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Reefer Roundup: 8/12/11

It's back! Your dose of drug news has returned

By Jordan Smith, 2:24PM, Fri. Aug. 12, 2011

drug czar Gil Kerlikowske
drug czar Gil Kerlikowske

Lets get right to it – just because Reefer has been off in la-la-land doesn't mean the news stopped rolling in. So, playing catch-up, we've got news on the feds' new approach to medical marijuana, the nation's new drug strategy, the economics of the drug war, the low-down on Cali's hemp dreams, and the results of a new pot poll.

THE DOJ'S ABOUT-FACE:

Less that two years after the Obama Administration's Dept. of Justice issued a memo to its U.S. attorneys, essentially saying that they should avoid going after and prosecuting medi-pot patients using marijuana in accordance with state law, the DOJ has issued a new memo that says, essentially, just the opposite.

Indeed, in the June 29 memo, Deputy Attorney General James Cole seeks to provide "guidance regarding" the DOJ's previous communication: "A number of states have enacted some form of legislation relating to the medical use of marijuana. Accordingly the [2009] memo reiterated to you that prosecution of significant traffickers in illegal drugs, including marijuana, remains a core priority, but advised that it is likely not an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement efforts on individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment regimen consistent with applicable state law, or their caregivers," Cole writes. "The term 'caregiver' as used in the memorandum meant just that: individuals providing care to individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses, not commercial operations cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana."

In other words, according to the feds, the previous memo was never meant as a cue for federal law enforcers to back off on prosecuting medi-pot cultivators or providers. Indeed, the proliferation of medi-pot cultivators for dispensaries, and even the audacity of some jurisdictions to begin their own larger-scale production of marijuana for medical uses – think New Mexico and Colorado – is apparently none too pleasing to the feds, who are now reminding folks that their authority to police drugs, by way of the Controlled Substances Act (under which marijuana is labeled as one of the most dangerous drugs out there, with no accepted medical uses), trumps all these damn state laws. "There has…been an increase in the scope of commercial cultivation, sale, distribution and use of marijuana for purported medical purposes," Cole wrote. "For example, within the past 12 months, several jurisdictions have considered or enacted legislation to authorize multiple large-scale, privately-operated industrial marijuana cultivation centers. Some of these planned facilities have revenue projections of the millions of dollars based on the plant cultivation of tens of thousands of cannabis plants," he continued. "The [2009] memo was never intended to shield such activities from federal enforcement action and prosecution, even where those activities purport to comply with state law." So there.

As Paul Armentano, deputy director for NORML points out in a recent article on AlterNet, this new edict from Washington, D.C. means that the feds are, essentially, on board with the potential criminal prosecution of state employees in Rhode Island and Washington, where U.S.As have questioned whether it would be possible to prosecute those who register medi-pot providers. The only solution now, argues Armentano, is to push for passage of the recently-filed pot legalization measure (HR 2306) authored by Massachusetts Dem Rep. Barney Frank. "Regardless of how one wishes to interpret the latest memo from the DOJ, one thing is clear," he writes. "States will never truly enjoy the freedom to experiment with alternative marijuana policies until the federal government is compelled to get out of their way."

DEVISING A WINNING STRATEGY:

It's that time of the year again – time for the release of the nation's latest drug control strategy. Here's my reaction: ho-hum. Seriously. It's much the same: Lots of talk about how prevention and treatment mean so much and are key to reducing drug dependence and drug trafficking. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Still, as it has every year, those warm-and-fuzzy feelings take a backseat to law enforcement activities aimed at drug interdiction. And, as I've said before, to what end? Although the feds assert that this approach works it's hard to really believe 'em, given that we have the exact same conversation year after year and continue to throw millions and millions and millions at efforts to reduce drug trafficking and drug use.

Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system, here are the highlights of the 2011 National Drug Control Strategy courtesy of drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, head of the White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy:

• The strategy proposes beefing up drug treatment programs for women and families. Because many drug treatment options don't allow children, mothers in need of services often eschew them for fear that once they admit their problem the child welfare system will take their kids. This is a real problem that does need addressing – and if the feds can figure out a way to do that, I'll certainly applaud them. In fact, Austin Recovery expects to open next year a kids-welcome program called Family House, a partnership with Sixthriver Architects. This is great news and more such programs are definitely needed.

• According to a 2008 Dept. of Defense survey, nearly 12% of active duty military members have a substance abuse problem – and much of this abuse is of prescription drugs. Indeed, the percentage of misuse of scrip drugs is more than double that of the civilian population. Moreover, the feds say that some 60% of veterans currently incarcerated are struggling with addiction. The strategy proposes "enhancing" the psychological and behavioral health services provided to military families.

Really, those are the only two topics that are different and forward-looking. Much of the rest of the strategy covers well-worn territory – including the continued focus on the demon weed. Perhaps in keeping with the Dept. of Justice's latest revision of its position on medical marijuana, the ONDCP strategy asserts that marijuana is "addictive and unsafe," and that efforts to "'medicalize' marijuana" have only served to "widen the public acceptance and availability of the drug." And that, asserts Kerlikowske is bad news: "There is no substitute for the scientific approval process employed by the [Food and Drug Administration]," reads the report. "For a drug to be made available to the public as medicine, the FDA requires rigorous research followed by tests for safety and efficacy. Only then can a substance be classified as medicine and prescribed by qualified health care professionals to patients." And, obviously, marijuana just hasn't made the FDA cut, the report points out.

This is cynicism at its best. Reefer readers know this well. The reality is that the feds have blocked at every turn the efforts of medical researchers to access and test marijuana per the FDA process. You can read a bit about that here.

Still, Kerlikowske's strategy asserts that the DEA has approved 109 pot researchers to "perform bona fide research with marijuana," which has led to the marketing of synthetic pot products. The drugs, however, leave much to be desired, many patients have noted. It's a bit of a weird situation – though not a unique one: Make illegal a natural product; but make legal a pharmacological synthetic of said product. Really? I know there may be arguments to be made about consistency of a synthetic, but really, this situation just fuels the notion that pot is illegal because that's the only way that Big Pharma benefits. I don't think it's that simple, but it is certainly something to think about.

If you want to read the entire strategy you can do so here.

It is worth noting that while the strategy may sound good in places, the proposed drug budget still places the most emphasis on law enforcement. In the 2012 proposed budget, treatment programs and initiatives would be funded with $9 billion – an increase of nearly $99 million over fiscal year 2010. Still $20 million of that goes to federal prison drug programs – a worthy goal, for sure, but do we really want people to have to go to prison to get help? Meanwhile, however, the budget proposes giving roughly $15.5 billion to law enforcement programs: Domestic enforcement would get a boost of more than $300 million for a $9.5 billion budget; interdiction programs would get a $243 million bump to $3.9 billion; only international programs would see a decrease, of 17.6%, for a total of $2.1 billion in funding. (Money for Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan would all be cut while funding to stop drug trafficking through the Caribbean Basin would increase slightly.)

Again, more of the same. You can read the funding summary here.

THE ECONOMICS OF THE DRUG WAR:

I originally missed this when it was released this spring, but it's still worth a read: The recent report from the National Drug Intelligence Center estimates that a single year of costs associated with drug use tops $193 billion. The estimate comes from costs related to the criminal justice, health, and productivity, according to the report, which is a part of the NDIC's National Drug Threat Assessment and meant to provide lawmakers and other federal officials "with a broad and deep understanding of the full burden that illicit drug use places on our country," reads the report.

The report concludes, in part, that the high costs associated with illicit drug use (note: the report does not take into account any costs associated with alcohol use or abuse) justify the governments ongoing – or, rather, endless – policing of drug use. "It is important that illicit drugs be made as difficult and costly to obtain as possible," reads the report. "This points to the value of law enforcement efforts." The report also notes that it is important to develop "community-based" prevention efforts and to ensuring "broadly available" drug treatments – but we all know that much more lip service and not so much moolah is given to these efforts; policing drugs is strategy numero uno.

But, apparently policing isn't all that effective: I mean, if it were, why would the criminal justice related costs of drug use cost upwards of $61 billion in a single year? (The report uses data from 2007, the most recent year for which all numbers were available.) There are some interesting details here worth digesting – like, for example, and presuming that I'm reading this correctly, the percentage of folks involved with the criminal justice system because of a drug or drug-related crime hovers around 30-35% for state jails and prisons up to 60% for federal prison inmates; roughly 40% of state probationers are on supervision for a drug or drug-related crime.

That's a fairly astounding number when you consider not only the costs to the criminal justice system and to lost productivity, which this report obviously attempts to calculate, but also the collateral costs that it does not even attempt to estimate – including the costs to the families of the incarcerated or the addicted.

The entire report is certainly worth a read. You can download it here.

GOLDEN STATE GOES FOR HEMP:

Eleven years after Cali state lawmakers passed a resolution declaring that the Legislature should move to reinstate industrial hemp farming, a bill to do just that is poised to land on the desk of Dem Gov. Jerry Brown. "The time is long overdue for California farmers to be allowed to grow this sustainable and profitable crop once again," Cali state Sen. Mark Leno, who in February filed the legislation to reauthorize hemp farming. "The passage of [Senate Bill] 676 will create new jobs and economic opportunities for many farmers and manufacturers through out the state."

California is among 17 states who have passed bills that support or re-legalize hemp farming, which died off after World War II (when the feds actually encouraged its cultivation to help the war effort). Hemp is the non-narcotic cousin of marijuana and is used in a variety of applications – from food and body-care products to paints, papers, and car parts. Despite the growing demand for hemp-containing products in the U.S. the plant remains illegal to cultivate.

Why, you ask? Because the Drug Enforcement Administration swears – against reason and logic, mind you – that hemp is actually a drug; or, in the alternative, that legalizing hemp farming would give pot growers ready cover for their illicit crop. Neither argument makes any sense. Hemp contains only minute traces of tetrahydracannibinol (or THC) the main psychoactive ingredient in pot – so, in other words, it simply won't get you high. Moreover, because of cross-pollination, it wouldn't make much sense for a pot grower to stash plants inside a hemp crop. (Indeed, if the DEA really is concerned about this potential "problem," there is a simply and ready solution: Require the planting of hemp strains whose leaves are physically different in appearance than those of its cousin Mary Jane. Problem solved!)

To be frank, the current situation is just asinine. Even as a growing number of states have moved to reauthorize hemp farming – take the long and ongoing saga of North Dakota, for a prime example – they're hamstrung to do so because of the federal narcos. Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers have consistently avoided the issue, even though Surfside Liberpublican Rep. Ron Paul has over and over and over attempted to get traction for a reauthorization bill. He's filed that measure again this year, but so far it hasn't moved. Meanwhile, although hemp-product companies can manufacture and sell hemp-containing products, those products have to be made using imported seed and oil – tons of product that is shipped in from places like Canada and China. Indeed, consider how much hemp just one company, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, a Cali-based manufacturer of – you guessed right! – liquid and bar soaps, imports in a year: 20 tons. (Now imagine how much hemp is imported by the big companies, including Ford, which uses hemp in body panels installed in some of its most popular car models. That's a lot of hemp, and a lot of potential money for U.S. farmers.) "We look forward to the day that we can meet our supply needs from hemp produced right here in our home state," Dr. Bronner's President, David Bronner, said in a press release.

VOTERS SAY 'LEGALIZE IT':

From the Department of No Surprises Here: For the third year in a row, an online poll conducted by Angus-Reid Public Opinion has found that a majority of Americans favor marijuana legalization and think the drug war is a failure.

According to the poll, 55% of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana; support is across the board, with only self-identified Republicans poo-pooing the idea. However, Republicans joined with everyone else in agreeing – and strongly – that the drug war is a failure.

Download the poll results here.

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