Measuring our (Failure at) Success


Wars, if we are to accept their necessity, need a goal by which we can measure success. The war on drugs is the poster child for a lack of goals.

This is not our first dance with wars lacking measurable goals. We have a recent history of sending troops into war without clear goals.

Korea. Technically we and our allies the South Koreans are still at war with the North, albeit paused by a truce that is 64 years old. So that’s a stalemate, with continuing implications today.

Vietnam. In 1973, we ended combat operations, declared victory, and went home. By 1975, the last vestiges of our efforts there were fleeing the country by helicopter from the roof of our Embassy.

One could say our foray into Afghanistan was based on sound argument, which we then squandered by moving into Iraq. This all started in 2001 and we still have troops on the ground.

No end in sight. No end defined to measure success.

In the continuing saga that is the war on drugs, the lack of a measurable goal or, depending on your perspective, our measure of failure continues.

For if this is indeed a war, we sorely lack measurable success. Unless our success is measured in the number of prisoners captured, then one might argue we’ve done very well.

I won’t bore you with numbers. I invite you to search for the information on your own. You might be surprised at what you find. You’d be shocked at the number of arrests, and associated costs, for possession of marijuana.

In light of the debate on legalizing personal use of marijuana, I will offer some perspective. The price of marijuana, compared to 1970’s and the beginning of the war, has fallen and availability has increased. (This is somewhat related to several states legalizing it yet need be included in our discussion. The camel’s nose is in the tent on that one.)

The price of cocaine has fallen and availability is up. In 1980 cocaine cost $100-150/gram. Today, it is $60-90. This doesn’t even consider the comparison of 1980 vs 2017 dollar.

In 2015, the federal government spent an estimated $15 billion dollars on the war on drugs. This doesn’t even take into consideration cost of housing prisoners.

If we want to measure success by the reduction of the number of people dying from illegal drugs, we failed there as well. Deaths have increased. Opioid overdoses are increasing.

I know I said I wouldn’t bore you with numbers, but here’s just one chart about deaths from drugs in 2015. (Marijuana didn’t make the top ten. There were no documented cases of death by marijuana toxicity.)

1 Tobacco 480,000 + deaths
2 Alcohol 26,654 deaths
3 Prescription Painkillers 16,235 deaths
4 Heroin 8,257 deaths

 

When a strategy is failing by all measures, doesn’t it make sense to change tactics? That’s what one does in a war. If something is causing more harm than good, you stop.

Focusing the bulk of our resources on criminalizing the personal use of substances such as marijuana is not achieving its expressed purpose. If adults can be trusted to make rational decisions when it comes to the risks of using substances such as tobacco and alcohol, with well documented, sometimes fatal, effects, then it may be time to reconsider the rationale behind making those same adults criminals if they choose to use marijuana.

This is not an argument for legalizing all drugs. I’m not certain legalizing marijuana is a sound policy. But I do know that continuing down the same path will fail. We will continue to turn otherwise law-abiding individuals into criminals, ignore the opportunity to focus our resources on addiction treatment and education, and stumble down the road to another measurable failure.

We’re not losing this war. We lost the war before we started because our policy consisted of Ready, Fire, Aim.

Invoking the Specter of Cheech and Chong

“Dave? Dave’s not here, man.”

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There’s an ad running on local media in opposition to proposed legislation before the Rhode Island General Assembly. (https://youtu.be/26E8TuLOPxM.) The legislation covers several areas, among them a higher minimum wage, legalizing the personal use of marijuana, and providing two years of tuition-free education at state colleges.

My favorite part of the add, invoking the ghosts of Cheech and Chong, follows.

“Hey Dude … I’m not feeling like working tonight at my part-time gig after smoking all that weed now that it’s legal. I’ll just take one of them new paid sick days, and get this: Those suckers still have to pay me that new higher minimum wage. Even my college is free.

“Man what a great state.”

The voice of Mike Stenhouse, CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, follows asking,

“…if you think this liberal fantasy world will improve the quality of your family’s life … [If not] tell your lawmaker to oppose this progressive anti-family, anti-jobs agenda.”

I can certainly appreciate the opposition to paying a fair wage, making allowances for the human nature of workers, and allowing the great unwashed access to education. I mean, what’s next, equal pay for women? And the very idea of reefer madness is, well, madness.

I wonder if the General Assembly postponed Happy Hour to discuss this? It would seem a bit contradictory not to, but the hypocrisy is the point of this piece.

One would have to be a complete fool to think this is “giving” away free education without conditions. Taxes would fund the program. Taxes paid by people with jobs. Jobs that come with higher salaries linked to higher educational levels.

Every politician in the country touts job creation. The job market is changing. Whether you perform heart surgery or repair car engines, you need a solid foundation in computers, math, science, reading.

Teaching people to think critically adds to the quality of their lives. Critical thinking would help them see through the idiocy of this insulting ad.

As to the legalization of marijuana, this is not a slippery slope to legalizing all drugs. The so-called war on drugs was lost years ago. Not through defeat in battle, but through imprisoning generations of the very people we were trying to protect.

Some interesting facts about marijuana. Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the US with 18.0 million Americans 12 or older (more than 7% of the total US population) reported using marijuana in the prior month.  Nearly 49% of Americans have tried marijuana (just one claimed to not inhale.)  (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/14/6-facts-about-marijuana/)

Hospital visits related to the use of illegal vs. legal substances are overwhelmingly related to alcohol.  (https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/drug-related-hospital-emergency-room-visits)

Once again, my point is the duplicitous nature of this opposition. The opponents are trying to link a medical issue (substance abuse) to an issue of fairness and equitability in the workplace and undermine society’s vested interest in education.

Until we recognize substance abuse as a medical issue, not a criminal one, and put adequate effort into treating it, nothing will change.

And until we acknowledge that many of our fellow Americans occasionally “walk the dog” or some other such euphemism for smoking a joint or consuming a cannabis-laced brownie (which solves two problems at once I would think,) we are fooling ourselves at the pervasiveness of use.

The use of any substance; alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, caffeine, has risks. With maturity comes the tools to do so. To criminalize the actions of millions of Americans out of a misguided attempt to control the abuse by a small percentage is ludicrous.

And then there’s the higher minimum wage issue. I travel quite a bit. One of the first things one notices about the services industry in other countries is the limited amount of tipping. In some countries, tipping is considered an insult. The servers are paid a fair wage, they have a vested interest in the success of the restaurant because their salary depends on it not the vagaries of individual tipping practices.

As to the concept of free education, much of the same argument in opposition was made about the idea of requiring a high school diploma. The opposition is trying to mix the poor state of much of our public education system with the idea of paying for more of the same. Instead of working to find effective solutions to the problem, they choose to blame teacher unions and regulations.

When you go to a doctor, you follow the advice, you don’t criticize the AMA for the cost of health care. Why don’t we listen to teachers about what’s best for education? Instead, we claim, “back in the day” we learned this way and it was good enough for me.

It would take pages and pages to document all the “crap I learned in high school” (apologies to Paul Simon.) And I had great teachers, I was taught well but there were things taught then we knew were not true. Somehow, we chose to ignore the best resource we have, teachers, in finding ways to fix education.

If you don’t value what you don’t pay for, what does that say about how we value education?

It is all smoke and mirrors to the real issue they oppose, a more equitable division of income. Not socialism, fairness. Not everyone is the same, but everyone has the same opportunity.

I am not a big fan of Michael Moore, but one must give the devil his due. I would encourage you to watch his film, “Where to Invade Next?’ You might be surprised at how the rest of the world enjoys better minimum wages, health care, and free college education and manages to do very well in the process.

Here’s something to consider. According to Forbes magazine, workers at Walmart cost American taxpayers $6.2 BILLION dollars in public assistance. You’re supplementing Walmart profits with the current minimum wage. We have a company profiting on public assistance. How’s that for family values? Think about that next time you buy a 1000 pack of paper towels.  (https://www.forbes.com/sites/clareoconnor/2014/04/15/report-walmart-workers-cost-taxpayers-6-2-billion-in-public-assistance)

The ad uses the word “progressive” as if it is some form of vulgarity. The base of the word “progressive” is “progress.” Progressivism arose from the Enlightenment. Something one would learn about in an effective educational system.

Immanuel Kant identified progress as being a movement away from barbarism towards civilization. Eighteenth-century philosopher and political scientist Marquis de Condorcet predicted that political progress would involve the disappearance of slavery, the rise of literacy, the lessening of inequalities between the sexes, reforms of harsh prisons and the decline of poverty.

I would argue these were worthy goals. I would also venture to say similar opposition was voiced then by conservatives and merchantmen (and they were exclusively men and white), and the wealthy; adverse to give up their debtors’ prisons, child labor, and workhouses or the socialist burden of a “minimum wage.”

The value of an education is not reflected in what it costs, but in what it can do for those who take advantage of it and to society at large. Education is not free. We need to do a cost/benefit analysis to craft the right system. Failing to offer an effective and efficient education including college has a higher long-term cost to society.

If sophomoric ads such as this sway people to oppose discussing such issues, it underscores my point. Anyone who takes this ad seriously should demand their money back from wherever they went to school.

The Madness of Reefer Irrationality

Rationality has surpassed reason as the rarest of commodities in this country. The once common ability of Americans to hold intelligent, fact-based, discussions of our differences has gone the way of cursive writing and fundamental education.

Nothing exemplifies this phenomenon more than trying to have a reasoned discussion over the need for reevaluating the criminalization of marijuana.

Marijuana, like any drug, has benefits and risks. Yet, despite the scientific evidence which supports this, we insist on making possession of this drug a crime.

We accept the argument that alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine for that matter, used with restraint provide a benefit to the user despite the associated health risks. Some would argue we do this out of resignation to the reality of the widespread demand for these substances. Others would argue that we recognize the long cultural use of such substances. In either case, we recognized that controlling the use through rational regulations is the correct approach.

Why is it with marijuana we ignore such reality?

My time as a police officer taught me certain things. Drug abuse is a health issue, not a criminal issue. Every aspect of human life is subject to abuse; alcohol, gambling, eating, sexuality all cause addiction within a certain percentage of the population.

In these matters, we target the behavior of the individual not a blanket indictment of the means.

The science on marijuana being a “gateway” drug is nebulous at best and, in my anecdotal experience, wrong. The only thing criminalizing marijuana did was create generations of individuals with criminal records and foster an industry of privatized prisons.

Now I am not for one instant advocating the blanket decriminalization of marijuana. Much like the use of alcohol and tobacco, we need to defer to an individual adult’s right to determine the risk vs. benefit of using such substances. But we do this with associated laws that control the distribution and sales of such items.

One of the strongest arguments against “legalizing” marijuana is the effect it has on the adolescent brain. THC and other substances can affect the still developing circuitry.  As does alcohol and tobacco. Yet we have managed to find a rational way to minimize access to these substances.

The war on drugs failed, the war on people succeeded. If our goal through criminalizing the use of marijuana was to prevent its use, we failed. Need proof? There is not one zero-tolerance high school in this country where one cannot get marijuana. This is because we cannot control the distribution system. Keep in mind 49% of Americans have tried marijuana. Your gonna need more prisons to deal with that number.

If the goal of keeping marijuana illegal is to protect people from descending into the world of addiction than there must be some verifiable numbers which support this. I can find few scientifically based studies that show the use of marijuana increases the likelihood of addiction any more than the consumption of beer leads to alcoholism.

Despite the common perception by many who do not understand addiction, alcoholism is a well-established medical condition. Why would we treat any other addiction differently? Addictive behavior is a complicated matter.

Every alcoholic started with the first drink. Every drug addict started with that first high. Correlation is not causation. The process of developing an addiction includes a myriad of conditions and contributing factors.

I find it interesting that, despite the widely accepted number of more than 21000 suicides per year by firearms, no one considers that an equally egregious risk to society.

See somebody lighting up a joint, call the cops. See someone loading a gun, defend to the death their right to possess it.

Before the NRA and others get their panties in a bunch, I am not advocating taking away one’s right to own a firearm. I am just pointing out that someone loaded on a joint is less of a risk to society than an angry person with a firearm.

If we are willing to accept the fact that more than 21000 of our fellow Americans will kill themselves next year, I think we can find a way to accept the fact that several million Americans will get high on marijuana during the same period and do nothing more threatening than increase the sale of Cheetos.

In this election cycle, the hope for a return to rationality is nil. We’ve lost Pandora’s Box. I do hope that, before I leave this mortal coil, I will witness a return to an age of reason.

 

Reefer Madness and Common Sense

In a recent Op-ed piece, Tom Ward, the editor of the Valley Breeze (a local Rhode Island newspaper focused on the Blackstone Valley area) bemoaned the difficulty of police departments in dealing with the issue of marijuana.  He described the disadvantage local and state police find themselves in light of the “secret” locations of legal marijuana growing operations for medical marijuana.

The article quoted Major Kevin O’Brien of the Rhode Island State Police “The secret locations are kept even from the local police and the Rhode Island State Police.  We don’t have the ability to provide the local PDs with the information because we don’t know it either.”  The Major goes on to detail a recent situation where the State Police invested time and resources investigating what turned out to be a legal grow operation. “We wasted our time and we wasted their time.” The Major said.

I did some quick research, just online, and was able to learn a great deal about local licensee operations.  It took a little imagination and the information was available.  I agree with the Major, require licensed location information be made available to the police as part of the provisions of the statute.  If for no other reasons than to prevent such wasted efforts.

Perhaps it is time we put the cost of enforcing laws prohibiting marijuana in perspective.

Enforcement: Depending on which source you use as reference, FBI, National Institute of Health, and a variety of others, the annual cost of enforcement and incarceration runs between $7 billion and $42 Billion Dollars.

I can think of many more beneficial uses of that money.

Gateway Drug: The fear of marijuana as a gateway drug is a long accepted, and incorrect, theory.  In Social sciences, it is referred to as “the fallacy of affirming the consequent.”

In other words a correlation, using marijuana and subsequent use of harder drugs, is not a proof of cause.

The latest accepted scientific analysis shows 79% of people that use marijuana never use other drugs (Drugscience.org and others).  That still leaves 21% at risk you say. This not the percentage that ultimately suffers from addiction or other consequences, it is much lower.

This is, and has always been, a health issue. We demonized it into a crime, and spent billions trying to arrest our way to a solution. It failed.

The ultimate point here is simple.  There is an overwhelming amount of hard evidence that the relative risk of marijuana use, compared to other similar activities, is low.

Not that I am endorsing this, but studies show driving under the influence of marijuana one is twice as likely to be involved in an accident, as opposed to 20 times under the influence of alcohol.

It would be interesting to see the statistics regarding driving while texting!  Now there is an enforcement effort I would applaud.

History shows us that we cannot arrest our way out of this. Turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals does nothing to solve the problem, it just creates more.

I am not suggesting that State and Local police be the arbiters deciding which laws to enforce.

That is reserved to the legislature and those we elect to those positions.

However, I am suggesting that, confronted with a choice to allocate investigative resources towards marijuana growing or distribution operations or to put those valuable resources towards curbing more obviously dangerous activities, shootings, gang violence, etc. we would be better served by common sense approach.

I speak with some experience in this matter.  I spent 20 years as a police officer, much of that time in narcotics working with other Local, State, and Federal Agencies.  I can honestly say that in all those instances involving marijuana cases, violence was rare.

It is time to look at the available evidence and reallocate those police resources towards efforts that genuinely improve the quality of life.