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June 2015
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Former judge takes on the drug war

Federal Judge: My Drug War Sentences Were ‘Unfair and Disproportionate’

Former Federal Judge Nancy Gertner was appointed to the federal bench by Bill Clinton in 1994. She presided over trials for 17 years. And Sunday, she stood before a crowd at The Aspen Ideas Festival to denounce most punishments that she imposed.

Among 500 sanctions that she handed down, “80 percent I believe were unfair and disproportionate,” she said. “I left the bench in 2011 to join the Harvard faculty to write about those stories––to write about how it came to pass that I was obliged to sentence people to terms that, frankly, made no sense under any philosophy.”

No theory of retribution or social change could justify them, she said. And that dispiriting conclusion inspired the radical idea that she presented: a call for the U.S. to mimic its decision after World War II to look to the future and rebuild rather than trying to punish or seek retribution. As she sees it, the War on Drugs ought to end in that same spirit. “Although we were not remotely the victors of that war, we need a big idea in order to deal with those who were its victims,” she said, calling for something like a Marshall Plan.

She went on to savage the War on Drugs at greater length.

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Don Winslow writes a letter

Best-selling author Don Winslow took out a full page ad in the Washington Post yesterday as an open letter to Congress and the President: “It’s Time to Legalize Drugs.”

Let me come right our and say what you won’t tell
the American people. The War on Drugs is unwinnable.
It was unwinnable for Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan,
Bush, Clinton, Bush, and now Obama. At forty-four years,
it’s America’s longest war and there’s no end in sight.

The people who benefit most from the War on Drugs are the traffickers. Every dollar we spend on drugs and every dollar we spend trying to interdict them raises the profits of the Mexican cartels and makes them more powerful.

So in the very act of fighting this war, we lose it.

Cops standing in front of big drug seizures look great on the evening news. But it sells a lie that we’re winning, just like George Bush on an aircraft carrier declaring that a war was over that still rages on today.

It’s not only that we can’t win this war, it’s that we’re destroying ourselves fighting it. We are literally addicted to the War on Drugs. A half-century of failed policy, $1 trillion, and 45 million arrests has not reduced daily drug use—at all. The U.S. still leads the world in illegal drug consumption, drugs are cheaper, more available, and more potent than ever before.

Our justice system is a junkie, demanding its daily fix of arrests, seizures and convictions. It needs drugs. It’s as hooked as that guy sticking a needle into his arm even though he knows it’s killing him.

It continues on, with lots of good material, and ends with:

How much more money do we have to waste, how many more families have to be destroyed, how many more people have to be killed before you summon the courage to tell the truth to the American people?

The War on Drugs is not only futile, it is wrong.

The answer is legalization.

The only way to win is to stop fighting.

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Driving simulator study – will we get science or junk science?

I’ve been waiting to hear about Iowa driving simulator studies for a while now.

Time reports: How Much Does Marijuana Impact Your Driving?

The researchers looked at 250 parameters of driving ability, but this paper focused on three in particular: weaving within the lane, the number of times the car left the lane, and the speed of the weaving. While alcohol had an effect on the number of times the car left the lane and the speed of the weaving, marijuana did not. Marijuana did show an increase in weaving. Drivers with blood concentrations of 13.1 ug/L THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, showed increase weaving that was similar to those with a .08 breath alcohol concentration, the legal limit in most states.

The fact that this paper focused on three of the 250 parameters of driving ability means that we’ll probably be getting a lot more of these in the future.

The concern to me is not learning actual science, but more often how the science is presented or skewed (junk science). I don’t doubt that the science at the National Advanced Driving Simulator in Iowa is rigorous. But I do have concerns about how it will be used, particularly based on the agenda of its funder (NIDA) and its lead researcher (Marilyn Huestis).

So, basically, this particular paper looked at SDLP (standard deviations of lateral position) and concluded that cannabis didn’t have nearly the effect of alcohol, even at fairly high levels, and yet, according to the researcher:

Huestis believes that the 5 ug/L limit is not strict enough, particularly when you take into account those with low tolerance.

Of course, also not mentioned in the article is a small point that was brought up in the study:

“SDLP is not directly validated to predict crash risk”

Ah, yes. SDLP results don’t necessarily equate to unsafe driving. It is simply an interesting variable worth looking at. That didn’t, however, stop the researcher from giving the opinion that marijuana driving laws are too lax. We’re likely to get a lot of that.

I remember when I first heard about the long-term simulator study in Iowa: University of Iowa testing effects of pot on drivers (the date of the article online wrong, it was actually September 9, 2012). I wrote to Marilyn Huestis back then, but never got a response.

What I wanted to know was whether the simulator would assess actual overall safety of driving or whether it would simply focus on elements of driving that were different. For example, stoned drivers are known to slow down because they tend to be aware of their condition (much more so than those on alcohol), but a simulator test could well interpret that caution as failure.

Based on the first results to come from the simulator, I think we have our answer.

I had additional concerns about Huestis based on this article back in 2013:

While the majority of scientists say the effects of marijuana dissipate relatively quickly, Huestis reports that both THC and impaired performance linger in the brains of daily users for weeks after their last puff. The chronic users Huestis observed were still excreting THC from their tissues even after a month of abstinence, and did not respond as well as the control group in psychomotor and divided attention tasks.

“Individuals may say they haven’t used cannabis in a day, a week, whatever—but guess what? Your brain is still recovering and changing from that abstinence,” said Huestis in a phone interview. “Some people might ask what that has to do with real driving ability. Well, now we have data to show that it affects psychomotor impairment.”
Huestis sees support for her work in several studies done throughout Europe, and Australia, but to those familiar with the bulk of the literature, Huestis’s claims have left many shaking their heads—especially considering the influence it would have on policy.

According to Heustis’s conclusions, all regular cannabis consumers—including patients who have demonstrated a medical necessity—would automatically become a traffic risk in the eyes of the law even after weeks of abstinence.

Yeah, that’s not someone I trust to present cannabis-related science fairly.

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More churches look toward ending the war on drugs

My father is a retired minister in the United Methodist church, so I was very pleased to see this new resolution from the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist church…

Our United Methodist Book of Discipline charges us to seek restorative, not punitive, justice. Specifically, it states,

In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole. Restorative justice grows out of biblical authority, which emphasizes a right relationship with God, self and community. When such relationships are violated or broken through crime, opportunities are created to make things right. (BOD PP164, H)

To that end, we offer the following resolution as an appeal to end the so-called “War on Drugs.”

Whereas: The public policy of prohibition of certain narcotics and psychoactive substances, sometimes called the “War on Drugs,” has failed to achieve the goal of eliminating, or even reducing, substance abuse and;

Whereas: There have been a large number of unintentional negative consequences as a result of this failed public policy and;

Whereas: One of those consequences is a huge and violent criminal enterprise that has sprung up surrounding the Underground Market dealing in these prohibited substances and;

Whereas: Many lives have been lost as a result of the violence surrounding this criminal enterprise, including innocent citizens and police officers and;

Whereas: Many more lives have been lost to overdose because there is no regulation of potency, purity or adulteration in the production of illicit drugs and;

Whereas: Our court system has been severely degraded due to the overload caused by prohibition cases and;

Whereas: Our prisons are overcrowded with persons, many of whom are non-violent, convicted of violation of the prohibition laws and;

Whereas: Many of our citizens now suffer from serious diseases, contracted through the use of unsanitary needles, which now threaten our population at large and;

Whereas: To people of color, the “War on Drugs” has arguably been the single most devastating, dysfunctional social policy since slavery and;

Whereas: Huge sums of our national treasury are wasted on this failed public policy and;

Whereas: Other countries, such as Portugal and Switzerland, have dramatically reduced the incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by utilizing means other than prohibition to address the problem of substance abuse and;

Whereas: The primary mission of our criminal justice system is to prevent violence to our citizens and their property, and to ensure their safety, therefore;

Be it Resolved: That the New England Annual Conference supports seeking means other than prohibition to address the problem of substance abuse; and is further resolved to support the mission of the international educational organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) to reduce the multitude of unintended harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by ending drug prohibition.

Big shout-out to LEAP for their work in this area.

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Drug Testing

If we want to save more lives,
we need to stop drug-testing people
and start drug testing… drugs.

We’ve been doing it all wrong.

What got me thinking about drug testing this morning was this headline in a piece at Release: The case for drug testing and a push for drug policy reform, and at first my hackles went up at reading “the case for drug testing” because I’m so fed up with the push for drug testing people, until I realized that it was about drug testing drugs.

Of course, that’s a kind of drug testing that I fully support.

Pretty much all recreational drugs can be safe if used responsibly and appropriately. But a critical key to that is knowing what’s in them. And that’s a real problem when they’re controlled by the black market. Having a regulated system that controls the purity and contaminants in drugs would save so many. And until we can get there, harm reduction approaches like those promoted by Release are critical.

Strict law-enforcement, stemming from the UN convention treaties, of well-known established drugs such as MDMA has paved the way for a new market of unknown substances and an emerging culture of legal highs. This is no more clearly seen than through the banning of a number of precursor chemicals used to make MDMA – the most well-known being the 50 tonne seizure of safrole in Thailand back in 2010. This led to a significant dent in availability for MDMA production and so chemists looked for alternative ways and means of production.

Unfortunately, the use of anise oil as a replacement precursor resulted in the product PMA. Consequently, international governments have inadvertently allowed more dangerous chemicals to enter the drugs market by cutting the supply of MDMA.

It is therefore a sad reality that our drug laws have contributed to the deaths of those young men at Christmas and New Year. As, “by handing the control of the trade over to the black market, successive governments have abdicated all responsibility.” These deaths are an added example of a worrying upward trend in drug related deaths – which saw a 21% increase in 2013, a figure that jumped to 32% for heroin/morphine deaths alone. As such, this is an issue that the government should be primarily focused on tacking. […]

The Netherlands has adopted a very pragmatic approach when it comes to harm reduction for drug users. Here, residents have access to a free, government funded drug testing service, which is “born out of a culture that believes in accepting the reality of life and shaping policy in a way that recognises that human behaviour cannot be completely controlled.” It was this same drug testing centre, the Trimbos Institute, which issued its highest alert possible on the same pink Superman pills after testing them and finding that they contained PMA. The UK government failed to act on this vital information – with the only immediate alert in the UK made by Criminology Professor, Fiona Measham who received the alarm from a local drugs testing group and “considered the warning too important to ignore”.

If the UK had adopted harm reduction schemes such as those in The Netherlands, the likely-hood of those men dying would have been far lower. Initiatives need to be put in place. The first step should be for the Home Office to ensure there are accessible drug testing facilities, where the public can get illicit substances tested without fear of being criminalised. This is an initiative that has quietly got underway here in the UK, but not to the extent that is needed. Pioneered by Professor Fiona Meacham at Durham University who uses the latest technology to test confiscated substances at The Warehouse Project in Manchester, enabling her team to send out immediate and localised warnings about potentially dangerous drugs. This is a service that should be available to everyone to ensure that if people are going to take drugs, they know what they contain.

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Odds and Ends

bullet image Big Government-Supported Study Finds No Evidence That Medical Marijuana Laws Encourage Teenagers to Smoke Pot

A study reported [earlier this week] in The Lancet Psychiatry, based on 24 years of survey responses from more than 1 million students, finds no evidence that allowing medical use of marijuana boosts cannabis consumption among teenagers. Columbia epidemiologist Deborah Hasin and her co-authors analyzed data from the government-sponsored Monitoring the Future Study, which asks middle and high school students about their drug use, from 1991 to 2014. They found that the percentage of students reporting marijuana use in the previous month was higher in the 21 states that legalized marijuana for medical purposes during that period but did not rise after those laws were enacted.

“The risk of marijuana use in states before passing medical marijuana laws did not differ significantly from the risk after medical marijuana laws were passed,” Hasin et al. report. “Our findings, consistent with previous evidence, suggest that passage of state medical marijuana laws does not increase adolescent use of marijuana.” […]

“The new analysis is the most comprehensive effort to date,” The New York Times notes.


bullet image U.S. Deports Tens Of Thousands Each Year For Minor Drug Crimes, Human Rights Watch Says

Tens of thousands of people are deported each year for minor drug offenses, even if they served their time long ago, because of draconian U.S. drug laws, according to a report released Tuesday by the international advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch’s 93-page report, “A Price Too High: U.S. Families Torn Apart by Deportations for Drug Offenses,” details struggles of immigrants and families involved in more than 71 cases in which non-citizens had been arrested or convicted of drug offenses, and then were placed into deportation proceedings.


bullet image The Disposable Life of a 20-Year-Old Confidential Informant

On June 27, 2014, the body of 20-year-old Andrew Sadek, a promising electrical student at the North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS) in Wahpeton, North Dakota, was pulled from the Red River bordering North Dakota and Minnesota.

Missing for two months, the young man was found shot in the head, wearing a backpack filled with rocks.

The grisly death of a college student in one of the safest towns in the state, where violent crime is extremely rare, did not lead to a sweeping investigation. In fact, police immediately said they did not suspect foul play.

Such a supposition strains credulity as it is, but what would be slowly revealed over the following months is that Andrew had been working as a confidential informant for the police, and that his school knew that authorities were busting its students and using them as bait to catch drug dealers.

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Living Canvas

This is completely off topic for drug policy, but as many of you know, I have a number of different active parts of my life. One of them is a performance company called The Living Canvas, which has specialized in performances utilizing the human body as a canvas for projected textures and images. In addition to it being a unique art form, it has also had a side benefit of promoting body acceptance and self-confidence among both performers and audiences. I plan on incorporating the company as a full non-profit this summer.

The Living Canvas was fortunate enough to catch the attention of a BuzzFeed producer, who produced a segment focusing on our most recent performance – a short 10-minute thing at a student event on campus. It has provided a bit of sudden internet fame, as BuzzFeed has a lot of followers.

For those who are interested, here is the BuzzFeed segment — the video is part of a larger video about “How to Like Yourself as a Grownup.”

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Just because the court says you can, doesn’t mean you should

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a company can fire a worker for their use of marijuana off the job, even if there’s no evidence that they were impaired on the job.

Now, without even getting into the nuances of the case too far (the ruling hinged on the fact that marijuana is illegal federally, which could change in the future), there’s a more important point to be made here.

Companies that do so are shooting themselves in the foot. They send a message that they do not care about their employees, and that they have poor management skills, something which sends up red flags to competent potential employees.

The rush to drug testing by companies has reversed as more and more are discovering that they were sold a bill of goods by the drug testing industry and that there’s no evidence that drug testing provides a more stable or safer workforce. In fact, the more we learn, the more likely it is that it actually does the reverse — sure, it may weed out a few idiots who can’t figure out how to pass an employment drug test, but it’s more likely to deter qualified candidates, while giving administration a false sense of security that they’re actually doing personnel management, when that’s nothing of the kind.

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had the ability to stick to my principles and never work for a company that drug-tests. Not everyone is able to do so, but I think more and more, particularly as states move toward legalization, it will become a significant factor in the employment decision, and companies will quickly realize that spending a lot of money on drug testing an inferior work force will not make them competitive.

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Sheila Polk – intentionally misleading, moron, corrupt, or some combination?

This is just unreal…

Safe pot? Tell that to the 62 kids who died by Sheila Polk, Yavapai County Attorney and vice chair of Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy.

Marijuana is an addictive and hazardous drug. But lately, some have taken to proclaiming that “marijuana is safer than alcohol,” a message that is not only wrong but dangerous.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, in a study that examines all deaths in Arizona of children under the age of 18, a disturbing number of child deaths resulted from substance use. It was linked to the deaths of 128 of Arizona’s children in 2013.

Guess which substance was the most prevalent? Not alcohol, not methamphetamine (although they were close seconds), but marijuana. In 2013, marijuana use was associated with the tragic and needless deaths of 62 children in Arizona. […]

It is unconscionable to experiment with legalization on Arizona’s youth. Those 62 children whose lives were snuffed out in 2013 would certainly agree.

The only thing missing, of course, is what the study actually says:

Note: Although substance use is a known risk factor in child fatalities, it is important to remember the term associated is used because it is not always clear if or how the substance use had a direct or contributing effect on the fatality incident.

The CFR program defines substance use as associated with a child’s death if the child, the child’s parent, caretaker and/or if the person responsible for the death, during or about the time of the incident leading to the death, used or abused substances, including illegal drugs, prescription drugs, and/or alcohol.

Also, the study notes that more than one substance may have been “associated.”

Just think how high the numbers would be if they tracked how many child deaths were associated with milk, based on this definition!

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Fear-mongering takes another hit

William J. Bennett and Seth Leibsohn dropped a load in the L.A. times with What happned to the marijuana stigma?

Twenty years ago, drug dealers were seen for what they were — criminal and dangerous elements in our society. They were shunned by the mainstream. People who sold marijuana were considered losers, in the business of harming our children. Parents warned their kids to stay away from those known to use drugs.

But thanks to the marijuana lobby, what was once scorned is hyped and celebrated — even as the drug has become more potent, with THC, the intoxicating chemical, present at much higher levels than in the 1990s. Dealers run state-sanctioned dispensaries, lobby to further legalize their product and receive positive media coverage when doing so.

Paul Armentano responds today: Drug warriors are still crying ‘reefer madness.’ The facts don’t support them.

In their op-ed article against cannabis legalization, former drug czar William J. Bennett and Seth Leibsohn yearn for a time when fear-mongering, not facts, drove the marijuana policy debate in America. Those days are over.

Bennett and Leibsohn blame the “marijuana lobby” for re-shaping the way Americans think about what they consider to be a truly dangerous drug. But the reality is that voters’ views on pot have evolved in recent years based on both the failures of prohibition and the success of legalization and regulation. For decades, those opposed to amending cannabis criminalization warned that any significant change in marijuana policy would lead to a plethora of unintended consequences. Yet the initial experience in Colorado and Washington, in addition to many other states’ deep-rooted experiences regulating the production and distribution of marijuana for therapeutic purposes, has shown these fears to be misplaced.

I love that phrase: “yearn or a time when fear-mongering, not facts, drove the marijuana policy debate in America.”

Yep. that’s what prohibitionists counted on. But they just can’t hold off the massive marijuana lobby that’s funded with… facts.

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