Articles Posted in War on Drugs

Fotolia_62904321_Subscription_Monthly_M-300x300In April 2016, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced it was reconsidering marijuana’s current list as a Schedule 1 Drug in the Controlled Substance Act. This announcement was met with skepticism and cautious optimism. The decision of the DEA to reclassify marijuana in the Controlled Substance List would allow national marijuana reform to circumvent the large hurdle of congressional action.

The State of Federal Marijuana Law

Currently, marijuana is illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substance Act which defines marijuana as a Schedule 1 Drug. These schedules are characterized as:

dreamstime_xs_22155154The harmful practices of America’s “war on drugs” have taken a toll on the lives of countless Americans, yet only recently has a new repercussion of the drug war come to light.

The yearly cost per incarcerated prisoner in many states far exceeds the yearly expense (per pupil) of educating students in public schools. With most states overburdened by swelling prison populations and unable to devote necessary resources to education, the country will have difficulty clawing its way out of the hole created by ‘drug war’ policies.

The growing number of incarcerated persons in American prisons is due to the ‘tough on drugs’ policies of the late 20th Century.  As Kathleen Miles of The Huffington Post points out, the number of inmates in prison for non-violent, drug-related offenses represents more than half of the American prison population. This number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased rapidly over the past half century – up from 16% in 1970.

rehabilitation rehab for drugs alcohol addiction or sport and accident injury physical or mental therapy
Is Childhood trauma the root of addiction? According to Dr. Gabor Maté, yes. The Canadian physician believes that the origin of addiction can be traced back to a painful experience in childhood. He argues that addicts suffer from hurt and stress that can come from violence, abuse, addiction in the family, neglect, and other discomforting experiences. Dr. Maté’s stance on drug addiction posits that the drugs themselves are not causing the addiction, but that psychological or physiological stresses are. His 2010 book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, highlights his theory that if we only address addiction as a disease, we do not treat addiction at its core. Dr. Mate is one of the proponents of ayahuasca-assisted treatment to help his patients address the root source of addiction.

Ayahuasca – The Hallucinogenic Tea

What is Ayahuasca-assisted treatment? It is a form of psychedelic-assistance which helps patients relive and address trauma they experienced as children. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic tea made from Amazonian tree bark and has been used by shamans for centuries. Ayahuasca is legal in South America, but only legal in the United States for certain religious groups. The Supreme Court ruled that the União do Vegetal, a religious group with Brazilian origins, can use the brew for its religious services. A limited but thought-provoking number of studies suggest that ayahuasca provides a remedy for addicts.  The Ayahuasca-Assisted Treatment for Addiction was the first observational study in North America. Conducted in British Columbia, Canada, the published results showed that patients, who were treated with ayahuasca for substance abuse, reported a decline in the use of alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine. The patients also gained psychological benefits, feeling more hopeful and empowered. The study’s results suggest that more research should be done on ayahuasca-assisted treatment. Although studies suggest that ayahuasca can be used for drug addiction, PTSD, and depression, its active ingredient, DMT, remains a Schedule I controlled substance in the U.S., and in 2011, the Canadian government ordered Dr. Maté to stop treating his patients with ayahuasca tea.

iStock_000000350401XSmall.jpgThe government intercepts the phone calls of suspect criminals through the use of a wiretap. Wiretaps are search warrants that allow a law enforcement agency to eavesdrop on phone calls or internet communications (E.g. cell, land line, Skype calls). Law enforcement agencies can only eavesdrop after they obtain a court order from a judge authorizing them to listen in on certain conversations. In order to obtain a court order, the officer must file an application with the court requesting authorization from the court to conduct a wiretap. The application is an essential part of the process and is subject to strict compliance with 18 U.S.C.A. § 2518.

The first requirement is that the investigative or law enforcement officer making the application be identified along with the officer who authorized the application. This requirement is important for a couple of reasons. First, there are strict disclosure laws that prohibit liberal sharing of wiretaps. Officers cannot freely discuss wiretaps with whomever they want, even if they are talking to other officers. The disclosure must be permitted by statute. Second, it identifies the law enforcement agency that is conducting the wiretap. Particular agencies can conduct wiretaps for certain reasons. Certain agencies investigate certain crimes; not all crimes are subject to wiretap surveillance either. A law enforcement agency must be investigating a crime that is enumerated under 18 U.S.C.A. § 2703, and the crime must be one that the agency investigates.

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dreamstime_xs_22155154.jpgDespite a relatively low crime rate during the last decade, between 1970 and 2010, Texas’ prison population increased by 995%, even though the state’s population only increased by 124% during that same time period. However, Texas’ record-setting incarceration rates are not accidental–meaning this trend can still be reversed. Critics of excessive legislation and prosecutorial strategies such as mandatory minimum sentences stress that our excessive prison population is a direct result of the Texas Legislature constantly criminalizing new acts. Over the last decade, the Legislature has created an average of 40 new felonies during each legislative session while simultaneously increasing penalties for existing crimes. At present, Texas recognizes over 2,500 felony crimes.

Another prime contributor to Texas’ prison population explosion is unarguably the U.S.’s failed war on drugs. At this point, we can all agree that “prison therapy” is hugely ineffective in helping defendants cope with addiction. Considering the fact that over 70,000 people both enter and leave Texas state prisons every year, only 22% of which have been convicted of a violent crime. It should be imperative that we are taking steps to treat and reform inmates during their served time, rather than hoping that imprisonment itself is enough to deter addiction and future bad behavior. Treating a public health problem as a criminal problem is not going to end substance addiction, especially when past imprisonment keeps a person disenfranchised within their community, often without the ability to find a job or place to live. And all too often, the communities that are most impacted by this injustice are young minorities, with a new study finding that by age 23, 49% of black males and 44% of Hispanic males have been arrested, compared with only 38% of white males.

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iStock_000005542834XSmall (2).jpgUnmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) revolutionized the War in Afghanistan. These drones allowed the military to perform a variety of operations while reducing the threat of injury to human soldiers. In the battlefield, it may be somewhat easy to rationalize the use of UAVs, especially against a foreign terrorist threat. Your feelings might dramatically change when you think about your local police force using UAVs to fight crime. This idea may seem a little bizarre and unrealistic. However, there are Texas counties currently allowing Law Enforcement to use UAVs and others who are engaging in UAV pilot programs.

UAVs enable the police to conduct unmanned surveillance over public and private areas. The main focus of UAV surveillance is to monitor or observe criminal behavior. While monitoring public areas is seemingly reasonable, the invasion of privacy UAVs present is cause for concern. For example, the Austin police department used a UAV in 2009. The Austin police department was executing a search warrant on a suspect’s house. The suspect was a drug trafficker and was believed to be heavily armed and dangerously. The police were concerned that the suspect was capable of shooting down a helicopter, so they conducted a sweep of the property with a UAV before executing the search warrant. This UAV, called the Wasp, was particularly special because it was the size of a small bird, which would be undetectable to the unwary eye.

Feelings about drones differ amongst Texas counties. Currently, Harris County does not to take part in UAV pilot programs. It initially participated in a UAV program, but it withdrew its participation in 2007. On the other hand, Montgomery County has a $300,000 Shadowhawk helicopter drone (developed from Vanguard Industries). It is a 50 pound helicopter with an extremely powerful camera mounted in the front with infrared capabilities. Assigned to man this drone are Sgt. Melvin Franklin, a licensed pilot, and Lt. Damon Hall, who is head of the department’s crime lab and crime scene unit. Montgomery County paid with this money with a homeland security grant. This drone is intended “to assist the County in a number of critical operations to include emergency management, search & rescue, and S.W.A.T. operations.”

nursing certification.jpgOften well-meaning but misinformed opponents of marijuana law reform suggest that certain statistics imply marijuana is the cause for huge numbers of emergency room visits. One example of such an opponent is a former deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Scott Burns. The deputy director cited that patients reported marijuana as a factor in emergency room visits at a rate that rose 176 percent since 1994. Further, to support the view that marijuana should remain illegal, Burns points to the fact that marijuana as a factor in emergency room visits now surpasses heroin. More recently, Deni Carise, a substance abuse clinician, used the fact that in 2011 marijuana “was involved” in 455,668 emergency room visits nationally to argue against marijuana legalization.

Such statistics seem to highlight good reasons for the government to maintain the status quo of marijuana prohibition. A meaningful look, however, into the data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), the source for such emergency room statistics, reveals the full picture. A fuller understanding about the role marijuana plays in emergency room visits demonstrates marijuana is not actually a major cause for emergency room visits.

While statistics from DAWN do indicate increasing numbers of people mention marijuana when visiting an emergency room, such a mention of marijuana only means the patient reported he or she had previously used marijuana, not that the marijuana use led to the emergency room visit. In interests of fully disclosing all past drug use, harmful or not, to the health care provider, patients routinely share such information. A notable increase of marijuana use reports in emergency rooms is not unique to the substance of marijuana. Since the late 1980s, and because of improved federal reporting methods, the overall amount of drug use mentions has risen significantly in emergency room visits.

iStock_000006746569XSmall.jpgBy their very title, the role of law enforcement officials has traditionally been limited to enforcing the laws handed down by our popularly elected officials. However, a letter jointly written by several national law enforcement agencies makes it clear that the majority of law enforcement agents feel they should be able to determine what policies and laws to follow. The letter, written in response to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s August announcement that the federal government would not challenge laws passed by Colorado and Washington legalizing recreational marijuana, was signed by the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, the National Sheriffs’ Association, the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers Associations’ Coalition, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association and the Police Executive Research Forum. “It is unacceptable that the Department of Justice did not consult our organizations — whose members will be directly impacted — for meaningful input ahead of this important decision,” the letter read. “Our organizations were given notice just thirty minutes before the official announcement was made public and were not given the adequate forum ahead of time to express our concerns with the Department’s conclusion on this matter. Simply ‘checking the box’ by alerting law enforcement officials right before a decision is announced is not enough and certainly does not show an understanding of the value the Federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partnerships bring to the Department of Justice and the public safety discussion.” Even though scientists have debunked the myth that marijuana is a gateway drug, the letter cited the gateway drug theory to oppose marijuana reform. Interestingly, the letter failed to address the fact that marijuana prohibition has not reduced marijuana usage among US residents, even while law enforcement has dramatically increased the number of jailed drug offenders.

One would think law enforcement officials would welcome eliminating a major revenue source for foreign and domestic organized criminals, however to the contrary, they have been staunch opponents of legalizing marijuana for personal or medicinal use because, while it remains contraband, marijuana is a major source of funding for law enforcement. Police departments are often able to keep a large portion of the assets they seize during drug raids, even if charges are never brought. And federal grants for drug war operations make up a sizable portion of local law enforcement funding. It is obvious that Law Enforcement has a financial incentive to maintain the “War on Drugs” and that they are willing to utilize unfounded data to support their anti-marijuana reform claims.

In addition, law enforcement officials seem to have entirely missed Holder’s emphasis on allowing Washington and Colorado a trial period during which the Justice Department will be very closely monitoring any negative effect to public safety, public health and other community interests. Coupled with Holder’s announcement was a memo issued to U.S. attorneys across the country by Deputy Attorney General James Cole. Cole’s letter stated that the administration’s decision rests on its expectation that the states would maintain strong and effective regulation and enforcement systems to address any threat to public safety and health.

Students affected by a federal law that prohibits federal financial assistance to those convicted of drug crimes, including possession of marijuana, are reportedly 60% more likely to receive a conviction of another drug crime in the three years after high school graduation. Researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research have shown that education, especially college education, strongly correlates with ending criminal behavior. However, if students convicted with a drug crime are prevented from attaining an education because of the lack of financial assistance, they are more likely to engage in criminal activity. The research also found that the federal law preventing financial aid does not deter young people from committing drug offense in the first place.

Federal law only prohibits students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid, while those convicted for manslaughter, burglary, arson, and other crimes may still receive aid. The federal law ensures that students with drug convictions are excessively punished. The criminal justice system already dispenses a punishment after a drug conviction and the deprivation of federal financial aid effectively acts as a double penalty. The Higher Education Act was intended to give educational opportunities to low income students. In my judgment however, the result of amended Higher Education Act, which creates the double penalty, is to deny educational opportunities to many financially disadvantaged students.

Even the Government Accountability Office, a research arm of Congress, has not found evidence that the double penalty actually helps stop drug use. An Advisory Committee, which was appointed by Congress, recommended that Congress eliminate the drug conviction question from the financial aid application, because that question should be irrelevant to aid eligibility.