Saturday, April 4, 2009

Taking Back the Right to Be Free

In 1996 the state of California passed Proposition 215 - allowing patients to obtain medical marijuana from licensed dispensaries around the state. By allowing the sale of medical marijuana, the government set up the need for private businesses who could provide the goods. This created the need for numerous new jobs and educational opportunities. Schools like Oaksterdam University in San Francisco (and now Michigan) were established for those interested in jobs associated with the legal sale of marijuana. Students study topics such as horticulture, cooking with Cannabis and the legal issues associated with owning and operating a dispensary. Once people have the proper credentials and requirements fulfilled, dispensaries started popping up all over the state. Today there are over 300 dispensaries across the state of California. 

Now California has a new proposition ( CA AB390) that would legalize marijuana. This bill would tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use much the way alcohol currently operates. People over 21 would be allowed to purchase marijuana legally but cannot use it in public places. Those wishing to sell would be required to pay a $5,000 fee for the first year in business and $2,500 for every year after. NORML estimates that, if enacted, the bill would bring in over $1 billion a year in revenue for the state and would create even more jobs and opportunities than Prop 215 has in the past. AB 390 would not interfere with Prop 215 and the current medical marijuana laws in California would remain in place. 

If we want to see policies like AB390 enacted we need to write our lawmakers to raise the issue. There are various organizations and advocacy groups that make it easy to get involved. You can help support CA AB390 by visiting to fill out a pre-written letter that they will send to your state representatives.

Based on this model its clear to see how the legalization of marijuana would not only bring billions of dollars into the federal budget, but would also create jobs - sending  billions more into the currently crumbling economy. 

But these policies cannot stand on their own. We must also rework drug education so that our youth understands the horrible consequences of abuse. Current arguments that marijuana is a gateway drug that has crippling effects is just false propaganda and insults the intelligence of all people presented with it. Children and teens should be taught in their health classes about different drugs that are around and what their effects on the body are - mentally, physically, and emotionally.  The current practice of "just say no" clearly has not been effective. People are going to try drugs and when it comes to our kids, they ought to be educated so that they can make the best choices. 

Current enforcement of marijuana laws alone adds anywhere from $10-15 Billion to the annual federal budget. About 700,000 people are arrested for marijuana each year - the figure is about the same for all other drug related arrests combined, and 600,000 of those 700,000 are arrested for simple possession.

Prisons are over crowed with non-violent, recreational drug users who drain the system of important resources. 

It is about time that we take responsibility for the Americans we claim to care so much about. When people get caught with drugs they should not be going to jail - they should be going to places where they will get real help. Drug traffickers and people who commit crimes should be put in prison. Private individuals should not be persecuted for responsible recreational use.  

The only way we will ever see effective law enforcement is if we take the initiative and raise the issues. We need to first create a discussion by writing our local, state, and federal policy makers. Here on campus at Syracuse University - I run a group called Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group that seeks to spread important information about the war in America against America - the Drug War. I urge all those interested to join our facebook group.

The point here is that people should not be put in jail for the things for they put into their bodies. Obama's appointment for the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, aka Drug Czar, is Gil Kerlikowske - a police chief from Seattle who put marijuana arrests as the lowest priority for arrests, realizes the harmful effects the Drug War has on America's citizens and economy. He stresses drug treatment opposed to incarceration, a much more cost effective approach. 

Marijuana was once required to be grown by farmers and Virginia, George Washington has been recorded to not only have grown it but smoked it in his pipe rather frequently. Yet today, when people are caught with marijuana they are thrown in jail, or because of the Higher Education Act teens may loose all state funding and grants that help pay for college. It seems to me that somewhere along the way things may have gotten blurry. 

It is a time we take a stand and take back the right be free individuals who can make smart, intelligent decisions for themselves. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Alternatives to Prohibition

This past November I had the opportunity to meet with Ethan Nadelmann and hear him speak at the annual conference for Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Washington, D.C. - and I have to say some of his ideas are pretty clear and sensible.

I would agree with Ethan and say that Marijuana should be legalized, or at least decriminalized - as it has been in 13 of the 50 US States. I would say this is one of the biggest issues of the drug war. Too much money has been focused on police efforts to crack down on the personal use of marijuana by private citizens and non-violent drug offenders. 

The use of marijuana for a variety of purposes, including therapeutic, religious, and recreational,  have been recorded since 5000 BC and it wasn't until 1937 that it actually became illegal in the United States. Alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, only 13 years after it had been enacted. There were a slew of reasons for repealing the prohibition but a lot of it had to do with the Great Depression. When people are down they often turn to substances, just as some turn to jogging or knitting, to relieve the stress of their everyday lives. Also, the government realized that if they regulated and taxed alcohol they could guarantee quality control and make money off it. Why is it that we have yet to take this approach towards marijuana - or all drugs for that manner. 

I don't know if ALL drugs should be legal. However, I do believe that if drugs were made legal they could be more closely regulated so that quality could be controlled. Drugs would be taken out of the hands of gangs and drug cartels and into the grip of the government who could tax and regulate some substances just a tobacco and alcohol is. As someone who has tried many legal and illegal drugs I would argue that all drugs can be used responsibly by a person who has the will and personal strength and intelligence to understand addiction. However, I understand we do not live in a Utopian society where all people can do things responsibly and sometimes people get carried away or lost in a world of destruction.

Perhaps we should take a look at the Dutch - the Netherlands have coffee shops all over their country where you can purchase up to 5 grams of marijuana. The leaders of this country understand that this is one of the safest drugs and can be used by responsible adults. 

Just in case you haven't been to Amsterdam, or anywhere else in the Netherlands, this is what it's like...

First you find a coffee shop. This particular one is called Grey Area. Then, you go up to a counter and ask the guy what he has. 

He might then give you a menu that looks something like this....

(They even offer to let you use their bong or vaporizer)

And now once you have made your decision, you exchange your money for the product, sit down and enjoy. 

These are my personal pictures and come from my personal experiences in Holland which are not unlike many others. But how is it that when I return to my homeland and tried to light up in Starbucks - I would be thrown in jail. 

We need a drug policy that reduces harm; provides treatment to those who really need help - those battling with addiction. Instead of labeling them as criminals and wasting our resources by sending them to prison with child rapists and murderers we should be sending them to facilities where they will receive treatment and therapy. I think of it as almost a life in counseling center that is much like life in the real world. There should groups of addicts working and living together with a sober mentor who can help them battle withdrawals but also provide them with assistance and education on ways to better their lives and reintroduce them back into the world once they have been rehabilitated.  

Obama laughed when he brought up the idea that legal marijuana might actually help or even save the economy. But really when you think about it - how much money is there to be made on legal marijuana? How much money could we save if we stopped throwing people in jail for the personally and private use of a substance? Or what about the environment? Many people grow marijuana only to have it wiped out and destroyed by federal agents, thus contributing to our environmental decline. 

It's about time we shift our focus from punishing citizens towards making sure everyone is safe and that people get help when they need it. Does it not seem logical that we should have the right to put any substance into our bodies, absent harm to others?

Friday, March 27, 2009

A History of the Drug War - Blame is on US(A)

The first anti-drug law was implemented in San Francisco (of all places) in 1875 - outlawing opium, opium pipes, and opium dens. This trend caught on and a few policies were made regarding opium and its trade but the next major reform in drug laws came in 1914 with the Harrison Narcotics Control Act. This act put certain restrictions on importing, manufacturing, and distributing cocaine and opiates so that only doctors could prescribe these drugs to patients for legitimate medical reasons. 

From 1917 until 1933 Alcohol was made illegal, a time in our history we refer to as the Prohibition. During this time "speak easys" started to pop up and people would sell homemade whiskey or even moonshine. Once gangsters started making money to support their criminal activities by bootlegging alcohol the government realized its mistake and responded by repealing a law that limited what people could choose to put into their bodies. With alcohol back on the market and with cocaine and opiate use becoming somewhat less of an issue, the government turned to a new devil - marijuana. In 1937 the Marijuana Tax act was established on what some might argue to be racial motivated grounds. People at that time were afraid of the crazed immigrants from Mexico that smoked the loco weed.  

In the 60s, Counter-culture icons Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey extended the acid scene amongst their respectful coasts. Changes were made with the times and things like psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, and ecstasy were banned shortly after they gained popularity. By 1970, the Food and Drug Administration, and a handful of other enforcement groups had been set up and were supported by the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act that established 5 Schedules for drugs, placing some substances such as marijuana, LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin in a higher category than cocaine, amphetamine, and raw opium. 

After Nixon official declared the "war on drugs" in 1971, he started the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973. Two years later, in 1975 a very interested report was issued (and ignored) by the Domestic Council Drug Abuse Task Force recommending law enforcement officials place marijuana as a "low-priority" in efforts to curve some of the real problems with heroin, amphetamines, and barbiturates. Even with all of these laws in place people were doing drugs during the 70s and 80s perhaps more than ever. Kingpins like George Jung and Pablo Escobar have been recently celebriticized but during this time these two could have been responsible for 85 % of the cocaine trade in the US. It might be interesting to know that Pablo Escobar also served on congress for his homeland of Colombia. He had a real interest in the people's need, creating low income housing and personally handing out money to the people in his hometown. The problem with cocaine is that people can get very addicted and very tolerent. Once people start losing their edge by simply snorting the substance they looked for a better more, intense high. This brings us to the Crack epidemic that started in the 80s and is still alive today. After a promising college basketball player, Len Bias over-dosed on crack cocaine the nation went crazy and it become a huge epidemic. In 1986 the Anti-Drug Abuse Act paved the way for a slew of issues by establishing mandatory minimum sentences and a 100:1 disparity between crack cocaine and powered cocaine, meaning that someone arrested for 5 grams of crack cocaine would need 500 grams of powered cocaine to receive the same mandatory 5 year minimum sentence. Why such a big difference you may ask? What exactly is the difference between powered cocaine and crack cocaine? Baking soda. Yes thats right, if you want to make crack you get some cocaine, you get some baking soda, a Bunson burner - mix em all up together in the right fashion with some water and you will have yourself some crack. By adding baking soda to the cocaine you are adding an alkaline base to the molecule, in this case a sodium atom attaches itself to the cocaine molecule. This allows for more and faster absorption of the cocaine because we have sodium receptors in our cells, making the crack for of cocaine a more intense high, but nearly identical in their chemical structure. Of course crack is an awful, dangerous drug - but why such the disparity? Perhaps we should look at our past trends as to why we pass drug laws - racism. First off, crack is cheap and popular in the poorer parts of cities. A high concentration of these poorer people happen to be African American and the incarceration rate is nearly eleven percent higher for blacks than whites for the same exact conviction. Also, because there is such a large disparity - a lot of the mid-to-high-level dealers are able to provide the authorities with information to people higher then them and can make deals to lower or eliminate their sentence. However, poor people arrested with 5 grams of crack don't know anyone, probably not even the guy they bought the crack from, and are forced to serve their entire term in prison.

In 1986, a year after Nancy Reagan started the "just say no" campaign, the Iran Contra Affair was brought into the public light. Our government was trading weapons trough Israel to Iran, essential in exchange for hostages, and helping them raise funds by keeping a shut eye to their drug tracking activities. The first Bush continued the trend of the Drug War and President Clinton even allowed for the death penalty for high level drug offenders, regardless to whether or not they were non-violent. 

When California passed the Compassionate Use Act in 1996 they became the first state to challenge the federal laws by allowed the use of marijuana for medical uses. Even though the Constitution allows states to make their own laws they Federal Government sends the DEA in to raid these medical marijuana facilities. The cost of Marijuana prohibition alone is about $1.2 billion a year between maintaining facilities, guards, police officers and a whatever other expenses. 

I am writing this now watching our current President answer some of the most important questions of the nation. He commented that he say many of his online supporters wanted him to talk about the issue of marijuana reform or legalization/decriminalization. When he said did not only did he giggle while he talked but the audience around him laughed. Maybe those people don't know any one who has been arrested for simple possession and has now lost the right to vote, serve on a jury, adopt a child or in some places even rent a car. Maybe none of these people have sons and daughters who were in college but had to drop out because they got busted and then lost of of their financial aid because of the Higher Education Act which suggests that its better for kids to be on the streets than in school. Or perhaps they should watch this video to see what happened to 23 year old Rachel Hoffman.

Or how about Derek Copp from the University of Michigan who was shot in the lungs over "a few teaspoons of marijuana" when the police admitted they knew he was unarmed.

Or maybe Obama just forgot when he said this...

America does not have a drug problem, we have a problem with drugs. The federal government has stalled many efforts to study not only marijuana for medical reasons but also LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and Ibogaine to name only a few. Lyle Craker has been practically begging the DEA and FDA to let him grow marijuana to do research for diseases like cancer and AIDS, but for some unknown reason they not only do not allow this research to be done officially, but they ignore the information from other research done underground and abroad. 

We can blame only our government for what the American Drug War has become. Drugs were not meant to be outlawed in this country, rather laws were made in attempt to keep other countries out of our market. We also looked for a way to take care of the outsiders, the Chinese with the opium, hispanics and blacks with marijuana, cocaine and other drugs have led to the on-going crisis in Mexico, and even the gay culture once they started to buckle down on the whole rave scene. We can also blame the government for putting these drugs in the hands of criminals and allowing them to use their profits from the drug trade to buy weapons and carry out other criminal acts. 

We must get rid of the idea that has be propagated into heads that drugs are bad. Drugs are not bad - drug abuse and drug addiction is. However, not bad in a way that people should go to jail, but bad in the way that without proper treatment these people could face serious issues with their heath and the quality of their life. We allow tobacco and alcohol to be regulated, sold, and taxed to people once they reach a certain age of responsibility, but these substances are still the cause of many deaths and diseases for both the user and other bystanders. Why are we not allowed this same freedom with drugs? Or even marijuana? We were not a nation founded on freedom? Should we not have the freedom to experience what we want and to put whatever substance in our body that we may choose, absent harm to others? I say yes. 

"The American Drug War" Trailer