Recently in Drugs Category

Among those who favor lowering sentences for heroin traffickers, the surge in overdose deaths is a problem.  They understand that the public is unlikely to want to water-down the penalties for the people helping to produce the surge.  Thus it has become a popular refrain that the major driver of the problem is not smack pushers but, instead, opioid addiction driven by "Big Pharma" and unethical pain doctors.

The difficulty, as is often the case with sentencing reform advocates, is that the refrain is made up, as Brian Blake at the Hudson Institute explains:

A new, peer-reviewed article in the New England Journal of Medicine contradicts the White House claim that the huge increase in heroin overdose deaths--440 percent in the past seven years--is directly related to prescription pain killers and changes in prescribing policies aimed at making them harder to obtain and abuse.

The article, authored by some of the federal government's leading addiction researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, surveys dozens of recent, peer-reviewed studies on heroin use, initiation patterns, overdose deaths, and the effects of policy changes in prescribing opioids. Ultimately, they find "there is no consistent evidence of an association between the implementation of policies related to prescription opioids and increases in the rates of heroin use or deaths." Instead, the authors conclude that "heroin market forces, including increased accessibility, reduced price, and high purity of heroin appear to be major drivers of the recent increases in rates of heroin use."

No Recidivism to See Here, Move Along

Together with the knowingly false refrain that those given early release under sentencing "reform" will be limited to low level, non-violent types, we hear even more frequently that they are at "low risk" to re-offend.  Every time I've mentioned the Justice Department's own 77% figure for the recidivism rate of drug offenders, the point has been ridiculed or minimized.

The minimization effort is understandable, because propping up the myth of "they'll-go-straight-this-time" is necessary for the success of the sentencing reform agenda. If reformers told the plain truth  --  that, according to DOJ's largest study ever, slightly over three-quarters of felony-level drug inmates go back to crime after release  --  no one would be in a big rush to release them earlier. More crime faster isn't a big sell. The reform agenda would implode.

In the real world, the only surprising thing about recidivism from the beneficiaries of sentencing reform is how little time it takes them to get back in business.  Thus I bring you the story of today's Mr. Nicey, Jason Saunders.  Saunders was sentenced for a crack cocaine offense in June 2014.  He got 41 months.  But because of retroactively lighter sentences engineered by our carefree federal Sentencing Commission, Saunders' sentence was reduced, and he was released in November 2015.

He was arrested on January 6, 2016.  But it was not for precisely the same offense. He had moved up to heroin.  Specifically, he was arrested for robbery of 480 heroin stamps.

Still, no recidivism worth mentioning here, people, move along...................
Drug legalization is one of those topics, like the death penalty, on which minds seem to be made up.  I have been debating both for years, and only two people have told me they changed positions afterward (both went from opposing to supporting the death penalty).

I thus present the rarest of finds, a libertarian, Robert VerBruggen, who, in light of the evidence of suffering and death created by the snowballing heroin and opioid epidemic, has taken a second look at his previous position favoring legalization.  His essay is here.  I can't say that he now enthusiastically shares my view that continued criminalization of drugs is the correct course, but he seems largely to have come around based on this key insight:  If we legalize drugs, we lose one barrier to their use.  With that barrier gone, more will get used.  When more get used, the amount of damage they cause is likely to explode.  Therefore, on balance, a decent regard for the well-being of our fellow creatures counsels that drugs remain illegal. 

What makes the essay so powerful is VerBruggen's understanding  --  common among libertarians  --  that our present system has plenty of holes in it and plenty of costs.  And what makes it so convincing is that he then asks the only adult question: Would the proposed alternative on balance be better?  He now seems to think the answer is no.

It's a short essay, worth your time.
One of many awful features of the sentencing reduction (called sentencing "reform") bill pending in the Senate is its retroactive effect:  Drug dealers by the thousands would be able to march into federal court, most with attorneys you're paying for, to argue that their behavior wasn't all that bad.  Instead of responding to the legion of new cases in need of initial adjudication, federal prosecutors (also on your dime) will have to respond to these motions, creating an even bigger backlog on the docket than we have now, and doing so with cases that ended long ago.

On the face of it, does this sound like a good thing for the cost or efficiency of the criminal justice system?

But it gets worse.  In the middle of a drug overdose epidemic fueled by, among other things, heroin and abuse of prescription opioids, people like Dr. Vincent Colangelo will be using the proposed dumbing-down of statutory penalties, just as we see they are now using the dumbing-down of sentencing guideline ranges:

A man who made millions operating a half a dozen pill mills in South Florida wants his prison sentence reduced.

The attorney for Vincent Colangelo has asked a Miami judge to reduce his sentence from 20 years to 16 years. Attorney Alvin Entin says a retroactive change in federal sentencing guidelines justifies the reduction.

Colangelo was sentenced in 2012 after pleading guilty to federal drug, money-laundering and tax charges. Court documents show he operated six pain clinics that made an estimated $22 million in profits through illegal sale of oxycodone and other drugs.

Six other people were charged in the case. South Florida was once the nation's pill mill leader, but new laws and tougher law enforcement has all but eliminated them.

That last sentence is particularly interesting.  New laws and tougher enforcement have helped take down one source of a huge amount of human misery.  But now we propose  --  through federal sentencing "reform"  --  to turn away from this success and re-embrace failure.  And pay for all of it with hefty amounts of taxpayer dollars.

No, they are not.  As explained here, it was the outcry from black neighborhoods in the inner cities that gave rise to tougher sentencing in both state (see, e.g., the Rockefeller laws in New York) and federal law.

And it worked.  As crime plummeted over the last quarter century, African Americans benefited tremendously.  Indeed, because blacks are disproportionately victims of crime, reduced crime disproportionately benefits them.

Why people want to return to the crime-ridden soft sentencing policies of the past is a mystery.  It is all the more mysterious for those concerned with the well-being of the huge majority in black communities who simply want to live in the peace and safety tougher sentencing and more proactive police work have helped bring them.

Almost no sensible person denies that if we legalize drugs, more drugs will get used.  Such is the nature of temptation, not to mention dependency and addiction.

What will happen if more drugs get used?

More of this.  

I know some very smart people who support drug legalization.  I respectfully but emphatically disagree.  A legal system with an ounce of humanity will take considerable trouble, and impose considerable penalties, to reduce the chances that a tragic and horrible death like the one described in the story will happen.  

No system is infallible, and we should understand that not all drug use can be prevented. But to give up the effort because it's hard, expensive and (like all competing systems) capable of error strikes me as close to indecent.

Users, Dealers, Politics and New Hampshire

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Heroin addicts suffer in ways difficult to describe  --  before they die.  They should be helped by whatever means we can find.  It is past time that Presidential candidates started taking note of the heroin epidemic now spreading across the country.  It's also the politically prudent thing to do, since one of the most ravaged states is the first primary state, New Hampshire.  The LA Times has the story.

It's obvious that among the first things we should do to fight heroin addiction is incapacitate those who feed it  -- the dealers. This is not rocket science.  Yet there is pending in Congress a bill that would do the opposite  -- put dealers back on the street sooner than they would get there under present law.

This is not just ill-considered policy.  It's crazy.  It's also inhumane.  If you're trying to counteract the effects of poison, you don't decrease the costs of being a poison merchant.  But that is exactly what sentencing reform legislation would do.

Many libertarians want to legalize drugs, but the country, by a huge margin, does not, and this is especially true of heroin and the other hard drugs. The reason is simple. Americans have learned what hard drugs do.  By a 2-1 margin, they want Congress to increase the measures taken to keep dealers off the street, not put them back there earlier.

Presidential candidates, senators and representatives, are you listening?

Opinion Research Corporation, polling Nov. 19 - 22, asked a sample of 1008 adults the following:  "Thinking about the criminal justice system, which comes closer to your view  --  that we have too many drug traffickers in prison for too long, or that we don't do enough to keep drug traffickers off the street?"

The result was not close:  58% said we're not doing enough to keep traffickers off the street, while only half that number, 30%, said we have too many traffickers in prison for too long.

The poll is devastating to the sentencing "reform" bills now pending in Congress. Those bills would reduce sentences for drug convictions (the Senate bill would do so retroactively as well), and the overwhelming majority of prison sentences imposed for federal drug offenses are for trafficking, not mere possession or use.

In other words, the American public, by a bigger margin than in any Presidential election in history, wants more done to keep traffickers off the street, not more done to put them back there.

Memo to Congress:  Wake up.

Agree With Me Or Get Out

Liberal fascism continues its march through the political landscape, now with a pro-pot scattering of Congressmen demanding the removal of DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg.  Rosenberg's sin, it seems, is that he said that "medical" marijuana is "a joke."

The Washington Post's story is, "A growing number of lawmakers wants Obama to fire the nation's top drug cop."   The "growing number" is a total of seven (out of 535 senators and representatives) (and the story cites no evidence of "growth").  The story starts:

A bipartisan group of seven lawmakers today called on the president to fire the acting leader of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Chuck Rosenberg. They join nearly 100,000 people who've signed an online petition similarly calling for Rosenberg's removal after he infuriated patients and advocates by dismissing medical marijuana as "a joke" earlier this month.

Rosenberg's statements are "indicative of a throwback ideology rooted in a failed War on Drugs," the letter, spearheaded by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D.-Or.), begins. 

One might forgive a fellow who was appointed to lead the Congressionally-mandated effort to suppress drug use for not sharing the view that the effort has failed, especially since we have no way of knowing what levels of drug use would be but for that effort.  Still, you get the point.  You either agree with the views of the 1.3% of legislators who signed the letter, or you are unfit for office. 

Heather Haddon has this article in the WSJ with the above headline.  The subhead is "New Hampshire poll participants put it above jobs and economy as something candidates should address."

I am pleased to see this important issue getting attention.  However, there is a big difference between saying this is something candidates must address and coming to a consensus on how to address it.  One thing we don't need is vague, boundless faith in "treatment" without an awareness of how difficult it is to keep addicts in treatment.

Big Pot Crashes and Burns in Ohio

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Ohio's obnoxious marijuana legalization initiative went down to a crushing defeat yesterday, Christopher Ingraham reports in the WaPo.

Voters rejected the measure with 64 percent opposed and only 36 percent in favor. It was defeated in every single one of Ohio's 88 counties, some of which voted against the bill by huge margins, according to preliminary numbers: 55 percentage points in Holmes County. 60 in Mercer. 65 in Putnam.

The bill was likely doomed to fail from the get-go for a variety of reasons. It was an off-off election year, where voters are older and more conservative. Ohio has never exactly been a bastion of marijuana culture. And most crucially, the bill would have created a state-mandated oligopoly on the production of marijuana, with a handful of the measure's wealthy backers as the primary beneficiaries.
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Jonathan Adler has this post at the Volokh Conspiracy.  The title is his description of Issue 3 on the Ohio ballot.

Issue 3 would create a marijuana "monopoly" (actually, an oligopoly) consisting of 10 producers who would have their exclusive rights to engage in the commercial production of marijuana enshrined in the state constitution. The campaign in support of Issue 3 -- so-called Responsible Ohio -- is predictably supported by those who would hold these exclusive rights. This is crony capitalism at its worst.
As I have mentioned on this blog before, I see a legalized marijuana industry as a greater threat than legalization as such.  Legal producers with a First Amendment right to promote their product will increase consumption considerably above and beyond what legalization alone will do, as we have seen so disastrously with tobacco, and that is not good.

My solution, given that I think legalization is inevitable, is for the government to monopolize the business itself, as some states do with liquor at the retail level and many states do with the numbers racket at the wholesale level.  Few seem to be interested in that, though.  Some people are dead set against legalization in any form despite the seeming inevitability, and some are gung ho for maximizing consumption despite the medical evidence of ill effects and the slim-to-none benefits.

The legislature has put another proposition on the same ballot forbidding putting monopolies in the state constitution.  What happens if they both pass?  In California we have a nice, clear rule.  If two contradictory measures pass on the same ballot, the one that gets more votes prevails.  (Article II ยง 10(b).)  Apparently Ohio has no clear answer.
The Washington Post supports a currently pending bill that would go easier or heroin pushers, but has the honesty to publish this story showing in heartbreaking detail the human damage these people bring about.

Let's assume arguendo that pot sentences can sometimes be too harsh.  What is the earthly excuse for voting to go easier on heroin dealers?  Do our senators and representatives have no clue about the ongoing, deadly heroin epidemic?  Or the ravages this drug causes even when it doesn't kill you?  Or is it that they don't care? As long as those billionaire-funded political contributions keep coming in, hey, look, stuff happens.

Read the story and decide for yourself whether now is the time to go soft on heroin dealers.  It begins:
A big part of the energy behind sentencing "reform" takes root in the belief that we have not only too many people in prison, but the wrong people.  Under this view, prisons are packed with "low level drug offenders" ("pot offenders" is often implied), leaving insufficient room for the "truly dangerous."

As Heather McDonald explains in "The Decriminalization Delusion," this is pure hogwash.  She shows, for example:

[Contrary to President] Obama, the state prison population (which accounts for 87 percent of the nation's prisoners) is dominated by violent criminals and serial thieves. In 2013, drug offenders made up less than 16 percent of the state prison population, whereas violent felons were 54 percent of the rolls and property offenders, 19 percent. (See graph below.) Reducing drug admissions to 15 large state penitentiaries by half would lower those states' prison count by only 7 percent, according to the Urban Institute.

Chief Reformer to the Rescue, Almost

Prof. Doug Berman saw the same Post article I blogged about this morning, and, as is typical, he has a ready reply.  In his post, he says:

[The Post reporter] is quite right to highlight the statistical reality that lots more imprisoned offenders are behind bars for violent offenses than for drug crimes.  But he fails to acknowledge that a considerable amount of violent crime is related to black market turf wars and that the failure to treat effectively drug addictions and related woes often drive property crimes.  American legal and social history should provide a ready reminder of these realities: violent and property crimes (and incarceration rates) spiked considerably during alcohol Prohibition not because of greater alcohol use but due to enhanced incentives for otherwise law-abiding people to profit in the black market from others' desire for a drink.

The problem here is that (as I can tell you from many years as a prosecutor), violence is relatively uncommon in the pot market.  Where you see it is overwhelmingly in the market for hard drugs, such as heroin, meth, and crack. These drugs, being more expensive, are also the ones that principally fuel property crime (for the money to buy the druggie's next hit).

Doug's solution (legalization, a' la the repeal of Prohibition) will not work because, by huge margins, the American people do not want hard drugs legalized.

I propose a different solution:  Let hard drug dealers understand that selling their poison is not going to be tolerated and will be met with the full force of law, undiluted by big breaks for thugs sentencing reform.

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