Archive for the ‘Drug laws’ Category
Insanity has been defined as repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting the outcomes to change. US drug policy has fit the definition well, at a terrible waste in lives and money. The Pew Charitable Trust takes a look at what the US has done and at the results:
More than 95,000 federal prisoners are serving time for drug-related offenses—up from fewer than 5,000 in 1980.1 Changes in drug crime patterns and law enforcement practices played a role in this growth, but federal sentencing laws enacted during the 1980s and 1990s also have required more drug offenders to go to prison— and stay there much longer—than three decades ago.2 (See Figure 1.) These policies have contributed to ballooning costs: The federal prison system now consumes more than $6.7 billion a year, or roughly 1 in 4 dollars spent by the U.S. Justice Department.3
Despite substantial expenditures on longer prison terms for drug offenders, taxpayers have not realized a strong public safety return. The self-reported use of illegal drugs has increased over the long term as drug prices have fallen and purity has risen.4 Federal sentencing laws that were designed with serious traffickers in mind have resulted in lengthy imprisonment of offenders who played relatively minor roles.5 These laws also have failed to reduce recidivism. Nearly a third of the drug offenders who leave federal prison and are placed on community supervision commit new crimes or violate the conditions of their release—a rate that has not changed substantially in decades.6
More imprisonment, higher costs
Congress increased criminal penalties for drug offenders during the 1980s—and, to a lesser extent, in the 1990s—in response to mounting public concern about drug-related crime.7 In a 1995 report that examined the history of federal drug laws, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that “drug abuse in general, and crack cocaine in particular, had become in public opinion and in members’ minds a problem of overwhelming dimensions.”8 The nation’s violent crime rate surged 41 percent from 1983 to 1991, when it peaked at 758 violent offenses per 100,000 residents.9
Congress increased drug penalties in several ways. Lawmakers enacted dozens of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that required drug offenders to serve longer periods of confinement. They also established compulsory sentence enhancements for certain drug offenders, including a doubling of penalties for repeat offenders and mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for those convicted of a third serious offense. These laws have applied broadly: As of 2010, more than 8 in 10 drug offenders in federal prisons were convicted of crimes that carried mandatory minimum sentences.10
Also during the 1980s, Congress created the Sentencing Commission, an appointed panel that established strict sentencing guidelines and generally increased penalties for drug offenses. The same law that established the commission, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, also eliminated parole and required all inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences behind bars before becoming eligible for release.
Federal data show the systemwide effects of these policies:
- Probation has all but disappeared as a sanction for drug offenders. In 1980, federal courts sentenced 26 percent of convicted drug offenders to probation. By 2014, the proportion had fallen to 6 percent, with judges sending nearly all drug offenders to prison.11 (See Figure 2.)
- The length of drug sentences has increased sharply. As shown in Figure 1 above, from 1980 to 2011 (the latest year for which comparable statistics are available), the average prison sentence imposed on drug offenders increased 36 percent—from 54.6 to 74.2 months—even as it declined 3 percent for all other offenders.12
- The proportion of federal prisoners who are drug offenders has nearly doubled. The share of federal inmates serving time for drug offenses increased from 25 percent in 1980 to a high of 61 percent in 1994.13 This proportion has declined steadily in recent years—in part because of rising prison admissions for other crimes—but drug offenders still represent 49 percent of all federal inmates.14
- Time served by drug offenders has surged. The average time that released drug offenders spent behind bars increased 153 percent between 1988 and 2012, from 23.2 to 58.6 months.15 This increase dwarfs the 39 and 44 percent growth in time served by property and violent offenders, respectively, during the same period.16
The increased imprisonment of drug offenders has helped drive the explosive overall growth of the federal prison system, which held nearly 800 percent more inmates in 2013 than it did in 1980.17 One study found that the increase in time served by drug offenders was the “single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.”18
Growth in the prison population has driven a parallel surge in taxpayer spending. From 1980 to 2013, federal prison spending increased 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.19 . . .
In the Washington Post Terrence McCoy has an inspiring story about a police initiative to help addicts:
The coastal Massachusetts town of Gloucester was in the middle of a quiet Friday evening this March when a phone call disturbed the police chief relaxing at home. Another deadly heroin overdose had just hit the city, the chief learned. It marked Gloucester’s fourth that year. Leonard Campanello put down the phone. He turned the grim math over in his head — four deaths, three months, in a city of 30,000 people.
Then Campanello, a stout commander who more growls than talks, stood up and rumbled over to the computer. He’s the sort of police chief who maintains an active presence on social media. He posts frequent “Gloucester Police Chief Updates” — episodic fireside chats delivered from his desk — to the police department’s Facebook page. Most of those remarks barely ripple — a dozen ‘likes’ at most.
But that was about to change. “Since January of this year, we have responded to dozens of opiate-related overdoses and, unfortunately, the City has seen 4 deaths in this time that are heroin related,” he wrote, adding: “4 deaths is 4 too many.” Then in a moment Campanello now recalls as extemporaneous, he continued. “If you are a user of opiates or heroin, let us help you. We know you do not want this addiction. We have resources here in the City that can and will make a difference in your life. Do not become a statistic.”
The response was staggering. The post collected 1,226 “likes” and more page views than there were people in the city. It was then Campanello knew he was onto something. The community, he said, was hungry for different ideas. The number of heroin-related overdoses quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, when more than 8,200 people died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trend has hit Massachusetts — and Gloucester — especially hard.
“The war on drugs is over,” Campanello said in an interview. “And we lost. There is no way we can arrest our way out of this. We’ve been trying that for 50 years. We’ve been fighting it for 50 years, and the only thing that has happened is heroin has become cheaper and more people are dying.”
So he started making calls. He got in touch with the local mayor. He wanted to talk about a plan that experts say is unique across the country — and would ultimately bring a national debate over the criminalization of addicts to this small, coastal town. It was simple, Campanello said. He didn’t want to arrest more drug addicts battling what he calls the “disease of addiction.” He’d been doing that for too long. Seven years he spent as a narcotics officer, watching drugs or the system swallow families.
He now wanted to turn Gloucester’s police station into an oasis of amnesty in the drug addict’s perilous world. No heroin addict who entered the police seeking help — unless they had outstanding warrants — would face charges or arrest. Even if they toted their drugs and paraphernalia. Instead, they would get help. “Our argument was you don’t cut off the head of the snake,” he said. “You cut off its food chain.”In another Facebook post in early May, he laid it out. “Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc) or drugs and asks for help with NOT be charged,” he wrote. “Instead, we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery. We will assign them an “angel” who will be their guide through the process. Not in hours or days, but on the spot.”
No one was quite sure what would happen. Think about it, said communications director John Guilfoil. The chief was asking a bunch of addicts who until that point had violated the law to suddenly walk into the police station — armed with drugs. It was crazy. It was madness. It worked.
The post collected more than 30,000 “likes,” an additional 30,000 shares and millions of clicks, the chief said. Things then happened fast. The force opened a non-profit called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative. Addicts started flooding the police station — dozens of them. And reporters arrived to a curious sight of cops greeting addicts rather than charging them.
“A reporter asked one of my officers last night, ‘Do you see a common thread in all addicts?’ one Facebook post said. “Without hesitation, the officer responded: ‘Absolutely. They’re all human beings.”
The chief approached a local CVS to talk about a drug that reverses overdoses. Nasal Narcan administers a burst of a drug that binds with the brain’s opiate receptors and can reverse an overdose. Without insurance, it costs $140. But Campanello told the CVS about the agency’s new program, and it lowered the cost to $20 per pack. He then started providing it to the addicts for free. “The police department will pay the cost of the Nasal Narcan for those without insurance,” Campanello wrote in a post. “We will pay for it with money seized from drug dealers during investigations. We will save lives with the money from the pockets of those who take them.”So far, Campanello said, 109 addicts have sought help at the police station. . .
Even as support for ending marijuana prohibition is building around the country, Congress and the Obama administration remain far too timid about the need for change.
Last year, residents in Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia voted to join Colorado and Washington State in making recreational use of marijuana legal. Later this year, residents of Ohio are expected to vote on a ballot measure that would legalize it. Nevadans will vote on a legalization proposal next year. And Californians could vote on several similar measures next year.
Instead of standing by as change sweeps the country, federal lawmakers should be more actively debating and changing the nation’s absurd marijuana policies, policies that have ruined millions of lives and wasted billions of dollars. Their inaction is putting businesses and individuals in states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana in dubious legal territory — doing something that is legal in their state but is considered a federal crime. Many growers, retailers and dispensaries also have to operate using only cash because many banks will not serve them, citing the federal prohibition. Recently, the Federal Reserve denied a master account to a credit union in Colorado seeking to provide financial services to marijuana businesses.
Lawmakers who hope their colleagues in Congress will act face an uphill struggle. For example, a bill introduced in the Senate by Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrats of New Jersey and New York, respectively, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, would allow states to legalize marijuana for medical use. It would also allow banks and credit unions to provide financial services to cannabis-based businesses in states that have legalized the drug. The bill has 16 sponsors, including two Republicans, but the Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has not scheduled it for a hearing or a vote. An identical bill in the House with 17 sponsors, eight of them Republican, is also languishing in committee.
Congress has taken a few positive steps, like approving a provision that would prevent the Justice Department from using federal funds to keep states from carrying out their own medical marijuana laws. And some senior Republicans, including Mr. Grassley and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, have expressed support for the medical use of a compound known as cannabidiol, which is found in the cannabis plant but is not psychoactive. The Obama administration recently made it easier for scientists to study marijuana by removing a requirement that studies not funded by the federal government go through an additional review process, beyond what is required for researchers working with other drugs.
But both Congress and the White House should be doing more. Specifically, . . .
Suppositions die hard. Deena Shanker reports in Quartz:
Hear that? It’s the sound of teen stoners everywhere telling their parents, “I told you so.”
A new study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that smoking pot as an adolescent is not linked to problems with physical or mental health later in the users’ life, including asthma, allergies, high blood pressure, or mood disorders.“What we found was a little surprising,” said Jordan Bechtold, the lead researcher and a psychology research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, in a press release.
The study used data collected through the Pittsburgh Youth Study,which examined the relationship between antisocial and delinquent behaviors and risk factors like alcohol and drug use among boys in Pittsburgh public schools. It assessed the health and habits of a random sample of black and white seventh grade boys, and then followed up with them twice a year for two-and-a-half years, then once a year for 10 years, and then one more time, 10 years later, when the boys were 36 year-old men.
The more than 400 males tracked in the study were divided into four groups based on marijuana use: low or non-users, early chronic users, adolescence-only users, and late-teen through adulthood users. After controlling for other risk factors like hard drug use, socioeconomic status, and having health insurance, the researchers found that there were no significant differences between the groups’ mental and physical health problems in their mid-30’s. This was true, the study says, even when models were run without controlling for outside factors.
Since the results are at odds with previous studies, the researchers offered some potential explanations. Methodological differences between this study and previous studies might be part of the discrepancy, as this was a prospective study instead of retrospective, which is how many studies looking at marijuana’s impact on health are conducted. (Prospective studies follow cohorts over time, tracking different factors and outcomes; retrospective studies look back in time to track events.) A retrospective study, for example, that finds that marijuana use is correlated to psychotic symptoms may actually have found that the drug exacerbates an existing problem. The researchers also note that they may have had different findings if they looked at lesser psychological issues, like extra suspiciousness or “odd thinking” instead of binary diagnoses like psychotic and anxiety disorders.
This study, the authors note, also comes with its own limitations. It’s possible that users calibrated their marijuana intake based on their health risks, meaning, for example, someone predisposed to asthma who might otherwise be a chronic user was only a low user. The sample was from a single geographic area and included only men. It’s also possible that health problems will develop later than in a person’s mid-30’s, and the authors note that health outcomes were self-reported and are therefore less reliable. . .
It would be interesting to see a comparative study on teen alcohol use.
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.