Pharma Lobbying Ensures Meth Lab Explosions

Dan Morse of Washington Post has covered the strangest meth lab explosion case of which I have ever heard, which took place when a police officer named Christopher Bartley tried to make meth in the federal research facility which he was assigned to guard:

According to facts in the case, as laid out in court, Bartley, who had been a lieutenant with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s internal police force, was on duty the night of July 18 when he slipped into a building on the edge of NIST’s 578-acre campus. He tried to make meth. It exploded, blowing out four windows at the lab — one traveled 22 feet; another, 33 feet.

It is fortunate no one was killed in the explosion. Bartley himself was burned as the temperature in the room rose to 180 degrees, but thankfully survived his injuries.

Meth lab explosions happen with regularity in many states, often with far worse results, including buildings burning to the ground, lasting environmental damage from caustic chemicals, and children and adults being killed or permanently scarred by fires.

The only reason the problem persists is that the manufacturers of pseudoephedrine-containing cold medications used in meth-making continue to flood state legislatures with lobbying money. The states that have resisted the political pressure and put products like Sudafed on prescription-only status have essentially eliminated meth lab explosions.

Meth lab explosions can be eliminated without any need to inconvenience people who want to take pseudoephedrine-containing products for congestion. Cold medicines resistant to pseudoephedrine extraction by meth cooks are available and could be exempted from any prescription requirements. But the pharma companies that profit handsomely from their meth-cooking customers will have none of it, and thus far our political system has rarely been able to resist their power.

Addiction as tragedy

Keith wrote, of deaths caused by drunk driving:

But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage.

Dead right on the outrage. But did the Greeks really see tragedy this way?

maskSFIK the Ancient Greeks did not use the remarkable and unique art form they had developed, the “goat-songs” that they performed in competitive religious festivals, as a metaphor for life. It was the reverse: life and myth gave them stories to be recapitulated and reshaped in the performance of tragedies, and these in turn gave them insights into the human condition. Alexander modelled himself on Homer’s Achilles, but he was an outlier in everything.

The goat-songs and epic recitations came first, the theorising later. Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: Traffik

homebg-traffik_0

I once saluted the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy mini-series as the summit of BBC programming. This week’s film recommendation is in the same league: 1989′s Traffik. Most Americans remember Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning adaptation of this series, but far too few have seen the British original, which at just over 5 hours allows much more character and plot development than could Soderbergh’s fine movie.

Simon Moore’s masterful script anchors what could have been a sprawling, confusing series in the lives of a small number of characters: A UK Home Office drugs minister (Bill Paterson) whose daughter is a heroin addict (Julia Ormond), a dogged German cop (Fritz Müller-Scherz) who relentlessly pursues an ice queen (Lindsay Duncan) who steps into the drug trafficking business when her husband (George Kukura) is indicted, and a desperate Pakistani poppy farmer (Jamal Shah) who finds work with a ruthless drug lord (Talat Hussain). As events buffet the protagonists and their respective story arcs cross, Moore’s narrative skills and Alastair Reid’s deft direction ensure that the viewer is irresistibly drawn in emotionally and able to track the complexities of the plot.

The performances by the actors range from good to amazing. Though it is hard to choose some to single out for praise, Müller-Scherz completely inhabits his role as a working class police detective who seems to hate traffickers as much for their wealth as their drugs. Paterson is marvelous in a tragic role, playing a rigid man who desperately wants to do good at home and at work yet almost always fails in both domains. Lindsay Duncan is also impressive, beginning the film as a woman accustomed to wealth and knowing yet not wanting to know where the money comes from. After her husband’s arrest, Duncan makes credible her character’s transformation into someone even more cold-hearted than he, revealing the greed and entitlement that was lurking in her all along. Her character, along with Talat Hussain’s Pakistani drug lord, are used by the film to portray the drug trade much as socialists tend to see all of capitalist enterprise: A system with a few rich sociopaths on the top and countless marginal people (whether in the drug trade or addicted to its products) scraping by and suffering at the bottom.

The cinematic team behind Traffik took a somewhat subjective approach in their portrayal of drug production and daily life in Pakistan. Home Office minister Jack Lithgow (Paterson), improbably, roams around Pakistan unstaffed, not unlike Macbeth lost in the haunted forest. His encounters with the locals are more emblematic than realistic, including his somehow running into Fazal, the farmer who will be a hub of the story that unfolds. Coupled with dreamlike, sun dappled shots of the countryside by cinematographer Clive Tickner, the whole effect of the Pakistan sequences is akin to watching a surrealist play. Yet it works because Lithgow is on a mission of unreality, trying to stop drug production with a feeble crop substitution program and more generally trying to control a culture that he can barely even understand.

traffik_625x352

In contrast, the scenes set in Europe are more gritty and realistic, particularly Ormond’s descent into addiction. The skies are darker, the shadows longer and the cinematic look grimier. And over both the European and Pakistani scenes hangs Tim Souster’s music, a quasi-mystical threnody that accentuates the emotional anguish that the film creates. You won’t get his score out of your head quickly and you will not want to.

Traffik is a powerful, mournful film that doesn’t speechify or offer easy answers about drugs. Both artistically and as an education about its subject, it’s a triumph from start to finish.

Legalized Pot in California: No Gold Rush, No Cash Cow

There’s no way I will associate myself as a parent first, and as a public servant second, with something that is loosely drafted, that is looking to capitalize on the next California Gold Rush.
Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom

Our Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy released our final report today (link here). The report is not an argument for or against legalization but a discussion of what the policy consideration should be if in fact California’s voters choose to legalize recreational marijuana. Gavin’s quote hits one of the key themes of the report, which is that protection of public health is more important than money generation (whether that money is corporate profits or state tax revenues). In America, public health only has a shot against big money if regulations are strong and the oversight process allows public input rather than being a cat’s paw of industry (As Oregon unfortunately has and Ohio might also adopt).

Relatedly, we advocate ongoing policy flexibility rather than a ballot initiative that sets everything in stone up front. The experience of other legalizing states shows that some anticipated problems don’t in fact occur whereas other things go unexpectedly pear-shaped. Because none of us can see the future with complete accuracy, any marijuana regulatory process will have to be dynamic and evolutionary in response.

Is Pot Cultivation Starving Us of Water?

Christopher Ingraham has a fascinating piece in Washington Post on the water demands of marijuana cultivation. Drawing on a study in the journal Bioscience, Christopher notes that growing an acre of weed consumes more water than growing an acre of wine grapes and about as much water as an acre of (notoriously thirsty) almonds.

An environmental catastrophe in the making? I doubt it.

The amount of water required for an agricultural industry is a function of two variables: (1) The amount of water per unit of land (acre, square mile, whatever) and (2) The amount of units of land needed to meet market demand. The Bioscience paper places great emphasis on the first of these variables but in my view, gives short shrift to the second.

The latest USDA data show that 936,000 acres are devoted to growing almonds. In contrast, the marijuana consumption of the entire U.S. population could be cultivated using only 1% of that acreage. Because it takes so little land to grow a large amount of marijuana, weed can be as thirsty as almonds per unit of land but have only a bare fraction of the almond industry’s impact on the water supply.

Drug policy maven Jonathan Caulkins offered me a rough formula that makes this point concrete:

A heavy daily user of marijuana might consume one pound of marijuana a year, which is roughly equal to what a single outdoor plant can yield. Thus, in round terms, that is 1 plant per heavy daily user. So that is 5 months of growing season * 30 days per month * 22 liters per day * 0.26 gallons per liter = 858 gallons, or about 143 toilet flushes. So even a heavy user going to the bathroom only once a day over those 150 days will consume more water flushing the toilet than via the marijuana they consume.

This doesn’t mean of course that marijuana cultivation isn’t straining water supplies in drought-stricken regions of California (e.g. Humboldt County). It is. But from a national viewpoint, the demand that marijuana cultivation imposes on the water supply is rather trivial.

The U.S., Mexico, and Cheap Legalized Pot

Alejandro Hope makes the interesting observation that although the official marijuana legal regime is different between the U.S. and Mexico, growers in both countries operate in a grey zone between aggressive prohibition and full legalization. Growing is legal at the state level in much of the U.S. and illegal everywhere in Mexico, yet:

U.S. growers and distributors face a far greater risk of going to jail than their Mexican counterparts. In 2012, 92,000 persons were arrested in the United States on charges of marijuana production and/or sale. By way of contrast, in 2014, Mexican federal authorities opened 2109 investigations related to the production, transportation, trafficking, and commerce of all illegal drugs.

Alejandro also notes that the greater risk of arrest in the U.S., coupled with higher land and labor costs (and I would add, water costs) produces an eye-popping pot price differences:

farm gate prices for commercial grade marijuana in the mountains of northwestern Mexico can sell for as little as $6 dollars a pound. In Mendocino County, California, growers can get around $800 dollars per pound of high-grade sinsemilla weed.*

In both countries, pot is pretty cheap these days in absolute terms despite the added business costs that stem from some degree of illegality. If the U.S. legalizes completely, U.S. prices will fall dramatically. It is not fanciful at all to imagine that a joint could sell for a dime eventually, barring minimum unit pricing legislation or enormous excise taxes (ad valorem taxes don’t matter much, even a 50% tax would be inconsequential if pot were 10 cents a joint).

This raises an interesting question: If the U.S. legalizes, would Mexico follow suit and start a cheap, mass market marijuana industry that undercuts the prices of U.S. producers? If legal U.S producers can make a 10 cent joint, a legal Mexican producer should be able to make 5 or 1 cent joint. A common rejoinder to such speculation is that consumers will insist on high-grade, boutique U.S. marijuana from “branded” places like Mendocino County, much as they insist on craft beer rather than Budweiser. This argument will resonate with journalists, college professors, policy wonks and other educated middle class types who drink craft beer, but remember, after the best year in its history, craft beer has has reduced the share of the market taken up by mass market beer to a paltry….89%. When most people outside the chattering classes reach for beer, it’s cheap, mass market product. The same could easily happen with pot, and under legalization Mexican farmers could be extremely competitive in that market.

*Internet users skew upmarket, so I know some readers will think this estimate is way too cheap based on their own buying experiences in posh dispensaries. So let me confirm from recent conversations with Humboldt County sinsemilla farmers: they got about $800 per pound in the last growing cycle and are selling for a price in the same general range right now ($1100/pound, give or take).

The Uncertain Future of Cannabis Farming in Humboldt County

As part of my work on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy I spent an intriguing and enjoyable couple of days in Humboldt County with California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, Congressman Jared Huffman and State Assembly Member Jim Wood. We met with growers, toured a cannabis nursery and also held a public forum. This photo of the forum, taken from the back by journalist Grant Scott-Goforth, gives some sense of how well the event was attended. The room was crammed with over 200 people who stayed until the end (despite the room’s considerable heat) to articulate their concerns.

pot in garberville

The main anxiety small farmers in Humboldt expressed has a rational basis: A legal pot industry could very easily be dominated by big-time corporate producers that squeeze small farmers out of the business. In an unfettered free market (which some legalization activists favor), most of the small farmers in Humboldt would be out of work in no time.

But how legalization is implemented can influence whether big corporations become dominant. The planned Ohio marijuana initiative is an example of the kind of corporate giveaway that would destroy the Humboldt farmers overnight: Ten rich investors are campaigning for all legal marijuana to be grown by just ten rich people (you will never guess which ten…). In contrast, the Washington State system issues many growing licenses with a cap on the size of grows, which allows small farmers a fair shot at becoming part of the legal industry. What California does regarding legalization is in the hands of the initiative writers and the voters, but any initiative that doesn’t make room for small cannabis farmers will surely encounter heavy resistance in Humboldt County.

Portugal’s Misunderstood Drug Policy

Portugal’s drug policy has been the subject of intense debate in recent years. In 2001, the country passed a law decriminalizing possession of all drugs (i.e., not just cannabis). Although civil penalties for drug use remained, the possibility of incarceration was eliminated outright. Some claim that the policy turned the country into a drug-hidden hell hole whereas others argue that it produced a libertarian paradise on Earth. But a provocative new analysis suggests that no matter which side of that debate you were on, you were wrong, for a reason that might surprise you.

Hannah Laqueur, a rising young scholar at UC Berkeley, asks a novel question in her analysis of Portugal: Is there any evidence that the 2001 law actually was a radical move from criminalization to decriminalization of drug use? Looking at the 8 years of data prior to the law, she found that the average population of people in prison for simple drug possession was about 21. Not 21% of prisoners but 21 people in a nation of 10 million!. Prior to the elimination of prison sentences in 2001, drug possession convictions accounted for just 0.3% of Portugal’s prison population.

The 2001 law’s removal of incarceration as a penalty was thus simply a formalization of longstanding criminal justice policy. Looking at drug use indicators before and after 2001 and attributing any change to the “radical decriminalization” is thus wrong-headed because no such change occurred.

Kudos to Laqueur for applying an important general principle of public policy analysis: Always check whether the formal passage of a law actually preceded a change in practice. Sometimes that is true and sometimes it isn’t. The original analysis of Portugal’s drug policy, funded and heavily promoted by the libertarian Cato Institute, failed to undertake this essential analytic check. This illustrates another important public policy analysis rule: Be skeptical of any analysis conducted by someone with a king-sized ax to grind.

Medical Marijuana and the Ecological Fallacy

Some recent studies have shown that states with more medical marijuana availability have lower rates of opioid overdose and young male suicides. This was interpreted as meaning that people who use medical marijuana are at lower risk of overdose and less likely to take their own lives. If you think that constitutes good reasoning, you should also believe that smoking and being exposed to radon reduces your risk of cancer because in the aggregate, those variables are negatively correlated with cancer rates!

The recent medical marijuana studies have fallen into a seductive logical error called the ecological fallacy, which my colleagues and I explain in detail at a post at PLOS Mind the Brain. Once you understand the ecological fallacy, you will realize that many, many news stories about research make claims that just are not true (we give examples in our post).

Perhaps surprisingly, whether medical marijuana availability at the state level correlates with some other state-level indicator actually tells us nothing about how medical marijuana affects individuals. If a state-level correlation with some indicator is positive (e.g., states with more medical marijuana have higher rates of violence) the individual level relationship can still be negative (e.g., medical marijuana use makes people less violent).

Some medical marijuana activists have argued to me that it is inappropriate to point out that the studies in this area are methodologically flawed because doing so harms “the cause”. I don’t sympathize with such Lysenkoism. I believe scientists should seek and report the truth regardless of whether it concords with a political agenda (The scientist’s own or anyone else’s). If we give up on that regulating ideal of scientific inquiry, we can’t really complain when other people deny the evidence of oceanic acidification change or assert that the MMR vaccine causes autism.

The Hows of Marijuana Legalization

weed Americans have expended tremendous energy debating the why/why not question of marijuana legalization. In contrast, little attention has been given to the hows of marijuana legalization, e.g., would a legal industry be for-profit or non-profit? How and at what level would it be taxed? How would it be regulated? The hows matter enormously. Indeed, once they are spelled out, some people who think they are against marijuana legalization realize that they could support it, and some people who think they are for marijuana legalization realize that they don’t want it after all.

The California Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy was set up by the Northern California ACLU to dig into the hows of marijuana legalization. The Commission is not itself going to write a marijuana legalization ballot initiative nor is it going to oppose or endorse any that are written by others. Rather, we are a mix of a think tank and a public education enterprise, encouraging the public to consider carefully what marijuana legalization might look like if it were adopted in California. Everyone is welcome to attend the public events of the Commission as well as to send in their thoughts directly through our website.

My fellow commissioner Professor W. David Ball and I were recently on KQED Forum to discuss the Blue Ribbon Commission’s work. Listening to the broadcast will give you a flavor of the issues with which Californians will have to grapple as they consider the 2016 marijuana legalization ballot initiative(s).