It's that time of the year again. Time to talk about drugs and the war on them because some stoners declared a holiday or something.
A recent article in Harper's Magazine includes the following gem that sums up the modern Drug War's origins. The journalist interviewed John Ehrlichman, one of the Watergate co-conspirators:
At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. "You want to know what this was really all about?" he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
[Oh yes, it continues...]
The War on Drugs has persisted nearly unabated for decades, but signs of change can be seen. The UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on the "World Drug Problem", called by Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala, began yesterday and ends tomorrow. On the agenda this time around? The legalization of drugs, 18 years after a previous summit declared its goal of ridding the world of illicit drugs. The special session's April 19th start date coincides with "Bicycle Day", the anniversary of Albert Hoffman's first LSD trip. One group, the Psychedelic Society of Brooklyn, will be leading a bike ride ending at the United Nations building in New York to promote the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics and demonstrate that drug legalization isn't just about majority-approved cannabis.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has called for a global overhaul of drug policies, including a ban on the death penalty for drug offenses and focus on rehabilitation rather than imprisonment. Santos proposes that nations should be more free to reform their drug laws, rather than being beholden to international conventions (such as the Convention on Psychotropic Substances of 1971). He has also announced that following nearly four years of peace negotiations, his government will collaborate with Farc rebels to eradicate coca production within Colombia. President Santos will speak at the UN General Assembly Special Session today regarding his proposals.
Other Latin American leaders such as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto are pushing for decriminalization and legalization. President Nieto says that Mexico will soon increase the amount of cannabis citizens are allowed to possess, and legalize medical cannabis. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales says he wants nations to focus on demand reduction and not just supply reduction. A commission set up by the Lancet medical journal and Johns Hopkins University published a report (DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)00619-X) that found that decriminalization in Portugal and the Czech Republic has led to significant financial savings, health benefits, less incarceration, and has not significantly increased drug use. On the other hand, nations such as Indonesia and China are against eliminating the death penalty as well as any legalization of narcotics. An outcome document adopted by member states on Tuesday included no specific criticism of the death penalty. Also, UN security guards have reportedly been ordered to confiscate copies of an open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon supporting drug reforms signed by over a dozen former heads of state, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, former UN officials, celebrities, business leaders, etc.
Throughout the past year, we have seen extensive reporting of a "heroin epidemic" in the northeastern United States. Deaths due to heroin overdose are today being blamed for a 0.1 year decline in life expectancy among white Americans in 2014. The overdose (of any drug) rate among white adults aged 25-34 is five times the 1999 rate, and the same rate among white adults aged 35-44 tripled since 1999. Advocacy by groups and individuals, particularly the parents of overdose victims, has helped move public sentiment towards supporting drug treatment rather than incarceration. There is greater bipartisan support for allowing the wide distribution of the anti-overdose drug naloxone, and for introducing previously unthinkable public safety measures such as government-run needle exchanges to reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.
One measure of success in "post-war" Afghanistan has been the fate of the opium poppy crop, used to produce heroin. In 2014, the poppy plant was Afghanistan's biggest export, valued at $2.8 billion, 13% of the country's GDP. The Taliban have since surged into Afghanistan's southern provinces in order to take control of the growth and export of poppies. 3,000 government soldiers and policemen have died in the past 11 months in Helmand province alone, which accounts for over 60% of the world's heroin supply.
The estimated purity of illicit heroin has crept up in recent years as the price has fallen. However, while heroin might be cheap and plentiful, the heroin epidemic has been spurned on by the over-prescription of opioid painkillers. Opioid prescriptions have quadrupled since 1999, and last month the Centers for Disease Control issued guidelines that recommend reducing the use of opioid painkillers. Effective bribes in the form of "speaking fees" given to doctors have exacerbated the problem. Additionally, drug companies have been fined over misleading claims made about their opioid products, such as downplaying of addiction potential.
In the United States, the Drug Enforcement Agency is once again considering whether to reschedule cannabis (a decision will be made by July). Petitions to reschedule the drug have been denied over the years, but the supposed Schedule I criteria, such as "The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States," look increasingly strained now that nearly half the nation has legalized medical or recreational cannabis. In an all-too-common example of uncritical irony, an LA Times editorial on the subject notes that Schedule I "[lumps] cannabis in with heroin and LSD," as if LSD wasn't one of the safest recreational drugs and has no medical uses.
Investigating potential medical uses is needlessly difficult and expensive when a drug is listed as a controlled substance. This remains true even for the increasingly accepted drug cannabis, which has led 27 U.S. senators and congressmen to sign a letter to President Obama this week recommending a "fair" review of the Schedule I status of cannabis, as well as the end of the DEA/NIDA monopoly on cannabis supplied for medical research. Research into other controlled substances is slowly being conducted after decades of neglect. A new study (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1518377113) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows the effects of LSD as recorded in the brain scans of 20 human subjects. One of the study's authors, the neuropsychopharmacologist David Nutt, was dismissed from the UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) for his analysis (NCBI) showing that alcohol is far more dangerous in terms of both physical and social harms than cannabis, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, or ecstacy. The ACMD is under the purview of the Home Office, led by the tyrannical Theresa May.
Other groups are also pushing the research boundaries. For example, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies is sponsoring research into the use of MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The EmmaSofia organization in Norway successfully crowdfunded nearly $40,000 to promote and manufacture MDMA and psilocybin. The couple behind EmmaSofia, Pal-Orjan Johansen and Teri Krebs, have published studies showing no link between common psychedelics like LSD and an increase in psychosis or suicide (DOI: 10.1177/0269881114568039), as well as investigating the use of LSD to treat alcoholism (DOI: 10.1177/0269881112439253) .
On the campaign trail, a few presidential candidates linger. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders appears to have the strongest pro-cannabis policy positions, supporting descheduling, decriminalization, legalization of medical cannabis, and not obstructing states from legalizing recreational cannabis. Hillary Clinton holds similar positions, but has appeared more cautious about both medical and recreational legalization. Republican candidate Donald Trump has supported medical cannabis, but criticized "trouble" in Colorado which legalized recreational cannabis. Ted Cruz's position on cannabis has evolved from criticizing Obama for allowing Colorado and Washington to legalize it, to supporting states as "laboratories of democracy" while opposing legalization personally. John Kasich appears to broadly oppose legalization, but is also nowhere near to winning the nomination unless his party's establishment chooses to anoint him after Trump fails on the first convention ballot.
Oregon's 25% sales tax on cannabis purchases has resulted in $3.48 million in revenue for the month of January, outpacing the revenue projected for the entire year. However, Oregon's Department of Revenue spent around that amount to refurbish a building and hire employees and security to collect revenue from recreational cannabis businesses, much of it in the form of paper money. The uncertainty involved with banking anywhere in the nation means that cannabis dealers often pay their taxes with large bags of cash. This also means that unless these businesses lie about the nature of their revenue or find a bank willing to risk a federal crackdown, the cannabis businesses are prime targets for thieves.
Colorado's recreational cannabis law has remained intact, despite efforts by Nebraska and Oklahoma to have a case against Colorado heard by the Supreme Court. Colorado's Department of Public Safety has measured an increase in emergency room visits "possibly" related to cannabis from 739 to 956 per 100,000. The authors of the mandated report say that a decrease in stigma may lead to better reporting of cannabis-related ER visits.
Pennsylvania became the 24th state to legalize medical cannabis on Sunday. On the state ballot initiative front, the only cannabis-related measure confirmed to be on a November 8th ballot is the Nevada Marijuana Legalization Initiative, which would legalize and tax recreational cannabis and allocate the revenue to education. The Massachusetts Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Initiative may require additional signatures if the legislature does not approve the initiative by May 3rd. Florida will see the re-introduction of a medical ballot initiative, which failed in 2014 with 57% support. Other ballot initiatives in states like California and Arkansas may still have months to submit the signatures required to appear on the ballot this year. In a small reversal, Washington state voters may get to decide whether to restrict production and sales of cannabis in certain residential neighborhoods. Last year, Ohio voters rejected a legalization amendment that would have created a cultivation oligopoly.
Finally, I leave you with what's truly important: Loafy, chillin' after curing his munchies (image courtesy of Gravis).
🍄 🌵 Here's last year's article. 💉 💊