Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug Czar Speeches

I have a lot of ideological issues with the Center for American Progress, but I didn't expect even they--an activist think tank founded by former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta--would give an open-armed welcome to Gil Kerlikowske, the sitting Drug Czar, to tout the "new" drug control policy of the Obama Administration. I know they want the Administration to win in November, but self-identified progressives carrying water for the most destructive government force this side of the Pentagon should be an ideological and institutional embarrassment.

But they did, and I sat through it.

As pointed out by respected drug law reform champion Ethan Nadelmann,the "new" White House strategy the talk was meant to promote is a change in rhetoric but not much else. I've decided to take quotes from his prepared remarks to explain why the ONDCP rhetoric is fundamentally dishonest and to bring out what was left unsaid or misrepresented.

The following (in bold) are all quotes from Chief Kerlikowske's presentation yesterday at CAP.

"Very vocal, organized, well-funded advocates"

From jump street, the one-time police reformer and now head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy was clear that any talk of legalization would not be entertained. He wasted no time straw-manning the arguments of drug reformers, saying that advocates believe legalization is a "silver bullet" that would make the nation's drug problems disappear--which no one serious says or believes. But he reiterated that removing the criminal penalty from behavior--behavior that the ONDCP, CAP, and other reformers would like to have qualified as a "public health problem" indicative of an individual's "disease"--is "extreme." Furthermore, the Czar added, legalization (lumped in with "enforcement-only" strategies) is 'not humane, compassionate,or realistic.'

At that point, I knew this was going to be a long morning.

So, given that the federal behemoth--that includes the federal prison system, FBI, State Department, DHS, DEA, ICE, the U.S. Military, and the DOJ's ambitious and relatively unfettered U.S. Attorneys--is engaged almost exclusively in "enforcement only" activities, the head of the ONDCP is complaining about "extreme" "organized and well-funded advocates" who host occasional policy forums and write blog posts, op-eds, and policy papers about rethinking the government's current strategy.The way he tells it, you'd think the government was fighting a large, cold-blooded and ruthless force as strong as the drug cartels--who, of course, have all the incentive to maintain drug prohibition--instead of a few dedicated people whose strongest weapons are truth and the compassion he claims we lack.

"Most importantly, [legalization arguments] are not grounded in science."

Kerlikowske bragged, "In fact, NIDA--the National Institute on Drug Abuse--is the source of 85% of the world's research on drug abuse and we could not be more proud of that."

Who is this "we?" Science is the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Science, as practiced in all other disciplines, includes testing data and falsifiable results so that it may be peer reviewed by other scientists to support or detract from the findings in an objective manner. Science, in short, is a group effort and one agency doing most of the work is nothing at all to brag about--indeed, it should be a call for greater scrutiny.

There are those who would like to study drug effects of, say, marijuana--but the government refuses to allow the study (New York Times):
Lyle E. Craker, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Massachusetts, has been trying to get permission from federal authorities for nearly nine years to grow a supply of the plant that he could study and provide to researchers for clinical trials.
But the Drug Enforcement Administration — more concerned about abuse than potential benefits — has refused, even after the agency’s own administrative law judge ruled in 2007 that Dr. Craker’s application should be approved, and even after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in March ended the Bush administration’s policy of raiding dispensers of medical marijuana that comply with state laws.
“All I want to be able to do is grow it so that it can be tested,” Dr. Craker said in comments echoed by other researchers.
Marijuana is the only major drug for which the federal government controls the only legal research supply and for which the government requires a special scientific review.
“The more it becomes clear to people that the federal government is blocking these studies, the more people are willing to defect by using politics instead of science to legalize medicinal uses at the state level,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of a nonprofit group dedicated to researching psychedelics for medical uses.
I don't write this to impugn NIDA or its motives, but--at least in regard to cannabis--that the government NIDA reports to for funding is the same government that uses its research to maintain its policies and the same government that denies the right of research to others cannot be construed as objective science by any reasonable standard.

"Just last year, the Department of Justice released data that health, workplace, and criminal justice cost of drug abuse to American society totaled over $193 billion...Contributing to the immense cost are the millions of drug offenders under supervision in the criminal justice system"

Yes, Chief Kerlikowske, keeping human beings in cages is expensive. Law enforcement is expensive. Lost wages from job termination resulting from drug charges is expensive. Supporting people who can't get jobs after non-violent drug convictions is expensive. All of these are direct results of drug prohibition. This is not to diminish the other costs borne by other parties, but 'look how much money we're spending on this' is not a cohesive argument when your detractors say you should be spending the time, effort, and money elsewhere.

"To break the cycle of drug use and crime, we have worked to divert non-violent drug offenders into treatment, instead of jail, through drug courts....Whenever someone tells me that government doesn't listen or that taxpayer dollars are being wasted in [drug abuse work], I just ask them to attend a drug court graduation. If you're not moved and you're not motivated by that graduation, you have a pretty cold heart."

Drug courts look good on paper, but in practice, their effectiveness ranges from "okay" to "terrible." Depending on the state and jurisdiction, drug courts may require plea agreements, whose violation triggers automatic and often severe jail time, and usually it is not appealable. Many violations are the result of failed drug tests--one of the outward symptoms of the "disease" Kerlikowske and co. say drug addiction is.* It is hard to imagine designing a program that would be more effective at setting addicts up for failure.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers did a two-year nationwide study interviewing people from all aspects of drug courts to measure their effectiveness and adverse consequences. They found that while many people have benefited from drug courts--and that is certainly a good thing--the programs have been susceptible to other problems, such as "cherry picking" defendants to boost success numbers. (Though ONDCP rarely, if ever, acknowledges it, most people who use illicit drugs are non-problematic users.) Putting people who don't really need treatment into treatment inflates success statistics while people with severe problems are left out because they may fail on their first try, harming success rates and increasing the risk of criminal penalty for failing. (For more on the many problems with drug courts, you can download the PDF of the report here and read their follow-up here.)

That the man who oversees the national operation to keep people in cages is appealing to pity in order to defend inadequate solutions to a broken system would be comical if not so damned tragic.

"Drug use is a public health issue"

Both in his statement and in the ONDCP strategy, the Drug Czar has mentioned his desire to eliminate the stigma of drug and alcohol abuse and addiction. But this is impossible, especially when it is still a crime to use illicit drugs in the first place. Criminality brings stigma, which, ironically, is the best argument for making drug use illegal.

But experience has taught us that the criminal penalties for drug use and distribution are grossly disproportionate to the offense itself, and thus we need to scrap it. That said, I think that society should discourage drug use--especially of harder drugs like heroin and methamphetamine. "This can happen to you" is effective, when not overblown to the point of fiction. But the way drugs are thought of in America--lumped all together like smoking a joint is roughly the same thing as shooting heroin--is irresponsible because there is no distinction between more responsible/safer drug use and reckless/more dangerous use. Such conflation and enduring lies like 'gateway' drugs--that smoking a joint will lead to being a heroin junkie--undermines the value that truthful drug education provides.

"Our [highlighted] policies include support for programs like screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment. That works to medicalize [sic] our approach to the drug problem by helping health institutions recognize the signs and symptoms of drug addiction early."

"Drug screening" is a polite way to say "pee in a cup." I don't have a problem with employers drug testing their employees if they think it's important, but the government really has no business incentivizing the practice. As I said before, most drug users aren't actually problem users--and never become problem users--yet they could get caught up and risk losing their employment for something they do in their spare time. Even if the federal government were to give employment protection to "current use" drug abusers under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA already protects from being fired for inactive addiction), this is invasive, expensive, and unnecessary for the vast majority of Americans, users and non-users alike.

The point of making drug addiction a public health issue is to get people into treatment more readily--that the door is open when they are ready to quit--without fear of criminal sanction for mistakes/relapses or possession. It is not, as apparently has been embraced by the White House and ONDCP, carte blanche to subsidize the addiction treatment industry. Furthermore, making employees' unrelated and off-site recreational behaviors a matter for HR won't help the goal of destigmatizing drug abuse--indeed, it will probably exacerbate it as recreational users will be unfairly labeled as addicts.

"We support the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign and the Drug Free Community Support Program."

This is your tax dollars on drugs, any questions?

The Drug Czar finished his prepared remarks on "securing the Southern border," working with other countries to stem the flow of drugs into (and cash out of) the United States, and other aspects to the international scope of America's Drug War--with absolutely no mention of Portugal, or what's actually going on in Mexico, or how Los Zetas, a Mexican cartel, has become the primary criminal force in Guatemala. The worldwide failure of American drug policy is worth an entire post by itself, so I won't get into it further here.

As someone who is invested in fighting against the Drug War, it was a really difficult 20 minutes to sit through. I highly recommend Mike Riggs' summary of the event  over at reason. I really couldn't have done better than he did on the Q&A, so instead of cribbing what he said here, just read it there.

What's perhaps most disturbing, is that this speech was short and doesn't get into the details and depths of what the federal government's strategy has done and is doing. And, of course, the federal outline barely touches on what state and local authorities are doing--where the majority of drug arrests actually occur.

The Drug War, despite Kerlikowske's and Tanden's protestations, is still going full force. That the government is spending more money on treatment does little good, on the whole, so long as cops are still breaking down doors, shooting dogs, and throwing kids in a hole for 5 days. And, Chief Kerlikowske, we're gonna keep calling it a war until you stop treating it like one.

It's the humane thing to do.

bellum mediamenti delenda est

*I'm not qualified to say what is and is not a disease. My position on legalization does not change if I grant or deny that claim. The point, of course, is that if it is a disease, these triggers punish the disease, which is contrary to the aims the ONDCP claims.


Michael Chaney said...

"and even after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in March ended the Bush administration’s policy of raiding dispensers of medical marijuana that comply with state laws."

Blatant lie in the NYT.

JPB said...


It's an older story and before it was clear the U.S. Attorneys had no intention of abiding by the spirit of the Ogden Memo.

Forgive self-referencing, but I wrote about that here:

Andrew_M_Garland said...

The official hypocrisy is astounding.

Pres. Obama frankly admitted that he smoked pot as a student. Former Pres. Bill Clinton smoked but "didn't inhale" (laugh track), and I wouldn't be surprised if the Republican presidents dabbled a bit (or a lot).

They all prosecuted the War on Drugs. Why don't they voluntarily submit to arrest, rehab, and possibly jail? This is what they prescribe for others who were unlucky under their policies.

They may say that punishment is not needed because they have reformed in the meantime. If so, why is punishment needed for others who may reform in the meantime?

Anonymous said...

And what old Gil didn’t say was that European, African and Asian illegal drug use created the financial backings of 9/11, which created our two current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (thank you U.S. backed 1961 U.N. Single Convention on Drugs). Gil talks about drug addicts getting sick and needing treatment, but he never mentions how drug prohibition is the number one killer of U.S. and coalition forces (and civilians) from combat and IED’s. Gil also failed to mention how it was drug money which kept Russia fighting a 9yr war in Afghanistan, which caused them to be economically depleted (Attrition), thus collapsing and losing their power and their states . . . Gil never mentioned how the War on Drugs costs America $1.4-$1.6 Billion dollars a day circa 9/11, fighting drug money backed terrorism and insurgencies . . . Gil never mentioned how fighting the war on drugs has cost millions of Americans their jobs from a recession alone (or at least a significantly heavy straw that broke the camel’s back) . . . if we dug really deep, I think we’d discover that drug money finances probably roughly 50%-65% of all terrorism and insurgencies in Iraq and at least 80% in Afghanistan due to an illegal business being a bit more covert than some oil rich Saudi or prince or fundraiser or mosque donations etc . . . maybe that’s why Iran only talked about legalizing drugs (the most drug addicted nation on the planet) since it’s cheaper to use illegal drug money to fund nuclear enrichment programs and facilities than from taxes and oil profits. So, does Gil have a drug war treatment program for wounded vets and widows and families suffering from a loved one’s PTSD . . . does he have a program to heal the emotional and physical scars of the drug war feeding our recession, which has hurt millions of American and European families? Will he be speechless when someone asks him a question about why the war on drugs took away their jobs and American dream, once promised to all who worked hard for it? Can Gil explain why Hemp isn’t being used for our war efforts the way it was in WWII and many other American wars . . . can Gil explain why we let China sell us most of our hemp, but the DEA, whom all receive paychecks, keeps Americans from benefiting from industrial hemp, which is in clear violation of the Sherman-Anti Trust act . . . can he explain why the actions of the DEA regarding industrial hemp makes the DEA look like they have a monopoly with Chinese hemp (given the DEA are actually paid for doing their job and given health benefits and pensions etc)?

Anonymous said...

Pity you don't have a connection within ONDCP so you could write with first-hand balance and include answers/responses to your objections.

JPB said...

I follow ONDCP on twitter and comment on their shares a lot. They choose not to engage. I would like to deal with them on whatever terms, but they tend to be very guarded and filter their questions. (see video at CAP event for evidence.)

Thanks for stopping by.