Looking for Silver Linings

Posted: January 6, 2012 in Uncategorized

I freely admit that I was hoping for a Ron Paul victory in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, but Matt Welch finds seven bright spots in Paul’s third place finish. Appropriately, I found number one to be the most important:

Paul more than doubled his vote over 2008, while Mitt Romney’s stayed exactly the same. Seriously, Romney got 30,000 votes (25 percent of the total) in 2008, then 30,000 votes (25 percent of the total) in 2012. Paul vaulted from 10 percent to 21, from 12,000 votes to 26,000. His message of freedom, limited government, attacking the Federal Reserve, and ending wars foreign and domestic is undeniably on the grow.

There was a time when I was about 22 years old that I knew almost every serious libertarian activist around my age. Now I don’t even know all of them in the Saint Louis area. I go into bars to gather signatures to place an initiative that would end cannabis prohibition on the Missouri ballot in November, and the first question many people ask me is “Are you a Ron Paul supporter?” When I answer affirmatively, the person usually spends the next few minutes gushing about how much they love Ron Paul and what he stands for. The libertarian moment may not have arrived just yet, but it is approaching, you can be sure of that.

I have a new editorial in the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch arguing, among other things, that cannabis prohibition has been laughably ineffective at keeping people from using the substance:

However, these arrests serve little purpose, as they do not appreciably deter people from using cannabis. When cannabis was first criminalized in the United States in the 1930s, the number of users was vanishingly small. Now, according to a 2008 study from the World Health Organization, 42.4 percent of America’s adult population has used cannabis. That’s more than twice the rate of the Netherlands, where cannabis use is almost fully legalized.

Moreover, young adults are more likely to use cannabis than any other age group. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that in Missouri nearly a quarter of adults ages 18 to 25 used cannabis in the past year, and nearly 15 percent of young Missourians break the state’s cannabis laws at least once a month. Cannabis prohibition has utterly failed to keep Americans — and young people, in particular — from using the substance.

Contrast the explosion of cannabis use under prohibition with rates of cigarette smoking — a habit that is treated as a truly private matter for anyone over 18 years of age since public health campaigns first began highlighting tobacco’s dangers in the 1970s. According to Gallup polling data, 40 percent of Americans smoked cigarettes in the 1960s and 1970s, but by 2008, only 21 percent of Americans reported lighting up in the previous month.

The article’s publication was fortuitously timed, as the latest Monitoring the Future Study was released just yesterday, and its finding back up my arguments. From the study’s press release:

Marijuana use among teens rose in 2011 for the fourth straight year—a sharp contrast to the considerable decline that had occurred in the preceding decade. Daily marijuana use is now at a 30-year peak level among high school seniors.

[...]

Alcohol use—and, importantly, occasions of heavy drinking—continued a long-term gradual decline among teens, reaching historically low levels in 2011.

So we are having great success combating teen alcohol abuse, despite the fact that alcohol is a legally regulated product and available to anyone over 21 years of age. On the other hand, cannabis prohibition leaves its distribution to the criminal market, where dealers are extremely unlikely to check IDs and law enforcement lacks the transparency of oversight. The evidence is clear: if you are worried about teen cannabis use, you should support its legal regulation.

The city of Copenhagen has approved a proposal that, if given the okay from Denmark’s parliament, would allow the city to establish a legal system for distributing cannabis. Proponents of the idea argue that taking cannabis off the criminal market and regulating it legally would eliminate the crime currently associated with its distribution:

It is these people, the biker and immigrant gangs who manage the city’s drug supplies, that [mayor in charge of social affairs at Copenhagen City Council Mikkel] Warming wants to cut out.

“People who use marijuana are paying money to criminals, mostly to gang members, and it’s a market that every year, is worth up to two billion Danish kroner ($350 million). That’s enough to fight for, which is why we’ve had a war between the gangs in Copenhagen,” he said.

That’s why he doesn’t want to institute a system where smoking marijuana is tolerated in cannabis cafes, but officially illegal, and therefore profitable for criminals to grow and import.

Copenhagen effectively operated such a system in Christiania until 2004, when the police moved in and shut the district’s thriving cannabis cafes, forcing the trade into street stalls.

And it still exists in the Netherlands today, although Dutch authorities are tightening up.

“We don’t want an Amsterdam model,” Warming said. “We want a way to make it legal to import or grow marijuana.”

The Danes know a thing or two about good governance, and I’m confident that they will move forward with this sensible, crime-reduction proposal. They should also be commended for realizing that the Dutch model of decriminalized personal use with no legal means for producing cannabis is confused and counterproductive. That’s precisely why we did not settle for a purely decriminalization measure here in Missouri. The only way to eliminate the criminal market associated with cannabis production and distribution is to regulate its sale in the same way we regulate tobacco and alcohol.

Neill Franklin, a former narcotics officer for Maryland State Police and Baltimore City Police Departments, and current executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), published a letter to the editor in the New York Times last week succinctly describing the failure of cannabis prohibition:

While some fear that legalization would lead to increased use, those who want to use marijuana are probably already doing so under our ineffective prohibition laws. And when we stop wasting so many resources on locking people up, perhaps we can fund real public education and health efforts of the sort that have led to dramatic reductions in tobacco use over the last few decades — all without having to put handcuffs on anyone.

I have spent my entire adult life fighting the war on drugs as a police officer on the front lines. I have experienced the loss of friends and comrades who fought this war alongside me, and every year tens of thousands of other people are murdered by gangs battling over drug turf in American cities, Canada and Mexico. It is time to reduce violence by taking away a vital funding source from organized crime just as we did by ending alcohol prohibition almost 80 years ago.

Having viewed the war against cannabis from both sides, Franklin and his colleagues at LEAP understand the issue far better than most. You can watch Franklin movingly explain how he discovered that prohibition had failed here.

In his latest column for the Huffington Post, Radley Balko details the saga of Jessica Shaver, a Chicago woman who experienced the distorted priorities caused by cannabis prohibition firsthand. In 2010, Shaver was assaulted outside a bar near Wicker Park, but when she took her case to the police, they were less than helpful:

Two weeks later, Shaver still hadn’t heard from the detective assigned to her case. When she finally went to the police station in person to get an update on the investigation, she was told there was no record of the incident. She filed another report, but was told it was unlikely police would be able to track down the witnesses again, and that even if they were, the witnesses’ memories were likely to have faded. Shaver says she decided to investigate on her own. She went back to the Flat Iron and questioned customers and employees herself. A bartender gave her the men’s nicknames: “Cory” and “Sonny,” the guy who hit her. Shaver learned that Sonny was also a reputed cocaine dealer. She heard he had a violent streak, and had been banned from a number of neighborhood bars.

“I was scared,” Shaver said. “I’d heard bad things about this guy, and he knew who I was.”

Shaver is thoroughly tattooed, which makes her easy to recognize. So she dyed her hair, covered her tattoos with clothing, and kept investigating. She worked her way through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace until she was able to put actual names to her attackers’ faces and nicknames. And yet she still couldn’t get anyone at Chicago PD to help her. “I gave them the guy’s name and everything,” she said. “There were even hip hop videos online with him in them. I told them, ‘That’s the guy!’ They still wouldn’t listen to me.”

If a violent assault with a positive identification of the culprit didn’t get the police’s attention, what would? A single bag of pot, apparently:

Shaver’s next encounter with Chicago police came in April of this year. She and her then-boyfriend were living on the first floor of a three-story graystone in the Edgewood neighborhood. “Nate,” a friend of Shaver’s boyfriend whom Shaver describes as a “stoner hippie,” was between residences, and asked if he could sleep on their couch while he waited for his new apartment to become available. They agreed.

“He never had keys,” Shaver said. “He’d text us when he was coming home to sleep, and one of us would let him in. He had been here about a week before the raid.”

The raid came on the night of April 14, 2010, part of a series of drug raids across Chicago that night by the city’s Mobile Strike Force and Targeted Response Unit, essentially a SWAT team.

Shaver, her then-boyfriend and a roommate were in the apartment with her four dogs when the door flew open with the crash of a battering ram. “I thought we were being robbed,” Shaver recalled. “It wasn’t clear to us that they were cops at all. I had a flashback to my attack. I was just terrified. I peed myself. I had peed myself, and I was shaking, trying to gather my dogs while they were pointing these guns at me — these huge guns that could blow me apart. My Vizsla mix ran off, and I was afraid they were going to shoot it. I asked if I could get it, and they said ‘We don’t give a fuck about your dog.’”

According to the search warrant, the police were searching for Nate. Shaver said they looked through Nate’s belongings gathered on the couch and found about $900 and a sandwich bag filed with marijuana. They didn’t leave a receipt for what they took.

Asset forfeiture laws and federal grants allow the police to profit directly from busting people such as Nate, but there’s no money for them in enforcing laws against violent crime. Cannabis prohibition costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars annually in Missouri alone, but those numbers disguise the real cost. When we encourage police to pursue cannabis violations, we discourage them from prosecuting assaults, rapes, and murders. If we want police to focus their limited resources on crimes against people and property, we have to stop treating cannabis as a criminal substance.

Wall Street Journal reporter Mary Anastasia O’Grady interviewed former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso last week, and he explained to her why he believes ending the war on cannabis would lead to reduced levels of drug use, less violence, and more international stability:

Mr. Cardoso explains that as president he used traditional methods of “repression and prevention” to fight the drug problem. He is quick to add that neither worked. “Eradication was a failure,” he says. Even though marijuana plants were destroyed—the government proudly took pictures of its handiwork—”later on, again, the crops were there.” Meanwhile, the state made an “insufficient” effort toward prevention, in part because Brazil’s drug problem “was not that bad at the time.”

[...]

Mr. Cardoso maintains that it is time for change. He points to the successful experience of some European states where marijuana has been decriminalized so that the recreational use of pot is permitted and addicts are treated.

Portugal is one example, he says. There, spiraling rates of marijuana consumption prior to decriminalization have been reversed. His own interviews—and the broader data—show that a combination of education, treatment and decriminalization, which makes marijuana no longer a forbidden temptation among the young, explains why use is no longer going up.

There are other benefits to decriminalization. By eliminating the need to chase marijuana consumers, Mr. Cardoso says, the state can focus on fighting organized crime. And those gangsters are likely to have fewer customers.

As it stands now “the young people have to enter into contact with drug traffickers to buy marijuana and the traffickers will induce the young people to jump from marijuana to hard drugs because they are more profitable. So you have to break the contact,” he argues. There is also the problem that Brazilian prisons are brimming with inmates serving time for trafficking because they were caught with amounts of pot above the legal limit. Decriminalization would reduce rates of incarceration and the large number of lives ruined by prison systems that teach people how to become criminals.

Mr. Cardoso accepts that “the question is a political question.” But he doesn’t expect politicians in Washington or Brasilia to provide the answer. “To my mind what is important is civil society being involved in this discussion. I don’t view the state being even capable of change without strong pressure from civil society.”

Cardoso is unfortunately right that leadership on cannabis policy will not come from leaders in government, which is why we are taking the issue straight to the people of Missouri with a ballot initiative. If the politicians refuse to do the right thing at the top, we will push them towards it from below.

Jaco Report Rejoinder

Posted: November 25, 2011 in Uncategorized

A couple weeks ago, I discussed our initiative to regulate marijuana in Missouri with Jason Grellner of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department on the Jaco Report. It was a pleasant conversation, but I would like to highlight some of the inaccuracies in Grellner’s argument that I did not have time to respond to on air.

In his first response, Grellner claims that no medical professional would say cannabis is “good for you,” and that may be true. However, doctors don’t think of drugs as either good or bad. All drugs have risks and side effects, so the question becomes: do the benefits outweigh the risks? Clearly, many doctors believe some of their patients can benefit from cannabis, as evidenced by the number of medical marijuana patients in states that allow it as medicine.

Grellner runs into a similar problem when he attacks medical marijuana near the end of the segment by comparing it to medical opium. The irony, of course, is that we have a plethora of drugs derived from opium (Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, etc.) that in many cases are even more powerful than opium itself. Nonetheless, doctors are allowed to prescribe these incredibly powerful drugs because they see the medical value in pain relief. There’s absolutely no reason politics should stand in the way of doctors making a similar decision regarding a substance that creates no physical dependence and no realistic chance of overdose.

This also undermines Grellner’s implication that cannabis is more harmful today than a few decades ago because THC content has risen. First of all, it’s not clear that average THC content has increased  all that dramatically over time, but even granting that premise, it wouldn’t make marijuana any more harmful. As Dan Gardner of The Ottawa Citizen explained in a recent column:

We know that’s not true for many reasons. For one thing, marijuana is typically consumed in the form of hashish, not herbal marijuana, in several European countries. That’s significant because hashish usually has a potency of 15 to 20 per cent. It can even be as much as 50 per cent THC. If “more potent” equals “more dangerous,” that should be evident in cross-national comparisons. But as the EMCDDA report noted, it’s not.

The main reason why potency isn’t correlated with risk is simple. People aren’t idiots. They vary their consumption to account for potency. Someone who says “enough” after drinking 18 ounces of beer will not, if given vodka instead, drink 18 ounces. Similarly, marijuana users will smoke less if the pot they are consuming is of a higher potency. (And since lung irritation from inhaling smoke is a clear harm of pot-smoking, that is a good thing.)

Grellner further claims that cannabis use will increase if we remove legal penalties against the plant, but the evidence he cites doesn’t support that conclusion. He argues that the decline in drug use from the end of the 1970′s to the early 1990s shows that laws against marijuana were successful, but that time period immediately follows the first wave of marijuana decrminalization in the United States, when 11 states made possession a misdemeanor or less as opposed to a felony. After rising in the 1990s, Grellner explains, use fell again over the past decade. What he neglects to mention is that use fell along with a massive expansion in the availability of medical cannabis in the 2000s. None of this is to say that lower legal sanctions lead to less use, but it does suggest that the law is an extremely minor factor in determining the number of people who use cannabis.

Finally, I’d like to harp a bit on what I consider to be Grellner’s most ridiculous statement: “When we legalize a drug, we are basically telling the public that it’s safe.” Really? The government tells the public that alcohol is safe? Tobacco? I seem to recall all sorts of government warnings about the potential dangers of those drugs. There is no such thing as “safe.” There are only costs and benefits, risks and rewards. In a free country, we trust informed adults to make decisions about what sorts of risks they are willing to take. For instance, I play rugby, which is not a safe sport by any stretch of the imagination. In the past four months, I’ve bruised a rib, busted my head open, broken a thumb, and sustained more cuts and contusions than I can count. I would have been far safer sitting in my apartment smoking cannabis, but I’m glad that I live in a country where I am free to make that choice because I find rugby far more rewarding. However, I do not presume to make the same choice for others. Grellner and other government officials shouldn’t either.