Sunday, February 09, 2014

Reefer Madness

Free-lance writer Gina Tron grew up in Long Island, NY, moved to Barre, Vermont in 1992 when she apparently was approximately nine years old, went elsewhere to college, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. She has found

Heroin seems to have touched everyone I know in Vermont. Everyone has a relative, friend or neighbor who has been affected. And while the growth among people in my age group—25 to 34—has been nearly exponential, even younger people are using too...

A few years ago, it may have been possible simply to look away—to focus instead on those striking pastoral landscapes. But that’s no longer the case. It’s time for Vermonters, and the rest of the country, to recognize that heroin is now nearly as much a part of our state’s identity as our beloved maple syrup and covered bridges.

Tron applauds Governor Shumlin, who devoted his State of the State message on February 5 to the state's "full-blown heroin crisis," because

he wants to address heroin as a public health issue, not just a law-enforcement one. He recognizes addiction for what it is—a disease—and has compared being addicted to heroin to having cancer. Shumlin is proposing more education and more treatment centers—currently there are more than 500 addicts on waiting lists in Vermont. He has also made a call for rapid intervention programs so that addicts can get help when they’re most likely to be receptive to it. He wants to focus on healing, and getting real about the crisis.

Labeling drug addiction a disease long ago became all the rage, probably because it is conductive to ramp up support for education and treatment, though it might be difficult for victims of epilepsy, Down Syndrome, cancer, bursitis, and Alzheimer's (and other illnesses) to understand how they are as responsible for the condition in which they find themselves as are narcotics abusers.

Having been on the heroin beat awhile, Tron has valuable insight into the interrelationship of heroin, Oxycontin, and marijuana.  Oxycontin is similar to heroin and, she explains, once it "was redesigned in 2010, making it more expensive and harder to crush," H has become "the drug of choice" and is "now easier to find than weed in many parts of Vermont."

As Shumlin noted in his address, the number of individuals in treatment for heroin in his state has skyrocketed. Heroin is much cheaper than Oxycontin, Tron points out, and its users "didn't start off on heroin. They started out on pills."

They didn't start off on heroin. They started out on pills.  Neither, apparently, did they start off on marijuana, notwithstanding the constant stream of disinformation over the past few decades.

Evidently- among people who have studied drug use- Tron's view that marijuana is grossly overstated as a gateway drug is not an outlier.  A similar observation was made by Robert J. MacCoun,  professor at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Public Policy and Bosh School of Law.  He recently compared usage of the drug among teens in the U.S.A. and in the Netherlands, which has several hundred adults-only clubs which sell marijuana.  His study recently was published in the journal Addiction and in an interview for Legalization Nation, he stated

In the U.S. we usually think that marijuana is a gateway, that it will increase the appetite for intoxicants, but the Dutch in the Seventies had a very different theory, which was the gateway is created by contact with hard drug sellers. They had this idea: if we can separate the markets and let people who want soft drugs get them without having to go to drug dealers then we can reduce the gateway and the data in my paper seem to suggest there's something to that.

MacCoun acknowledges "it is a leap to generalize from the Netherlands to the U.S."  Still, it is instructive and notable that he believes that marijuana need not be a gateway substance, especially if access to dealers of more serious drugs is restricted.  And it is why President Obama ought to replace the director of  the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, who two years ago stated (and whose views have not much changed)

Too often, we face a polarized debate: legalization at one end of the spectrum and a war on drugs at the other.    The Obama administration is committed to a third way forward. Legalization is not our policy, nor is locking every offender up.  (Additionally) transnational criminal networks will not disappear if drugs were made legal.

The notion that "locking every offender up" is common is a shibboleth.  In most states- especially the most populous states, hence the ones with the greatest number of users- most drug offenders, especially on the first offense, are not imprisoned.   And while transnational criminal networks would not go out of business if marijuana were made legal, the efforts of law enforcement could be focused on Oxycontin and other threats of greater threat to the American people.  Further, if experience in the Netherlands is any indication, interdiction of the supply of those other drugs would reduce the scourge of heroin use.

In another article, Tron and Hannah Palmer Egan have written

It used to be mostly local people going down to cities to bring drugs back. Now, according to (head of the Vermont State Police Matthew) Birmingham, dealers are coming to Vermont to set up shop. "You're dealing with guns, you're dealing with gangs, and it becomes problematic for the citizens of Vermont, too," he told us. "This kind of activity now exists here and with it comes violence and shootings and all kinds of different things that happen on the streets."

Memo to Kerlikovske:  these aren't guys zoning out from smoking a little weed and neither education nor treatment, although necessary components of effective policy, is going to stop them. Neither ending the drug war nor continuing the prohibition on personal use of marijuana, accompanied by the emphasis (witness top-and-frisk in New York City) on street-level users, will make them "disappear."  And if Kerlikovske wants individuals to continue to be arrested for marijuana use, perhaps he can explain these (albeit dated) charts:

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