Archive for the ‘Drug laws’ Category
Scott Shackford writes at Reason.com:
As Jacob Sullum has previously noted, there is strong resistance to reforming drug-related sentences and easing back on mandatory minimums from some federal prosecutors, who have become dependent on threatening to throw an entire library of books at drug offenders in order to get the cooperation of the defendants in other drug investigations and as leverage for plea deals.
In the wake of this growing bipartisan push to fix our broken federal sentencing system, the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA) recently released a report titled“The Dangerous Myths of Drug Sentencing ‘Reform,'” (pdf) to argue “the current federal sentencing system and its penalties for drug trafficking represent a far better approach toward equal justice under the law than the alternatives currently under consideration by Congress.”
They are swimming against the tide, and they know it, and there’s some extremely desperate drug warrior talking points cranked up to 11 in the report. The report insists federal prison population isn’t exploding, which is true in the sense that it has already exploded and is now coming down, thanks to other sentence reform efforts (which the report does acknowledge). It weights the discussion in the direction of talking about drug traffickers to make it appear as though the majority of federal drug prisoners are big bad guys. And there’s a baffling contradiction in the report as a result of throwing all the talking points together without consideration of what they actually say. Here’s a quote from the section that attempts to insist that all drug trafficking is violent (let’s not stop to examine why that is):
“We are in the midst of one of the worst drug epidemics in our history. Fatalities through overdoses of illegal drugs are skyrocketing: There has been a ‘5-fold increase in the total number of [heroin] deaths’ from 2001 to 2003. In real numbers, in 2013 alone over 8,000 people died from heroin overdoses and nearly 5,000 died from cocaine overdoses.”
We know that the jump in heroin use is directly related to the decreased access to Oxycontin in current drug war efforts, but this is not an opportunity for reflection. If it were, they certainly wouldn’t have pivoted to this argument just four pages later:
“Since the enactment of the current minimum mandatory penalty scheme, violent crime has been cut in half across the country. The FBI reports that the rate of violent crime—murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault—per 100,000 people was cut from 758.2 in 1991 to 367 in 2013.”
So we are in our most peaceful worst drug epidemic ever? They managed to combine the “We’re losing the drug war so we can’t back down at all!” argument with the “We’re winning the drug war so we can’t back down at all!” argument in the exact same report.
But that’s just scare tactics. The report is a bit clearer about what prosecutors actually want: to use mandatory minimums a bludgeon to force cooperation, even so far as to arguing that it’s a good thing if it they intimidate defendants from exercising their right to fight against criminal charges: . . .
Very interesting report by Ginger Thompson in ProPublica:
The slight man at the breakfast table seemed more like an evangelical minister than someone who once brokered deals between Mexican drug lords and state governors. He wore a meticulously pressed button-down, a gold watch, gold-rimmed glasses, and a gold cross around his neck. His dark brown hair was styled in a comb-over. And when his breakfast companions started to tuck into their bowls of oatmeal and plates of salmon benedict, he cleared his throat and asked for a moment of silence.
“Would you mind if I say grace?” he asked.
The gathering last week at Le Peep café in San Antonio would seem unusual almost anywhere except south Texas, where Mexico kind of blends into the United States — and so does the drug trade. Seated next to the cartel operative was a senior Mexican intelligence official. And next to him was a veteran American counternarcotics agent. They bowed their heads for prayer and then proceeded to talk a peculiar kind of shop.
A few days earlier, Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, had escaped again from one of that country’s maximum-security prisons. No one in this deeply sourced group was surprised. Nor were they particularly interested in the logistical details of the escape, although they clearly didn’t believe the version they’d heard from the Mexican government.
They were convinced it was all a deal cut at some link in the system’s chain. Our breakfast minister even thought that Chapo had likely walked out the front door of the jail, and that the whole tunnel-and-motorcycle story had been staged to make the feat sound so ingenious that the government couldn’t have foreseen it, much less stopped it.
Such an outlandish notion may not be surprising to anyone who knows anything about Mexico. But as someone who lived there for 10 years, and reported on the country almost twice that long, what surprised me were the men’s theories on why anyone in the Mexican government would have been interested in such a deal. Perhaps, I wondered aloud, Chapo had possessed information that could have incriminated senior Mexican officials in the drug trade and, rather than try him, they had agreed to turn a blind eye to his escape?
The heads around the table shook back and forth. Chapo, they believed, had been thrown back into the drug world to — wait for it — restore order. Things have gotten that crazy.
“When I first heard the news, I thought this is either a good thing or a bad thing,” said the cartel operative. “Either this is a sign of how far things in Mexico are out of control. Or this shows that the government is willing to risk a certain amount of international embarrassment in order to restore peace for Mexican people.”
Surely I’d been out of Mexico too long, I told the table. How could anyone believe that Chapo’s escape would be good for public security? . . .
They make a good case.
It’s a valid question, I think. His column in the NY Times begins:
It is becoming easier to get marijuana, legally. In the last 20 years or so, 23 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have passed laws that make it legal to use marijuana for medical treatments. So have some countries, like Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, Israel and Spain.
Advocates believe that this has allowed many with intractable medical problems to receive a safe and effective therapy. Opponents argue that these benefits are overblown, and that advocates ignore the harms of marijuana. Mostly, opponents say that the real objective of medical marijuana is to make it easier for people to obtain it for recreational purposes.
Both sides have a point. Research exists, however, that can help clarify what we do and don’t know about medical marijuana.
A recent systematic review published in The Journal of the American Medical Association looked at all randomized controlled trials of cannabis or cannabinoids to treat medical conditions. They found 79 trials involving more than 6,400 participants. A lot of the trials did show some improvements in symptoms, but most of those did not achieve statistical significance. Some did, however.
Medical marijuana was associated with some pretty impressive improvements in complete resolution of nausea and vomiting due tochemotherapy (47 percent of those using it versus 20 percent of controls). It also increased the number of people who had resolution of pain (37 percent up from 31 percent). It was shown to reduce pain ratings by about half a point on a 10-point scale, and to reduce spasticity in multiple sclerosis or paraplegia in a similar manner.
Those aren’t insignificant results and they are supported by other studies that have confirmed that marijuana and cannabinoids can help withrefractory pain. But most researchers stress that they should be consideredonly when other therapies have failed.
There’s a little bit of evidence that marijuana might help with anxiety disorders and with sleep. . .
And so on. And he rightly points out the malign effects of a common prescription drug replaced by marijuana: opioid painkillers, which as he notes have plenty of problems (overdoses, addictions) of their own. Using marijuana in lieu of the painkillers could avoid harm—and, according to evidence, it does indeed reduce harm in that are. In other words, we must consider all the effects of alternative treatments (such as opioid painkillers), rather than considering only the good effects: opioid painkillers come with a high overall cost—including the literal cost: a patient using opioid painkillers cannot simply grow his own rather than buying prescriptions.
Moreover, alcohol is a very dangerous drug (overdoses, addiction, injuries up to and including death to self and others due to being actively inebriated: all well documented), and quite often the use of marijuana displaces the use of alcohol, another instance of harm avoidance and, given the medical dangers of alcohol (cirrhosis of the liver, for one), certainly should be considered in the context of marijuana’s overall contribution to medicine and healthcare. And Carroll also addresses that issue in another column.
I just got an email from Vote Hemp! that states:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell secured a provision in the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill today to allow the processing of legally grown industrial hemp. The McConnell language would help farmers transport legal industrial hemp between states so the crop can be developed for commercial purposes. The full Senate Appropriations Committee approved the bill today.
“Kentucky’s industrial hemp pilot programs continue to prosper and I want to make sure our legal hemp producers can safely transport their crops between states, including to States that maintain processing facilities, so they can fully capitalize on the commercial potential for this commodity,” said Senator McConnell.
“This latest language reemphasizes that industrial hemp from a farm bill research program is an agricultural commodity. The ability of Kentucky to research the full potential of industrial hemp through processing, marketing, and sales is vital to understanding the future possibilities for industrial hemp. Kentucky’s agriculture community continues to be indebted to Senator McConnell for his continued leadership on industrial hemp,” said Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture, James Comer.
Last month, Senator McConnell worked with Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Jon Tester (D-MT) to secure language in the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill to ensure that legal industrial hemp pilot programs, like those in Kentucky, can continue without federal disruption.
These latest hemp provisions build upon Senator McConnell’s work in last year’s Farm Bill, which gave state agricultural commissioners and universities the federal authority to cultivate industrial hemp for pilot programs.
There have been various research studies on the effectiveness of marijuana in relieving pain, some finding positive results and others finding no significant help. But whether or not marijuana reduces pain, as some patients say, it is certainly true that allowing marijuana to be used for medical reasons does reduce addictions and deaths from opioid pain medications. Take a look at this abstract of a recent study:
Many medical marijuana patients report using marijuana to alleviate chronic pain from musculoskeletal problems and other sources. If marijuana is used as a substitute for powerful and addictive pain relievers in medical marijuana states, a potential overlooked positive impact of medical marijuana laws may be a reduction in harms associated with opioid pain relievers, a far more addictive and potentially deadly substance. To assess this issue, we study the impact of medical marijuana laws on problematic opioid use. We use two measures of problematic use: treatment admissions for opioid pain reliever addiction from the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) and state-level opioid overdose deaths in the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). Using both standard differences-in-differences models as well as synthetic control models, we find that states permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not. We find no impact of medical marijuana laws more broadly; the mitigating effect of medical marijuana laws is specific to states that permit dispensaries. We evaluate potential mechanisms. Our findings suggest that providing broader access to medical marijuana may have the potential benefit of reducing abuse of highly addictive painkillers.
Cutting back on addictions to (and deaths from) opioid pain killers is a very positive outcome and does support making medical marijuana legal.
Bryan Schatz writes in Mother Jones:
Editor’s note: In the next few weeks, President Obama is expected to commute the sentences of dozens of federal inmates behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses, according to the New York Times.
It’s just after 9 p.m. near the corner of Fourth and Marshall, a poor part of Shreveport, Louisiana. A homeless man approaches a guy on the street and asks him what he’s looking for. That guy, an undercover cop, says he wants “two dimes” and promises a $5 commission. And Fate Vincent Winslow, knowing that $5 buys a meal, if not a great one, agrees. Minutes after he returns carrying two crumpled bags of marijuana, worth $10 each, he’s in the backseat of a squad car. Three months later, Winslow is found guilty of selling a Schedule I Controlled Dangerous Substance. Another three months and the sentence lands: life imprisonment at hard labor with no chance for parole.
Winslow’s punishment—to die behind bars, for a transaction involving a minuscule quantity of pot—is hard to believe. But it’s not unique. Every year, more people are arrested for pot possession than violent crimes. Around 40,000 people are currently serving time for offenses involving a drug that has been decriminalized or legalized in 27 states and Washington, DC. Even as Americans’ attitudes toward pot have mellowed, the law has yet to catch up, leaving pot offenders subject to draconian sentences born out of the war on drugs. As David Holland, a criminal-defense attorney in New York City who filed a presidential clemency petition for marijuana lifers in 2012, puts it: “The world has changed, but these poor bastards are still sitting in jail.”
Writing from the notorious maximum-securityLouisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Winslow told me how he’d come to face “the great injustice that is upon me.” As a kid, he dropped out of high school and landed on the streets, “hanging with the wrong crowd.” At 17 he was convicted of simple burglary; he later got eight and a half years for rifling through an unlocked car. A decade later, he was caught with some coke. “I always had a job,” he writes—working in chicken plants, building houses. Yet his encounter with the undercover cop in 2008 branded him a habitual offender under Louisiana law, triggering an automatic life sentence. “Life for two bags of weed,” he writes. “People kill people and get five years.”
How many prisoners are serving life sentences for pot? At least 69, based on data collected by the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations. But that figure probably is low, particularly if you count older inmates serving lengthy sentences who will likely die in prison. Federal judges have sentenced 54 people to life without parole for marijuana crimes since 1996, according to the Clemency Report. Solid numbers are hard to find. “Incarceration data for cannabis-only-related offenses is the holy grail of criminal-justice data for cannabis law reformers,” says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, who has filed dozens of requests for this information. “All the time it seems like I learn of another one that I’d never heard of before,” says Cheri Sicard, vice president of the CAN-DO Foundation, an advocacy group for nonviolent drug offenders.
Among those serving life for pot are two more Angola inmates: Dale Wayne Green, who acted as a middleman selling $20 worth of weed to an undercover cop in 1999, and Terrance Mosley, who was riding with an acquaintance when police searched the car and uncovered two pounds of marijuana. Craig Cesal has served 13 years of a federal life sentence. He once repaired freight trucks, and served a company involved in high-volume marijuana trafficking. He says he never saw or handled the drugs, but was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute thousands of pounds of marijuana. Like other lifers accused of similar crimes, he took his case to trial. “I had no idea I had done anything illegal,” the soft-spoken 55-year-old says on the phone from the Federal Correctional Institution in Greenville, Illinois.
Many pot offenders are casualties of drug laws that may treat marijuana like hard drugs, as well as “three strikes” laws that do not distinguish between armed robbery and selling a dime bag. Even as then-Attorney General Eric Holder called for a move away from mandatory minimum drug sentences and once tough-on-crime lawmakers have come to embrace criminal-justice reform, these pot prisoners currently have few legal remedies. While some federal prisoners serving time for crack cocaine offenses can have their sentences shortened thanks to the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, there’s been no similar retroactive reform of pot sentences. “Unless a law is created that specifically looks back in time, a person is stuck with whatever sentence they were given based on the laws that existed at that time,” explains Chris Lindsey, a legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project. He has seen only one proposal to address pot prisoners whose crimes might result in lesser punishments today. “By default,” he explains, “we don’t rewind the clock and reevaluate existing sentences.”
For now, the sole hope of the marijuana lifers is . . .
Why on earth does the US simply legalize normal marijuana, which does not have the risks associated with the synthetic stuff? Steve Featherstone reports in a long feature article in the NY Times Magazine:
One evening in April, Ethan Darbee, a 24-year-old paramedic in Syracuse, responded to a call on the city’s south side: unknown man down. Rolling up to the scene, he saw a figure lying motionless on the sidewalk. Darbee raked his knuckles across the man’s sternum to assess his level of consciousness. His eyelids fluttered. Inside the ambulance, Darbee hooked him up to a heart monitor, and he jerked involuntarily. The odd reaction puzzled Darbee. Why would the guy recoil from an electrode sticker but not a sternal rub? The driver started for the hospital. Darbee sat in the captain’s chair in the back of the rig, typing on a laptop. Then he heard a sound no paramedic ever wants to hear: the click of a patient’s shoulder harness unlatching. Swiveling around, he found himself eyeball to eyeball with his patient, who was now crouched on all fours on top of the stretcher, growling.
That same evening, Heather Drake, a 29-year-old paramedic, responded to a call at an apartment complex on the west side. When she arrived, four firefighters were grappling with a 120-pound woman who was flailing and flinging vomit at anyone who came near her. A bystander shouted that the woman was high on ‘‘spike’’ — the prevailing local term for synthetic marijuana, which is more commonly known around the country as spice. But Drake didn’t believe it. Spike didn’t turn people into violent lunatics. Phencyclidine (PCP) or synthetic cathinones (‘‘bath salts’’) could do that, maybe even a joint soaked in formaldehyde — but not spike. Drake sprayed a sedative up the woman’s nose and loaded her into the ambulance. A mayday call from another crew came over the radio. In the background static of the transmission, Drake could hear Ethan Darbee yelling.
Darbee’s patient had sprung off the stretcher and knocked him to the floor of the ambulance, punching him repeatedly in the face. Darbee grasped the side-door handle and tumbled into the street. Within moments, the police arrived and quickly subdued the man. Two days later, 19 more spike overdoses would swamp local emergency rooms, more in one day in Syracuse than the number of overdoses reported statewide in most states for all of April.
Syracuse, where I’ve lived almost my entire life, has struggled with synthetic drugs before. William Harper, a local businessman and two-time Republican candidate for City Council, moonlighted as the kingpin of bath salts in New York for two years before the Drug Enforcement Administration took him down in 2011. Was there a spike kingpin out there now, flooding the street with a bad batch? Perhaps, but similar outbreaks occurred in several states along the Gulf of Mexico in April, and the American Association of Poison Control Centers reports that between January and June, the nationwide number of synthetic marijuana ‘‘exposures’’ — that is, reported contact with the substance, which usually means an adverse reaction — had already surpassed totals for 2013 and 2014, and that 15 people died from such exposure. Maybe there was a larger cause.
Every state has banned synthetic cannabinoids, the chemicals in spike that impart the high. Although the active ingredients primarily come from China, where commercial labs manufacture them to order like any other chemical, spike itself is produced domestically. Traffickers spray the chemicals on dried plant material and seal the results in foil pouches; these are then sold on the Internet or distributed to stores across the country, which sell them sometimes under the counter, as in Syracuse, or sometimes right by the cash register, depending on local laws. Unlike marijuana, cocaine and other naturally occurring drugs, synthetic cannabinoids can be tweaked on a molecular level to create novel, and arguably legal, drugs.
Since 2008, when authorities first noted the presence of synthetic cannabinoids in ‘‘legal marijuana’’ products, periodic surges in overdoses have often coincided with new releases, and emergency doctors have had to learn on the fly how to treat them. This latest surge is notable for the severity of symptoms: seizures, extreme swings in heart rate and blood pressure, kidney and respiratory failure, hallucinations. Many patients require such enormous doses of sedatives that they stop breathing and require intubation, and yet they still continue to struggle violently. Eric Kehoe, a shift commander at the Rural Metro ambulance company that employs Darbee and Drake, said bath-salts overdoses are easier to deal with. ‘‘You might find them running naked down the middle of the street,’’ he said, but ‘‘you could talk them down. These people here — there’s no point. You can’t even reason with them. They’re just mute. They have this look about them that’s just like a zombie.’’ . . .