Tag Archives: marijuana

Jeff Sessions, Drugs and the Late Lamented GOP

Jeff Sessions is a poster boy for the contemporary GOP–a perfect example of its takeover by racists, misogynists and anti-intellectuals, and its retreat from (and misapplication of) its philosophical roots.

Nowhere is the intellectual and moral corruption Sessions represents clearer than in his enthusiasm for re-instituting the War on Drugs–a counterproductive effort that even the rank and file of the GOP has largely abandoned.

Whether Sessions’ determination to go after marijuana, as well as harder drugs, is a result of his inability or unwillingness to understand the research, or is prompted by investments in the private prison industry, as has been speculated, is beside the point. In either case, Sessions is an example of the division–the abyss– between thoughtful adherents of principled conservatism and the ideologues who appeal to a far less thoughtful Republican base.

Nothing makes those contemporary Republican divisions clearer than a recent issue of Policy Analysis, a publication of the Cato Institute. Whether one agrees with its positions or not, Cato is indisputably home to legitimate scholars who make principled and consistent arguments for a libertarian point of view that used to be widely accepted–albeit never dominant–within the GOP.

Unlike today’s Republicans, Cato does not confine its application of libertarianism to economic issues and the boardroom while cheerfully endorsing theocratic control of personal behaviors.

The Institute’s current research adds to the great weight of evidence against Session-like drug policy, as the introduction makes clear:

Proponents of drug prohibition claim that such policies reduce drug-related crime, decrease drug-related disease and overdose, and are an effective means of disrupting and dismantling organized criminal enterprises.

We analyze the theoretical underpinnings of these claims, using tools and insights from economics, and explore the economics of prohibition and the veracity of proponent claims by analyzing data on overdose deaths, crime, and cartels. Moreover, we offer additional insights through an analysis of U.S. international drug policy utilizing data from U.S. drug policy in Afghanistan. While others have examined the effect of prohibition on domestic outcomes, few have asked how these programs impact foreign policy outcomes.

We conclude that prohibition is not only ineffective, but counterproductive, at achieving the goals of policymakers both domestically and abroad. Given the insights from economics and the available data, we find that the domestic War on Drugs has contributed to an increase in drug overdoses and fostered and sustained the creation of powerful drug cartels. Internationally, we find that prohibition not only fails in its own right, but also actively undermines the goals of the Global War on Terror.

Right now, all eyes are on the harm being done to our nation by the embarrassing buffoon in the Oval Office and his cabinet of theocrats and incompetents. That harm is real. But an even greater and more long-term harm comes from the collapse of a once-respectable political party capable of articulating a serious, intellectually  challenging conservative philosophy.

Much as partisans like to believe it, no political party has all the answers to the dilemmas of modern society. Without the advantage of adult conversation and debate, without the ability to consider and evaluate contending good-faith approaches to our common problems, America can’t move forward.

As long as the GOP remains dominated by clones of Jeff Sessions — in thrall to a rigid ideology, bound to partisan litmus tests, and convinced that genuine consideration of probative evidence is tantamount to betrayal– we all lose.

Smoking and Drinking

Have you ever wondered about the disparity in the way the law treats alcohol, tobacco and marijuana?

As any police officer will attest, a nasty drunk is far more dangerous than someone zoned out on “weed.” As the scientific literature will confirm, tobacco is many times more harmful than marijuana. Not only has the belief that marijuana is a “gateway drug” proved bogus, but for adults, it is less harmful than either smoking or excessive ingestion of alcohol. (No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose, although if your preferred method of indulging is brownies, I suppose the resulting obesity might get you.)

People with addictive personalities will abuse whatever is at hand–alcohol, drugs, even glue. Should we outlaw glue?

The history of America’s war on drugs is too labyrinthian and too racist to recount here, and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject if you are interested in the whole sordid story. Suffice it to say that our mindless war on weed has made the once-profitable cultivation of hemp illegal, prevented study of marijuana’s medicinal value, and not-so-incidentally ruined countless lives (mostly African-American; black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though both groups use the drug at roughly the same rate.).

But attitudes are finally changing.

In 1969, according to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans thought the drug should be illegal; by 2015, that number had fallen to 44 percent.

After Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana, policymakers began to seriously consider a number of issues–especially pot’s potential to generate tax revenue.

Legalization raises a number of questions with policy implications. For example, how can it be taxed? In 2015, Colorado raised $135 million in taxes and fees from legal sales. Another important question: Will states that stop arresting people for selling or having marijuana save money on policing and reduce their incarceration rates? Some 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2014, according to the FBI; young minority men were disproportionately targeted. Will more children take to smoking weed? As laws relax and the stigma associated with marijuana recedes, people may use more.

A study from Australia suggests some answers to those questions. The authors looked at what consequences we might expect if marijuana were regulated like alcohol and sold to people above the age of 21. They extrapolated their analysis to include the United States, a country with similar cultural behaviors and economies. Here are some of their findings:

  • The U.S. could raise between $4 billion and $12 billion annually by taxing legal marijuana. These numbers are based on a tax levy of about 25 percent, which is what the state of Colorado charges.
  • When people have more access to marijuana (through legal and illegal means) more people use it.
  • Currently, 17 percent of Australians say they do not use cannabis for fear of legal repercussions; 90 percent of those say that access is not the reason.

Access is evidently not a problem for people in either country; several years ago, an American study found that teenagers in Maryland could obtain illegal marijuana (and other drugs) much more easily than they could obtain legal but regulated alcohol. Legalization and regulation similar to that currently in place for liquor stores would probably reduce today’s easy availability.

The authors determined that a tax rate of 25% wasn’t high enough to incentivize a black market. One of the (many) negative consequences of drug prohibition is the fact that it makes an illegal market profitable.

In the U.S., tobacco and alcohol interests have powerful lobbies, so those substances are legal even though they do far more harm than marijuana.

Just to be clear, I don’t advocate prohibition for any of these; we’ve seen how well that works. Substance abuse is a public health problem; it shouldn’t be a matter for the criminal justice system.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we based public policy on evidence and analysis, rather than moralism and money?

Pot and That Kettle of Booze…

Are you one of those soft-headed “libruls” who want to decriminalize pot? If so, add this to your list of arguments.

A new study compared all kinds of substances, and found that pot is more than 100 times safer than alcohol.(They didn’t take the “munchies” and consequential obesity into account, however…)  Researchers found that booze is actually the deadliest substance of all, and–based upon their findings– recommended that US law enforcement focus a lot less on pot-related crimes.

According to the Washington Post

Those are the top-line findings of recent research published in the journal Scientific Reports, a subsidiary of Nature. Researchers sought to quantify the risk of death associated with the use of a variety of commonly used substances. They found that at the level of individual use, alcohol was the deadliest substance, followed by heroin and cocaine.

So, put that in your pipe and smoke it. (Okay, a little inappropriate humor there….)

For the past thirty years, at least, criminal justice scholars have documented the flaws in American drug policy. The drug war has been a costly, monumental failure–in addition to its clear failure to reduce hard drug use, it has decimated communities of color, ruined countless lives, distorted foreign policy…and the beat goes on.

Drug use is not the same thing as drug abuse. And drug abuse should be addressed as the  public health issue it is, not through the criminal justice system. (You’d think we might have learned a thing or two about overreaction during Prohibition…)

When ideology and “morality” trump evidence and common sense, you get profoundly stupid policies. We do “profoundly stupid” a lot.

File Under “Duh”

Andrew Sullivan recently reported on some interesting research into the consequences of state-level marijuana legalization.

A 2012 research paper by the Mexican Competitiveness Institute in Mexico called ‘If Our Neighbours Legalise’, said that the legalisation of marijuana in Colorado, Washington and California would depress cartel profits by as much as 30 per cent. A 2010 Rand Corp study of what would happen if just California legalised suggests a more modest fall-out. Using consumption in the US as the most useful measure, its authors posit that marijuana accounts for perhaps 25 per cent of the cartels’ revenues. The cartels would survive losing that, but still. “That’s enough to hurt, enough to cause massive unemployment in the illicit drugs sector,” says [fellow at the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center David] Shirk. Less money for cartels means weaker cartels and less capacity to corrupt the judiciary and the police in Mexico with crumpled bills in brown envelopes. Crimes like extortion and kidnappings are also more easily tackled. …

Mr Shirk puts it this way. If you ask enforcement folk how large a dent their interdiction efforts – seizures, arrests, helicopter raids and so on – actually have on cartel earnings, they will say between 5 and 10 per cent. But just a few states embracing legal cannabis may end up robbing them of two to five times that amount.

In other words, when you reduce demand for an illegal product–in this case, by offering a legal alternative–you reduce illegal behavior associated with the marketing of that product.

Since cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, regulating its sale and taxing it–rather than criminalizing its use– would appear to be a win-win.

Still the Poster Child for Stupid Policy

The most recent newsletter of the ACLU has a report on the costs of incarceration, including the staggering amounts paid to enforce marijuana prohibition. In 2010, the states spent 3.6 billion dollars and made one pot arrest every 37 seconds. And how did this aggressive enforcement work out? Marijuana use increased.

Think about that next time state governments wail about not having enough money to support public education, pave highways, or provide other necessary services.

As I have noted previously, the nation could save an amount equal to the cuts made by sequestration just by substituting sensible regulations for our disastrous drug war.

Current laws are wildly illogical for all sorts of reasons.

The biggest problem with the War on Drugs is that it is being fought on the wrong battlefield. Drug abuse is a public health issue. Behaviors connected to the use of drugs–driving while impaired, theft to support a habit, etc.–should be addressed by the criminal law, but the mere use of a substance deemed harmful is a health issue, and should be addressed as a health issue.  (Speaking of health, marijuana is actually less harmful to users than tobacco, yet we have wildly different approaches to pot and tobacco use–undoubtedly the result of a much more effective tobacco lobby. According to police officers I know, people who use pot are significantly less likely to become violent than people who abuse alcohol, yet we outlaw pot, but regulate and tax alcohol and tobacco.)

Current laws are financially ruinous. The US spends roughly 60 billion dollars annually on drug prohibition, and we get virtually no bang for those bucks because the “war” is ineffective. We also forgo collection of billions of dollars in potential tax revenues that we would collect if we simply taxed pot like we treat alcohol and tobacco. We waste criminal justice resources that would be better used elsewhere, to treat drug abuse or to deter nonconsensual crimes that actually harm others.

Drug prohibition has focused disproportionately on African-American and Latino neighborhoods, exacerbating racial tensions. Black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than their white neighbors, despite statistics confirming comparable levels of use–and the ACLU reports that the disparity in some counties grows to as much as 30 times!

We’ve lost this war. Not that the War on Drugs has ever been effective; the percentage of Americans who use hard drugs is pretty much the same as it has always been. Pot use has ebbed and flowed over time, providing the only real changes in the numbers. Thirty plus years of research has consistently demonstrated the utter failure of American drug policy, and the error of the premises upon which it has been constructed. (Pot smokers become hard drug users in about the same percentages as milk drinkers do, and we don’t outlaw milk as a “gateway drug.”) The only thing the Drug War has done effectively is ruin the lives of (disproportionately black) teenagers who are imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes.

What is frustrating is the number of policymakers who respond to this mountain of evidence with a renewed enthusiasm for measures that have consistently failed.