years ago.  Federal marijuana prohibition began in1937, and very quickly, in the mid-forties, Mayor LaGuardia’s medical commission published it report showing the benign nature of the plant and recommending legalization.  Reform efforts have continued, and even increased in recent years; but Prohibition still controls.  What can be said about the pace of change and the likelihood of reform in the near future?

The story of other social reforms may provide clues about the pace at which change occurs.  Commonly, efforts for change begin slowly, build organization and understanding, start rallying public support.  And then, after decades of frustration and discouragement, quickly achieve what seems to be overnight success.

Two current social issues represent a probable course of social change: same sex marriage and gun control.  Both started in a somewhat distant past, at first almost invisible, struggled as ignored minority problems, and then suddenly blossomed into public notice with the support of a popular majority.

Open homosexual behavior dates back before the dawn of history and was common in both classical Greece and the Roman Empire.  During the era of a repressive church, it was suppressed into secrecy, but by the 1890s, gay culture was resurfacing in both Europe and the United States.  In the 1950s, some openly homosexual groups began to appear, but had no large impact until the Stonewall Riots and the outbreak of AIDS forced their work into public attention.  The first reactions were negative: for instance, G. H. W. Bush cancelled the marijuana compassionate use program, fearing that the White House would be blamed for giving marijuana to thousands of gay AIDs patients.  The Supreme Court upheld laws criminalizing homosexual conduct in Hardwick, 1986, and congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act.  But things began to change.  With Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Bill Clinton first began to allow gays in the military – as long as they were discrete.  But then things changed rapidly.  The Court quickly reversed itself and held laws against homosexual conduct were unconstitutional.  Eight states recognized same-sex marriage.  The military removed all restriction on homosexual orientation.  Congress extended the Violence Against women Act to cover violence between same-sex couples.  It appears that LGBT community seems likely in the immediate future.

American life was riddled by gunfire, often from submachine guns, during alcohol Prohibition and the Great Depression as criminal gangs ran amok.  Congress responded with the Machine Gun Tax of 1934, which virtually removed automatic weapons from American culture.  Most states and some large cities added statutes controlling the carrying of firearms.  Violence remained endemic, but rarely broke out until the 1960s.  Then John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated and Ronald Regan was wounded in an attack that also wounded his press secretary, James Brady.  These incidents led to the limited and deeply flawed assault rifle ban and background check system, which, in turn, was poorly enforced.  In reaction, the National Rifle Association realigned from being an association of sports shooter into a strident and absolutist lobbyist for arms manufacturers and revolutionary extremists.  But a series of highly publicized mass shootings, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Tucson to Aurora to Sandy Hook, energized public opinion and will probably lead to a new round of legislative activism.

Both of these trends when plotted over time roughly trace a graph known by statisticians as a “hockey stick curve”: one that goes in an almost flat line (trending either up or down) for a substantial period of time, makes an abrupt curve, and then going in the same direction at a greatly increased rate.  In other words, nothing much seems to happen for a long time and then the issue explodes.  Both the campaign for women’s rights from Seneca Falls to Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign of 2008 and the struggle for racial equality from the Civil War to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed similar trajectories.

Is the campaign for the rights of marijuana users doing the same?  As the mention of the LaGuardia Commission indicates, resistance to criminalization began very early but remained low-key for decades.  The first major movement began in the mid-1970s soon after the Controlled Substances was enacted and the Shaffer Commission Report was published.  About a dozen states decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and some others reduced possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.  In 1996, California was the first state to allow possession of marijuana for medical use.  Now eighteen states and the District of Columbia have done so.  Over thirty per cent of the U. S. population now lives in medical marijuana jurisdictions, and at least two more states look likely to join in this legislative season.  Last year two states legalized marijuana within their borders, and one or two more may join them this year.  More members of congress are talking about marijuana than at any time previous, and more bills have been filed.

Marijuana reform has made the hockey-stick turn and major changes should occur quickly.  Look for significant changes in federal law before the 2016 presidential elections.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Dogs in the Night

Dogs in the Night

In “Silver Blaze” Sherlock Holmes remarked that the case depended on the strange behavior of the dog in the night.  When Dr. Watson objected that the dog had done nothing, Holmes replied that was precisely the point: a normal dog would have barked.
Americans legalized marijuana de facto, thought still not de jure, fifty years ago (Hmm, sounds like another essay topic to me).  During that half-century, many dogs have chosen not to bark.  Now is the time to point out this strange behavior.
Who are these sleeping dogs?  Drug Warriors have populated the world with slumbering beasts that, taking a single smell of marijuana, will leap up as growling, snarling, baying Cujos (perhaps “Baskervillean hounds” would better preserve the metaphor) rampaging to destroy the world if their Prohibition leashes were removed.  Here are some of the members of that strange bestiary.
Reefer Madness:  The Marihuana Tax Act rode in on the back of the insane marijuana-crazed killer.  That dog, which lived only in one trumped-up newspaper story, a Bureau of Narcotics-funded movie, and Harry Anslinger’s testimony, fell asleep as soon as the act was passed and has been in a coma since the 1940s.  Drug Warriors still refer to it on rare occasions; why are they never asked to give an example?
Drug-addled Children:  Everyone has heard that drugs must remained banned to prevent untold masses of children from becoming irredeemable addicts and destroying their futures, if not their very lives.  Since the mid-1970s, 18 states and the District of Columbia have accepted medical marijuana and about the same number have decriminalized personal possession or use.  In a history now spanning forty years, teen use in medical and decriminalized states is still no higher than in Prohibition states, and is no higher than it was in those states before they reduced or eliminated penalties.  Ironically, Monitoring the Future has consistently shown that illegal marijuana is easier for teens to get than is legal alcohol.  The child-devouring dog slumbers on.
DUI Dog:  This beast was also born in Reefer Madness and is the whelp of that bitch Drunken Driving.  If getting stoned is anything at all like getting drunk, then the highways should be littered with corpses.  After all, the government’s own statistics claim that over 100,000,000 living adults have tried marijuana, and all of them were not just sitting at home.  This dog has not just slept through the revolution, it too has fallen into a deeper trance.  In medical marijuana states, drunk-driving deaths have decreased by about eight per cent.  Well done scientific studies have slipped a strong sleeping dose to this cur.  It’s comatose now.
Bad Health Bugbears:  One of the scariest of the frightening dogs that have slumbered through the de facto night is the fear of what marijuana might do to its user’s health.  That dog has not just slept through the past half-century, it has faded from existence.  This cur’s first growl was that marijuana caused chromosome damages in Rhesus monkeys.  When those studies were thoroughly discredited, the clamor was raised that, since marijuana is smoked, it must cause lung cancer just like tobacco cigarettes.  When the U.C.L.A. Lung Institute showed heavy marijuana smokers had lower rates of lung cancer than cigarette smokers, the beast just grumbled “It must be bad for your general health” and went back to sleep.  Now a whole series of long-term (20 – 30 years) studies of thousands of marijuana smokers show that they have no measurable health differences from the general population.  This fleabag is sleeping so soundly it will never wake up.
Lazy Old Hound:  This animal snarled at teens to avoid the amotivational syndrome (where do they come up with these names?).  It claims that all potheads soon develop couch-lock, get lost in the Doritos bag, and accomplish nothing.  Did they ever see Willie Nelson, still touring and playing about two hundred concerts a year and with a new movie coming out next month – at age 79.  Did it ever hear about Prof. Carl Sagan, astronomer, author, NASA consultant, and creator-star of the PBS Cosmos series – or Louis Armstrong – or Barak Obama?
All of these mutts sleep in the Drug Warriors’ kennels, ready to be trotted out anytime an audience needs to be scared into maintaining Prohibition.  They will continue to serve as horrible warnings until their strange behavior is pointed out.  Anytime one of these beasts is put on display, reformers must point out how soundly they have slept through the last forty years. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Did Everyone Use Opium?

Did Everyone Use Opium?

Did everyone in this country use opium on a regular basis between the Revolution and the Civil War?  More than two decades of work in the history of drug policy has convinced me that they did.  The evidence comes in bits and pieces, but it adds up to a convincing picture.  The story can be told in four words: water, teeth, wombs, and pain.
Water-borne intestinal diseases were pandemic, and frequently epidemic, in the entire world until the connection between these diseases, sewage, and water supply became apparent after the London cholera epidemic in the 1840s; and they still are in the developing world today.  Public water supply may be the greatest lifesaver in the history of public health.  Until then, opium, a very potent anti-diarrheic, was the only treatment for these diseases.  Thomas Jefferson, long troubled by intestinal “fluxes”, took liberal doses of laudanum to combat them during the last years of his life.  At least one Union commander during the Civil War even personally observed each of his soldiers take a required daily dose of opium as a prophylactic against dysentery each morning.
George Washington’s false teeth are the stuff of legend and John Adams had lost all but four of his teeth by the time he became president.  Paul Revere crafted dentures, and a thriving market in teeth pulled from slaves furnished the raw material for many of the sets made in that era.  Modern dentistry had to await the introduction of nitrous oxide and ether in the 1840s and high speed drills after that (if those early treadle-powered gadgets could be called “high-speed”).  Even cocaine-based powders for teeth and gums did not appear until the 1890s.  Until then, tooth-ache sufferers had to make do with rough extractions and pain-killing opium.
Women had greater reasons than men to rely on opium.  The most striking thing about reading pre-twentieth century biographies and memoirs is the very large number of pregnancies most women endured and the early age at which they died, often in connection with childbirth (similar to the developing world today).  Prolonged labor, incomplete births, and miscarriages took their toll on women’s health, as did fibroids and cysts.  Menstrual and pre-menstrual troubles were at least as common as today.  For these women in the days before modern obstretics and gynecology, opium was the only remedy available.
Women’s need for opium did not stop at childbirth.  Babies, then as now, suffered from colic and teething pains; but Mother’s Little Helper was at hand.  Paregoric, an opium tincture, would soothe colic, ease teething pains, and just allow a frazzled mother a good night’s sleep.  It remained on sale over the counter in most states through my childhood (the 1940s).
Not just women were in pain.  In the pre-electric days, muscle-power, human or animal, did all work including lifting and carrying.  A normal day would involve working with axes, firearms, and horses and oxen – all of which can cause serious trauma.  Amputations were common, and surgery was primitive.  Pain took many forms: Benjamin Franklin suffered from both kidney stones and gout and took large daily doses of laudanum for over twenty years.  During that time he helped write the Declaration of Independence, represented America in France, and participated in the Constitutional Convention.   Pain was everywhere and everyday – and aspirin was not invented until the 1890s.  Opium was all there was.
The demand for opium was there.  The question is whether the supply existed to meet it.  Opium for America came from two sources: foreign and domestic.  At the consumer level, demand can be inferred from an inventory of an apothecary’s shop in a small English village that showed over a dozen opium preparations in its stock.
By the 1790s, American traders were doing a thriving business in Turkish opium.  This trade led to two of the first major foreign policy crises of the new nation: John Adams’s piracy treaty with Morocco and Thomas Jefferson’s naval action against Tripoli.  While most of the opium was transshipped to China, a large portion was for domestic consumption.  The size of the market is documented in the records on opium import taxes through the end of the nineteenth century.
Imports show only part of the study.  Much opium was grown domestically.  As early as the 1780s, wives of Nantucket were noted for the custom of growing poppies in household plots and drinking teas made from the seed pods.  This custom is similar that the long-standing practice of women in the English Fens country of growing poppies and having daily cups of opium tea to “fight off the damp, foggy weather.”  Thomas Jefferson grew poppies and prepared opium on his plantations.  During the Civil War, the southern states, choked by naval blockade, met all of their military and civilian opium needs with domestically grown poppy crops.  In 1874, the Massachusetts State Board of Health complained that opium growers in New Hampshire were flooding Boston with their products.  The Board also pointed out that commercial opium growers were present in Florida, Louisiana, Arizona, and California.  The opium poppy even became the state flower of California.
Did everyone in early America use opium?  Probably not, but a very large share of them did.  Advances in both public health and scientific medicine lessened the dependence on medicinal opium, and as it was removed from the family medicine cabinet, social reformers in the early twentieth century became free to focus on deviate social users.  The decline in medical opium was a major causative factor in the rise of drug Prohibition.  Ironically, the early wide-spread use in no way interfered with the dynamic blossoming of American society, while the later Prohibition has repeatedly shown itself much more destructive than opium use had ever been.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Slaying the Gerrymander

Slaying the Gerrymander

[This essay is only indirectly related to drug law reform. But over the past decade I have become convinced that this topic is the most critical and crucial political problem our nation faces.  That fact alone is sufficient reason to address it here, but it also highlights one of the most intransigent obstacles to improving drug law.]

 In 1800 the states carried out their constitutional duty to reapportion their congressional districts to conform to the decennial census.  As governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry was in control of his state’s redistricting. (Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a dissenting delegate to the Constitutional Convention, congressman, governor of Massachusetts, and Vice-president.)  One of the resulting districts, one that Gerry intended to represent when he stepped down as governor, meandered its way through the middle of the state from the far northern border to the southern one (at that time, Massachusetts still included the territory that would be split off to form Maine).  An editorial cartoonist for a Boston paper thought the map of the district looked like the silhouette of a salamander and in his cartoon labeled it the “Gerrymander”.  The name – and the problem – is still with the country.

The redistricting provision is one of the few mistakes the Founders made.  They did not foresee the rise of political parties and their influence on the process.  Consequently no checks or limits are placed on a state’s redistricting powers.  Gerry and his contemporaries in other states quickly realized the meaning of this lack of oversight and leveraged their parties’ majority status in the legislatures into advantages in future elections by creating either districts in which they had overwhelming majorities or districts in which their opponents’ majorities were diluted.

As time passed, those leveraged majorities were increased until districts were either irredeemably Republican or Democratic.  Today, only a minority of congressional districts are even considered contestable.  Today career politicians have life-time jobs and elections are merely ceremonies in which politicians select their voters.

A look at any state’s districting map will show the distorting effect of gerrymandering.  Texas can serve as an example, simply because I am most familiar with it.  One ghetto-ized Democratic district in Houston looks like the letter “Q” with a slice out of one side.  Another district is a dog-bone over 150 miles long, with urban Democratic blobs in Austin and Houston outweighed by a rural Republican shank connecting them.  Even at the county level, one Harris County precinct is made of two non-contiguous areas.  The original Gerrymander looks almost rational in comparison.

The time has come to slay the gerrymander.  Just as war is too important to leave to the generals, voting is too important to be left to the politicians.  Redistricting can, and must, be removed from political control.  California has shown the way by instituting a non-partisan redistricting commission operating outside of legislative control.

But California neglected an opportunity to provide guidelines and limits on its new commission.  Both modern computer and data technologies and advances in mathematical theory have provided tools that Gerry with his hand-drawn maps and pen-and-ink could not have imagined. (NERD WARNING: the next few sentences will wade into the depths of wonkdom.)  First, computers now allow census data to be collected and easily manipulated down to the level of a city block.  Billions of trial groupings can now be examined in a few seconds.  Second, topology, a branch of mathematics, has developed a set of mapping theories that provide methods for dividing a populated surface (like a state with people strewn irregularly across it) in accordance with set criteria.  This capability means that if one can define a fair division of voters into districts, these methods will provide a verifiable means of defining those districts.

The criteria for fair redistricting under these standards are straightforward:

·       All districts must be within 0.5 per cent of the same population.  This criterion is about the same as that applied today.  The exact size of the variation could be changed.

·       All districts must comply with federal election laws.  This provision would apply only if the redistricting is by state law.

·       The combined length of the district borders must be the least practicable.  This criterion is critical and is the result of applying mathematical mapping theorems.  The most efficient division of a surface is that with the minimum border lengths.  If the population across the state were evenly distributed, then the efficient map would look like a honeycomb, paved with hexagons.

Three optional requirements would be useful:

·       To the extent practical, districting should follow boundaries of political subdivisions, beginning with the most local (precinct, ward, etc.) and then progressing through larger ones in order.

·       In each successive redistricting, at least 10 per cent of a district’s border line must change.

·       The redistricting commission must prepare three maps satisfying these criteria and the legislature must choose one of those three.

The real problem with redistricting reform is finding a path to get there.  Two paths are possible, but both are very steep, if not impossible.

One approach is through state action, moving one state at a time following the lead of California.  However, for most states this path leads through the legislature and that legislature is probably dominated by career politicians who have a vested interest in preserving their safe districts.  The other states can use initiative or referendum procedures to by-pass the legislature and impose popular will.  If enough of these states reform, they may create pressure on the others to conform.

The other path is federal and it has two branches.  The first is by constitutional amendment and the second may be through congressional action.  Either is unlikely.

The constitution provides only two methods for amendment: an amendment may be initiated either by a two-thirds vote of each house of congress or by action by the legislatures of three-quarters.  No action by popular initiative is possible.  Neither of these methods seems likely for the reasons discussed above.

Congress may have the authority to tackle gerrymandering directly.  The Constitution gives congress the power to insure a republican form of government in every state, the Fourteenth Amendment extends equal protection to all citizens, and the Fifteenth charges congress with protection of the right to vote for black Americans.  When read together, these three provisions support a strong argument that congress must supervise the redistricting process to ensure equal – and equally effective – access to the ballot box.

Gerrymandered districting makes a farce of elective government; and serious in any area means reclaiming the right to a strong ballot that is weighed equally.  Now is the time to get together and slay the Gerrymander.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Keep It Simple, Stupid


Spring is the busiest time of the legislative year with almost every state in session, and this year is busy looking at marijuana.  At least eight states are looking at medical marijuana bills and almost as many face decriminalization or legalization laws.

What all of these various laws have in common, and in common with most of those already enacted, is that they are detailed and complex.  Most of them try to anticipate and prevent any future problems that have been conceived.  A sponsor of one pending medical marijuana law even bragged that his bill was comprehensive; it was thirty-four pages long!

I want to make a suggestion that runs counter to these current attempts.  In the words of the old folk wisdom, Keep it simple, Stupid.  Always keep the primary goal in mind.  What is the primary goal of these laws?  It is to remove legal bars to the possession and distribution of marijuana.  If that is the goal, just go ahead and do it (an alternate title to this essay) and forget about the refinements.  With that advice, I offer a suggested text for such a law (disclaimer: I am part of a committee drafting a proposed medical marijuana statute for Texas.  It is over thirty pages long, but I support it anyway.)  The following is my proposed state marijuana statute:

A Bill Removing Penalties for Possession
or Transfer of Marijuana

All current statutes or regulations imposing criminal penalties on the possession by or transfer to any person over the age of eighteen of marijuana in any form is hereby repealed.

Thirty words is all it takes to do the whole thing.  No separate medical marijuana statute is needed since patients could purchase just like anyone else, and sellers could specialize in medical applications if they desired.

Other statutes would remain in place covering sales to minors and driving under the influence.  Local government would still have zoning authority to protect schools and residential areas, just as they do for other commercial activities.  Even taxes will begin to take care of themselves.  In most jurisdictions, general sales taxes would immediately apply to marijuana, and other taxes could then be created in response to whatever market develops.

Licenses, quantity limits, and other measurers to limit criminal activities and organizations are also unnecessary.  Remember, Alcohol Prohibition created Al Capone; it did not put him out of business.  When Repeal allowed legal brewers to compete, Budweiser’s better business methods and lower costs drove the mobs from the alcohol market.  Legal marijuana growers would have the same effect on the Cartels and street gangs.  After all, when the illicit glamour is removed, marijuana is just another agricultural commodity.  It costs no more to grow, process, and sell than does coffee, tea, or broccoli.  When did any of those commodities cost as much as a dollar an ounce?  Do tomato growers have to booby-trap their greenhouses or hire armed guards?  Do farmers’ markets suffer armed heists?  When was the last time a truckload of potatoes was hijacked?  Even today, practically the only armed intruders that Emerald Triangle growers have to fear are those sporting DEA badges.

The only useful feature of the “safeguards” put into proposed marijuana statutes is to counter the fears of those alarmed by a half-century of Drug War propaganda or who draw unwarranted parallels between reasonably safe marijuana and unreasonably dangerous alcohol.  Those fears can be better met with good educational efforts.

On the other hand, the cost of these unnecessary precautions is excessive.  They create dissention among marijuana proponents.  Several well-intentioned campaigns have already been waylaid by squabbles between pro-reform groups unable to agree on how those reform efforts should be limited.

Will marijuana legalization create problems?  Of course it will: simply walking out of ones front door each morning will bring unanticipated problems that day, but handling problems is what humans, singly or in societies, do best.  Likewise, limitations on legal marijuana will bring their own problems not anticipated when they were drafted.  The smarter course is to be prepared to answer a few problems when they arise and not to multiply the number and severity of problems by being too cautious.

So get out the best tool available to face the legislature.  Use that eraser to make sure you Keep it Simple.