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Compassion Strikes Again...and Again


In 1996, California passed the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized the use, in that state, of what is called "medical marijuana."  This was notwithstanding the fact that the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, was (and is) available through prescription in the drug Marinol.  You don't need to be growing pot in your backyard if, in truth, you are one of the few people who needs THC for pain relief.  You can go to a normal doctor and get Marinol.

Given this fact, and the recreational pot culture in which the campaign for "medical" marijuana actually takes root, the cynical among us are tempted to think that the real agenda of the "medical" marijuana movement has less to do with "compassionate use" than with get-high use.  To their credit, some in the legalizer camp will acknowldge this fairly straightforwardly.

One of the problems with "medical" marijuana, apart from the fact that it's used as a front, is that it is not going to change the fact that drugs and crime are inevitably mixed up with one another.  This is true even with the less dangerous drugs.  (That it is true with the more dangerous ones, like methamphetamine, hardly needs argument). 

Hence today's AP story, titled, "Medical marijuana a target for criminals:  Washington state shootout brings attention to risk to growers."  It begins:

Patients, growers and clinics in some of the 14 states that allow medical marijuana are falling victim to robberies, home invasions, shootings and even murders at the hands of pot thieves.
There have been dozens of cases in recent months alone. The issue received more attention this week after a prominent medical marijuana activist in Washington state nearly killed a robber in a shootout -- the eighth time thieves had targeted his pot-growing operation.

Here's a bit more:

"Whenever you are dealing with drugs and money, there is going to be crime. If people think otherwise, they are very naive," said Scott Kirkland, the police chief in El Cerrito, Calif., and a vocal critic of his state's voter-approved medical marijuana law.

"People think if we decriminalize it, the Mexican cartels and Asian gangs are going to walk away. That's not the world I live in," Kirkland said.

Activists and law enforcement officials say it is difficult to get an accurate picture of crimes linked to medical marijuana because many drug users don't report the crimes to police for fear of arousing unwanted attention from the authorities. But the California Police Chiefs Association used press clippings to compile 52 medical marijuana-related crimes -- including seven homicides -- from April 2008 to March 2009.

The article can be found here, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35940756/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/

There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to help those who are sick and in pain; quite the contrary.  There is also a stimulating, shall we say, libertarian argument for legalizing drugs (although not one I agree with, because it vastly understates the social costs and damage of drug use).  But there is plenty wrong with yet another invocation of "compassion" that adores the wrapping while ignoring the package.


I don't use marijuana. I don't drink. And I make a conscious effort to avoid caffeine. I absolutely not pro-drug. I have lost multiple friends to addiction. I know the heartwrenching ugliness of what drug abuse can do.

And I'm not a libertarian.

But your post, however well intended, is highly misinformed. Please cite the social costs and damage of drug use. More specifically, please cite the social costs and damage of drug user under a regulation model (which can only occur under a legalization model - prohibition is the complete abdication of our ability to regulate access, content, production, manufacture, etc. to drugs)

Prohibition takes a bad situation - and makes it worse, and the date overwhelming supports my point of view. Look at the statistics come out of places like Portugal and Switzerland with more sensible drug policies: saved money from increased public safety and decreased need for social services, decrease in overdose deaths, decreased hepatitis/hiv rates, *lower* drug use across the board, particularly among youth, increased success with treatment efforts, less violent crime, and so much more.

And then take the data coming out of somewhere like the US. We incarcerate more people for drug offenses than all of Europe does for *all* crimes (homicide, everything, combined) even though they have a population 100 million higher than ours.

And what do we have to show for it? The vast majority of terrorist organizations get funding from drug sales, we have higher usage rates - including among youth - than we did before prohibition, increased availability of illicit drugs to young people, high rates of overdose deaths, high rates of low level non violent offenders getting raped in prison leading to PTSD which has all sorts of social and economic costs, a reliance on incarceration over treatment - incarceration having been shown to increase recidivism and cost farm more than treatment which actually reduces recidivism, an increase in the potency of the drugs available, many tragedies related to the unregulated nature of drugs (for example, the recent spike of cocaine deaths which were actually more closely tied to the inexplicable spike in the presence of lavamisole - a veterinary drug deadly to humans - in the cocaine supply... that wouldn't happen if we regulated drugs), an unsustainably high prison population, extensive barriers to those who have been incarcerated to getting employment/housing/an education - encouraging their re-entry into a life of crime instead of encouraging them to make their lives, and on and on.

It's not that drug abuse isn't bad. It's awful. Horrible. It rips my heart out - and I've seen it up close. I get it.

The problem is that the drug war is takes something already tragic and makes it infinitely worse. And the data consistently backs this up. When you look at the data, it's easy to see that it's not something that's really up for debate.

And as for medical marijuana - I won't deny that many people who use it aren't in medical need. But many are. And THC is not the only cannabinoid in marijuana, so the whole marinol is not popular argument falls completely flat. Not to mention that delivery and quality of cannabinoid products is key to their efficacy - and marinol pills don't rank too high on that scale.

And not to mention that marijuana is objectively safer than alcohol - both in what it does to one physically and the societal consequences in terms of its connection to violence. There is no statistical correlation between cannabis consumption and violence while there very much is with alcohol, and no deaths have ever been recorded with the cause being marijauna. Ever. It's impossible to OD on.

I used to have your point of view - so I understand it. I know that you are probably coming from a sincere place of caring. But once I saw up close how a criminal justice as opposed to public health paradigm was thewarting the recovery efforts of those close to me combined with my later research into the cold hard data surrounding drug abuse, I broke away from my views. When you look at the cold hard data, coming to any other conclusion than implementing harm reduction policies and shifting from a prohibition unregulated system to one of legalization and regulation is, quite frankly, irrational, ludicrous, cruel, and ultimately ineffective - to society at large in addition to addicts.

A few comments for Katherine:

1)The demographics of the US make comparisons with Switzerland and Portugal utterly useless;

2)"Hitting the right notes" on any regulation model is more elusive than you think. The harsh reality is that most users will not be able to "regulate " themselves to be sated by the "government dose." They will look to the inevitable black market that will develop to score more drug.

3) One joint of mj has more mind-altering effects than one drink of alcohol. Further, there is increasing anecdotal evidence will challenge the assumption that there is no statistical correlation between mj and violence. The most recent mass murderer( his name escapes me) was an inveterate mj user.

FWIW, let me reiterate here the statement from our "About C & C Blog" page, "The opinions expressed by outside authors reflect their individual opinion and are not necessarily those of CJLF."

CJLF has not taken a position either way on the marijuana legalization issue.

Katherine --

You ask me to cite the social costs of drug use under a regulation model. Fair enough.

I cannot, of course, do that for the USA, since we have a prohibition model. And as mjs points out, we can't reliably do it using other countries either, since they have vastly different demographics (and cultures and histories). But there are inferential lessons to be learned about social costs, both from domestic and foreign models.

When a barrier to the use of X is lowered, more of X gets used. That's just basic economics. So when a barrier to the use of drugs gets lowered (i.e., when use no longer risks criminal penalties), more drugs will get used. Most legalizers acknowledge this; indeed some affirmatively want it.

And what will happen when more drugs get used? Let me cite evidence I think you'll find credible, since you wrote it: "I have lost multiple friends to addiction. I know the heartwrenching ugliness of what drug abuse can do."

There is little reason to believe that those vulnerable to addiction (which is potentially a huge number of people), or, indeed, those willing to flout the present system simply to engage in recreational use, are likely to obey the rules imposed by a regulatory system when they are flouting the more onerous rules we have now.

Bottom line: If we walk away from criminal prohibition, we'll have more drug use and, inevitably, more of the damage you note that flows therefrom. The personality quirks and physiological phenomena that cause addiction are not a function of the legal system. The best the legal system can do is try to bring about abstention with all the tools it can command. Criminal prohibition is one of them.

Also noteworthy, though not dispositive, is the experience of other nations, and of jurisdictions in our country that have tried quasi-legalization of marijuana. As you may know, largely as a result of a long public campaign led by the the newspaper The Guardian (at least I think it was The Guardian -- I'm away from my research material and I can't remember for sure), the UK reduced the degree of criminaliztion of marijuana, adopting a de facto regulatory system.

Ten years later, the Guardian did a lead editorial titled "An Apology," in which it said the results of the new sytem had not been what it expected. It pointed out specifically that the number of hospital admissions for treatment of marijuana-related behavioral problems had tripled (I believe it has gone from roughly 7,000 to over 20,000). In essence, it took it all back.

Something similar has happened in the Netherlands. The Dutch were famous for their pot "coffee houses" that sprung up after liberalized marijuana laws took effect. After a few years now, the Dutch have cut back on the number of coffee houses they permit. The basic attitude seems to be, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

And in this country, in the marijuana-friendly Bay Area of California, police and community leaders -- including some of those who helped lead the state initiative that gave rise to the Compassionate Use Act -- have started to notice that the "medical" marijuana dispensaries have become just storefronts for drug dealers, and are magnets for other crime as well. This had led them to call for reform, to put it mildly, of the Act. Indeed, it was my knowledge of the Bay Area experience that made me sit up and take note of the MSNBC piece about pot-related crime in Washington state.

I know this is not a full response to you, but, as I say, I'm away (indeed, 6000 miles away) from my files on this. Still, I wanted to say something in response to your serious and thoughtful piece.

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