Tidbits on Drug Policy

Another two cents thrown in

The Prohibitionist Themes

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Scott Morgan, in his post on StopTheDrugWar.org, writes:

I learned of a marvelous ancient document which sets forth in basic terms the fundamental strategies that have long been employed to destroy the drug war debate. “Themes in Chemical Prohibition” by William L. White was published in 1979 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A review of chemical prohibitionist literature reveals eight themes which appear to emerge from the tactics of most such movements.

Here they are:

THE PROHIBITIONIST THEMES

1. The drug is associated with a hated subgroup of the society or a foreign enemy.

2. The drug is identified as solely responsible for many problems in the culture, i.e., crime, violence, and insanity.

3. The survival of the culture is pictured as being dependent on the prohibition of the drug.

4. The concept of “controlled” usage is destroyed and replaced by a “domino theory” of chemical progression.

5. The drug is associated with the corruption of young children, particularly their sexual corruption.

6. Both the user and supplier of the drug are defined as fiends, always in search of new victims; usage of the drug is considered “contagious.”

7. Policy options are presented as total prohibition or total access.

8. Anyone questioning any of the above assumptions is bitterly attacked and characterized as part of the problem that needs to be eliminated.

These themes are great focal points for addressing the arguments usually put forth by the advocates of the prohibition. In subsequent posts, I hope to discuss each one of them. Stay tuned.

Justice Stevens tells it like it is

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In Morse v. Frederick (2007), a.k.a. the “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” case, Justice Stevens, in his dissent, delivered the most remarkable quote, that, a few years ago, would have been virtually impossible to hear from someone that high up in the Establishment:

Reaching back still further, the current dominant opinion supporting the war on drugs in general, and our antimarijuana laws in particular, is reminiscent of the opinion that supported the nationwide ban on alcohol consumption when I was a student. While alcoholic beverages are now regarded as ordinary articles of commerce, their use was then condemned with the same moral fervor that now supports the war on drugs. The ensuing change in public opinion occurred much more slowly than the relatively rapid shift in Americans’ views on the Vietnam War, and progressed on a state-by-state basis over a period of many years. But just as prohibition in the 1920’s and early 1930’s was secretly questioned by thousands of otherwise law-abiding patrons of bootleggers and speakeasies, today the actions of literally millions of otherwise law-abiding users of marijuana, and of the majority of voters in each of the several States that tolerate medicinal uses of the product, lead me to wonder whether the fear of disapproval by those in the majority is silencing opponents of the war on drugs. Surely our national experience with alcohol should make us wary of dampening speech suggesting — however inarticulately — that it would be better to tax and regulate marijuana than to persevere in a futile effort to ban its use entirely.

Lets see whether we see this kind of talk make its way into the Court’s majority opinions.

Supreme Court in 2007: More on Cocaine/Crack Sentencing Disparity

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The most noteworthy development of 2007, as far as drug policy goes, is the substantive approach to the issues of (some of) the Supreme Court Justices in their opinions. In Kimbrough v. United States (2007), Justice Ginsburg continued to ponder the old issue of the degree of applicability of the Sentencing Commission’s guidelines to courts’ sentencing procedures; however, she was also willing to talk about the actual reasons behind the sentencing revisions:

Although the [Sentencing] Commission immediately used the 100-to-1 ratio to define base offense levels for all crack and powder offenses, it later determined that the crack/powder sentencing disparity is generally unwarranted. In a series of reports, the Commission identified three problems with the crack/powder disparity.

First, the Commission reported, the 100-to-1 ratio rested on assumptions about “the relative harmfulness of the two drugs and the relative prevalence of certain harmful conduct associated with their use and distribution that more recent research and data no longer support.”, see United States Sentencing Commission, Report to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy 8 (May 2007), available at http://www.ussc.gov/r_congress/cocaine2007.pdf (hereinafter 2007 Report) (ratio Congress embedded in the statute far “overstates” both “the relative harmfulness” of crack cocaine, and the “seriousness of most crack cocaine offenses”). For example, the Commission found that crack is associated with “significantly less trafficking-related violence . . . than previously assumed.” 2002 Report 100. It also observed that “the negative effects of prenatal crack cocaine exposure are identical to the negative effects of prenatal powder cocaine exposure.” Id., at 94. The Commission furthermore noted that “the epidemic of crack cocaine use by youth never materialized to the extent feared.” Id., at 96.

Second, the Commission concluded that the crack/powder disparity is inconsistent with the 1986 Act’s goal of punishing major drug traffickers more severely than low-level dealers. Drug importers and major traffickers generally deal in powder cocaine, which is then converted into crack by street-level sellers. […]

Finally, the Commission stated that the crack/powder sentencing differential “fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system” because of a “widely-held perception” that it “promotes unwarranted disparity based on race.” 2002 Report 103. Approximately 85 percent of defendants convicted of crack offenses in federal court are black; thus the severe sentences required by the 100-to-1 ratio are imposed “primarily upon black offenders.”

Previously, the Justices largely avoided discussing the “real-word” ramifications of the legislative approaches to tackling drug use and trafficking. It seems like some of them are actually willing to address the actual issues in drug policy. It comes as a welcome break from the usual formalistic approach that tended to characterize some of the Court’s previous decisions involving drugs.

Originally written on March 26, 2008

Hallucinogens and Drug Policy

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Most of the time, the subject matter of this blog is marijuana and/or narcotics, or, in other words, opiates. That is pretty much consistent with the two primary threads that the drug policy debate predominantly adheres to. However, in this post, I would like to digress a bit towards the hallucinogens.

The primary reasons why hallucinogens don’t get as much spotlight from the debaters of drug policy is simply because they are simply (1) not as popular as marijuana – less than 10% of Americans older than 12 tried LSD at least once, as opposed to almost 40% of Americans who tried weed; and, (2) as compared to opiates, the addiction potential of hallucinogens is practically non-existent.

I think hallucinogens merit some discussion simply because they pose some unique issues of their own. Despite being non-addictive and non-toxic, the psychological impact of, say, ingestion of LSD cannot be underestimated. So far, the policy approach to LSD poses more questions than answers. Should LSD use be regulated at all? If yes, then, how? Most psychologists think that LSD use can be very beneficial in a controlled environment. Furthermore, they feel that LSD can be a very effective psychotherapeutic tool.

But – if you are nodding your head after reading the above couple of sentences, think about this: after reading about taking LSD in controlled environment, one of my friends said: “Anybody, who ever tripped on LSD would tell you that that’s complete bullshit! Imagine me tripping on acid surrounded by doctors and hooked up to machines… sounds to me like *the* recipe for a ‘bad trip’!” So, wouldn’t we actually be doing more harm by providing supervised environments for acid trippers? Basically, I am writing about this to demonstrate the rudimentary level of drug policy discourse when it comes to hallucinogens – even the most benign and unquestioned notion about hallucinogen regulation can seem ridiculous upon the slightest reflection. I wonder if there is any solid body of work that tries to tackle these issues? If not, this is definitely something for drug policy addicts to think about.

4th District Court of Appeal Returns Pot to Rightful Owner

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Eight grams of medical marijuana seized from a Garden Grove man during a traffic stop must be returned to him, according to an appeals court ruling directing local law enforcement to uphold state, not federal law.

Source: CBS2.com: Federal Court Rules Pot To Be Returned To Driver

Read the whole story by following the link above. The story is welcome news to anybody who prefers sensible drug policy. I managed to find the text of the decision online and, after reading it, here are my two cents:

The case is a triumph of sensible approach over the formalistic one. While the decision touches upon plenty of legal doctrines, such as standing, California medical marijuana laws, and even the 10th Amendment, the most striking feature about it is the willingness of the justices to use the aforementioned doctrines to render a decision on a very simple issue:

“…we are mindful this case involves an important issue related to California’s medical marijuana laws. As we explain below, those laws are intended to give qualified patients the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes. But if the City prevails, the police could thwart that objective by withholding marijuana they have seized from qualified patients, even when the patient is no longer subject to state criminal prosecution. Whether, as the City contends, this is a necessary consequence of federal drug policy is a question of first impression and one that is of considerable importance to those who rely on cannabis for medicinal purposes.”

Source: THE CITY OF GARDEN GROVE v. THE SUPERIOR COURT OF ORANGE COUNTY

No legal training is required to arrive at a sensible decision in a case like this. I don’t really believe in modern-day precedent-based jurisprudence, simply because a smart lawyer is always able to either cite a precedent in support of his argument, or, if he or she happens to represent an opposing side, to distinguish it. In the present decision, the Justices cite a bunch of cases that don’t support their decision, yet easily distinguish them from the situation they are faced with. Similarly, the legal doctrines can be twisted any way one wants, and that’s exactly what the Justices do. Just consider the following example:

“…the City argues that in enacting the CSA, Congress intended to occupy the field of marijuana regulation so extensively that ordering the return of a defendant’s medical marijuana under state law would be absolutely anathema to congressional intent. We cannot agree.”

Then, Justices proceed to create a solid legal foundation underneath their opinion. However – once again – no legal training is required to spot the fallacy of the statement above. Anybody who is familiar with the history of the Drug War and Drug War jurisprudence would likely agree with me that Congress did indeed intend to occupy the field of marijuana regulation as extensively as possible.

Now, I am not saying that the opinion is legally suspect. All I am saying is that a smart lawyer can use legal doctrines to justify diametrically opposite opinions. Actually, I think that the 4th District Court of Appeal rendered an opinion that is amazingly objective in its treatment of what’s really at stake. In the words of the court itself:

“We confront here the facially anomalous request that we approve state confiscation of a substance which is legal in the circumstances under which it was possessed.”

Anomalous is a very mild description of legally suspect regulations that have sprung up during the War on Drugs. The court above was able to prevent the creation of a yet another anomaly.

Originally written on January 7, 2008

What are our laws based on?

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In a wonderfully informative primer, Why is Marijuana Illegal? A brief history of the criminalization of cannabis, Pete Guither writes:

Many people assume that marijuana was made illegal through some kind of process involving scientific, medical, and government hearings; that it was to protect the citizens from what was determined to be a dangerous drug.

The actual story shows a much different picture. Those who voted on the legal fate of this plant never had the facts, but were dependent on information supplied by those who had a specific agenda to deceive lawmakers.

Pete has touched upon a very important issue: way too often, our legislatures pass laws that are based on faulty data. The Drug War is just the most glaring manifestation of this phenomenon. Our elected representatives have no clue about many of the issues that they are called upon to regulate. As the result, we get a bunch of nonsensical laws – laws that we have to abide by, laws that govern our daily lives, laws that can send a person to prison for many years for doing something that likely doesn’t cause any major harm to himself or the society anyway.

Laws can be overturned if they are deemed unconstitutional; however, the Supreme Court exercises extreme deference to legislative opinion in most challenges. And, there is really no effective mechanism that would prevent legislatures from legislating on the basis of misinformation, hysteria or political agenda. As a result we are stuck with a plethora of laws and regulations that do more harm than good, and – most of these laws will be with us for a long, long time, simply because there is no mechanism that would evaluate them on the basis of effectiveness.

Well, you might ask, but what about the political leverage? If the society doesn’t like some law, its elected representatives will be forced to repeal or amend it, simply because they would like to get reelected. Ideally – yes, that’s how it should work. However, too often, the people simply don’t care or are just as misinformed about the issue as their legislators. The Drug War amply demonstrates that the society may welcome the most egregious and punitive laws even when credible information is available that proves that these laws do more harm than good.

The mere list of ideas on how to insure that we are governed by laws enacted on the basis of the most accurate information available can balloon this post to a barely readable length. I will try to outline a few of them in later posts and I encourage you to also think about how our system may be improved. Think about this: if Congress enacted laws based on the best available information the whole Drug War quagmire might have been avoided.

Refusing to See the Obvious: More on Medicinal Marijuana

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Two weeks after I wrote about studies demonstrating marijuana’s potential in treating cancer, the following article pops up on FoxNews.com:

A compound found in cannabis may stop breast cancer from spreading throughout the body, according to a new study by scientists at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute. The researchers are hopeful that the compound called CBD, which is found in cannabis sativa, could be a non-toxic alternative to chemotherapy.

Source: Marijuana Compound May Stop Breast Cancer From Spreading, Study Says

Let me remind you, that marijuana remains a CSA Schedule I drug, which means, according to the Act that:

The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. (Italics added)

That’s despite dozens of studies like the one above and that almost half of the nation’s oncologists recommend their patients obtain marijuana, despite its illegality, in order to alleviate their suffering. I mean, if that’s not currently accepted medical use, I don’t know what is. (By the way, speaking from a purely legal standpoint, this practice of recommending marijuana would fall under the Respectable Minority doctrine used in some states to refute malpractice claims! Or, if put otherwise, this would constitute a legitimate medical practice.) And yet – drug warriors continue to avoid finding medical utility of marijuana, despite pretty much overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One example of how they manage to do so comes from a decision in United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers Coop. (2001), where Justice Thomas writes:

In the case of the Controlled Substances Act, the statute reflects a determination that marijuana has no medical benefits worthy of an exception (outside the confines of a Government-approved research project). Whereas some other drugs can be dispensed and prescribed for medical use, […] the same is not true for marijuana. Indeed, for purposes of the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use” at all. (Italics added)

Imagine Congress passing legislation that puts aspirin into Schedule I. Now, if this classification is challenged in the Supreme Court, the Court may do the sensible thing, analyze the evidence and address the issue on its merits – namely, should aspirin really remain in Schedule I – or, it could duck the issue by saying that “for purposes of the CSA, aspirin has no currently accepted medical use.”

So, what Justice Thomas was basically saying in that opinion is that “marijuana has no accepted medical use because the legislature says it has no accepted medical use.” He may have been staying within the currently accepted boundaries of judicial review; however, Thomas’ formalism steers far from common sense. No sane person would in all earnest claim that the Earth is flat simply because the legislature made such a determination.

On the changing nature of drug policy discourse

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“America needs to reconsider its punitive approach to “the so-called war on drugs,” presidential candidate John Edwards said here today.”

Source: DesMoinesRegister.com: Edwards: War on drugs too punitive

Something like this coming from a (somewhat) viable presidential candidate twenty years ago would be sufficient to bury his chances of being elected. It seems that we’ve come a long way since the “Casual drug users should be taken out and shot. Smoke a joint, lose your life.” pronouncement by the former Los Angeles Police Chief and the founder of the D.A.R.E. program Daryl Gates on September 5, 1990. Thankfully, today we don’t hear diatribes like this too often.

I hope that the changing nature of drug policy discourse is reflective of the changing social attitudes towards the punitive approach to the drug issues. Even, such admittedly obscurantist entity as the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy lists the “balanced drug control policy” as its main national priority – instead of stressing slash-and-burn tactics in the War on Drugs that it has continued to promote. It is good to see the menacing approach a la William Bennet or Daryl Gates go out of fashion – at least as far as the drug policy debate is concerned, albeit is still hasn’t translated into real action.

I wonder whether we are going to reach a tipping point where all these shy harbingers of common sense would saturate into a mass breaking of the flood gates that would allow the common sense voices to permeate drug policy discourse and, finally, result in real change.

Originally written on November 23, 2007

Marijuana useful in treating cancer?

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Jack Herer, the author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes writes:

In 1974, Virginia Medical College in Richmond, Virginia did research on tumors of the lung, brain, liver and kidney using mice and rats. Incredible things were done. The cancer stopped growing and in most cases even reversed itself 100 percent. Some of the mice who were given cancer and treated with cannabis actually lived longer than some of the controlmice who were not even given cancer! It was found that marijuana is the best thing to treat cancer of the lungs, brain, etc. After that they were stopped from doing anymore research at all by first Nixon and then Ford.

Source: Jack Herer’s Home Page

Well, I was sort of skeptical – but then, I found the link to the Virginia the study that he mentions. The synopsis indeed shows that

Lewis lung adenocarcinoma growth was retarded by the oral administration of delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta9-THC), delta8-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta8-THC), and cannabinol (CBN), but not cannabidiol (CBD).

Upon a further search, a study done in Spain in 2000 turned up:

Here, we show that intratumoral administration of Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol and the synthetic cannabinoid agonist WIN-55,212-2 induced a considerable regression of malignant gliomas in Wistar rats and in mice deficient in recombination activating gene 2. Cannabinoid treatment did not produce any substantial neurotoxic effect in the conditions used.

Finally, the pilot study involving nine patients suffering from glioblastoma – a type of brain cancer, concluded that

Delta(9)-Tetrahydrocannabinol inhibited tumour-cell proliferation in vitro and decreased tumour-cell Ki67 immunostaining when administered to two patients. The fair safety profile of THC, together with its possible antiproliferative action on tumour cells reported here and in other studies, may set the basis for future trials aimed at evaluating the potential antitumoral activity of cannabinoids.

Basically, that’s strong evidence that THC may indeed be effective in treating certain types of cancers. Something like that – I would think – would get plenty of media attention; however there wasn’t much apparently, since even myself, who actively looks for these types of news, wasn’t aware of this.

Suppressing the results of the Virginia study… ignoring credible results of European studies… obstructing studies into THC’s medicinal properties… the amazing consistency of government’s resistance to acknowledging the therapeutic value of marijuana really makes me wonder: it can’t be just about the desire of the anti-drug warriors to retain the lion’s share of their budget. There has to be some compelling reason behind this: a reason so sinister, that the government doesn’t want to disclose it out of concern for our feeble minds… But – I don’t usually subscribe to conspiracy theories – the ugly and banal truth is likely that it is all about the money. Apparently, the well-financed moral posturing is more important than a chance to save lives and alleviate suffering of thousands of people.

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