Congress meddles in DC cannabis policy. Bad move. Good results?

No, Congress shouldn’t have meddled in DC home rule by blocking the city from legalizing cannabis on the alcohol model. But the result is to leave in place the “Grow and Give” system the Washington voters approved. On its merits, that system deserves a trial, and we should watch the results closely

Jamaican government proposes non-commercial legalization of ganja

Mark Golding is the Jamaican Minister of Justice. Below the fold is the text of a press release from his office about legislation that would decriminalize of cannabis possession and legalize its production and sale for medical use and for use in Rastafarian religious observance.

In addition, the fine print:

Permits the cultivation of five or less ganja plants on any premises, which will be regarded as being for medical or therapeutic use of the leaves or for horticultural purposes

In other words, the proposal is for complete but noncommercial legalization.

Key sentence:

The system of complete legal prohibition of ganja in Jamaica has been in place since 1948, has not worked and is no longer considered fit for purpose.

Note the cross-national difference in terminology: to “table” a bill means to offer it, not to defer its consideration. Also note that under a parliamentary system, a Cabinet bill is likely to become law without much modification.
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Legal cannabis in Vermont? RAND lays out the options

Last year, the Vermont legislature asked the Vermont governor for a report on the options for legalizing cannabis. The governor’s office hired RAND to do the research. That report is now public. (I’m listed as the third author for alphabetical reasons, though I doubt I did as much as 2% of the enormous amount of work that went into it.)

The Vermont process holds out great promise, because the normal legislative process – ugly as it can be – has the possibility of producing a result much more nuanced and more carefully considered from multiple viewpoints than the initiative process, under which propositions are drawn up by advocates with the advice of pollsters, no one ever holds a hearing, and any idea that can’t be explained in a 30-second TV spot has to be dropped. The key point of the RAND report is that there are legalization options other than full commercialization.  Niraj Chokshi of the Washington Post “GovBeat” blog provides an excellent summary. 

The key design question – this is my view rather than the one expressed in the report, which is scrupulously neutral – is how to make cannabis legally available for use by adults and wipe out the illicit market while at the same time minimizing the growth in use by minors and in the number of people with diagnosable cannabis use disorders (currently about 4 million people nationwide, about 10% of past-year users, 20% of past-month users). There are many ways to skin that cat, but I doubt that commercialization is the best approach.

But however you come out in the end, the major contribution of the report is to break through the simple prohibit/legalize dichotomy and display the wide range of options we have to choose from.  

Hurrah for Eric Holder!

Eric Holder, on his way out the door, seems to be letting his inner criminal-justice reformer run wild. (Which, of course, he wouldn’t be doing without the OK of his boss, Barack Obama.) Latest target: forfeiture abuse.

The move bans a trick called “adoptive forfeiture.” Here’s how that trick works:

Many states require that forfeited funds be deposited in the state’s general fund, rather than going directly to the law enforcement budget. That’s a sensible provision, avoiding what would otherwise be an obvious conflict of interest. The federal government has the same rule.

BUT (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) the federal law allows federal agencies that process a forfeiture to share the proceeds with local law enforcement agencies that contributed to the case. That avoids the state-law process which would otherwise send the money to the general fund. The “share” can be up to 90%, at the discretion of the federal agency.

So when a local agency seizes an asset, instead of handling the forfeiture through the state courts, it goes to the DEA or some other federal outfit, which “adopts” the forfeiture, takes it through federal court, and gives 90% of the take back to the locals. That, of course, creates precisely the conflict of interest the general-fund laws were designed to avoid: cops wind up paying their own salaries by taking cash and other assets from people, who in many cases are never charged with any crime and in some cases are entirely innocent. Unlike a criminal defendant, the victim of a forfeiture has very few procedural rights: no presumption of innocence – in effect, he has to sue to get the money back, and carries the burden of proof -no right to a speedy trial, and no right to publicly paid counsel.

The order excludes federal-state-local task forces, but – if I read it correctly – does include the multi-jurisdictional local task forces where much of the worst mischief has been done; some of those agencies are entirely dependent on forfeiture funds (plus Byrne Grant money) and thus under no control whatever from civilian authorities.

There’s more to be done to rein in the forfeiture system, but this is a terrific start.

Medical Marijuana Use is a Marker for Serious Problems in Pain Patients

A top Australian addiction research team has conducted what I believe is the first study of how pain patients on opioid medication use medical marijuana. One finding that will surprise some people is that the subset of pain patients who use medical marijuana have far worse problems in every domain than those who use opioids alone. Details are available in my latest post at Stanford University School of Medicine’s SCOPE blog.

“The Marlboro of marijuana”

Founders Fund, a big venture-capital firm, has announced a substantial investment in Privateer Holdings, the parent of Leafly, Marley Natural, and other quasi-legal cannabis businesses.

In return for being allowed to break the news, CBS News gave the story fairly reverent treatment. (I was interviewed, and the story quoted my skepticism that there was big money to be made selling cannabis, but not my concerns about whether the commercial legalization of cannabis is the best available policy.)

The story gently noted that all of this activity remains illegal under federal law, but not as if that actually mattered; none of the “job creators” being interviewed was asked whether he had any moral qualms about complicity in lawbreaking or about encouraging the growth of problem cannabis use. The ambition of Marley Natural to become “the Marlboro of marijuana” was reported as if there had never been anything morally problematic about Marlboro. The Privateer guy was allowed to say, unchallenged, “One of our fundamental beliefs is anyone who wants to consume cannabis is already consuming it.”

Of course he has the right to believe that, or to pretend to believe it, just as coal-company executives have the right to pretend not to believe in global warming and just as cigarette-company executives in the 1950s and 1960s had the right to pretend to believe that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. But that belief, or pretended belief, is obviously false, simply because some people, for ethical or practical reasons, prefer not to break the law.

And the implication that viewers were intended to draw from that claim – that legalization won’t increase the prevalence of substance use disorders involving cannabis – doesn’t pass the giggle test; pricing, marketing, product innovation, and ease of access will all contribute to what is already a worsening problem. (The number of daily or near-daily cannabis users has grown sevenfold since 1992, and about half of those heavy users self-reports symptoms that would justify a diagnosis of SUD.)

As cannabis legalization moves forward – and I don’t see anything likely to stop it – journalists are going to have to learn to deal with industry spin. But the best guess is that they will remain, as the usually are, willing to pay for access with favorable coverage.

The medical value of cannabis and the fraud of “medical marijuana”

Of course cannabis has medical value; the FDA has approved pure THC as a pharmaceutical, and the cannabidiol in whole cannabis has its own therapeutic applications and also protects against some side effects of THC. So denying that natural cannabis has medical value is nonsensical.

But equally of course, the variation in natural cannabis means that “marijuana” isn’t the name of a medicine; a medicine is a material of known chemical composition that has been shown in clinical trials to be safe and effective in the management of some condition in some group of patients.

Some sick people get relief from whole cannabis, but “medical marijuana” is a political fraud, and the “medical marijuana” business is mostly a sham, with most of the volume going to non-medical users – many of them with diagnosable cannabis use disorder – and resellers.

Footnote In a Twitter exchange, MPP lobbyist Dan Riffle doesn’t deny the facts, but seems to prefer that I use some euphemism for “fraud.”

Will synthetic drugs change drug markets?

Synthetic drugs are becoming more common in markets previously composed entirely of drugs that originate from plants (e.g., heroin, cocaine, marijuana). In Estonia, the powerful opioid fentanyl is now more widely used than heroin. In the U.S., synthetic cannabinoids have become more widely used by adolescents, and as everyone knows, we also have an epidemic of addiction to prescription opioids.

It’s an intriguing exercise to speculate what the world of drugs and drug policy would be like if synthetic drugs end up supplanting the old agriculturally-derived standbys. There would be no programs of crop eradiction and international interdiction. Law enforcement efforts might be entirely domestically focused. This might be a more just world of drugs in that the costs of drugs and drug control would fall at home rather than being exported overseas (Although on Twitter, policy maven Alejandro Hope pointed out that synthetic drugs could still be traded internationally, just as meth currently is between Mexico and the United States).

I mull these possibilities over at Washington Post’s Wonkblog. The piece is more speculative than what I usually write, so I could very easily be wrong about the future of synthetic drugs. At the same time very few industries don’t go through dramatic changes now and then, and the shape of current drug markets has been fairly stable for an awfully long time.

Providing Drug Treatment Under Threat of a Felony Charge

untitled Proposition 47, which California voters passed by a large margin last month, converts simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Opponents of the law maintain that the threat of a felony and the prison time that goes with it are necessary to pressure drug offenders into addiction treatment. This argument makes four assumptions, all of which I find questionable.

(1) Everyone who gets charged with drug possession needs addiction treatment. Epidemiologic data shows that the number of people who use drugs is substantially larger than the number of people who meet medical criteria for a substance use disorder. This means that the population of people who could be charged with simple drug possession includes many people who don’t have a disorder that an addiction treatment professional like me could treat.

Let me give you a concrete, real-world example: A noise complaint about a party results in a police officer discovering a group of freshman college students crushing and mixing Vicodin tablets into their beers. The tablets were purchased on line without a prescription and at the time of arrest half of dozen people in the room have them in their possession illegally and could therefore be charged. One of these young people has been a heavy drug user for years but of the others, a couple have only experimented with drugs a few times, a couple others are using drugs for the first time, and one has never used drugs at all, not even at the party that night: He is just holding one of the bottles as his friends use.

If you threaten all these people with a felony charge unless they enroll in drug addiction treatment, it could help the one with the established drug problem, but what about the others? They face a choice between a possible prison term or receiving treatment they don’t need. They will likely choose to take the unnecessary treatment, thereby wasting taxpayer dollars and taking a treatment slot away from someone who needs it.

(2) People who have drug problems and refuse treatment deserve prison sentences. Let’s say someone truly is addicted and the court gives them a choice between 30 months in prison or treatment. They might opt for treatment. But what if they say no? Is it fair to punish refusal to seek addiction treatment at the same level of severity that we might punish attempted rape? And is it worth over $100,000 to taxpayers to punish someone for refusing treatment?

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Alcohol, “rape culture,” taxation, and libertarianism

Robby Soave of Reason’s Hit & Run pokes fun at some feminists so fixated on the gender dynamics underlying physical and sexual violence against women that they want to deny the role of alcohol. Fair comment, I suppose, though it seems to me that Soave’s colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown offers a more sensible interpretation of the “rape culture” idea.  (The tendency to give other people’s words trivial and vicious interpretations rather than looking for sensible interpretations of them must rank very high on the blogosphere’s list of besetting sins.)

And of course there’s no reason why acquaintance rape, like other phenomena, shouldn’t have more than one cause. In a culture whose ideas about masculinity involved less sexual score-keeping and less tolerance for violence, alcohol use might be associated with less rape; at the same time, in the culture we actually have (which feminists, with little enough help from the Robby Soaves of the world, are trying to change) less use of alcohol (both by those who become perpetrators and by those who become victims) would probably also lead to less rape. There’s no contradiction there, just the acceptance of a multi-causal world. Nor does pointing to the role of alcohol diminish the culpability of the rapist; the rape may well have been done under the influence, but the decision to get drunk (and, frequently, to encourage the intended seducee/victim to become drunk) was made by a sober man, or – often enough – a sober adolescent trying to pretend he’s a man.

That said, I’m grateful to Soave for pointing out the role of alcohol, and to the editors of Hit & Run for publishing the piece. Now that we’ve agreed that alcohol is a key factor in rape, as it is in homicide and motor vehicle fatality, the question is what to do about it. The obvious answer, if one believes in markets, is to raise the price of alcohol by taxation.

But of course the official libertarian line is that taxing alcohol would be unfair to those drinkers who aren’t drunken rapists or drunken brawlers or drunken drivers.  Any unfairness to rape victims from low alcohol taxes is simply the price of a free society. (Oh, and alcohol taxation is also “regressive,” which you must admit is a weighty argument from people who hate progressive taxation.)

Where does that leave us? Why, with vacuous prescriptions about “fostering”  ”a teen culture of responsible alcohol consumption,” for example by “lowering the drinking age.”

But of course that’s all moonshine, with the marketing and political muscle of the booze industries solidly lined up against anything that might foster moderation in alcohol use, even if we knew how to do so. And of course limiting the commercial and political “free speech” of the people who make their money selling products that kill 90,000 people a year and send hundreds of thousands to emergency rooms, rape crisis centers, and prison cells would be unthinkable.

So what’s a libertarian to do? Why, make fun of feminists! That’s always safe.