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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
May 2016
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Open Caucus Thread

The Iowa caucuses are underway. Use this thread to discuss the election. Opinions are fine, disagreements are fine, but please no name-calling or insulting others (including candidates you oppose). We’ve got friends on all ends of the political spectrum on the couch.

For many years, I’ve felt that the Presidential election had little impact on drug policy — that we had to focus on building the grass roots, and bringing the population up to speed so that the politicians would be forced to follow.

So my question to you is… has that dynamic changed? With multiple states legalizing marijuana, and with a broader sense nationally that the criminal justice reform is necessary (including the Black Lives Matter movement), is this one of those moments where the right President could actually make a significant difference toward shortening the drug war?

Or, will it simply not matter? Will the political realities of compromise and bureaucracy thwart most of the efforts of a reform-minded President and, alternately, negate the backsliding attempts of a prohibition-minded President?

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Global Drug Survey

Readers may wish to participate in the Global Drug Survey, if you haven’t before. The goal this year is to have over 120,000 participants, in order to have really good information about drug use worldwide.

What makes this survey of particular interest is that this is an independent organization that doesn’t have prohibition as its mission.

To quote them:

Global Drug Survey seeks to become the largest most credible source of current drug use data trends in the world.

Accepting that the hidden masses of those who use substances are not the focus of government research or public health interventions, we seek to inform the wider drug using populations about their use of substances in a way that is meaningful, relevant and useful.

We strongly support harm reduction and accept that pleasure drives the majority of drug use, which for most people most of the time is not a source of distress or harm in their lives.

We acknowledge that drugs can be harmful but that the risk of harm can be significantly mitigated by the adoption of common sense risk reduction strategies.

We seek to limit the harm drugs may cause individuals and their communities by being honest, open and transparent about drug use and sharing our findings with the public without government or funder interference.

That’s something I can get behind.

I’ve taken the survey, and it seems incredibly comprehensive.

You can see findings from previous surveys here.

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Quote of the Day

Radley Balko:

“In the month that police and federal officials wisely used cunning, patience to apprehend the Oregon militia leaders, there were at least 3,000 violent raids on the homes of suspected drug offenders.”

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Open thread

I came to New York for the weekend, to see a few shows, and attend BroadwayCon, which, fortunately, is in the hotel where I’m staying, because I’m not going outside right now. Shows are closed, vehicles have been banned, transportation shut down.

We’ll see how fast this clears up and when I get home.

In the meantime, I understand pizza has been ordered and should be arriving soon for the couchmates. Enjoy.

If the blizzard here doesn’t subside by tomorrow, send coffee.

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NIDA dances around drug truths

NIDA has had a terrible track record when it comes to scientific inquiry, tending to cherry-pick the research it highlights to match its political anti-drug focus.

This is still true, and their social media pages are chock-full of fear-mongering nonsense. But once in a while, a tiny bit of truth trickles through.

Here’s one example: Childhood Maltreatment Changes Cortical Network Architecture and May Raise Risk for Substance Use — the article is from November, but was just recently highlighted on their Facebook page.

Childhood maltreatment alters children’s brain development in ways that may increase their risk for substance use and other mental disorders in adulthood. In a NIDA-supported study, researchers found that young adults who had been maltreated as children differed from others who had not been maltreated in the connectivity of nine cortical regions. The differences could compromise the maltreated group’s basic social perceptual skills, ability to maintain a healthy balance between introversion and extroversion, and ability to self-regulate their emotions and behavior.

Those of us who care about the science of drug policy already knew this, from the outstanding work of Dr. Gabor Maté (his work was also highlighted in Johann Hari’s “Chasing the Scream”).

And, of course, this flies in the face of NIDA’s usual talking points – that it’s drugs that cause addiction. The notion that there are some people who are more likely to abuse drugs because of outside influences suggests that there are other people (like the majority) who are not likely to abuse drugs, and this, leads to the notion (gasp!) that maybe drug problems should be attacked some other way than by attacking drugs.

So for them to highlight this research is really startling (although you couldn’t tell it from reading their article as they show no indication of awareness that it undermines much of their efforts).

NIDA still is up to its old tricks in one way, however. Note their usual mangling of the English language by including the word “use” in the title and in the body of the article, when, from the context, it clearly should be “abuse.”

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It is clear we would all be better off if Jonathan P. Caulkins did not exist.

This article has been discussed at length in the comments here by those who hang out on the couch, but I was slow to get around to reading it — to be honest, I didn’t feel very excited about slogging through it. But I finally took a look:

The Real Dangers of Marijuana by Jonathan P. Caulkins in National Affairs.

Caulkins is part of a fairly tight group of drug policy pundits “in the academy” who, over the years, have claimed a middle ground by regularly condemning both sides in the drug policy debate, even if they had to invent straw men to “balance” the sides. Because of this, over the years, I have often referred to them as “intellectually dishonest” — the one insult that seems to aggravate them the most. It’s likely that part of the reason for their false middle positioning is pragmatic, as it helps give them consulting cred for opportunities with RAND, AEI, etc.

Here’s a great example in Caulkins’ piece of blatant faulty comparison:

Choosing prohibition means choosing black markets; choosing legalization means choosing greater drug dependence. It is trite but true: A country can choose what kind of drug problem it wants, but it cannot choose not to have a drug problem.

They’ve written books together, articles together, etc., and, while they do have their disagreements from time to time, you can usually count on them to stand together in their balanced opposition to both prohibition and any real opposition to prohibition, as well as the impossible demand to have the answers to all possible future questions about legalization before making significant changes in policy (as Mark Kleiman positively approves over at The Reality-based Community).

Another thing they seem to share is a strong (some might even say fascistic) nanny-state approach to policy when it comes to any kind of recreational drug. They will invariably identify a minority of the population who, for one reason or another (reasons they tend to avoid discussing at length) have a dysfunctional relationship with that drug, and then decide that policy should dictate extreme restrictions for the entire population (not just the affected population).

For example, Caulkins specifically notes that “marijuana is, for the most part, not directly harmful to third parties” and “its health harms are, for the most part, minor.” For most people, that would be a sure indication that any restriction should be very narrowly tailored. And now, of course, that legalization is inevitable, Caulkins no longer objects per se, but instead suggests that marijuana should be, as Kleiman suggests “tolerated grudgingly.” Caulkins approvingly notes “That means allowing adults access to some legally produced supply, hopefully on liberal enough terms to undermine the black market, but with restraints and hoops for users and suppliers to jump through that will be seen as features of the regulatory regime, not wrinkles to be ironed out.” Never a thought of narrowly tailoring any solution to specifically dealing with those who have a problem with marijuana. Instead, all users and suppliers are to have difficulty under Caulkins’ thinking.

This is bad policy. And just like prohibition, it involves using a sledge hammer instead of really addressing any actual problems.

Here’s a bit in the article I found rather humorous:

With the exception of the Drug Enforcement Administration, most opposition comes not from government but from non-profit groups like National Families in Action, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the Institute for Behavioral Health, and the Hudson Institute. The governmental heavyweight, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is quick to point out marijuana’s dangers but even quicker to disavow having any official position on policy questions like legalization or decriminalization.

That really downplays governmental opposition. First of all, the DEA is huge. Second, there is the matter of all the rest of law enforcement in the country, which has been, to a large extent, bribed by the federal government to toe the anti-legalization line. Then there are agencies like the IRS and the U.S. Postal Service that have gotten in the way of state legalization efforts, the U.S. attorneys, Congress, the military… Yeah, not much governmental opposition there.

Now, let’s get to the title that I put on this post:

“It is clear we would all be better off if Jonathan P. Caulkins did not exist.”

What a horrible statement! I’m sure that Jonathan has family and friends who love him very much and the notion that they’d be better off if he didn’t exist is offensive. Why would I even consider making such a statement just because I disagree with a small impact that he has in this world? Why not just oppose those specific points without completely negating any value that he might have as a human being?


The purpose of the title of the post was to draw attention to Caulkin’s statement:

“It is clear we would all be better off if marijuana did not exist.”

In this one statement, he betrays any sense of intellectual honesty.

Who is he to decide that the entire world would be better off without the existence of marijuana just because he has identified a small subset of the population who deal with it dysfunctionally? What kind of arrogance is that?

For many people, marijuana is a valuable and wonderful thing with which they have a fully functional relationship (much as Jonathan’s friends and family may have with him). To deny or ignore that is to completely miss the boat in developing actual legitimate public policy.

By making this statement, Caulkins has shown that he’s not interested in good public policy, but rather, like a petulant child, imposing a particular viewpoint on everyone.

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More good stuff from Johann Hari

Johann continues to kick ass in the press, coming up with OpEds and interviews that are clear and understandable to the casual public who may not be aware of all the details of the drug war, and that make compelling arguments.

His latest is in the Los Angeles Times – a paper that has often been a drug war cheerleader.

Yes, pot is stronger today, but not for the reasons you think

Here’s the irony. Drugs are more potent today, and people are taking more powerful drugs — but that’s largely because of the drug war, not despite it.

To grasp why, you need to understand a counterintuitive phenomenon best explained by the writer Mike Gray in his book “Drug Crazy.” Let’s start in January 1920. The day before Prohibition went into effect, the most popular alcoholic drinks, by far, were beer and wine. Once alcohol was legalized again, in December 1933, the most popular drinks, by far, were again beer and wine — as they remain today. But between those dates, beer and wine virtually vanished and the only alcoholic beverages available became hard spirits such as whiskey, vodka and moonshine.

So why would banning a drug change people’s taste? In fact, it didn’t. It just changed what they had access to. […]

The technical term for this — coined by the advocate for drug reform Richard Cowan — is “the iron law of prohibition.” As crackdowns on a drug become more harsh, the milder forms of that drug disappear — and the most extreme strains become most widely available.

This is an important point to continue to hammer home. Opponents of legalization are often pushing that old “this isn’t your father’s pot” argument.

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It’s a civil rights issue

Something we’ve been saying for a long time…

Via the Marijuana Majority twitter account:

“Creating a legal, responsible and regulated framework for marijuana is a predominant civil right issue and it’s long overdue,” said Alice Huffman, longtime President of California State NAACP.

The California State NAACP has formally endorsed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA).

Of course, it’s not just legalization of marijuana. It’s the entire drug war that’s a civil rights issue (and a host of other issues as well). But again, since marijuana enforcement is the biggest piece of the drug war, it’s a great place to start.

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Odds and Ends

bullet image Study Concludes Biking While High on Marijuana Isn’t Dangerous

“Hardly any coordinative disturbances could be detected under the influence of high or very high THC concentrations,” the study, published by the International Journal of Legal Medicine this week, found.

bullet image Canada Needs Permission From International Treaties to Legalize Marijuana, Says New PM Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau, the Liberal prime minister who won last October’s elections in Canada against the Conservative Stephen Harper, who was seeking a third term, ran in part on a promise to legalize marijuana, and said he was going to “get started on that right away,” signaling a departure from the Harper administration’s anti-pot stance.

Now, Trudeau’s said his efforts have hit a snag—international treaties. They were, uh, there during the election campaign, even if they were left unmentioned by the candidate himself.

According to the Canadian Press:

Trudeau’s plan to legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana is already proving a complicated and controversial undertaking on the domestic front, in part because it requires working with the provinces.

Internationally, says a briefing note prepared for the prime minister, Canada will also have to find a way to essentially tell the world how it plans to conform to its treaty obligations.

bullet image It’s time to get rid of these fossils in politics…

Maine governor blames state’s heroin problem on racist stereotypes

“These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty… these types of guys … they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home,” LePage said. “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”

bullet image The answer is “yes.”

Is Police Corruption Inevitable in the War on Drugs?

Last week, police in Pennsylvania pulled over a car carrying three men and apparently $2 million worth of weed. Among the 247 pounds of pot and $11,000 in cash in the vehicle, investigators also found a law enforcement badge and service weapon belonging to California Sheriff’s deputy Christopher Heath, one of the men arrested and a frequent drug investigator in Northern California. Now Heath’s bosses have to figure out if the drug cases he led on their behalf will hold up in court given that one of their investigators has been outed as a corrupt cop.

Given how much money’s at stake in the drug game, the fact that police can be swayed to join the distributors they usually bust isn’t all that surprising. Yet police corruption in the drug war is often depicted by the media as a foreign phenomenon, consigned to countries with notoriously powerful cartels such as Mexico or Colombia—despite decades of high-profile examples of US authorities breaking bad, too.

bullet image Nice work if you can get it, I suppose.

Justice IG: DEA paid Amtrak employees nearly $1 million as informants

WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Administration paid an Amtrak employee more than $850,000 during the past 20 years to serve as a confidential informant for the agency only to receive information that was always available to the DEA at no cost, an internal Justice Department review found.

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Open Thread

Happy New Year! Just back from a trip visiting relatives over the holidays, and trying to figure out what retirement means in this, my first week of actually dealing with retirement. Thanks for bearing with me in the long holiday pause.

I would say one of the most potentially interesting news items over break was this one about the Surgeon General:

Surgeon General Announces Review of Federal Drug Policies

Areas of focus in the report may include the history of the prevention, treatment and recovery fields; components of the substance use continuum (i.e., prevention, treatment and recovery); epidemiology of substance use, misuse and substance use disorders; etiology of substance misuse and related disorders; neurobiological base of substance misuse and related disorders; risk and protective factors; application of scientific research in the field, including methods, challenges and current and future directions; social, economic and health consequences of substance misuse; co-occurrence of substance use disorders and other diseases and disorders; the state of health care access and coverage as it relates to substance use prevention, treatment and recovery; integration of substance use disorders, mental health and physical health care in clinical settings; national, state and local initiatives to assess and improve the quality of care for substance misuse and related disorders; organization and financing of prevention, treatment and recovery services within the health care system; ethical, legal and policy issues; and potential future directions.

It’s quite easy to find reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic about this news. Certainly, there’s a lot of history in the federal government in claiming to want to find the scientific truth when they really are doing nothing more than distorting it to confirm political preferences. And yet, the surgeon general’s office has historically been less likely to be as politically driven, which could be good.

If we assume that the Surgeon General will actually follow the science and facts wherever they lead, recommendations could still get derailed (witness Joycelyn Elders). But if the administration is trying to pave the way for a real change in federal drug policy before the end of the term, this would be the way to do it — with the weight of the top medical doctor in the country behind the recommendations.

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