Monday, April 5, 2010

Prohibition by any other name

Prohibition, that long, national nightmare of officially mandated (and popularly ignored) sobriety, ended in 1933, and popular mythology has it that, upon its repeal, we all cracked open a cold one and lived happily ever after. Oh, if it were only so. In fact, the country's ambivalence toward alcohol -- at least as far as lawmakers and regulators are concerned -- continues. Stupid and intrusive laws still hobble the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol -- not outlawing the business but, in fine American fashion, just making it a little more difficult and painful than it ought to be.

For one thing, never mind that the cocktail is largely an American concoction, too many of our countrymen object to the idea of blending alcohol with anything that might make it yummier. Reporting on the consequences of a law apparently rooted in the fear that the road to damnation is often taken one bonbon at a time, the Raleigh News & Observer tells us:
Savage, a Raleigh chocolatier whose alcohol-spiced chocolates are - make that were - sold as quickly as he made them, has had to get even more creative than usual to keep the flavors his customers covet without the state-forbidden rum, scotch and beer he used as spices.

Someone from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services called him in late March, he said. "They told me I had to cease and desist" selling the most popular creations "because they contained alcohol," he said.
Mixing caffeine with booze has also come under fire (was Castro's rise to power sparked by the heady mixture of rum and coke?). Reason's Jacob Sullum reports:
In November the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned 27 manufacturers that they may be violating the law by selling alcoholic beverages that contain caffeine. Although the FDA allows the use of caffeine in soft drinks, it has never approved mixing the stimulant with alcohol. Unless the companies can demonstrate that this particular use of caffeine is “generally recognized as safe,” the FDA said, they have to take their products off the market.
And even bartenders mixing long-proven recipes are at risk from the pleasure cops. In states around the country, it's difficult for bartenders to get components for many traditional cocktails, and sometimes even illegal for them to manufacture their own mixers or to incorporate ingredients regularly used by chefs and pastry cooks -- like egg whites. Reason TV documents the hoops mixologists have to jump through in this interview with Todd Thrasher of the PX Lounge in Alexandria, Virginia.

But keeping your booze unblended won't keep you out of trouble. In San Bernardino, California, authorities have targeted alcohol that's too convenient.
Proponents say a new law called a "deemed-approved ordinance" would standardize city rules affecting liquor stores. Enacting this kind of law could make it easier for city officials to clamp down on the sale of "forties" and other single servings of beer and malt liquor that some officials and researchers link to alcohol-fueled crime.
Because Heaven on Earth will be at hand when you can only buy your beer by the case.

Alcohol remains mostly legal in most places in the United States. But officials seem eternally torn about the wisdom of letting us enjoy our drinks in peace. No, we don't have Prohibition any more. Instead, we get nags and nannies eternally fretting that we may actually be enjoying our booze.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

No, mandatory drug treatment is not the answer

Most of the drug debate takes place over the clear-cut issues: should the government be telling people what they can put into their bodies or shouldn't it? But beyond overt prohibition -- and with the potential to outlast repeal -- is the vast, mushy middle-ground where the government "helps" those poor souls who just can't handle their drugs. Surely, pushing addicts into treatment to help them with their abuse is an act of compassion, not an authoritarian intrusion. Ah, but who is an addict, and what's abuse? And who is to say we don't all run the risk of a bit of compassion in our lives if we award our would be saviors with the power to intervene?

In his guest post, "Leave my drugs alone," Denny Chapin, Managing Editor at, writes:
People will always abuse drugs, always disrupt families, and always harm others in pursuit of a high. And people will always defend their abuse, deny its effects, and bring themselves and others down with them. If we accept this reality, we can still act for a future of change, bring hope to families, and shake the dirt from career drug addicts. And to that degree, we must take action. Never is it 'just their problem'; it's ours.

Chapin concedes that "many drug users casually use drugs without negatively impacting those around them," but he asserts that the government may have a duty to intervene and force drug users into treatment when their drug use negatively impacts those around them -- particularly children -- and that it "must enforce mandatory drug treatment" when drug use leads to criminal activity.

There's truth in what Chapin says -- particularly about the ability of many people to casually use drugs "without negatively impacting those around them." While getting solid statistics about addiction is difficult, Reason magazine's Jacob Sullum pointed out in 2003, "A survey of high school seniors found that 1 percent had used heroin in the previous year, while 0.1 percent had used it on 20 or more days in the previous month. Assuming that daily use is a reasonable proxy for opiate addiction, one in 10 of the students who had taken heroin in the last year might have qualified as addicts." By contrast, when it comes to perfectly legal booze, according to the National Institutes of Health, "[a]bout 15 percent of those who experiment become alcohol-dependent at some point in life. This compares to a dependency rate of 25 percent in those who experiment with smoking tobacco, and around 4 percent in marijuana smokers."

Most users, then, do so without becoming addicted, and Chapin quotes Alan I. Leshner, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, to the effect that addiction is "uncontrollable, compulsive drug seeking and use, even in the face of negative health and social consequences."

Chapin is also correct that abusers often do deny that they're abusing drugs and that their behavior is problematic. Then again, so do people accused of addiction and abuse who are actually just engaging in recreational behavior. The difficulty lies in separating use from abuse and in distinguishing criminal behavior caused by an intoxicating substance from criminal behavior caused by a criminal's innate unwillingness to respect the rights and property of others. For starters, what is drug abuse?

That strikes some people as a silly question, but it's absolutely fundamental. And there's no fixed definition of "abuse." Asked whether he thought drug abuse should be illegal, the prominent psychologist, lawyer and drug researcher Stanton Peele replied, "The answer to the question depends on what you mean by drug abuse—whether any use of illicit drugs, extreme or addictive drug use, or illegal behavior associated with drug use or extreme drug use."

Chapin seems to flirt with the first definition, suggesting that the mere act of ingesting certain intoxicants is, itself, abusive:
Does our government have a responsibility to get heroin out of households? "They're my kids, so what if they see a few needles or a joint around? I'm not forcing them to do anything." This disposition is far more dubious, with the potential to truly harm the future generations of Americans, our youth.

Does seeing a few needles or a joint really harm kids? If it does, does it really harm kids so much that their parents should be forced by armed men into drug treatment programs? If that's the case, mandatory treatment for drug abuse becomes something of a tautology, with all ingestion defined as "abuse" and evidence of a need for a forcible response. Drug treatment, then, is less of a medical response than an ideological one, and those providing treatment are acting less as psychologists, physicians and therapists than as agents of state policy.

But what if we go to Peele's second definition: illegal behavior associated with drug use? And by "illegal behavior" we mean real crimes against people and property. It's this definition that Chapin addresses when he says, "many criminals are forced into treatment programs because their crime was caused by, or related to their addiction, resulting from their uncontrolled, compulsive, and harmful behavior."

Since many crimes are a result of drug use, mandatory treatment, we're told, is the obvious response.

Peele differs, saying "addicts—or any drug users—should be liable for any crimes they commit, whether committed while intoxicated, in the pursuit of their addiction, or under any other conditions. In this regard, I differ from many advocates for addicts, who may say that—since addicts are out of control of their behavior—they should not be liable for their actions, at least while intoxicated." (Peele, by the way, also takes issue with the way many 12-step programs go about their business, especially with coerced participants.)

The idea here is that people are responsible for their actions -- the devil didn't make them do it, and neither did the booze or the methamphetamine. Yes, a criminal may have alcohol or drugs in his or her system when he knocks over a convenience store, but that was the culmination of a series of choices. Treatment might be offered to criminals in the same way as other medical and educational services are offered, as a means of maintaining or improving their health and changing their circumstances. But pursuing drug treatment would have to be the choice of the criminal who is responsible for his or her own actions in all circumstances.

Fundamentally, the argument for mandatory treatment comes down to two fundamentals: all drug use is abuse, and drugs make people do bad things they wouldn't otherwise do. But not all use is abusive -- in fact, most drug use is not. And an asshole who does bad things and takes drugs is, at the end of the day, just an asshole.

Forgetting those points creates an invitation to the government to intervene in our lives if we simply engage in behavior that rubs officialdom the wrong way -- and it also allows the powers-that-be to let real criminals off easy for their bad decisions.

Chapin argues that, with mandatory treatment, "[a]t their worst, an addict won't benefit from treatment, simply going through the motions." But that's not the worst; the worst is that people living peaceful lives will lose their freedom and become subjects of forcible government intervention.

If you want to be compassionate toward those who use intoxicants to excess, that's great. Just don't arm that compassion with handcuffs and guns.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Guest post: Mandatory treatment for drug users

As part of a continuing series that I just started and will repeat whenever I feel like doing so, below is a guest post from a reader who takes a position contrary to my own on at least one topic -- in this case, mandatory treatment for drug users who are perceived to have crossed a line and so necessitated government intervention. The author is Denny Chapin, Managing Editor at

Wait with eager anticipation for my response.

'Leave My Drugs Alone'
by Denny Chapin

As citizens of the United States, we want two things: first to be protected against the Hobbesian Leviathan of governmental power and second, to be protected by that governmental power when other citizens are threatening our freedom. We ask our government to stay out of matters that don't concern them, while demanding they protect us from irate citizens that diminish our quality of life.

In practical terms, we want freedom from government oppression when we want to do something our government does not allow, like taking drugs, and we also want protection from the government when a drug addict breaks into our home to fuel his addiction. The question we must ask is this: when, how, and what actions should our government take to ensure the protection of its citizens? and when is this protection oppressive and negative? How do we weigh these two forces against one another? Is there a satisfying solution, or is will this balancing act always produce argument and dissatisfaction?

Real World Example: Drugs

Alan I. Leshner, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, defines addiction as "uncontrollable, compulsive drug seeking and use, even in the face of negative health and social consequences." Drug addicts, by their nature, act in uncontrolled, compulsive ways, having a negative impact on their health and the social atmosphere around them.

Many drug users desire to be protected against governmental prosecution for using illegal drugs. They say "let me smoke marijuana in peace, it's my body I'm hurting, not anyone else's!" or "I'm less crazy when I take a hit of heroin, otherwise I'd be messing up even more peoples lives". And to a degree, there is some merit to their arguments, since many drug users casually use drugs without negatively impacting those around them.

But what about those drug users who cannot--does the government have a responsibility to step in and demand some form of action when an alcoholic completely ignores, or worse, physically abuses their children? Does our government have a responsibility to get heroin out of households? "They're my kids, so what if they see a few needles or a joint around? I'm not forcing them to do anything." This disposition is far more dubious, with the potential to truly harm the future generations of Americans, our youth.

Landing in Jail

In America, many criminals are forced into treatment programs because their crime was caused by, or related to their addiction, resulting from their uncontrolled, compulsive, and harmful behavior. When it gets to the level of incarceration, our government has a duty to intervene, not for the sake of an addict, but for the sake of the people that addict is surrounded by. It is at this extreme degree of action that we must enforce mandatory drug treatment, irregardless of the intentions of the addict. At their worst, an addict won't benefit from treatment, simply going through the motions. But hopefully, at its best, treatment will give them some perspective, showing them a window of sobriety to look through and see the world as they've built it up, and the world they could have.

There will never be a satisfying answer. People will always abuse drugs, always disrupt families, and always harm others in pursuit of a high. And people will always defend their abuse, deny its effects, and bring themselves and others down with them. If we accept this reality, we can still act for a future of change, bring hope to families, and shake the dirt from career drug addicts. And to that degree, we must take action. Never is it 'just their problem'; it's ours.

My response is here.

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Judge Jim Gray calls B.S. on drug prohibition

"The government has as much of a right to control what I as an adult put into my body as it does what I put into my mind. It's none of their business." So says Jim Gray, who recently retired as the presiding judge of the Superior Court of California for Orange County. A former drug warrior as a prosecutor and then a judge, Gray came to see that prohibition of disfavored intoxicants was a perverse and impractical policy -- and one with serious moral and economic consequences.

Gray was unusual among government officials who have turned against prohibition in that he started speaking out while he was on the bench, making public appearances calling for changes in policy, including full legalization, and authoring a book making the same case.

He presents his arguments in short form in the video below from ReasonTV.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Docs on dope

At its 2009 interim meeting, the American Medical Association has adopted a statement urging that marijuana be considered as medicine and that further research be conducted into its medical value. The statement was recommended by the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health, based on a report which endorses the medicinal value of marijuana, but bemoans the combination of federal prohibition and a "patchwork of state-based systems" that have impeded scientific research. While stopping far short of a call for full legalization, the statement represents a major break with the past and undermines federal insistence that marijuana has no value.

The statement (PDF) says:
Our American Medical Association (AMA) urges that marijuana’s status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance be reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines. This should not be viewed as an endorsement of state-based medical cannabis programs, the legalization of marijuana, or that scientific evidence on the therapeutic use of cannabis meets the current standards for a prescription drug product.
Parse the English in that statement at your  own peril.

The full report on which the CSAPH statement is based has not been made available online, but an executive summary (ZIP) has been published. That summary concludes:
Results of short term controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis.  However, the patchwork of state-based systems that have been established for "medical marijuana" is woefully inadequate in establishing even rudimentary safeguards that normally would be applied to the appropriate clinical use of psychoactive substances.  The future of cannabinoid-based medicine lies in the rapidly evolving field of botanical drug substance development, as well as the design of molecules that target various aspects of the endocannabinoid system.  To the extent that rescheduling marijuana out of Schedule I will benefit this effort, such a move can be supported.
Last year, the American College of Physicians, a large organization representing internal medicine doctors, came out with a similar statement. With the AMA now endorsing the medical potentialof marijuana, the federal government is going to find it increasingly difficult to support its claims that "[t]he DEA and the federal government are not alone in viewing smoked marijuana as having no documented medical value." Increasingly, the federal government really is alone in that claim.

Perhaps recognizing the changing scientific climate, last month, the Obama administration instructed federal prosecutors to de-emphasize the prosecution of people who comply with state medical marijuana laws.

Even if the new AMA position becomes the law of the land, however, it would do little more than ease research into marijuana and, perhaps, move marijuana into the long list of substances available only by prescription. That falls far short of recognizing people's right to ingest whatever they wish, whether for medical reasons or recreational purposes. Fully ending legal restrictions on marijuana (and other drugs) is necessary to end the carnage and civil liberties violations associated with the ever-escalating "war on drugs."


Thursday, October 22, 2009

Are the feds easing up on grass (or just fishing for good press)?

In what appears to be an important reversal of one area of the United States government's traditionally harsh drug policies, the federal Department of Justice has issued new guidelines (PDF) to U.S. Attorneys de-emphasizing the prosecution of individuals "in clear compliance" with state laws allowing for the use of marijuana as medicine, and shifting resources to "disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks." The memo should come as promising news for advocates of drug policy reform, and especially for growers, distributors and patients in the fourteen states that allow for medical marijuana. However, the new policy leaves plenty of room for continued prosecutions if officials are less than serious about shifting gears on drug prohibition.

The memo (PDF), signed by Deputy Attorney General David W. Oden, reads, in part:
The prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, and the disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks continues to be a core priority in the Department's efforts against narcotics and dangerous drugs, and the Department's investigative and prosecutorial resources should be directed towards these objectives. As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana. For example, prosecution of individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law, or those caregivers in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state law who provide such individuals with marijuana, is unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources.
One potential problem is the question of who will determine whether medical marijuana operations are in compliance with the law. Even in some states that have unambiguously legalized marijuana as medicine, many law-enforcement officials remain openly hostile to the reform and have often looked for excuses to arrest marijuana users and distributors. Such officials could provide an easy pretext for sabotaging reforms in marijuana policy If relied upon as resources for interpreting compliance with state laws.

The California Police Chiefs Association released a position paper (PDF) just last month attacking marijuana use in general, as well as the popular referendum that legalized its use for medical purposes. The paper claimed, "The vast majority of those using crude Marijuana as medicine are young and are using the substance to be under the influence of THC and have no critical medical condition." This is important, because the Justice Department memo specifies, "nothing herein precludes investigation or prosecution where there is a reasonable basis to believe that compliance with state law is being invoked as a pretext for the production or distribution of marijuana for purposes not authorized by state law."

It's easy to imagine California police counseling federal prosecutors that most, if not all, medical marijuana use is a sham intended to justify recreational consumption.

Ultimately, the successful implementation of the Justice Department memo depends on U.S. Attorneys willing to see reforms put into effect, and not looking for excuses to continue harsh policies.

Even then, the new guidelines, while long-awaited by advocates of reform, fall far short of efforts in other countries, including Mexico, to decriminalize and even legalize recreational use of many drugs. Most reformers say that full legalization is needed to reduce the harm done by prohibition and to recognize the rights of individuals to do what they wish with their bodies and lives.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

C'mon, Mexico. Don't be shy about making a (legitimate) buck on drugs

Last week, Mexico's government did something that ought to be emulated far and wide -- it stopped worrying about America's draconian preferences on drug policy and decriminalized the personal use of not just marijuana, but a wide variety of officially disfavored intoxicants. In a country ravaged by violence and corruption spawned by drug prohibition, the new policy promises less reason for conflict between people and officials, and fewer opportunities for crooked cops to extract bribes from people enjoying an after-work toke or sniff. But as much as decriminalization is a step in the right direction, it doesn't go far enough; Mexico should making drugs perfectly legal to produce and sell in any quantity.

Under the new law, Mexicans are free to privately possess and consume up to five grams of marijuana, a half gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin, 40 milligrams of methamphetamine and 0.015 milligrams for LSD. That's just about a enough to get a small party started, but not enough to keep it going.

It's also not enough to defuse the violence and corruption engulfing Mexico, which revolves around the criminal syndicates that produce and ship drugs in massive quantities, primarily for the underground market in the United States. As the United States State Department warned in a Travel Alert issued on August 20 of this year:

Mexican drug cartels are engaged in violent conflict - both among themselves and with Mexican security services - for control of narcotics trafficking routes along the U.S.-Mexico border. In order to combat violence, the government of Mexico has deployed military troops in various parts of the country. U.S. citizens should cooperate fully with official checkpoints when traveling on Mexican highways.

Some recent Mexican army and police confrontations with drug cartels have resembled small-unit combat, with cartels employing automatic weapons and grenades. Large firefights have taken place in towns and cities across Mexico, but occur mostly in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City, Monterrey and Ciudad Juarez.

The spur for this violence isn't the desire of the average Mexican to smoke a joint on a Saturday night; it's the fortunes to be made by supplying the illicit drug market in the United States of America. While nobody knows precisely how big the drug trade is, we do know that 90% of all U.S. bills contain traces of cocaine, suggesting just how often money and the drug cross paths. No matter what the law says, somebody is going to get a piece of that action.

Since the production and distribution of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and the like remain illegal in Mexico, the industry will continue to be run by people willing to violate the law. Like Al Capone and the other gangsters who supplied booze during America's misfired experiment with Prohibition, Mexico's drug suppliers are criminals who settle their disputes with violence instead of lawsuits. Decriminalization may reduce risks for the average Mexican, but it won't address the country's larger problems so long as there's money to be made to the north and servicing that market requires underground activity.

To get at the root of the problem, Mexico should just legalize the trade. Let legitimate businesses grow and package poppies and cannabis. Big companies and small operations alike, operating in a legal environment, could easily drive the criminals off. By depriving them of huge profits in the shadows, legalization would render the gangs less dangerous and powerful, just the way the repeal of Prohibition stemmed the flow of blood in the U.S.

If a Cuervo brand heroin truck side-swipes a van loaded with Corona pre-rolled joints, the matter can be settled in the courts, not the street.

And if the U.S. still doesn't want the stuff crossing the border? Well, that's the problem of the neighbor to the north, isn't it?

Full legalization might not gain Mexico any friends in D.C., but that would be offset by peace and prosperity at home.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sentenced to shut up

The sentence for a South Dakota drug-policy-reform advocate convicted of felony possession of marijuana is raising concerns about fundamental individual rights. Bob Newland, the director of the South Dakota chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, founder of South Dakotans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana group, and publisher of Hemphasis, was sentenced to one year in the Pennington County Jail, with all but 45 days suspended. During that year, he is forbidden to publicly advocate marijuana legalization.

On July 6, Newland sent out an email saying, in part:

This will be the last email I send under the banner ‘South Dakotans for Safe Access‘ at least for a year.

By now, most of you know I plead to a felony count of possession of marijuana in May. Today I was sentenced.

In an hour-long sentencing hearing, Judge Delaney waxed reminiscent as he described his admiration for Muhammad Ali’s stance against an illegal war, which cost him millions of dollars and his peak performing years, during which time he did not complain, nor did he leave the country that so abused him for his beliefs.

Then, citing the fact that he (Judge Delaney) had to account for his actions to the hundreds of kids he sees in juvenile court, he sentenced me to a year in the Penn. Co. jail, with all suspended but 45 days. During the suspended part of the sentence I will wear a bracelet that senses alcohol use and I will be subject to arbitrary p-ss tests by a probation officer to detect illegal “drug” use. In addition I may have no “public role” in cannabis law reform advocacy during that year. ...

According to the Rapid City Journal, Judge Delaney told Newland, who will turn 61in jail, "You are not going to take a position as a public figure who got a light sentence." The judge also told Newland that he didn't want the advocate to be in a position to encourage minors to consume intoxicants.

Newland was found with marijuana and a scale after a traffic stop -- a clear violation of the law, though not necessarily a wrongful act, if you believe that the government has no business criminalizing consensual activities among adults.

But, morality of the law aside, Newland's sentence was a light one for an acknowledged felony -- except for the very restrictive gag order. It's unusual for judges to require defendants to remain quiet about their political opinions. While judges have wide-ranging authority to impose restrictions, these usually revolve around issues relevant to their crimes, such as proximity to a victim, or refraining from further criminal activity, or requirements that make it easier for authorities to monitor behavior, such as search access and ankle bracelets. Throwing in a suspension of First Amendment-protected rights to speak out on matters of public policy is gratuitous and offensive.

What legitimate interest could a judge have in suppressing political opinions?

Jack King, director of public affairs and communications for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, raised exactly that point when he told the Rapid City Journal, "I don't know if the judge realized that he was imposing his politics on Mr. Newland as a condition of his probation."

But we've taken a long road to this path with other suspensions of civil rights that are said to be inappropriate for those convicted of serious crimes. Convicts, even nonviolent ones, supposedly can't be trusted with firearms, so felons are often deprived of the legal right to own the means to defend themselves and their families -- even decades after their crime. And felons are deprived of the right to vote temporarily or permanently in most states as a continuation of the medieval tradition of "civil death" which stripped felons of their rights. There's been a move on in recent years to restore voting rights, pointing out that the loss of rights unrelated to ensuring that prisoners pose no threat is incompatible with a free society.

In a 2004 article for the American Bar Association's Human Rights magazine, arguing against suspending voting rights, Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, wrote of what he considered an example of suspended rights taken to the extreme:

Suppose, for example, a legislator proposed a bill to make it unlawful for a probationer to write a letter to the editor or to participate in a protest rally. Surely few policymakers or citizens would find this an appropriate consequence of a conviction.

Ironically, Mauer's absurd example is exactly where Newland is now.

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Dutch treat (smoking edition)

Can put-upon minorities wage battle against government regulators and win? In the Netherlands, at least when it comes to smoking bans, the answer appears to be "yes." After a year of widespread defiance of a law banning smoking in bars and cafes, and two court victories by bar owners, the Dutch government is backing off enforcement of the intrusive ban and effectively letting many smaller businesses set policies that work for them and their customers.

The key to the apparent victory appears to be cooperation. Bars and cafes across the country coordinated their defiance of the smoking ban after business dropped by as much as 30% in the wake of the law's passage. To lure back customers who wanted cigarettes with their drinks, bars put the ashtrays back on the tables.

First-hand accounts even had bar patrons using table-top candle holders for their ashes in establishments that didn;t want tomake their defiance too obvious.

The Dutch government fined hundreds of establishments, but couldn't break the back of the resistance.

The law suffered perhaps fatal setbacks when courts ruled that the the government had no authority to impose total bans on small establishments that had no staff when it let larger businesses designate smoking areas. Another court ruled in favor of a bar owner who designated a store room as the (non-smoking) bar and the rest of the establishment as a smoking area.

Now, Dutch bar and cafe owners are free -- at least for the time being -- to establish rules that attract customers and suit their businesses.

From the beginning, smoking bans have been little more than efforts to take the preferences of some people and turn them into legal mandates for all businesses, without regard for the preferences of business owners and their customers. Smoking bans are widely popular in a country where a majority of the population doesn't use tobacco, and their popularity has been enhanced by cloaking the issue in nice-sounding but spurious public health language that doesn't really apply to situations involving establishments that people can choose to enter or bypass as they wish.

Ultimately, there's little difference between mandating that all bars be non-smoking and that all bars play light jazz -- just because the current crop of politicians likes it that way. It's just easier to sell the smoking rule in a wrapper of false concern for the health of people who are capable of taking care of such matters themselves.

The Dutch example shows that, at least sometimes, efforts to mandate one-size-fits-all environments can be effectively thwarted if resistance is sufficiently widespread and determined.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Sow what ye reap (put THAT in your pipe and smoke it)

In parts of the United States, you can't go for a walk in the woods without bumping into apple trees. Could the debate over marijuana be settled by making marijuana plants as ubiquitous as apple trees -- so unavoidable that prosecuting people for growing and possessing the stuff becomes a preposterous proposition? More to the point, should Americans interested in easing some of the worst abuses of the drug war emulate Johnny Appleseed, the man who made apples so common, and plant marijuana seeds in every likely location?

Reader Sean Y. writes:

I propose that everyone plant their marijuana seeds in inconspicuous places. These places can be in a large city or national forest, it does not matter. Everyone that believes in liberty should plant these seeds any time that they have the opportunity. Within a couple of years this “weed” has the potential to be so prolific that the government cannot eradicate it. Not only that, marijuana enthusiasts will no longer have to search out bad characters and pay outrageous prices for a plant that grows naturally just about anywhere. Who knows, a little genetic modification could make the plants irresistible to honey bees and as prolific as the dandelion?

Sean Y. specifically references the legendary Johnny Appleseed -- actually named John Chapman -- as his inspiration. Chapman wandered the frontier for decades until his death in 1845 (or 1847 -- sources vary), creating nurseries for apple trees and helping to make sure that the apple became the American fruit. He reportedly obtained his seeds for free from cider mills, since the mills would benefit from a plentiful supply of raw material (at the time apples were drunk as hard cider more often than they were eaten. Good times.).

Marijuana seeds aren't quite so easy to come by -- but they aren't that hard to find, either. Until recently, British Columbia's Marc Emery made a profitable business of selling marijuana seeds by mail which he distributed to eager buyers around the world. Emery, a high-profile marijuana activist and advocate for overall liberty was quoted in the New York Times saying, "I've wanted to be the Johnny Appleseed of marijuana, so if we produced millions and millions of marijuana plants all over the world, it would be impossible for governments to eradicate or control all of it."

Emery's operation was maybe a little too high-profile; he's involved in a protracted battle with the United States government and faces an extradition hearing in June.

But given the ease with which marijuana adapts to nearly every environment and its rugged growth characteristics, the plan is an intriguing one. And marijuana seeds remain available from other sources. Spreading the seeds to let them grow naturally shows every sign of being a viable tactic.

By the way, if you think it unseemly that anybody should profit from such a venture, think of it this way: the potential for profit is a great incentive to make the project succeed. After all, the original Johnny Appleseed died a wealthy man and the owner of about 1,200 acres.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hey Hillary, don't criticize; legalize

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on to something when she conceded that America shares blame for the crime and violence that has engulfed Mexico as a result of drug prohibition. Being who she is, of course, Clinton blamed demand for drugs, rather than prohibition as the culprit, and threw in a pointless call for additional restrictions on firearms. Even so, it's helpful when politicians concede that their authoritarian and ill-considered policies have harmful effects abroad as well as at home.

Of course, Clinton is a politician, so her concession that America plays a role in Mexico's woes was less a half-step in the right direction than a quarter-step. Just a day after she conceded that Mexican criminal drug suppliers are responding to the "insatiable" demand for illegal drugs north of the border, her boss, President Obama, rejected the obvious solution: legalization.

Strictly speaking, Obama's dismissal of legalization in an electronic town hall referred only to marijuana. But if he won't consider even that basic step, then legalization of heroin and methamphetamine -- the two drugs driving the black-market violence in Mexico at the moment -- is obviously off the table.

Now that's a lack of change you can believe in.

Clinton, of course, tossed in a gratuitous nod to her ideological base, calling for tighter U.S. gun restrictions as a means of countering violence in Mexico. Even she can't believe that nonsense when such gun control stalwarts as the Los Angeles Times report that the Mexican drug gangs are battling police, soldiers and each other with fully automatic weapons, grenades and rockets -- items not generally available in Texas gun shops.

Said the LA Times:

The proliferation of heavier armaments points to a menacing new stage in the Mexican government's 2-year-old war against drug organizations, which are evolving into a more militarized force prepared to take on Mexican army troops, deployed by the thousands, as well as to attack each other.

These groups appear to be taking advantage of a robust global black market and porous borders, especially between Mexico and Guatemala. Some of the weapons are left over from the wars that the United States helped fight in Central America, U.S. officials said.

The truth is that demand always finds a supply, and black markets fuel one another. Demand in the United States for illegal intoxicants such as marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine creates a potential for profit that leads to the rise of suppliers in Mexico and elsewhere. Money flows into the coffers of those black-market suppliers, who then seek to protect their turf from other gangs, from thieves and from law enforcement officers (although the lines between the various groups can be foggy). These gangs now want to purchase weapons and have the funds to do so, and ...

The cycle continues. Want to shut it down? Too bad. You can't.

What you can do, however, is allow demand to be met through legal channels. Let people who want to get high buy their heroin from above-board businesses that purchase their poppies from perfectly legal farms and their other supplies from equally legitimate sources. Disputes between legal suppliers are settled in court with lawyers, not in the streets with assassins, massively reducing crime and violence.

We're not talking utopia here, but we are talking about respecting people's liberty, reducing violence and increasing the potential for prosperity.

If Hillary Clinton wants to help Mexico, she should promise to push for drug legalization at home and tell Mexico that the best way to get rid of the drug gangs is to legalize the whole drug trade. Ending Prohibition in the U.S. stripped the Mafia of much of its power and wealth, and ending drug prohibition in Mexico would do the same to the drug gangs.

But if Clinton, as we can expect, is unwilling to give the Mexicans good advice, they should look close to home for wisdom. Just last month, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo joined with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, of Brazil, and César Gaviria, of Colombia, to call for an end to the violence-breeding, U.S.-driven prohibition model in drug policy. The report they endorsed states:

Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.

That's an understatement. In fact, Mexico is being torn apart by prohibitionist policies that have put whole sectors of the country in the hands of criminal gangs and produced a convulsion of violence.

With or without Clinton, Mexico should do itself a favor, and combat violence and crime by dropping drug prohibition.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Do you know what the penalty is for dealing ... err ... soap?

A while back, I wrote about a Minnesota man who spent two months in prison until laboratory tests revealed that the white powder in his deodorant container was actually deodorant -- not the cocaine indicated by an initial field test. As disturbing as that case was, it was far from the full story. In fact, a new report (PDF) funded by the Marijuana Policy Project reveals that commonly used field drug test kits are unreliable, often returning false positive results that put the freedom and reputations of innocent people in jeopardy.

This two-year scientific/legal investigation reveals a drug testing regime of fraudulent forensics used by police, prosecutors, and judges which abrogates every American’s Constitutional rights."

In False Positives Equal False Justice (PDF), forensic drug expert John Kelly, working with former FBI chief scientist and narcotics officer, Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, reports:

This two-year scientific/legal investigation reveals a drug testing regime of fraudulent forensics used by police, prosecutors, and judges which abrogates every American’s Constitutional rights. ...

Contained in this report are the results of experiments performed with field drug test kits that expose and document that they render false positives with legal substances. Based on the false positives, people continue to be wrongfully charged with, and prosecuted for, drug crimes.

Among other results, the report confirms earlier research by Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap which found that one commonly used test, NarcoPouch 928 field drug test, falsely tests positive for GHB in natural soap products and soy milk.

Kelly goes on to criticize the widely used Duquenois-Levine (D-L) for marijuana, pointing out that "As it enters its 70th year, the D-L test has yet to be validated despite being involved in the arrests, prosecutions, and convictions of millions of individuals."

Whitehurst points out further flaws with marijuana identification, "In some jurisdictions, identification is even carried out by law
enforcement officers with no more than visual, not microscopic, analysis and suspected marijuana is never even sent
to a crime lab."

Tests for cocaine are found to be equally flawed, both in their inherent accuracy and the testers' ability to distinguish results based on the color the test turns in reaction to the presence of various chemicals.

There are, of course, a number of problems with determining what blue means. First is whether the looker is color blind. Second is the inability of the human eye to resolve wavelengths of light. The blue reaction from the cobalt thiocyanate test with cocaine may give another color blue than that from another material, and yet the individual observing the blue may not be able to tell the difference in the colors."

In addition, additives used to cut cocaine's potency and increase its volume can further complicate test results.

The MPP report comes on the heels of a National Academies of Science paper that found large-scale problems with forensic "science," including such seemingly well-established fields as fingerprint evidence. To a large extent determinations of guilt and innocence, with people's liberty and even their lives in the balance, are being made based on the say-so of "experts" whose science has never actually been established according to accepted standards.

From drug field tests to fingerprints, much of what passes for scientific evidence these days is based as much on faith as Dark Age assumptions about whether or not witches float. And the stakes are just as high.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Juries quietly flip the bird to oppressive laws

In Washington, D.C., a jury ignored a military veteran's obvious violation of the city's draconian gun laws, setting him free with only a slap on the wrist. In LaSalle County, Illinois, a medical marijuana user found with 25 pounds of the plant didn't even get the slap; jurors chatted with him after finding him not guilty. While we can't know for sure, in both cases jury nullification was likely at work as regular people serving an important role in courtrooms exercised their power to quash laws they found repugnant.

Corporal Melroy H. Cort, who lost his knees to an improvised bomb in Ramadi, Iraq, was en route to Walter Reed Hospital from his home in Columbus, Ohio, when his car got a flat. He and his wife, Samantha, pulled over for repairs, at which time Cort, who has a concealed carry permit at home, retrieved his 9mm pistol from his glove compartment and put it in his pocket.

Cort's gun was spotted by somebody who called police, and Cort rapidly gained a rapid education in D.C. notoriously strict firearms laws. He was charged with carrying a pistol without a license, possession of an unregistered firearm and possession of ammunition. He spent the night behind bars for having the nerve to possess a weapon in a city that, while it has improved since its nadir in the 1990s, still has about triple the national average rate of violent crime.

Despite its crime rate, D.C. has done its best to deny residents the right to legally defend themselves. This is the city that was taken to court for its restrictions -- and lost, resulting in the landmark case of D.C. v. Heller, which reaffirmed that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to keep and bear arms. Depite that loss, city laws remain extremely restrictive, and Cort had clearly run afoul of local law.

But an amazing thing happened in court. According to the Washington Post:

After being deadlocked twice, a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday acquitted a Marine amputee on felony charges of gun possession stemming from an arrest while he was on the way to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. ...

Although acquitting him of the gun charges, the jury found Cort guilty of possessing ammunition, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to time already spent in the D.C. jail.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the jury ultimately saw no benefit in applying the city's tight gun laws to a handicapped man who was just passing through. Maybe they even questioned the overall propriety of the laws. In the end, they rather clearly ignored the law to set Cort free with just a nominal slap on the wrist -- which he plans to appeal.

And that brings us to the case of Loren J. Swift. Swift was arrested during a peaceful encounter at his home with a sizeable quantity of marijuana and plants -- reportedly 25 pounds and 50 pounds, respectively. He had been convicted once before for marijuana possession. A Navy veteran, Swift says he smokes marijuana to relieve pain and alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, but Illinois does not yet have a medical marijuana law.

Twenty-five pounds of grass, plus plants, in a state where marijuana is strictly illegal. That doesn't sound good for Swift. Except ...

On Wednesday in La Salle County Circuit Court, several jurors shook hands with an emotional Loren J. Swift after finding him not guilty of a marijuana charge that would have sent him to prison. ...

In the courthouse lobby, after the verdict, two male jurors talked and laughed with Swift and his attorney, Randy Gordon; one of the jurors patted Swift on his back. However, one of these jurors refused to admit he was a juror when The Times approached him for comment about the verdict; the other juror didn't deny he was indeed a juror, but nevertheless refused to talk.

Not surprisingly, observers at Swift's trial openly speculated about jury nullification. Once again, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that jurors sympathized more with the defendant than with the law, so decided to ignore what the statute books say.

In doing so, in both cases, justice prevailed. So did liberty.

We don't know what was going through the jurors' heads in the Cort and Swift trials, or whether any jurors were even familiar with jury nullification. But it's not that difficult a concept to invent from scratch, if necessary.

Historically, as President John Adams put it, it has been the juror's "duty ... to find the verdict according to his own best understanding, judgment, and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court." Unfortunately, you won't come across that quote from Adams in many modern courtrooms. Government officials don't like being second-guessed by the hoi polloi, so the tradition of independent juries has been allowed to wither from neglect. Few jurors ever learn about the traditional power of juries.

But you don't need to know history to have an inkling that the rights of the individual sometimes violate the dictates of the law -- and then decide to come down in favor of individual rights. And individual rights are an endangered species in a nation increasingly hemmed in by laws and regulations that seem to render ever more of our daily activities either mandatory or forbidden. They need as much protection as they can get.

To preserve what's left of our liberty, jury nullification is a good and powerful tool for checking government power. But since it is frequently discouraged by judges and prosecutors jealous of their prerogatives, it's generally exercised on the sly -- often by jurors unaware that they're doing exactly what was originally intended. For that reason, we'll likely never know exactly when nullification is being exercised.

But we can celebrate it when we see it.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

So, why were you taking those painkillers last year?

Have you ever taken any prescription drugs I should know about? Let me rephrase that. Have you ever taken any prescription drugs that you think are none of my business or anybody else's, for that matter? It's all the same, if you live in a state like Arizona, where Big Brother is monitoring your prescription history and keeping records of your medications stored in one handy, centralized database.

The Controlled Substances Prescription Monitoring Program was established by an act of the legislature, and went into effect this past December. It joins Arizona with 37 other states that have or are planning similar monitoring programs. The text of the law is rather brief, creating "a computerized central database tracking system to track the prescribing, dispensing and consumption of schedule II, III and IV controlled substances" for the purposes of assisting "law enforcement to identify illegal activity" and to "[p]rovide information to patients, medical practitioners and pharmacists to help avoid the inappropriate use of schedule II, III and IV controlled substances."

Well, isn't that nice and helpful.

The rules (PDF) created by the Arizona State Board of Pharmacy are more detailed. Of particular interest, the rules allow access to the database to:

  1. A person who is authorized to prescribe or dispense a controlled substance to assist that person to provide medical or pharmaceutical care to a patient or to evaluate a patient;
  2. An individual who requests the individual's own controlled substance prescription information under A.R.S. § 12-2293;
  3. A professional licensing board established under A.R.S. Title 32, Chapter 7, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 25, or 26. Except as required under subsection (B), the Board or its designee shall provide this information only if the requesting board states in writing that the information is necessary for an open investigation or complaint;
  4. A local, state, or federal law enforcement or criminal justice agency. Except as required under subsection (B), the Board or its designee shall provide this information only if the requesting agency states in writing that the information is necessary for an open investigation or complaint;
  5. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System [Medicaid] Administration regarding individuals who are receiving services under A.R.S. Title 36, Chapter 29. Except as required under subsection (B), the Board or its designee shall provide this information only if the Administration states in writing that the information is necessary for an open investigation or complaint;
  6. A person serving a lawful order of a court of competent jurisdiction; and
  7. The Board staff for purposes of administration and enforcement of A.R.S. § Title 36, Chapter 28 and this Article.

Am I the only one who thinks that's an awful lot of people to have poking through people's medication records? Note that access for law enforcement isn't conditional on a warrant, but only requires a written request stating that the information "is necessary for an open investigation or complaint." Uh huh. Don't tick off your neighbor, the state trooper.

And professional licensing boards have access to prescription information too. The specified professional boards with authority to leaf through your medication history include those regulating: podiatrists; dentists; traditional, osteopathic and naturopathic (but not homeopathic) physicians; nurses; optometrists; pharmacists; veterinarians; physician assistants; and security guards.

A "lawful order of a court of competent jurisdiction" could be just about anything -- including your ex-wife or husband taking a stab at revisiting your child custody rights. It could also be just about any fishing expedition related to a lawsuit.

And all of this is authorized access at the outset of the program. We can assume there will be pressure to expand access as the years go by -- the temptation to do so will be like ... well ... the bureaucratic equivalent of an addiction. And we can assume that some government employees will abuse access out of curiosity or for personal gain -- like the IRS agent who was sentenced to probation last year for snooping through the tax records of nearly 200 people, including celebrities. That was only the latest example of a problem (PDF) so pervasive at the IRS that it involved congressional hearings a decade ago -- which obviously didn't change anything.

Why would a centralized database of people's prescription history be any more immune to abuse than our frequently browsed tax records?

And make no mistake about it -- those records are sensitive. Schedule II drugs include drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, schedule III includes testosterone and anabolic steroids, and schedule IV includes Librium, Valium and Ambien. There are perfectly good reasons for taking any or all of the affected drugs, but do you really want to have to explain those reasons to a licensing board, or a court -- or a journalist?

Oddly enough, for a program supposedly intended to combat "the inappropriate use" of controlled substances, the creation of the centralized medications database may be the best reason anybody could ever have for buying their drugs on the street.

Here's a thought: How about we take the government entirely out of the loop when it comes to acquiring and using the medications we want or need?

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Spark it up, Michael Phelps

In a perfect world, Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps would respond to the publication in the News of the World of a photo of him smoking from a bong with a loud call for drug legalization. Can you see the quote: "Hey, if I can win 14 gold medals while smoking grass, how bad can it be?"

I know that's unrealistic. Sure, there are some athletes, like former NFL lineman Mark Stepnoski, who have made a name for themselves as advocates of legalization. But Stepnoski was a pro who, presumably, banked his paydays and can now thumb his nose at the drug warriors. Phelps is enjoying his paydays now through endorsement contracts with a host of companies that are potentially skittish about being associated with marijuana in even the most minor way. For Phelps to take on a controversial cause now would be to trade away his earnings.

But what a spokesman Michael Phelps would make. A top-notch athlete who dominates his chosen sport -- clearly suffering few, if any, ill effects from the recreational use of an intoxicant that just happens to be out of favor with the current gang of powers-that-be. He would be a powerful example that moderate use of marijuana and other for-the-moment illegal intoxicants can be harmless -- and even beneficial.

Maybe Phelps could testify to marijuana's power to lower tension, reduce stress and really help him achieve his goals.

Of course, in a truly ideal world, Phelps wouldn't have to worry about sponsorships. That photo in News of the World would have had big marijuana companies clamoring for his endorsement.

And a few cocaine outfits courting his favor, too.


Friday, January 23, 2009

C'mon, Barry, lay off the dope raids

Asked about medical marijuana on the campaign trail in New Hampshire just a year and a half ago, then-Senator Barack Obama said, "I would not have the Justice Department prosecuting and raiding medical marijuana users. It's not a good use of our resources." Admittedly, he's been on the job just a few days, but now-President Obama's administration has just overseen its first medical marijuana raid. It's time for him to live up to his promise and call off the dogs.

It's not right to blame the new White House team for the raid in South Lake Tahoe, California. Drug Enforcement Administration officials are still hold-overs from the old administration, with the priorities of the Bush White House. So when the DEA stormed into Holistic Solutions and stole money and marijuana, they were following an old game plan -- not necessarily the new one.

So consider this a test. Did Barack Obama mean what he said about pulling the federal government out of the business of kicking in doors and hauling people to jail for using marijuana to treat medical problems? The ball is in your court, Mr. President.

Asking the new president to live up to his promises on medical marijuana is hardly radical. No, radical would be to ask him to respect people's right to consume whatever substances they please, to produce those substances, to buy them from willing sellers, and to sell them to eager customers. Radical would be to demand that he recognize that people should be free to do whatever they want so long as they don't violate the equal rights of others.

In other words, whatever is peaceful.

Asking the president to live up to his own promise on medical marijuana isn't radical at all. It's just a matter of pointing out that we want to see him walk the walk after talking the talk.

President Obama will be off to a great start if he quickly reins in the DEA and offers credible assurances that this raid will be the last such raid on his watch. If he doesn't ... Well, that will say an awful lot about what we can expect from this administration.

As for whether what we get is enough ... Well, some of us think it's long past time to make a few radical demands.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nice little town you got here ...

After unanimously passing a resolution calling for discussion of drug legalization as an antidote to the border region's troubles with violent crime, the El Paso, Texas, city council failed to overturn the mayor's veto last week. That's because half of the members of the city council changed their votes, citing threats from federal officials. Nonsense, says U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes. He didn't issue a threat; he just wanted to "make sure they understand the things they do that aren't helpful to me."

The consequences of doing things that "aren't helpful," local officials were made to understand, could be the withholding of large sums of money with which the federal government keeps local jurisdictions on a tight leash. Play ball with the feds and the goodies get passed your way. Tick off the wrong people and you don't get to feed at the trough.

I suppose you could say that's technically not a threat, but the logical result of the state of dependency in which El Paso (like most other localities in the country) has placed itself relative to the powers-that-be in distant Washington, D.C. He who takes the king's coin becomes the king's man, after all. And El Paso takes millions of coins, from highway funds to water projects to law enforcement and beyond.

Did anybody think that wouldn't give the imperial capital a little leverage?

So El Paso backed down. And now the feds know, once again, that they can head off uncomfortable discussions by ostentatiously tucking the checkbook back in their pockets -- more in sorrow than in anger, of course.

After all, what discussion is worth all the fuss when there's so much money at stake?

Below, Terry Nelson, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Department of Homeland Security, testifies before the El Paso city council in favor of drug legalization.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Freedom is a smoking deal across the U.S.

There's no ban or edict that any government can stuff down its subjects throats that some people will not resent and defy. Ample proof of that comes from Illinois, where The Telegraph reports, "[l]ike speakeasies during Prohibition, the area now has 'smokeasies.' Almost every town has a bar or two where people know they can go to smoke without being told to extinguish it." Welcome to the resistance, folks. Similar reports are trickling in from across the United States.

Where can you find smokeasies? Over the past few years, they've been spotted in Colorado Springs, Honolulu, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle ...

In Cleveland, where smoking and stripping were restricted at the same time, the bans resulted in two-fer "smokehouses" where sex, booze and tobacco mingle in a completely illegal environment.

Sounds like, fun, to be honest.

Elsewhere, licensed, above-ground establishments simply thumb their noses at the law, relying on loyal clientele to appreciate the scofflawry and keep their mouths shut. Logically enough, this suggests that low-profile, neighborhood establishments have a better chance at surviving as speakeasies than glitzy joints full of ever-changing changing faces.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

The smoke-easies tend to be in neighborhood dives; the Ballard bartender noted that it's too risky to allow smoking in trendy bars like the ones in Belltown. "If you're in the Frontier Room or the Rendezvous," he said, "you can't tell who's going to mind the smoking or not because there's a different crowd there every night."

In a neighborhood dive, even a militant anti-smoker will keep his mouth shut if wants to avoid pariah status.

None of this should be a surprise to anybody. The word "smokeasy" or "smoke-easy" is, after all, a play on "speakeasy," the name for establishments that sold illicit booze to willing customers during the long, dark years of Prohibition. Politicians may please themselves or the mob with restrictive laws, but very often such laws are unenforceable, because people subject to those laws aren't willing to comply, no matter the penalty.

No matter the penalty?

That's right. In 1633, Sultan Murad IV of the Ottoman Empire imposed the death penalty for smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol or coffee. Penalties were enthusiastically enforced. Even so, his subjects were ... unimpressed. The bans were repealed by his successor.

As Cleveland police Detective Tom Shoulders put it, "You put too many restrictions on people, they're going to find someplace else to go for their entertainment."

Wisdom from the mouths of enforcers.

Prohibitions don't work because no penalty is harsh enough to make unwilling people obey. Nicotine Nazis follow in the footsteps of drug warriors who walk the same path picked by Prohibitionists. All have tried to bend people to their will, and all have failed.

They do damage, though. Bans and restrictions inflict fines and prison time on people (and sometimes death). Nanny-staters often escalate their efforts rather than surrender to reality. By raising the stakes, enforcers empower criminals, who are best suited to profit from governments' authoritarian missteps and to undermine law-enforcement efforts.

But even flawed, defiant liberty is better than submission to the control freaks who would tell us how to live our lives. Light 'em if you got 'em and puff out a toast to the smokeasies of Illinois -- and elsewhere.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Thank the drug warriors for Arizona's heroin bargains

It's too early to call it a new drug of choice, but the ranks of heroin users appear to be growing here in Arizona. The local emergency room -- in a rural area -- is accustomed to a steady flow of meth heads. But it's now seeing the occasional heroin user, with more expected. As often happens, fanciers of illicit intoxicants are responding to the marketplace, turning to a fresh flow of inexpensive opiates as prices rise for their old preferred means of getting high.

KVOA news recently reported:

The Northwest commmunity and the foothills are becoming hotspots for black tar heroin use according to some law enforcement officials.

The mother of a former heroin addict tells us, "It was so bad and so infested in the foothills, the drug dealers actually come to the end of the street."

At about the same time, the East Valley Tribune said, "In the last year, there has been a 200 percent increase in heroin trafficking arrests."

The actual number of users involved is small, but the growth in heroin use in Arizona bucks a national trend. Across the country, "The number of current heroin users decreased from 338,000 in 2006 to 153,000 in 2007," according to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

But that decrease among heroin users was a minor blip in drug-use numbers that have remained remarkably static for years. No matter what anti-drug initiative has been pursuded, despite all the widely proclaimed busts, use of illicit intoxicants has remained at roughly constant levels.

If drug use has remained relatively steady over the years, with a recent downward blip in heroin use across the U.S., why are Arizonans switching their brand loyalty from meth to heroin?

It's all a matter of availability.

Earlier this year, the Tucson Citizen reported:

Adding to the drug's lure are the climbing street prices of methamphetamine and cocaine, caused by a crackdown on smugglers of both of those drugs by authorities on both sides of the border, local and federal drug investigators say.

While the price for meth rises, a single hit of black-tar heroin costs $10 on the streets of Tucson.

The Department of Justice's National Drug Threat Assessment for 2009 says (PDF):

Heroin production trends in Mexico and Colombia, the two primary sources of heroin in the United States, have diverged as Mexican heroin production has increased and Colombian heroin production has decreased. ...

In fact, Mexican heroin production increased 105 percent from 1999 (8.8 MT) to 2007 (18.0 MT).

During those years, the U.S. government pumped $5 billion into anti-drug efforts through Plan Colombia. The money failed to scratch cocaine production, which increased -- but heroin production, in fact, dropped by about 50%.

Mexican drug suppliers picked up the slack by increasing their own heroin production, as well as the purity of their product, from 21% in 2001 to 30% in 2006. Heroin became more available and higher quality from Mexican sources even as the drug warriors focused their efforts on methamphetamine and cocaine. And Arizona shares a border with and serves as a smuggling route for, Mexico.

Hence the surge in heroin use in Arizona, where the stuff is suddenly cheap and abundant.

That's the drug war for you. It can't actually reduce the number of people who choose to use illegal drugs. But it can invoke the laws of economics and get drug entrepreneurs to take advantage of new markets and consumers to respond to rock-bottom prices and surging availability.

Who ever would have guessed?


Saturday, December 13, 2008

I need my alcospeed fix

A North Carolina man wants to force a brewing company to stop peddling alcoholic energy drinks -- and he's joined forces with a nanny-state outfit that makes its bones trying to get the government to limit the range of food and beverages from which people can choose.

According to the Wilson Times:

Mike Sprinkle wants to sue the company that produces an alcoholic energy drink he says nearly killed his daughter this summer.

Sprinkle said that on the night of July 20, his 23-year-old daughter, Amanda, drank half a can of orange-flavored Sparks, an alcoholic energy drink made by MillerCoors, at their Wiggins Mill Road home then suddenly collapsed at her computer desk.

Amanda's eyes had rolled back, Sprinkle recalled, and she had no pulse. It was only after he performed CPR on her and took her to Wilson Medical Center that she was later determined to be fine.

He says doctors pointed out the energy drink as a likely culprit.

"Honestly, if I hadn't been sitting there that night, she probably would have died," Sprinkle said.

Since then, Sprinkle has been unsuccessfully trying to organize a class action lawsuit against MillerCoors for producing Sparks, a 6 percent alcohol energy drink sold by the company. According to the MillerCoors Web site, the drink comes in three flavors - original, light and plus - and contains the stimulants caffeine and guarana, not normally used in alcoholic beverages.

Sprinkle's efforts to protect his adult daughter from her taste in beverages brought him to the doors of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI filed a lawsuit against MillerCoors back in September in an effort to get the courts to cut off the tap on Sparks.

Drinkers of caffeinated alcoholic drinks are more likely to binge drink, ride with an intoxicated driver, become injured, or be taken advantage of sexually than drinkers of non-caffeinated alcoholic drinks, according to a 2007 study conducted at Wake Forest University. ...

"MillerCoors is trying to hook teens and ’tweens on a dangerous drink," said CSPI litigation director Steve Gardner. "This company’s behavior is reckless, predatory, and in the final analysis, likely to disgust a judge or a jury."

Gardner coined the term "alcospeed" to refer to drinks that blend alcohol with stimulants such as caffeine. You may prefer other terms though, like "Irish Coffee," which, according to one recipe, consists of:

1 1/2 oz Irish whiskey
1 tsp brown sugar
6 oz hot coffee
heavy cream

Combine whiskey, sugar and coffee in a mug and stir to dissolve. Float cold cream gently on top. Do not mix.

That sounds far tastier, though possibly less healthy, than Sparks. It's probably more alcoholic, and possible more stimulating, than the caffeinated beer. Rum and coke would do the job, too. So "alcospeed" is nothing new, whatever the CSPI says.

But that's beside the point. The choice of what to consume or not consume is a personal one, to be made individually -- not by judges and politicians under pressure from presumptuous activist groups who would make our decisions for us.

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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cops get schooled on entrapment in Fourth Amendment sting

I've long thought that too many civil liberties advocates (myself included) are reactive -- forever chasing the last horrendous abuse, only to be blind-sided by the next one. What we need are more pro-freedom advocates who are confrontational and take the battle to the authorities. Of course, that would probably require somebody with a bankroll to spend on good deeds, or else some way to make such confrontations into a commercial opportunity so they're self-financing. Sort of like what ex-cop Barry Cooper did when he set a trap for Odessa, Texas, police and filmed the results for his online reality show, KopBusters.

According to Cooper's Website:

KopBusters rented a house in Odessa, Texas and began growing two small Christmas trees under a grow light similar to those used for growing marijuana. When faced with a suspected marijuana grow, the police usually use illegal FLIR cameras and/or lie on the search warrant affidavit claiming they have probable cause to raid the house. Instead of conducting a proper investigation which usually leads to no probable cause, the Kops lie on the affidavit claiming a confidential informant saw the plants and/or the police could smell marijuana coming from the suspected house.

The trap was set and less than 24 hours later, the Odessa narcotics unit raided the house only to find KopBuster's attorney waiting under a system of complex gadgetry and spy cameras that streamed online to the KopBuster's secret mobile office nearby.

Cooper and company were hired by Raymond Madden, the father of Yolanda Madden, an Odessa woman convicted in 2005 of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. Yolanda's supporters say a key witness in the case admitted in court to planting the drugs -- but that she was convicted anyway and sent to prison.

Local CBS news coverage of Yolanda Madden, Cooper and the raid here:

Cooper is a former Texas cop and drug warrior who turned against prohibition after seeing the consequences of arrests for non-violent, consensual acts on the people he brought in. "This war on people is a failed policy. We have more prisoners of this war in jail then ever before yet even the DEA admits we have more potent drugs and a larger supply of drugs available than ever before."

He's become an able self-promoter who makes money selling videos that teach people how to go about their lives, including growing, using and selling marijuana, without raising police interest. That's opened him up for some criticism, but it also means he may well be among the people best-positioned and most strongly motivated to keep setting traps for cops who cut corners and violate constitutional rights. After all, he stands to make money selling videos of the abuses.

Wow, civil liberties activism as a profit-making enterprise. I love it.

It will be interesting to see how the Odessa police react to the trap into which they walked. I suppose they could try to press criminal charges of some sort, but if Cooper and company are telling the truth, all they did was engage in perfectly legal activity and wait for the police to misinterpret the situation, probably through the use of illegal search techniques backed by fraudulent claims made to secure a warrant. Under the circumstances, any attempts at retaliation are just going to dig a deeper hole for the local authorities.

Hat tip to Radley Balko for first covering this case.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

Prohibition repeal ain't a done deal

The good folks at Bureaucrash have produced one of the better video celebrations of the repeal of Prohibition (on this day in 1933) that I've seen. It rightly notes the importance of the end of one of the nastier violations of personal liberty in this country's history, but it also, cleverly, emphasizes the growing litany of prohibitions great and small in these sadly overregulated states of America.

On a range of issues from guns to plastic bags to cigarettes, our supposed public servants have appointed themselves not only our masters, but our nannies and nags. Rather than permit us to make our own choices, they prefer to substitute their own judgment, with a boot on the neck, fines and prison time the threatened penalty for those among us who dare to tell them to get lost.

And no matter the reasons why each specific good or service is targeted by the finger-waggers, the intrusion by politicians is a violation of our rights -- and one that's doomed to fail if enough people, as is usually the case, refuse to comply.

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It won't prohibit worth a dime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime.
Nevertheless, we're for it.

-- Franklin P. Adams, 1931

And so the eternal war between would-be rulers and those who won't be ruled continues.

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cops commemorate Prohibition's repeal with call for drug reform

Seventy-five years ago, one of the stupider legal experiments in American history came to a blessed end with the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending Prohibition. An organization made up of law-enforcement officers is celebrating that termination of a disastrous violation of personal liberty by calling for an end to yet another failed prohibitionist venture: the war on drugs. As it turns out, we might just save a lot of money, as well as lives and freedom, by heeding their call.

As part of the We Can Do It Again campaign, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition has released a report pointing out the dangerous parallels between alcohol prohibition and the war on drugs, including violence, vast expense, diversion of law-enforcement resources, pointless incarceration of huge numbers of people and corruption of the criminal justice system -- even as use of the banned intoxicants actually increases amidst widespread defiance of the law.

You mean the use of drugs and alcohol increased after they were banned? You bet.

We Can Do It Again: Repealing Today's Failed Prohibition (PDF) points out:

While estimates on alcohol use before, during and immediately after prohibition rely upon incomplete data, sociologists identify two trends: first, alcohol became associated with a rebellious, adventurous lifestyle, which increased its desirability, especially among the young. Second, alcohol remained fully present in daily urban life. In New York City, for example, in the year before prohibition went into effect, there were 15,000 saloons. Five years into prohibition, those saloons were replaced by as many as 32,000 underground speakeasies. It is without question that problematic alcohol use of all kinds increased due to this policy.

The prohibited drug became more available in its most concentrated and potent form, a natural result of the costs involved in smuggling and concealing it. Beer and wine were largely replaced by liquor in illegal speakeasies.

Decades later, the same thing, predictably, occurred with other intoxicants.

According to the federal government, in the decade preceding the start of the war, 4 million people in the United States above the age of 12 had used an illegal drug in their lifetime (2 percent of the population). By 2007, the government revealed that 114 million people above the age of 12 had tried an illegal drug (46 percent of that population), an increase of 2,850 percent. Drug use became a badge of rebellion, although very widely worn. According to the World Health Organization, the United States has the highest rates of marijuana and cocaine use in the world, despite our having some of the harshest penalties.

Drugs have become more concentrated and potent, a natural result of the costs involved in avoiding law enforcement. The average purity of cocaine at retail increased from 40 percent pure in 1981 to 70 percent pure in 2003, while its wholesale cost dropped by 84 percent over the same period. The purity of street-level heroin nearly tripled, while its wholesale cost has dropped by more than 86 percent.

The money involved in satisfying the demand for illegal intoxicants fueled the growth of violent criminal enterprises then and now. The Mafia grew out of Prohibition just as various gangs and drug cartels have been spawned by laws against drugs.

The LEAP report refers to the corrupting effect of prohibitionist laws on the criminal justic system; I can find my own evidence for that claim in the headlines. Just two days ago, news broke in Illinois that "10 Cook County corrections officers and sheriff's deputies, four Harvey police officers and one Chicago officer were charged with providing protection for what they thought were a dozen large-scale shipments of cocaine and heroin." The corrupt officers were arrested in an FBI sting that was spurred by reports that the services of bent cops were widely available to drug dealers in the area.

Cops go bad because the money is so good. When you try to forbid commerce in popular goods and services, the trade goes underground and some of the loot always slips into the pockets of those willing to look the other way, or even grease the wheels of illicit business. Even more money goes to pointlessly chasing after producers, sellers and consumers of the banned substances. And, of course, underground vendors don't pay sales taxes.

How much money are we talking about?

In The Budgetary Implications of Drug Prohibition (PDF), Harvard University economist Jeffery A. Miron estimates that the war on drugs sucks something on the order of $76 billion from the economy every year.

The report estimates that legalizing drugs would save roughly $44.1 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. $30.3 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, while $13.8 billion would accrue to the federal government. Approximately $12.9 billion of the savings would results from legalization of marijuana, $19.3 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $11.6 from legalization of other drugs.

The report also estimates that drug legalization would yield tax revenue of $32.7 billion annually, assuming legal drugs are taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco. Approximately $6.7 of this revenue would result from legalization of marijuana, $22.5 billion from legalization of cocaine and heroin, and $3.5 from legalization of other drugs.

That's a lot of money that government officials could use on more productive projects or even (we can dream) return to the taxpayers.

LEAP is an organization made up of current and former police officers, prosecutors and judges who have seen the effects of drug prohibition close-up and know that it's a doomed effort that does more harm than good. The executive director is Jack Cole, a former New Jersey state police lieutenant. Other board members include: Sheriff Bill Masters of San Miguel County, Colorado; Joseph McNamara, the fomer police chief of San Jose, California; Warren W. Eginton, a U.S. district judge in Connecticut; Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico; and other veterans of the badge, the bench and the prosecutor's office.

One-time drug warriors all, they've concluded that the war on drugs is a lost cause that hurts our liberty and our institutions. Seventy-five years after we conceded the foolishness of Prohibition, the law-enforcement officers of LEAP say it's time to face reality once again and end another failed effort to stop millions of people from doing what they're bound and determined to do.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

If a cop asks to search your truck, you say 'no'

I am forever astonished by the number of people who willingly consent to have their vehicles and possessions searched, even when the only possible outcome is a world of legal trouble. It's not that hard to say "no" in the hopes that the police officer will have neither the inclination nor the probable cause to seek a warrant. After all, you might get off if you decline the polite invitation; if you agree to the search while in possession of contraband, you will get into trouble.

That said, the following announcement from the Arizona Department of Public Safety is making the rounds:

On Monday, December 1, 2008, at 1530 hours A DPS Officer, stopped a Large Penske Moving van that was identified as a Commercial Motor Vehicle through an interview with the driver. The officer stopped the vehicle for following too close and unsafe lane usage and conducted a Level II inspection. As a result of the inspection the officer placed the driver out of service for not having a log book and noted numerous violations. While conducting the Level II inspection the officer observed numerous indicators of illegal activity, including an unreasonable explanation of the trip, highly nervous driver, unusual rental length, non cost effective trip for merchandise being hauled as well as numerous other items. The officer asked for and received written consent to search the vehicle. The officer identified a false front wall in the truck by newly caulked walls, phillips head screws in the front wall and sheet metal along the top of the wall. A search of the false compartment revealed 1849 pounds of Marijuana.

What does the better part of a ton of marijuana look like? Take a gander:

So, you have that sitting behind you in a false compartment in your truck, a police officer clearly has his spidey senses tingling, but nothing else to go on (that's the formal translation of "an unreasonable explanation of the trip, highly nervous driver, unusual rental length, non cost effective trip for merchandise being hauled as well as numerous other items"). The cop asks if he can go probing through your belongings and, with that motherload of ganja behind your seat, you say ... yes?

Ummm ... that's the wrong answer, folks.

Here's a hint: The Fourth Amendment requires that, even in searches of vehicles, which enjoy reduced constitutional protection, police must still have probable cause. Refusing consent isn't a firm and fast roadblock to a search, but it's better protection than permitting the search to proceed.

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