Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fighing the War on Drugs... With Anecdotes and Bad Reasoning


Although he makes his own view difficult to pin down, George Will seems to endorse the war on drugs, from marijuana to... whatever, quoting Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, i.e., the "Drug Czar".
Nature made Kerlikowske laconic and experience has made him prudent, so he steers clear of the "L" word, legalization, even regarding marijuana.

Asked whether he thinks that it is a "gateway" drug leading to worse substances, he answers obliquely: "You don't find many heroin users who didn't start with marijuana."
I doubt that you find many heroin users who "didn't start with cigarettes", or "didn't start with alcohol", or "didn't start with"... something else. That people who are inclined to seek out an illegal, highly addictive street drug have previously tried various legal and more easily obtained illegal drugs is anything but a surprise. The question is, does that suddenly transform correlation into causation. Obviously it does not.

But Kerlikoswke also served up this anecdote, offered with a distinct lack of detail:
During his immersion in his new job, Gil Kerlikowske attended a focus group of 7-year-old girls and was mystified by their talk about "farm parties." Then he realized they meant "pharm parties" - sampling pharmaceuticals from their parents' medicine cabinets.
The Post added a short description to Will's piece - a tag line - "Seven-year-olds party with pharmaceuticals they steal from their parents", but that's not what Will wrote. It's not clear from the anecdote whether the girls were asked if they knew about "pharm parties" as opposed to participating or organizing them. Were we to shift back a few decades, I could see Kerlikoswke being similarly surprised that what he thought was a focus group about cooking utensils turned out to be about marijuana. ("I was mystified by their talk about 'pot', but then I realized....")

Note that it's not just older siblings or relatives who could be introducing seven-year-olds to the concept of "pharm parties", but that knowledge can also come from anti-drug education. Consider, for example, DARE:
Statistics have shown that teens believe prescription drugs are safer than illicit drugs, driving the proliferation of such trends as "pharm parties" where teens mix and trade pills with one another to get high, leading to dangerous and sometimes deadly outcomes
At least DARE's not trying to depict this as a new trend for second grade students.

But let's go back to the notion of the gateway drug. Is Kerlikoswke suggesting that these kids are finding Marinol in their parent's medicine cabinet, and that it becomes a "gateway drug" to other medications? Or are the kids heading right to the opiate medication and benzodiazepines? There has been a huge uptick in opiate abuse in our nation, and of other pharmaceutical drugs, and it's not because of "gateway drugs".

Further, one of the problems of depicting a drug as a "gateway drug" that leads kids down a slippery slope into "harder" drugs is that you create a context where a lot of kids will find out that you're lying to them. They'll try marijuana, not get addicted, and may wonder if the anti-drug messages given about "harder" drugs are also overhyped. Tens of millions of Americans have tried marijuana - 42% of the population - including quite a few recent Presidents. While it would be interesting to hear Presents Bush and Obama speak to the notion of marijuana as a gateway drug to cocaine, it should be remembered that the addictions they did develop - Obama's nicotine addiction and Bush's alcoholism - were to legal drugs.

Commenting on legalization, Will also offers the nebulous comment,
Kerlikowske is familiar with Portugal's experience since 2001 with the decriminalization of all drugs, including heroin and cocaine.
What lessons can we draw from that experiment?
Compared to the European Union and the U.S., Portugal's drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal had the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the E.U.: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%. Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%; drug use in older teens also declined. Lifetime heroin use among 16-to-18-year-olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8% (although there was a slight increase in marijuana use in that age group). New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003, and deaths related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. In addition, the number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and money saved on enforcement allowed for increased funding of drug-free treatment as well.
Kerlikowske sees that as a policy failure? It would have been interesting to hear his explanation.

Unfortunately, to the extent that it suggests Kerlikowske has a different opinion, when it comes to law enforcement policy Will quotes The Economist and not Kerlikowske:
"There is no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and the incidence of drug-taking: citizens living under tough regimes (notably America but also Britain) take more drugs, not fewer." Do cultural differences explain this? Evidently not: "Even in fairly similar countries tough rules make little difference to the number of addicts: harsh Sweden and more liberal Norway have precisely the same addiction rates."
You might even infer that there's a subset of the population that is predisposed toward addiction and, whether given an "open market" where they can find their drug of choice or a more limited market where they must instead choose a drug they find somewhat less appealing, most will become addicted to something. Talk to some alcoholics and see how hard it is to find one who, following their first exposure to alcohol, thought of little beyond their next opportunity to get drunk.1 There's no magic answer to eliminating drug abuse and addiction, but the evidence is pretty clear that addiction is better approached as a public health matter than as a criminal matter.2

Update: An editorial takes on the latest version of "reefer madness" (the correlation between marijuana use and psychosis, the notion that marijuana is stronger than it used to be, and that this justifies increasing criminal penalties for possession and use:
The other paradox is that schizophrenia seems to be disappearing (from the general population), even though cannabis use has increased markedly in the last 30 years. So, even though skunk has been around now for 10 years, there has been no upswing in schizophrenia. In fact, where people have looked, they haven't found any evidence linking cannabis use in a population and schizophrenia.
The author expresses concern that criminalization and misinformation make the drug more enticing, and advocates honesty about drugs:
We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. We have to tell them the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source of information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you're probably wrong.

---------------
1. It isn't hard.

2. There's an argument that having a criminal law element can be important both to helping some addicts find their "rock bottom" - the point where the cost of addiction exceeds the benefit - although my experience is that few addicts are inspired toward sobriety by an arrest. There's also an argument that the coercive element of probation and possible incarceration can help keep people in treatment; countered by the fact that treatment really only seems to work when the addict wants to get better, and not in the sense of "all I want for Christmas".

6 comments:

  1. One need not travel to China to find indigenous cultures lacking human rights or to Cuba for political prisoners. America leads the world in percentile behind bars, thanks to ongoing persecution of hippies, radicals, and non-whites under prosecution of the war on drugs. If we’re all about spreading liberty abroad, then why mix the message at home? Peace on the home front would enhance global credibility.

    The drug czar’s Rx for prison fodder costs dearly, as life is flushed down expensive tubes. My shaman’s second opinion is that psychoactive plants are God’s gift. Behold, it’s all good. When Eve ate the apple, she knew a good apple, and an evil prohibition. Canadian Marc Emery sold seeds that enable American farmers to outcompete cartels with local herb. The hero is being extradited to prison for the crime of reducing U.S. demand for Mexican pot.

    Only on the authority of a clause about interstate commerce does the CSA (Controlled Substances Act of 1970) reincarnate Al Capone, endanger homeland security, and throw good money after bad. Administration fiscal policy burns tax dollars to root out the number-one cash crop in the land, instead of taxing sales. Society rejected the plague of prohibition, but it mutated. Apparently, SWAT teams don’t need no stinking amendment.

    Nixon passed the CSA on the false assurance that the Schafer Commission would later justify criminalizing his enemies. No amendments can assure due process under an anti-science law without due process itself. Psychology hailed the breakthrough potential of LSD, until the CSA shut down research, and pronounced that marijuana has no medical use, period. Drug juries exclude bleeding hearts.

    The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) allows Native American Church members to eat peyote, which functions like LSD. Americans shouldn’t need a specific church membership or an act of Congress to obtain their birthright freedom of religion. John Doe’s free exercise of religious liberty may include entheogen sacraments to mediate communion with his maker.

    Freedom of speech presupposes freedom of thought. The Constitution doesn’t enumerate any governmental power to embargo diverse states of mind. How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity? The Mayflower sailed to escape coerced conformity. Legislators who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction.

    Common-law must hold that adults are the legal owners of their own bodies. The Founding Fathers undersigned that the right to the pursuit of happiness is inalienable. Socrates said to know your self. Mortal lawmakers should not presume to thwart the intelligent design that molecular keys unlock spiritual doors. Persons who appreciate their own free choice of path in life should tolerate seekers’ self-exploration.

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  2. "Fighting “Against” the War on Drugs... With Anecdotes and Really Bad Reasoning"

    Dear Antinomian,

    There are valid arguments to be made in favor of legalizing (to some degree) some controlled substances - you succeed in obscuring nearly all of these arguments in your ocean of self-aggrandizing juvenile twaddle.

    Ordinarily, I avoid making ad hominem attacks, but in your case, I’m going to make an (in my opinion well deserved) exception. That said, in no particular order here are my comments on your post . . . oh, and thank you for giving me such a target rich environment in which to play after a truly lousy day at work.

    I was going to start this post by mocking you over your contention that there was an, ". . . ongoing persecution of hippies . . ." by pointing out that there were no more hippies and hadn’t been for decades . . . then I read your profile.

    My God - do you know what the difference is between you and most of the other people who list their occupation as "student"? They are closer to 16 than 40? They have some hope of gainful employment in their future? They will probably grow out of their self-important, self-involved, juvenile stage and actually amount to something at some point in their lives? How about, all of the above.

    Now, on to your actual comments:

    “My shaman’s second opinion is that . . . “ - I’m not sure if I should point out that your (doubtless) self-appointed status as a shaman would be found offensive by most “actual” members of shamanistic faiths or if I should just point out that most grown-ups who want to do drugs just “fess-up” to the fact that they want to do drugs, they don’t have to drag the spirituality garbage into the equation in an effort to make themselves seems like something other than . . . well, you. I think instead I’ll just leave your quote out there and let people draw their own conclusions. Ditto the line about, “Behold, it’s all good. When Eve ate the apple, she knew a good apple, and an evil prohibition.” I’ll just point out that your knowledge of theology is only rivaled by your knowledge of rhetoric, law, and economics . . . oh, and point out that Eve ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge, not an apple.

    “Only on the authority of a clause about interstate commerce does . . . “ - Actually, that whole “interstate commerce clause” thing is used by the Federal Government for just about every kind of regulation the Federal Government engages in, not just their efforts to stop you from ingesting “psychoactive plants.” As long as were on the subject, let me point out that a) there have been laws against the use of certain substances (opium, cocaine, etc) before the CSA and if the Federal Government got out of the business of regulating “controlled substances” tomorrow, the states would jump right back in; b) as a former prosecutor the only time I can recall ever seeing (or in this case prosecuting) a case involving “psycho active plants” (actually mushrooms) was when someone was selling them as opposed to just using them and they were dumb enough to be doing so on or near a military installation. I really have a hard time seeing “the man” crashing your party if you just feel like going out in the woods and eating a plant, psycho active” or otherwise.

    “Administration fiscal policy burns tax dollars to root out the number-one cash crop in the land, instead of taxing sales.” – You do realize that if you legalize marijuana (which from the context is what I assume you are discussing) the price will fall dramatically and it will pretty much definitely not be the number one cash crop anywhere? I’d also question just how accurate any estimate of the dollar value of an “illicit crop” could be, so although I’ve heard all the same quotes you have about the size of the marijuana crop in certain states, let’s keep in mind that those estimate are coming from the DEA which has an inherent interest in always estimating “high” to justify its budget.

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  3. Dear Antinomian (continued)

    “Psychology hailed the breakthrough potential of LSD, until the CSA shut down research, and pronounced that marijuana has no medical use, period. Drug juries exclude bleeding hearts.” - Non Sequitur much? Setting aside the comment on juries, LSD, like a lot of drugs, was hailed for its uses in psychology largely by people who enjoyed using it recreationally and had a vested interest in justifying their use. A lot of “new” drugs get rave reviews before people get a handle on them. Freud waxed eloquent about the medicinal uses of cocaine in psychotherapy until he started to get a handle on the effects of addiction and its long term impacts on the therapeutic process. I haven’t seen any research that would suggest that LSD would have lived up to its initial billing on that front . . . and before you blame that on the CSA, let me just point out that no matter how big and bad you think the Federal Government is, it isn’t stopping the Europeans, Japanese, or anyone else from doing whatever research they want in any area of pharmaceuticals they want to do it in – and the last time I checked they weren’t using LSD therapeutically anywhere.

    “The RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993) allows Native American Church members to eat peyote, which functions like LSD. Americans shouldn’t need a specific church membership or an act of Congress to obtain their birthright freedom of religion.” – First, could you possibly be a little more dismissive of the religious beliefs of Native Americans? Second, I’ve yet to hear you identify the religious group that includes LSD as a sacrament. Let’s not confuse your desire to get high with a religious practice. For that matter, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the RFRA was passed because the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment did not grant American Indians the right to use peyote as part of their religious practices (any more than it grants Aztecs and Mayans the right to practice human sacrifice or anyone else the right to commit a crime in the name of religion).

    “How and when did government usurp this power to coerce conformity? The Mayflower sailed to escape coerced conformity. Legislators who would limit cognitive liberty lack jurisdiction.” – Setting aside the issue of from whom you think the government usurped the power to coerce conformity we are left with your fundamental failure to understand the reason for the existence of Government. Government exists to coerce conformity (or at least enforce social contracts). It forces me to conform to the laws that prevent me from beating you up and stealing your lunch money. Didn’t you ever read Hobbes or Locke? For that matter, how about you crack open a history book. The Mayflower didn’t carry Puritans who were looking for a place where everyone could practice religion the way they wanted. They were looking for a place where they could establish communities that practiced religion and where they could “coerce conformity” in accordance with their religious views.

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  4. Dear Antinomian (continued 2)

    “Common-law must hold that adults are the legal owners of their own bodies. The Founding Fathers undersigned that the right to the pursuit of happiness is inalienable. Socrates said to know your self. . . Persons . . . should tolerate seekers’ self-exploration.” - Setting aside any cheap jokes about your “self-exploration” we are left with your obvious ignorance of what common-law is and the fact that for most of recorded history it allowed for many different types of people being treated as the chattel of other people (children, unmarried daughters, wives, slaves, indentured servants, etc). I think the concept you are groping for is more akin to “natural law” but I’m pretty sure even natural law’s most popular adherent would still not agree with you on this matter although he might on the issue of “self-exploration” (insert Clarence Thomas and pornography joke of your choice here) . . . you also seem to fail to grasp the fact that it is the absolute fundamental purpose of any system of laws to prevent the pursuit of happiness of some people. We want laws that prevent rapist and child molesters from pursuing their own happiness. If people didn’t’ want to do the things that laws prohibit, we wouldn’t need laws to prohibit them from . . . well, you get my point.

    If you want to argue that making marijuana and other drugs illegal is a bad policy, you are certainly free to do so, but please, don’t try to argue that it is unconstitutional or that it somehow goes against Western legal traditions to do so. Your arguments are puerile and embarrassing. Also, for the record, the phrase in the Declaration of Independence is “unalienable” not “inalienable”.

    CWD

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  5. Ordinarily, I avoid making ad hominem attacks, but in your case, I’m going to make an (in my opinion well deserved) exception.

    Ahhh...CWD....Im smitten.....

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  6. "Ahhh...CWD....Im smitten....."

    - Now if only your husband wasn't such a large and violent man. : )

    CWD

    ReplyDelete