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Join us on Pete's couch., the longest running single-issue blog devoted to drug policy, is published by the Prohibition Isn't Free Foundation
June 2016
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Open Thread

Just got back from a week in New York as tour guide for a wonderful group of students, and saw some great shows, including Smokefall, Nice Fish, Fun Home, Hamilton, and Eclipsed. Beautiful weather and we saw a lot of the city, including going all the way out to Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

Haven’t had time to catch up with drug policy developments yet.

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No surprises here

Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post: Legal marijuana is finally doing what the drug war couldn’t

The latest data from the U.S. Border Patrol shows that last year, marijuana seizures along the southwest border tumbled to their lowest level in at least a decade. Agents snagged roughly 1.5 million pounds of marijuana at the border, down from a peak of nearly 4 million pounds in 2009. […]

The data supports the many stories about the difficulties marijuana growers in Mexico face in light of increased competition from the north. As domestic marijuana production has ramped up in places such as California, Colorado and Washington, marijuana prices have fallen, especially at the bulk level. […]

And it’s not just price — Mexican growers are facing pressure on quality, too. “The quality of marijuana produced in Mexico and the Caribbean is thought to be inferior to the marijuana produced domestically in the United States or in Canada,” the DEA wrote last year in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment. “Law enforcement reporting indicates that Mexican cartels are attempting to produce higher-quality marijuana to keep up with U.S. demand.”

Vice News: Iran Is About to Execute Another 100 Prisoners for Drug Offenses

Such wide-scale bloodletting has increased revulsion at the international community’s complicity. Maya Foa, head of the death penalty team at the UK-based human rights organization Reprieve, called the planned mass execution at Ghezel Hessar “the one tangible return on the UN’s investment in Iranian drug raids.”

“Iran’s spree of drug-related hangings is based on unfair trials and force ‘confessions,’ and its main victims are innocent scapegoats and vulnerable people who’ve been exploited as drug mules,” Foa said in a statement.

Iran’s penchant for putting drug offenders to death hasn’t dampened the UNODC’s enthusiasm for the country’s role in the drug fight.

Also from Christopher Ingraham: Donald Trump’s drug policy is an alarming throwback to the 1980s

Trump’s promise to prevent drugs from entering the country in the first place is a throwback to the drug war policies of previous decades. This may be no accident. He recently sought drug policy advice from William J. Bennett and discussed the heroin epidemic with him.

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Website adjustments

The site had a bit of a meltdown for awhile today as several plug-ins suddenly stopped working correctly. Plug-ins are third-party additions to WordPress that allow additional functionality in the blog, and we use a number of them. Sometimes you find a good one and start using it, but the developer of it doesn’t keep updating it, and it becomes incompatible when there is a routine upgrade of the core WordPress software.

I’m pretty sure that’s what happened today. I’ve had to deactivate comment ratings (as that one had gone completely haywire), along with a couple of others that affect how I write posts (but shouldn’t affect user experience).

Please let me know if anything else stops working correctly. In the meantime, I’ll look for a replacement for the comment rating system, but it may be awhile. I’m getting ready to take students to New York for a week.

Consider this an open thread.

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Moving beyond the stoner stereotype

Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance

Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance

Via 420Intel, the Drug Policy Alliance has developed a set of stock photos that’s available for use for free.

Media outlets continue to use stereotypical “stoner” images for otherwise serious news stories about marijuana. The Drug Policy Alliance is offering an alternative: stock photos of real, everyday people who use marijuana.

These photos are open license and free to use for non-commercial editorial purposes, and we hope they will help make the jobs of editors easier and the content more relevant.

Images must be credited, and may be used for editorial purposes only. No commercial use is permitted.

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The drug war in popular fictional entertainment

The recent explosion of comic-book-sourced movies and television shows have had the luxury of creating entire classes of bad guys – meta-humans, aliens, super villains, etc., and there’s no need for writers to actually know anything about the science, economics, or sociology behind shark-men or Martians. But for ages, standard action shows have had a limited number of bad-guy options. Sure, you’ve got the specialty shows like SVU (sexual predators), but otherwise it’s bank robbers, terrorists, and… drug dealers.

For decades, drug dealers/cartels have been a go-to stereotype action bad guy for this kind of fiction. It’s a convenient mechanism with ruthless villains versus the good guys in law enforcement.

Of course, when you spend so much time studying drug policy, it’s hard to enjoy the fiction, in part because you can immediately see how ridiculous the plots and characters often are.

This week, I was watching “Scorpion,” a TV show about a dysfunctional group of geniuses who are called upon by the government to use their special skills to solve a problem, or stop a catastrophe. This episode, there was a visiting drug agent from Mexico, and this was the dialogue in the opening scene.

Federal Drug Agent Sanchez of Mexico: Three days ago a rancher found this brick of heroin attached to a drone that malfunctioned and crashed by the Arizona border. Our sources are certain it came from Central America through my country and into yours.
Paige (looking at the label on the heroin): Gold Mule? This is the heroin that’s been in the news?
Sanchez: Extremely pure, very dangerous. Kids are OD’ing on this poison all over the country.
Cabe: It’s potent stuff. Users are willing to pay top dollar for it and dealers are willing to kill for the distribution territory here in the states. It sparked gang wars in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami.
Sanchez: Innocents are getting caught in the cross-fire. (shows picture of a body) A father, walking home from work. An 8-year-old, doing her homework, bullet came in through her bedroom window, three blocks from my home.
Sylvester: (looking at picture) She was doing math!
Walter: I assume you want our help because drones are involved?
Sanchez: Correct. So far, we have been able to confiscate 85% of the shipments coming across the border.. trucks, tunnels, airplanes.
Happy: Are you telling me that all the drugs in the United States only account for 15% of the potential supply?
Sanchez: Imagine if the rest got in via drone!

There’s just so much wrong in that exchange. Both factually (85%???), and because a bunch of geniuses could easily point out how stupid the government’s approach is to problem-solving when it comes to the drug war, and would understand more about supply and demand.

The rest of the plot was pretty pathetic – the cartels sent all their drones across the border at the same place, where the geniuses knew where to be, in packs that could be tracked by radar, and, after a bunch of hair-raising chases and a medical emergency that had nothing to do with the original plot, the good guys won, bad guys were arrested and nobody died. And at the end of the episode…

Sylvester: Given the size of the shipment we stopped, and near future shipments of the same size, taking into account overdose statistics, the gang war over distribution and adjusting for a margin of error, we saved 4,287 lives. Minimum!

Of course, it’s fiction. Nobody’s looking for realism here. But man, it’s hard to keep a straight face when watching this stuff.

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Kofi Annan- ‘We must decriminalize personal drug use’

Powerful essay in Spiegel by Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations:

Lift the Ban! Kofi Annan on Why It’s Time To Legalize Drugs

Prohibition has had little impact on the supply of or demand for drugs. When law enforcement succeeds in one area, drug production simply moves to another region or country, drug trafficking moves to another route and drug users switch to a different drug. Nor has prohibition significantly reduced use. Studies have consistently failed to establish the existence of a link between the harshness of a country’s drug laws and its levels of drug use. The widespread criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs, the over-crowded prisons, mean that the war on drugs is, to a significant degree, a war on drug users — a war on people. […]

First, we must decriminalize personal drug use. […]

Second, we need to accept that a drug-free world is an illusion.

I’m very curious to see what will happen when the U.N. General Assembly has a special session on drugs in April. It’s getting harder for them to pretend that the failures of prohibition don’t exist.

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More on Drug War Economics

Over the years here, we’ve talked a lot about economics and the drug war, and how obvious it is that the drug war cheerleaders are clueless (sometimes intentionally) about the basics of economics.

NPR did a piece about Tom Wainwright, who followed the drug war for The Economist. ‘Narconomics’: How The Drug Cartels Operate Like Wal-Mart And McDonald’s

During the three years he spent in Mexico and Central and South America, Wainwright discovered that the cartels that control the region’s drug trade use business models that are surprisingly similar to those of big-box stores and franchises. For instance, they have exclusive relationships with their “suppliers” (the farmers who grow the coca plants) that allow the cartels to keep the price of cocaine stable even when crop production is disrupted.

“The theory is that the cartels in the area have what economists call a ‘monopsony,’ [which is] like a monopoly on buying in the area,” Wainwright says. “This rang a bell with me because it’s something that people very often say about Wal-Mart.”

Wainwright describes his new book, Narconomics, as a business manual for drug lords — and also a blueprint for how to defeat them. When it comes to battling the cartels, Wainwright says governments might do better to focus on controlled legalization rather than complete eradication of the product.

“The choice that I think we face isn’t really a choice between a world without drugs and a world with drugs,” he says. “I think the choice we face really is between a world where drugs are controlled by governments and prescribed by pharmacists and doctors, and a world where they’re dealt by the mafia, and given that choice, I think the former sounds more appealing.”

Nothing new to us, but good to be reminded of now and again.

Tom Wainwright has another article in the Wall Street Journal that came out a couple of days ago — How Economists Would Wage the War on Drugs — but it’s behind a paywall.

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The implications of the Apple letter

For those who haven’t noticed, there has been a bit of a blow-up regarding a dispute between the FBI and Apple Computers.

The FBI is trying to break into the iPhone of a suspected terrorist, but they can’t brute force the password because the software on that particular version of iPhone only allows 10 wrong tries before the phone becomes worthless with a delay between tries. They want to compel Apple to write a new updated version of the IOS to install on that phone that would essentially allow the FBI to make unlimited tries at speed (i.e., by hooking up another computer) and eventually brute force the password in order to get in. A judge has agreed, and Apple is resisting the order.

Here is the letter from Tim Cook of Apple explaining their position. As he points out, the issue is that once Apple does this, what’s to prevent the exploit from being compromised and used in nefarious ways?

Additionally, what would prevent law enforcement from seeing this as a new tool to use over and over again?

We know that would happen.

Remember the Patriot Act? One of the provisions was normalizing the “sneak and peek” provision to protect us from terrorists (this allows them to break into your home surreptitiously and not inform you even after the fact, so you can’t challenge the warrant because you don’t know it happened – they can also take things by pretending it’s a burglary). Again, we were told this was critical to protect us from terrorists. So what happened? According to the most recent figures in 2013, that year there were 11,129 “sneak and peek” warrant requests, and only 51 of those were for terrorism-related investigations.

Can you guess what the majority of requests were for? Of course — drug investigations. Even misdemeanors.

Regardless of how evil the person is that the FBI is investigating, in a free society we cannot use that as justification for giving unlimited power to investigating entities.

Now, of course, as with any technology issue, there are a lot of complicating factors to this case, but the overall facts are pretty clear. The FBI wants to compel a software company to not just give access to information that they already have, but to help them break the security of their software, with the “promise” that they’ll only do it once. And I don’t accept that.

I’ve been interested to see where the Presidential candidates come down on this issue. A number of different media sources have been tracking candidate responses. Here’s one. Here’s another.

Trump immediately sided 100% with the FBI. Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich have basically said that they understood the concerns but still sided with the FBI. Neither Clinton or Sanders took a firm position either way.

“Obviously Apple and the other tech companies are concerned about this,” Ms. Clinton said. “But as smart as we are, there’s got to be some way on a very specific basis we could try to help get information around crimes and terrorism.

Clinton’s opponent also did not choose between Apple and the FBI. “I’m on both,” Mr. Sanders said, when asked which side he favored. “But count me in as somebody who is a very strong civil libertarian, who believes that we can fight terrorism without undermining our constitutional rights and our privacy rights.”

Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson: “#Apple is RIGHT. Handing the govt a potential passkey to millions of phones would be lunacy.”

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Open Thread

I was just informed that my hosting service moved the virtual server for Drug to a new location. There was a temporary outage, but it seems to be back. Please let me know if you experience any new problems with the site. Thanks.

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Treatment Reform

Maia Szalavitz takes on an important area that needs significant reform: the treatment industry.

The Rehab Industry Needs to Clean Up Its Act. Here’s How.

There are so many areas of this industry that are broken or just plain corrupt. Part of this is due to historical non-evidence-based stigmatizing approaches toward addiction, some due to the lack of science in the federal government’s laws and regulations, and some due to the attempts to cash in on a potentially lucrative captive market by unscrupulous players.

“What we simply need is a nice bulldozer, so that we could level the entire industry and start from scratch,” says Dr. Mark Willenbring […] “Another approach is that you could use dynamite,” he deadpans. […]

And in no other area of medicine do insurers pay for hours of group “therapy,” films and lectures that consist overwhelmingly of indoctrination into the teachings of a self-help group, available for free in church basements. […]

In any other area of medicine, if patients were not informed about a treatment that cuts mortality by at least half—while being given one that has no effect on it—it would be considered malpractice. […] But in the addictions field—largely because the dominant abstinence-only model historically hasn’t recognized medication-assisted treatment (MAT) as an acceptable form of recovery—this happens almost every time someone with an opioid addiction enters an abstinence-only 28-day rehab, a detox or an abstinence-based outpatient program. […] Given this, stigmatizing maintenance or telling patients that it is “not really recovery,” is basically killing people. […]

In the past year, the addiction treatment industry—never trouble-free in the best of times—has been wracked by scandal. […]

But the treatment industry has for too long relied on referrals from the criminal justice system to stay solvent. […] Several problems result. For one, since their biggest customer is often the criminal justice system, many programs shape themselves to its dictates. “The field has been so distorted by its dependence on the criminal justice system, which is really the client,” […]

Unfortunately, nearly all long-term residential treatment centers in America— i.e., “therapeutic community” programs that last three months or longer—were originally modeled on a destructive cult called Synanon. […] While many have moved away from the most extreme tactics, a widespread belief that all people with addiction are lying “whenever their lips are moving” and a sense that negative experience is necessary to get people to realize that they need to change remains common. […]

Research has long shown that in most cases, outpatient treatment is as effective as inpatient care for alcoholism and other addictions. […]

We also need national standards for counselor education, for best practices in all types of treatment and for informed consent regarding options like medication. All counselors need to be educated about all aspects of addiction, not just their own recovery […]

These are some great critiques, and something that more people need to acknowledge. There is a tendency, by some, to simply talk about treatment being better than enforcement without noting that prohibition has seriously tainted the treatment field. Simply spending more on treatment without paying attention to what you’re getting is not reform.

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