Tag Archives: marijuana

Lessons From Portugal

Note to those who previously ordered Living Together: I apologize for the formatting. (Never self-published before–publishers always fixed spacing, etc.). I’ve deleted and republished, and hopefully those who order from now on will receive a nicer-looking text. (Contents haven’t changed.)

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Remember when it was possible to believe that the United States was a leader among nations?

I have no intention of enumerating all the lessons we Americans have stubbornly refused to learn because, after all, what could those foreigners have to teach superior-by-definition us? (Think education, gun control, transportation, urban planning…)

But given our struggles with Opiod addiction, and our counterproductive approach to marijuana, it might be timely to take a look at  how things are going in Portugal. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, taking what it called a “Health and Human-Centered Approach.”

So how’s that working out?

Since Portugal enacted drug decriminalization in 2001, the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, overdose deaths and HIV infections among people who use drugs have plummeted, incarceration for drug-related offenses has decreased, and rates of problematic and adolescent drug use have fallen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is facing an overdose crisis and resistance to common-sense reforms.

In March 2018, some 17 years into Portugal’s experiment, America’s Drug Policy Alliance took 70 U.S. reformers to Portugal. The trip was billed as an opportunity for drug policy reform advocates to determine whether a dramatically different approach to drugs might be more effective than criminalization. (Spoiler alert: it is.)

Some definitions and conclusions from the group’s subsequent report:

Drug decriminalization is defined as the elimination of criminal penalties for drug use and possessionof drugs for personal use, as well as the elimination of criminal penalties for the possession of equipment used for the purpose of introducing drugs into the human body, such as syringes. ….

While several other countries have had successful experiences with decriminalization–including the Czech Republic, Spain and the Netherlands –Portugal provides the most comprehensive and well-documented example. The success of Portugal’s policy has opened the door for other countries to rethink the practice of criminalizing people who use drugs. Canada, France, Georgia, Ghana, Ireland and Norway are all currently discussing ways to end criminalization of personal drug use….

Under the policy, when police come across people who are using or possessing drugs, they confiscate their substances and refer them to a Dissuasion Commission. This Commission is comprised of one official from the legal arena and two from the health or social service arenas who determine whether and to what extent the person demonstrates dependency on drugs.

These Commissions –which operate independently from the criminal justice system –make decisions on a case-by-case basis. If the committee believes the person’s use of drugs is not a problem, they can simply dismiss the case and the application of sanctions altogether. Alternatively, they can impose administrative sanctions that range from fines to social work or group therapy. The majority of people who appear before the Commissions are deemed to be using drugs non-problematically and receive no sanction or intervention, but rather a provisional suspension of the proceedings.

If they are not found in the possession of drugs again within six months, the matter is completely dropped. For people who appear to use drugs frequently and problematically, the Commissions will make referrals to treatment, which is always voluntary and never mandated. If people with substance use disorder opt not to enter treatment, administrative sanctions –such as the revocation of a driving license or community service –can be applied, but rarely are.

Meanwhile, back in the good old U.S. of A…

In the United States, the dominant approach to drug use is criminalization and harsh enforcement, with1.4 million arrests per year for drug possession for personal use. Disproportionately, those arrested are people of color: black people are three times as likely as white people to be arrested for drug possession for personal use.

The impact of these arrests and convictions goes well beyond possible incarceration, to include a range of barriers to access to housing, education and employment. The ripple effect throughout families and communities is devastating.

Given how intensely criminalization targets black and brown people in the U.S., it amounts to a form of systemic oppression. Meanwhile, criminalization means that few resources have been devoted to providing treatment, access to health services, and support to those who need it. For low-income people of color, such services and support are often non-existent.

Portugal’s approach is based upon the understanding that drugs are a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue–and Portugal has demonstrated that its approach works.

Ours doesn’t. But Americans make policy on the basis of religion and ideology, not evidence.

Jeff Sessions And His War On Pot

Given the daily headlines generated by this Administration–everything from porn star lawsuits and tariffs to the escalating exodus from the White House (Bill Maher opined that this is the largest rush to exit since the British burned it)– it may have escaped most people’s notice that various cabinet officials are making a valiant effort to take America back to the last century.

Nowhere is that effort more concerted than in Jeff Session’s Department of Justice.

Sessions has refused to enforce consent decrees with various police departments. He has rolled back anti-discrimination measures. He’s re-instituted civil forfeitures (one of the few measures uniformly condemned by civil libertarians, criminal justice experts, and politicians from both parties). His retrograde policies about immigration have led him to sue California for its sanctuary efforts. His “tough on crime” initiatives ignore 25 years of criminal justice research.

But it is his unrelenting insistence on reinvigorating the discredited War on Drugs that best illustrates his passion for returning us to the 1950s. So it will be interesting to see what eventually happens with a lawsuit first filed last November.

Alexis Bortell, along with her father and other plaintiffs, including former NFL player Marvin Washington, filed suit in the Southern District of New York against the attorney general as well as the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Agency….

Alexis, whose family moved to Colorado from Texas to take advantage of the state’s legalization of recreational and medical marijuana, had been suffering since she was 7 from a form of epilepsy that cannot be safely controlled with FDA-approved treatments and procedures, the lawsuit says.

As a result, she often had multiple seizures a day. “Nothing she tried worked,” the suit states. When her family finally tried a form of marijuana, the girl found “immediate relief from her seizures.”

“Since being on whole-plant medical Cannabis, Alexis has gone more than two years seizure-free,” the suit says.

 Alexis won’t be able to return to her native Texas where she qualifies for free college, because she would be subject to arrest if she continued to use marijuana to control her seizures.

Unfortunately, in February, the Judge dismissed the claims, citing precedent.

The Second Circuit has already determined that Congress had a rational basis to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug,” Hellerstein writes, “and any constitutional rigidity is overcome by granting the Attorney General, through a designated agent, the authority to reclassify a drug according to the evidence before it. … There can be no complaint of constitutional error when such a process is designed to provide a safety valve of this kind.”

However, Hellerstein immediately follows this conclusion with a paragraph suggesting that he is sympathetic to assertions that marijuana has medical uses.

“I emphasize that this decision is not on the merits of plaintiffs’ claim,” he points out. “Plaintiffs’ amended complaint, which I must accept as true for the purpose of this motion, claims that the use of medical marijuana has, quite literally, saved their lives, One plaintiff in this case, Alexis Bortell, suffers from intractable epilepsy, a severe seizure disorder that once caused her to experience multiple seizures every day. After years of searching for viable treatment options, Alexis began using medical marijuana. Since then, she has gone nearly three years without a single seizure.”

Alexis wasn’t the only plaintiff: she was joined by six-year-old Jagger Cotte, who treats with cannabis for Leigh Syndrome, a horrible, terminal neurological disorder; former NFL linebacker Marvin Washington, who makes cannabis-based products for head trauma; Iraq War veteran Jose Belen, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and was given the option of “opioids or nothing” from the Veterans Administration; and the Cannabis Cultural Association, a nonprofit concerned with racial disparities in drug policy enforcement.

All indications are that the dismissal will be appealed to the Second Circuit, and no matter who wins there, probably to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Jeff Session’s Justice Department will continue to ignore both the overwhelming consensus of research and the undeniable, abject failure of the 20th Century’s drug war.

In Trump’s America, of course, evidence and expertise are irrelevant.

That Nefarious DOJ

A number of the tantrums thrown by Trump and his Congressional enablers have focused on imaginary conspiracies at the Department of Justice–especially the FBI. They accuse a so-called “deep state” of waging a “bogus” Russia “witch hunt.”

It’s a hard sell, because it is so obviously defensive horseshit. Besides, any “deep state” worth having  would take on Jeff Sessions, who is arguably an obscenity with no redeeming social value.

Sessions’ racist past had been amply documented prior to his appointment (back when the GOP cared about such things, it cost him a federal judgeship). He has been enthusiastic about Trump’s hard line on immigration; re-instituted widely criticized asset forfeiture laws; threatened to withhold criminal justice funds from Sanctuary cities; refused to allow DOJ to engage in oversight of police departments –even those with which it has current consent decrees; and rolled back everything from voting rights enforcement to protections for transgender citizens.

Now he’s threatening to reverse Eric Holder’s  policy of respecting state-level prerogatives when it comes to marijuana policy. Per the Brookings Institution:

On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions opted to end a more than four-year-old policy that granted a safe haven for state-legal marijuana companies (and consumers) to engage in the cultivation, processing, sale, possession, and use of cannabis under tightly regulated conditions. This policy, known as the Cole Memo, was initially enacted during the Obama administration, in response to Colorado and Washington legalizing adult-use cannabis in 2012. The Cole Memo effectively told federal prosecutors not to bring cannabis-related cases in states that have legalized if and only if companies and consumers abide by a state-provided regulatory system and do not engage in other bad acts like engaging with drug cartels or selling to children.

Has the policy been perfect? No. Of course, no policy is. However, the Cole Memo did provide a system by which cannabis was no longer sold only by unregulated dealers and/or drug cartels. It provided safeguards and promoted the testing of products. It put states on notice to develop robust regulatory systems. It allowed an industry to move out of the shadows and into a system that taxed and regulated its products.

The Brookings analysis illustrates the utter stupidity of this decision. Ending these safeguards puts people at risk for adulterated product and increases ease of access for underage users. Studies show that legal access to marijuana decreases both underage use and opiod addiction. (Not that evidence has ever been a big part of this argument; our intrepid drug warriors have long ignored overwhelming data showing that weed is  far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.)

Sessions’ decision is a windfall for drug dealers (as the Brookings’ report notes, “Attorney General Jeff Sessions will find a lot of opponents to his decision today. But hey, at least he’ll have the support of drug dealers.”)  And it will be costly for taxpayers.

Chasing after the thousands of legal marijuana growers, processers, and dispensaries and the tens of thousands of people they employ will cost DEA significant amounts of federal tax dollars. Add to that the costs US Attorneys will incur prosecuting those individuals and representing the government on appeals.

Fortunately for Democrats running in 2018, this isn’t just stupid policy, it is terrible politics. As Daily Kos explained:

If Democrats are smart, they will finally nationalize the pot issue, and its impact could spread through the entire map. The more young voters turn out, the bigger the Democratic landslide will be. And a great step toward making that happen would be full-throated Democratic support for full legalization at the federal level. Heck, leave it up to the states to decide for themselves! But the feds need to get out of the business of banning marijuana. And as far as political calculations go, there is little downside to Democrats. The public supports recreational legalization by 2-1 margins, and medicinal legalization by 9-1 margins or even higher.

In the real world–the one that no one in this administration inhabits– insisting that marijuana is illegal won’t stop its production and distribution. It will keep states from imposing sensible regulations that keep it safe and out of the hands of minors, and it will prevent states from generating substantial funds by taxing it.

Where’s that “deep state” when you need it?

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?