Opting for ignorance:
    ADAM program killed

As the National Academy of Sciences pointed out a couple of years ago, one fundamental problem with our approach to drug abuse is that we don’t know nearly as much as we need to know about what’s going on. And Peter Reuter has put his finger on one of the causes of that ignorance: While the overwhelming bulk of the activity in drug abuse control consists of law enforcement, almost all of the reasearch money comes from the health side.

The two big national surveys on drug abuse — what used to be called the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) and is now called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which I suppose must be the NS-Duh, and the Monitoring the Future survey of high-school students — between them cost more than $100 million per year. They give us an excellent picture of casual, non-problem drug use and virtually no usuable data about the actual drug problem.

The Household Survey, for example, can be used to estimate the quantity of cocaine consumed each year, and the answer comes back somewhere between 25 and 30 metric tons. The actual quantity is about 270 tons. So the Household Survey misses about 90% of the action. (It also finds, absurdly, that there are fewer than half a million more-than-weekly cocaine users, and that fewer than 10% of them have ever been arrested.)

That’s no surprise, once you think about it. We know that 80% of the quantity consumed is used by 20% of the users. And those heavy users are disproportionately drawn from the non-household population (homeless or institutionalized) or from the 20% of the people on the Household Survey target list who either can’t be found or refuse to answer.

So where can we find the heavy users? Why, in the jails, of course. About 75% of heavy cocaine users get arrested in the course of any given year, either for drug possession or (even more frequently) for crimes committed in order to get money to buy cocaine: theft, dealing, and prostitution. The number of arrestee heavy users is about three times the number of non-arrestee heavy users.

We know that due to a data collection program once called Drug Use Forecasting (DUF) and now called Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM). The National Institute of Justice calls ADAM the centerpiece of its drugs and crime research program. It costs a few percent of what the two big data-collection programs cost, which makes it by two orders of magnitude the most cost-effective data collection program in the entire world of drug abuse.

But that money comes out of the tiny budget of the National Institute of Justice rather than the huge budget of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and NIJ’s budget is being squeezed.

So today, the day after the President’s State of the Union Address proposed spending $23 million a year on drug-testing programs in schools (an approach which has never been demonstrated to have any useful effect) the National Institute of Justice issued a stop-work order shutting down the ADAM program.

This step was taken without any consultation with any of the non-government experts on drug abuse, or I would surely have heard about it before Fox Butterfield of the New York Times called today to tell me that the announcement was on the NIJ website and ask me what I thought about it.

I suppose if you’re running an administration where facts are never allowed to interefere with decisions, it’s not necessary to gather any actual data.

Update A reader tells me that there is a backstory here. Apparently the ADAM contract was recently rebid and taken by firm that grossly lowballed its bid to undercut the incumbent, and then tried to push its price back up after the award. (There are several tricks an unscrupulous contractor can use, all of which more or less boil down to pretending that the activities promised in the bid were less than what actually needs to be done, and insisting that the agency issue “change orders” — triggering additional payments — to get to a reasonable performance level. “Oh, you didn’t want your reports printed on toilet paper? That will be extra, then.”

Apparently, the NIJ brass decided to strike back by cancelling the contract entirely.

This does indeed make the story more comprensible, but it doesn’t change the basic fact that it’s inexcusable. Apparently the decision was made over the protest of the drug czar’s office, which gives you some idea how weak that operation now is.

Second update Wrong! Everything in the update above is nonsense. Not sure what the crossed wire was with my source, but NORC, which has an impeccable record of competence and integrity, has had the big ADAM contract for several years now. So whether what I heard was NIJ spin or Abt spin (Abt having beeen the previous contractor) or merely random hot air, it certainly wasn’t the case.

Sorry to be the source of disinformation. I wish I could say “Won’t happen again,” but of course it will. All I can say is that the next time it happens I’ll let you know as soon as I do.

Update here

The Dallas police fake-drug scandal

If I hadn’t lent my car to someone who switch from the CD player to the radio and left it tuned to NPR, I probably never would have heard about the Dallas police fake-drug scandal. Googling it, I find no mention in any of the national media, except for one column by Ruben Navarrette carried by the WaPo syndicate.

As I piece it together, it’s pretty hair-raising.

Dallas police paid their drug informants based on the quantity of drugs seized. So some informants decided to manufacture cases by planting fake “cocaine” — variously described as the powder used to chalk billiard cues and as ground-up gypsum wallboard — on about 80 Mexican immigrants.

The police did “field tests,” all of which mysteriously registered positive for cocaine, and testified to having witnessed transactions that never happened. (After a long investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted only one cop, and he was acquitted after what seems to have been a fairly badly bungled prosecution.)

The defendants, charged with possession of massive amounts of cocaine, were held on high bail, and since they weren’t in fact drug dealers they sat in jail awaiting trial. The public defender’s office refused to pay for independent lab testing, and several of the defendants pleaded guilty to avoid 10- and 20- year mandatory sentences.

Eventually the truth came to light. One source credits that result to a new law passed after the Tulia scandal; NPR says it was because some of the defendants’ families paid for private lawyers, who arranged for their own chemical analysis. Eventually, the DA somewhat grudgingly dismissed all the cases. I can find no mention of compensation being paid to any of the victims. Of course, the defendants who were here illegally and have been deported aren’t around to sue.

So what do we learn from this?

1. Almost all defendants are guilty. But there’s a big difference between “almost all” and “all.”

2. Paying informants is always dangerous. Informants lie. So competent investigation and prosecution requires double-checking what they say.

3. Enforcement against transactional crimes is always a tricky business. As long as we have drug laws, we’re going to have problems like this one. I think we need those laws, but that means that we need to be vigilant about the problems.

4. No police officer ever got a promotion for showing that someone was innocent.

5. Forsensic laboratory work is the stepchild of law enforcement. That needs to be fixed.

6. In most of the country, public defenders are underfunded. In some parts of the country, and especially in the South, they are not only grossly underfunded but under substantial political pressure not to slow down the wheels of “justice.” At some point, the federal courts are going to have to step in and enforce the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Justice shouldn’t be for sale.

7. Juries don’t mind convicting cops for stealing, but they really don’t like convicting them for lying in the course of their duties.

8. Every state ought to have a small but well-paid staff of lawyers and investigators, with the same powers as ordinary police and prosecutors, whose job is exonerating the innocent and punishing those whose false testimony led to their incarceration. The penalty for falsely implicating someone in a crime should be the same as the penalty for the underlying offense.

9. What liberal media?

Update: Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer has more on the scandal and the new investigation. He doesn’t like what he sees.

On one point I have to differ with Schutze: If I were a cop who had faked evidence, the last guy I’d want on my case would be an ex-FBI agent. I have lots of bones to pick with the Bureau, but the people there are pretty much straight arrows, and by and large they take a very dim view of people who cut corners. They also think they’re a superior breed of human being to the ordinary cop, which is a problem when they have to work with the locals but means that they don’t really identify wit the potential defendants in this case.

Remember, this wasn’t about faking evidence against guilty people, or even people the cops thought in good faith were guilty (which happens more than you’d like to think, and which many people in law enforcement don’t really disapprove of): this was framing people to get the numbers up, and maybe for a share of the bounty money. The cops involved in this were dirty, dirty, dirty, and the average ex-Feeb will get as much satisfaction from sending them for long spells as he would from doing the same to routine bad guys. Maybe more.

MDMA neurotoxicity:
   “An ouchie for George”

Today’s New York Times has a devastating article on the research methods of George Ricaurte, whose studies purporting to show the neurotoxic effects of MDMA (“ecstasy”) were used to support the original prohibition of the drug and have since been used to support stiffer penalties, ancillary laws such as the RAVE Act, and suppression of human research into the drug’s potential benefits. (Full text, and a long list of errors in the story, under “keep reading.”)

As one physician commented on a listserv that follows this class of issues, the story is “what we in the pediatrics world call an ouchie for George.” And Ricaurte has another ouchie coming fairly soon, in the form of a Peter Jennings special that keeps getting delayed as the producers add more and more detail about his problems.

The new director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has funded Ricaurte’s studies to the tune of $10 million over the past two decades, was clearly aware of problems with his work before the latest article, and before Ricaurte’s retractions of two of his papers, including one in Science.

But Hopkins, where the work was done, is apparently still in denial, or at least is trying to sound that way. Given the sensitivity there to human-subjects issues — a couple of years ago, the feds came close to shutting down medical research at the whole institution after the death of a healthy volunteer in an asthma study drew attention to various technical deficiencies in the Hopkins process for reviewing experimental protocols — I’d expect the dean of the medical school to be asking some very serious questions right now.

What doesn’t seem likely to happen, but should, is a review of all the legislative and regulatory decisons made, here and abroad, on the basis of what we now know to be terribly flawed studies.

We didn’t need Ricaurte’s brain imaging to tell us that MDMA does something lasting to the brains of the people who use it repeatedly: the drug’s atypical pattern of quasi-tolerance is strong enough evidence of that. (For many if not most users, the valued effects of the drug, other than its pure stimulant powers, diminish fairly rapidly, in a non-dose-reversible, non-time-reversible fashion, with cumulative lifetime dosage.)

However, open questions remain about how extensive and how damaging those changes are, and what if any steps users could take to prevent or limit them. But the exaggerated claims about MDMA’s neurotoxic effects made it virtually impossible to do the studies that might have demonstrated the efficacy of various precautions. Despite the laws, Americans currently consume tens of millions (perhaps hundreds of millions) of MDMA doses per year. It’s probable that various relatively simple steps could significantly reduce the resulting brain changes, but that possibility has never been the sort of dedicated research effort that has gone into “proving” how dangerous the drug is.

Moreover, the proposed therapeutic applications of MDMA would involve administering it on a very small number of occasions — in some cases, only once. The probability that a single MDMA dose of known purity and quantity administered under clinical conditions could do significant harm seems extremely remote. But here again, the neurotoxicity scare has prevented the relevant studies from being carried out.

With any luck, the latest scandal could lead to a more sensible set of approaches. But as Bill Bennett would no doubt say, don’t bet on it.

Full text of NYT story, with errata list

[Previous posts Sept. 9 and September 25.]

Drug free school zones

After a long hiatus that was almost entirely my fault, the Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin is back in operation, due almost entirely to the efforts of our new managing editor, Douglas Ross.

The latest issue features a study by Will Brownsberger and Susan Aromaa of Join Together, which shows how the Massachusetts “drug-free school zone” law has turned into a general sentence-enhancement law with roughly no relationship whatever to the problem of drug dealing in or around schools. (In older cities and towns in Massachusetts, virtually any location is within the statutory distance of one school or another.)

The next issue, with John Walsh’s analysis of the smoke and mirrors behind the national drug budget, should be out in January.

Why make “structuring” a crime?

Jane Galt thinks (1) that the drug laws are a bad ided and that (2) the money laundering laws are an even worse idea, and show how much too far the drug war has gone.

Neither of those propositions is transparently false. The money laundering laws certainly demonstrate the Hayekian point Jane makes: the more ambitious a law is, in terms of changing behavior, the more additional laws it will need for its support.

But I don’t think it’s quite right to say, as Jane does, that the conduct forbidden by the money-laundering laws, when it comes to money withdrawn from banks by users of illicit drugs to give to sellers of illicit drugs, is absurdly remote from any actual social harm. One of the better arguments against the drug laws is the illicit enterprises they help create. The laws about reporting currency transactions are designed to impede the functioning of those enterprises.

(Note: While Jane is right that it would technically be a crime to “structure” transactions to avoid currency reporting even if the purpose of the transactions were entirely licit, the reports themselves are not matters of public record. Therefore there’s no actual reason for someone to conceal the cash he spends on his yacht or stamp collection from the IRS, unless he’s doing so to conceal the fact that either he, or the recipient of the funds, evaded or intends to evade taxation.)

Just about the only damage Rush Limbaugh’s drug use did to anyone but Rush Limbaugh and his intimates was the financial support it gave to the illicit drug trade. So his efforts to conceal the money involved were actually more proximate to social harm than his actual possession and consumption of boatloads of synthetic narcotics.

Cash creates the capacity for undocumentable transactions. That is highly convenient not only for drug dealers but for tax evaders, bribe-payers and bribe-takers, and anyone else whose sources of income are illicit.

Making it harder to acquire and spend cash is a reasonable approach to dealing with large-scale transactional crime. Whether the risk to liberty created by the resulting increase in state power is not, justified is a reasonable topic for debate. But I don’t think it’s as silly as Jane makes it out to be.

Bad news for Rush Limbaugh

It’s often hard to tell whether Rush Limbaugh is just deceiving his audience or whether he’s also deceiving himself. But his on-the-air defense against the money-laundering changes he may face simply missed the point, in legal terms. Even if the Florida authorities decide to give him a break, he could be in very big trouble — about three years’ in prison worth of trouble — if the Feds decide to go after him.

The accusation is that when Limbaugh was sending his housekeeper out to buy narcotics for him — and apparently threatening her once when she thought about not supplying him — he withdrew money from his bank in amounts just under $10,000, in order to avoid having to fill out the Currency Transaction Reports (CTRs) that would otherwise be required.

Limbaugh doesn’t seem to deny that. But he told his listeners, “I was not laundering money. I was withdrawing money for crying out loud.”

The bad news for Limbaugh is that, by law, “structuring” transations to avoid the CTR rules for money used in a drug deal constitutes the crime of money laundering.

Here’s the statutory language (18 U.S.C. Sec 1956):

Whoever, with the intent –

(A) to promote the carrying on of specified unlawful activity;

(B) to conceal or disguise the nature, location, source, ownership, or control of property believed to be the proceeds of specified unlawful activity; or

(C) to avoid a transaction reporting requirement under State or Federal law,

conducts or attempts to conduct a financial transaction involving property represented to be the proceeds of specified unlawful activity, or property used to conduct or facilitate specified unlawful activity, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both.

For purposes of this paragraph and paragraph (2), the term ”represented” means any representation made by a law enforcement officer or by another person at the direction of, or with the approval of, a Federal official authorized to investigate or prosecute violations of this section.

That’s it. If Rushbo, in order to avoid a transactions reporting requirement, “structured” transactions to stay under the $10,000 trigger with money to be used for a drug buy (“property used to conduct or facilitate specified unlawful activity”), he’s toast.

Not being a specialist, I’m not sure what actual sentence he would likely face. The relevant guideline seems to be 2S1.3 If I read it correctly, “structuring” has a base offense level of 6, plus another two for doing so to facilitate an illicit transaction, plus a number determined by the amount of cash: 6 if the sum is more than $30,000, 8 if more than $70,000, 10 if more than $120,000, 12 if more than $200,000. That yields a total of between 14 and 20, and thus guideline ranges starting at 15 months and ranging up to 41 months.

I have heard from DEA sources that the new Administrator is really on a tear about money laundering and that there’s some interest in making Limbaugh the poster boy. If DEA sticks by that plan, there’s not much anyone else can do about it. The old “Thornburgh memo,” weakened under Reno but now back in full force under Ashcroft, requires federal prosecutors to charge the most servere offense they’re sure they can prove. (And proving this one is child’s play.)

So if DEA wants Limbaugh’s head for a trophy, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida — presumably Jeb’s choice, since Florida has two Democrats in the Senate — couldn’t decide to give him a break.

None of this is nearly as bad as what he’d face as a “drug trafficker” (defined by the quantity he possessed, not by any intent to sell) under Florida law, but it’s plenty bad enough.

While I’m on the subject, two other Limbaugh-related notes:

(1) William Bennett, who used to be so enthusiastic about sending middle-class drug users to jail because they serve as such a bad example to everyone else, seems to have decided to make an exception in Limbaugh’s case. If Bennett had any integrity, he’d be asking why the nation’s radio broadcasters are willing to give someone who undeniably has committed felony violations of and state and federal laws a national audience every day. But then if my grandmother had had beizim, she would have been my grandfather.

(2) Rush’s PR folks seem to have persuaded the newspapers to refer to his oxycodone and hydrocodone habit as “prescription drug abuse,” as if he had simply been dealing with overgenerous doctors. The drugs he was abusing are indeed available by prescription, but he wasn’t getting them prescribed. He was buying them on the illicit market.

The sad story of Limbaugh’s drug addiction wouldn’t be a total loss if it helped his fans and political allies rethink their position toward drug addicts in general. Noticing that they aren’t actually willing to apply the principles of tough love and zero tolerance to someone they care about, they might start to wonder whether those principles are really the ones we ought to be applying to drug addicts who aren’t famous or rich or well-connected. Instead, they’ve just gone into denial about the fact that Limbaugh’s case strongly resembles the case of other drug abusers.

Too bad.

New wisdom (?) from Washington

Some Native American peoples traditionally used hallucinogens, notably the mescaline-bearing peyote cactus, for ritual purposes. Staring in the 1880s, a specific version of ritual peyote use has spread widely among Native Americans, including many from tribes without hallucinogen traditions of their own. While peyote use long predates the introduction of Christianity to the New World, today’s peyote rituals are essentially Christian. The Native American Church (not a single organization, but a collection of local bodies with somewhat different practices) now claims 250,000 members. After a long political and legal struggle, federal regulations were changed to exempt Native American ritual peyote use from the drug laws in 1965; the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 codified that exepmtion and made it binding on the states.

In recent years, freedom of exercise for the peyote religion has been largely uncontroversial. Even drug war hawks supported AIRFAA, and the Drug Enforcement Administration offered no opposition and has stressed its good working relationships with the NAC. The House Committee report on AIRFAA bill asserts what has become the conventional wisdom on the topic:

Medical evidence, based on scientific studies and. opinions of scientific and other experts, including medical doctors, former directors of the Indian Health Service and Enthropologists, clearly demonstrates peyote is not injurious to the Indian religious user, and, in fact, is often helpful in controlling alcoholism and alcohol abuse among Indian people.

In that context, the last two paragraphs of this otherwise unremarkable Philadelphia Inqurer article about peyote use among the Huichol of Mexico are rather chilling. After citing a scientist who is studying ritual peyote users and finding no health damage, the story continues:

Others, such as David Murray of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, see more serious risk. Working among the Navajo, he said, he found long-term peyote use was “counterproductive to education and social mobility.”

Because the peyote comes from a natural plant, he said, “you’re taking in a powerful chemical stew,” with some toxins in addition to the psychoactive ingredient. “It is, without question, a risky undertaking.”

It seems unlikely that Murray, a close adviser to John Walters, would talk that way for publication without clearing it. Is this a trial balloon for a policy change? If Murray, an anthropologist, has any research to back up his claims, we’d all like to see it.

Prison time for drug users?

I don’t really want to see Rush Limbaugh spend the next twenty-five years of his life in prison, which is what would happen if the laws of the State of Florida were enforced. But I really do want to see the politicians and pundits who support both Limbaugh and the drug war explain why that particular law shouldn’t be enforced in this case, and why it shouldn’t be repealed.

And I’d also like to hear their defense, if they have one, for sending a woman to prison for thirteen years after convicting her of murder when it turned out that her stillborn child had traces of cocaine in its bloodstream. Of course, it’s obvious that homeless people with borderline mental retardation ought to be held strictly accountable for their actions, unlike multimillionaires with logorrhea and strong political connetions.

Oh, and speaking of “junk science”: there is precisely no medical evidence that maternal cocaine use can cause stillbirth. That is not the case for alcohol, which turns out to be the actual cause of most of the damage once attributed to prenatal cocaine exposure: women who use cocaine are likely to drink heavily.

In case you hadn’t noticed — the liberal media didn’t bother to cover it much — the Supreme Court just turned down Regina McKnight’s last appeal.

One of the big disadvantages liberals have, compared with conservatives, is that liberal outrages (even imaginary ones) are known to the whole world, while so many conservative outrages are passed over in silence.

Oooo, is that awful, nasty left
    being mean to poor widdle Rushie?

Kevin Drum [*] catches Jonah Goldberg trolling for examples of people on the left making fun of Rush Limbaugh’s narcotics addiction. I don’t think he’ll find much; our side, with a few exceptions, has been remarkably well-behaved. (Due not at all, I have to assume, to my earlier plea for compassion. [*])

Rush and his defenders, by contrast, have been behaving rather badly. They’ve been pushing the line that because Rush (if you believe his account) got into the pills after being prescribed them for physical pain and was taking illegally purchased pharmaceuticals rather than white powders sold in baggies, he wasn’t really anything like all those nasty junkies out there for whom Limbaugh always expressed such hatred and contempt.

Limbaugh was rich enough not to have had to stick up any liquor stores to support his habit. That’s the only moral distinction between him and a street drug addict. He, and his friends and admirers, ought to learn something from his addiction. It shouldn’t, as my grandmother used to say, be a total loss.