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August 24, 2009

A Message from the Gulag

As some may remember, Dustin Costa, out on bail in Merced County after an arrest for growing medical marijuana, and while still defending himself against those charges, was the first Californian arbitrarily arrested, held without bond, and tried in Federal Court for the same offense. His federal arrest took place within weeks of the predictable Raich verdict in 2005. Following a federal trial in Fresno he was given a punitive 15 year prison term to be served in Texas. I’ve remained in close touch with him since his sentencing in February 2007, as he continues to seek a pardon.

The following essay, with significant edits by myself, is based on our lengthy correspondence and frequent phone calls.

Can Marijuana Prevent Substance Abuse by Treating Childhood Mood Disorders?

The Gateway Theory, more properly a hypothesis, posits that “soft” drugs like marijuana somehow lead to “harder” ones like heroin. Despite its shaky scientific underpinnings, Gateway’s basic assumptions remain a cornerstone of drug war propaganda, and apparently accepted by a majority of Americans. But what if it could be shown that marijuana, contrary to Gateway beliefs, actually prevents substance abuse problems?

Through its ability to substitute for more harmful agents like alcohol and tobacco, marijuana has long enjoyed anecdotal fame among activists as a “harm reduction” agent; however, what I’m suggesting here goes well beyond that. I’m asking if marijuana could actually prevent substance abuse problems.

Dr. Tom O'Connell's published study of medical marijuana applicants suggests it could, and If replicated by others, might turn the Gateway Theory inside out. According to Dr. O'Connell, the earlier a vulnerable adolescent becomes a repetitive marijuana user, the less likely they are to have problems with alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, including heroin. Important to an understanding of his study is that until the 1960s, marijuana was relatively unknown to most Americans, especially adolescents; before then very few “kids” had ever tried it. By interviewing thousands of marijuana applicants about their drug and alcohol use, Dr. O'Connell has gathered data on marijuana use during adolescence that have long been obscured by federal policy as it was becoming America’s most popular illegal drug.

Essentially all seeking the “recommendations,” required by California law are experienced users; when considered as ten-year birth cohorts, there were few in the 60- 80 age range. The first numerically large cohort were older Baby Boomers born right after World War II (between 1946 and 1955). When questioned about their initiations of a standard list of illegal agents, and the details of their experiences with alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, they reported trying marijuana for the first time at an average age of 17.6, well after their initiations of alcohol and tobacco. Most importantly,their chronic use of cannabis hadn’t begun until an average age of 22.7. Almost a third (31.16%) of that oldest Boomer cohort later tried heroin, closely agreeing with similar data provided by their contemporaries in the Seventies that generated the Gateway hypothesis.

O'Connell's more longitudinal data show that conclusion was premature; even as it was being cited in support of ‘zero tolerance” during the Eighties. That's because the younger siblings, cousins, and more recently— the children and grandchildren— of the oldest Boomers have continued trying cannabis during adolescence; but with quite different results than predicted by Gateway theorists.

For example, the next cohort (born between 1956 and 1965), first tried marijuana at an average age of 15.8 years. Still a it older than their trials of alcohol and tobacco, but their rate of heroin initiation decreased by a third to 20.8%, thus highlighting a key trend, one that has remained steady throughout four decades of illegal marijuana use: the interval between "trying and buying" (initiation and chronic use), or what O'Connell refers to as the "gap." It has declined steadily since hippie days, in parallel with each cohort's rate of heroin initiation.

According to an article in Time Magazine by John Cloud, prevention of substance abuse is possible through early identification of precursor signs, such as childhood mood disorders, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These are all conditions for which adults often self-medicate with marijuana. In children, these conditions are treated with drugs, and the many of those used been found to have have harmful side effects. The difference with marijuana may be that not only is it safe and effective, but it may also prevent future substance abuse. The late Dr. Tod Mikuriya certainly thought so, and recommended marijuana as a first-line treatment for childhood mood disorders.

I spoke with Dr. O'Connell before sending him this this essay; his comment was: “Basically, we've been on the wrong track for 40 years, but the drug war has become a sacred cow.” I think he's right. There have been problems with the Gateway Theory ever since its introduction, Now, through an emerging picture of substance use patterns, it appears as though the Gateway had it all backwards. Rather than leading the way towards greater harm, marijuana appears to have had a role in preventing hard drug use.

By Dustin Costa

Posted by tjeffo at 11:08 PM | Comments (0)

August 23, 2009

Denial, Depression, and Drugs

As the nation (and the world) slide ever deeper into economic depression, the nearly complete absence of the D word from discussions of the present "financial crisis” (or "economic meltdown,” if you prefer) have struck me as bizarre. But then, my recent preoccupation with the “war" on drugs may have made me more aware than most of the myriad ways by which unpleasant truth is avoided by our species. By far the most common is simply pretending not to notice; a practice known as "denial."

Examples abound; a recent front page item in the SF Chronicle, reported on a proposal in the state Senate to reduce California’s prison population by discharging 27,000 sick or elderly and non-violent inmates, a move that could save $525 million/year. It predictably evoked outrage from Republicans, who have traditionally been both more "tough on crime," but opposed to "big government" than Democrats; apparently without realizing that criminals created by tough drug laws must be cared for at public expense.

It was thus ironic when the feature of this week-end's Insight section of the Chronicle turned out to be a comparison of California and Michigan prison systems within the context of an offer (so far declined) from Michigan's governor to make some of her state's surplus prison capacity available to California, a move that could benefit both states.

There are, of course, difficulties in implementing such an offer that would have to be negotiated, not the least of which would be making up for the hardships imposed on families by the greater distances involved, but the opportunity for constructive change should not be dismissed out of hand.

On the subjects of denial and prisons, I can't resist adding that both are big anomalies in the nation that claims to be the "Land of the Free," but leads the world in incarceration (both per capita and in absolute numbers).

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 08:44 PM | Comments (0)

August 22, 2009

Still Popular, after all These Years

From California, yet another article on a subject no one seems at all curious about: what has made marijuana so popular forty years after Nixon fired the first shot in his war on drugs by launching Operation Intercept? Are we really that stupid, or is it simply that we don't want to recognize how stupid our nation was when we followed an insecure Trickster's lead into a war that couldn't be won and shouldn't have been fought?

However one might answer that question, there can now be little argument with certain facts: we are in the midst of a recession (depression) and yet California, also facing its worst budget crisis ever, is paying through the nose for both its annual campaign against marijuana planting (CAMP) and to fight the forest fires that have been made more likely and more destructive by drought, which in turn, is probably a consequence of the global warming right wingers scoff at, but is also getting worse (at least by temperature measurements) every year.

One is forced to ask: at which point will denial and wishful thinking finally be replaced by a willingness to subject certain old beliefs to critical re-examination?

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 06:26 PM | Comments (0)

August 19, 2009

Can This Species be Saved?

To anyone with the capacity for logical analysis, the futility of America’s war on drugs should be obvious; take just two recent developments: first, the emergence of rogue Mexican military personnel as competitors of the drug cartels in the bloody turf war along the Mexican border has now been confirmed by both Wikipedia and CNN.

The other is the continued insistence, by American federal agencies most concerned with defending the drug war as policy that “marijuana” (cannabis) has no “redeeming” medical value, even as Californians attempting to comply with a law both their state and federal “supreme” courts have upheld on appeal, continue to be selectively arrested, prosecuted and sentenced.

Each of these situations is, of course, complex, but their glaring incongruity speaks for itself and points up another fact made increasingly obvious by headlines from all over the world: a significant fraction of our species is now behaving more and more like murderous children by killing themselves, each other, and any other life forms that happen to stand between them and their perceived needs of the moment.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 10:46 PM | Comments (0)

August 16, 2009

An Inconvenient Anniversary

Next month will mark the 40th Anniversary of Operation Intercept, a unilateral initiative by the Nixon Administration to “control” the smuggling of illegal drugs, especially marijuana, across the US-Mexican Border. As recounted in Edward Brecher’s unsurpassed contemporary analysis of late Sixties US drug problems published three years later, the operation itself quickly became a fiasco and had to be abandoned in early October.

Unfortunately, we seem to have earned nothing from that experience because today— seven US presidents, forty years, and uncounted billions of dollars later— the world remains deeply committed to the same failing policy by UN Treaty.

The denial needed to pretend that such a treaty, and the global drug war it calls for, are both reasonable and possible is still prevalent throughout the world, a circumstance that does not auger well for the ability of our species to deal with its other serious problems: overpopulation, a blighted global economy, progressive desertification, and looming shortages of water, food,, and oil,, to name several of the most obvious.

In that respect, the drug war can be seen as an excellent indicator of both the degree to which we have been trashing our home planet and the likelihood we will wake up in time to effectively mitigate our most predictable self-imposed disasters.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 05:31 PM | Comments (0)

August 13, 2009

Unhealthy Debate

That we live in unsettled times is hardly news, but here in the republic aspiring to leadership of the "free world,” we seem to be setting new records for political agitation: witness the mobs of generally overweight, affluent-appearing, sign-toting, red-faced, over-fifty citizens intent on disrupting “town hall” meetings hosted by Democratic lawmakers in support of their party’s bid to “reform” our admittedly ailing health care by providing coverage for a large fraction of the soaring millions now without any health insurance whatsoever.

Forget about fair play, or even ordinary civility in this one, as Iowa’s Senator Charles Grassley demonstrated yesterday when he responded to President Obama’s attempt to praise his “bipartisanship” with an outright lie. What the charade told me is that Grassley, an unreconstructed drug war hawk, was simply running true to form, and Obama still has a lot to learn about day-to-day politics inside the Beltway.

In that respect, he’s a lot like Jimmy Carter, who couldn’t learn the required political skills fast enough to save us from the dozen Reagan-Bush years that followed his earnest, but politically naive presidency. I suspect Obama is also an honorable man, but his lack of appreciation for the benefits of pot and his inability to quit his own deadly tobacco habit are worrisome signs that he’s not as astute as I had hoped. He’s in for even more outrageous GOP nonsense on health care; one real possibility is that Republican hubris will finally become so apparent to the small fraction of genuine swing voters in America that the GOP will be hoisted on their own petards in November.

At least, let’s hope so.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 06:51 PM | Comments (0)

O’Shaughnessy’s Now Online

One of the unsung heroes of the (still) relatively unknown drug policy reform movement is the late Tod Mikuriya MD, a psychiatrist of about my own vintage who once worked for the federal government at the NIMH shortly before the drug war began in earnest following Nixon’s election in 1968. Tod, already very much aware that cannabis is medicine, went on to devote his entire professional career to that cause before succumbing to bile duct cancer in May, 2007.

One of Mikuriya’s heroes was Dr. William B. O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician and polymath who did the first clinical research on cannabis while in India and introduced its use to Western Medicine in 1839. O’Shaughnessy later returned to India where he made significant contributions to telegraphy and communication. He was Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1856.

Mikuriya was one of several authors of Proposition 215; his decisive contribution was the crucial, “any other condition” phrase that has made California’s pot initiative the nation’s most important because it has allowed so many to qualify as medical users. As California’s premier medical cannabis pioneer, Tod also pushed for publication of clinical results and, together with his friend Fred Gardner, helped found the California Cannabis Research Medical Group (CCRMG) and launch O'Shaughnessy's as its medical journal. First published in tabloid form, it was made available to patients through buyers’ clubs, dispensaries and doctors’ offices and later online. Always a shoestring operation, it has soaked up a lot of unpaid labor from its editor, unsung volunteers and contributors. The most recent edition, also the largest and most informative, has just been made available online in pdf format, meaning that activists around the world can see it in the same form its readers in California do.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 03:30 AM | Comments (0)

August 10, 2009

Unintended Consequences

The complex "natural" method by which plants acquire the nitrogen required by animals (including humans) dependent upon them for nutrition involves soil bacteria. It has been estimated that without supplementary fertilization, the human population would be limited to between 3 and 4 billion.

Thus an estimated 40% of the world's human population owes its existence to nitrogen fertilizers, without which the calories necessary to sustain them could not be produced. Less well known is the story of their inventor,Fritz Haber the German chemist who discovered the process used to fertilize plant growth by adding free nitrogen to the soil. Haber's story, an amazing sequence of triumphs and tragedies, is less well known than that of his contemporary and friend, Albert Einstein, who was also awarded a Nobel Prize and whose work also led to the development of weapons of mass destruction. Einstein's legacy was nuclear weapons; Haber, who invented both chlorine gas and Xyklon B, left us chemical warfare.

However, the supreme irony may be that Haber's discovery of nitrogen fertilization, which also prevented the Malthusian warning of widespread famine from being realized, may be his most deadly legacy. By enabling the human population to grow beyond its "natural" limits, the increased agricultural production enabled by nitrogen fertilization has allowed us to pursue energy consumption to a point that may "control" the human population through a combination of the dire consequences now being debated (but not effectively addressed) by our species.

If that should happen, let us hope that the survivors will be chastened enough by their experience to learn from it, and diminished enough in numbers to do so.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 05:17 PM | Comments (0)

August 09, 2009

Mystery Explained

In an earlier entry I called attention to the outrageous treatment of a straight-arrow Morro Bay dispensary operator named Charlie Lynch whose life was turned upside down by a DEA raid and federal prosecution carried out while the feckless Dubya was still disgracing the Oval Office, but whose sentence was to be imposed under Obama shortly after Eric Holder had "confirmed" there would be a new approach to Medical Marijuana on his watch.

But apparently common sense and justice cannot be retroactive, even under "change you can believe in." Holder's Justice Department turned down a judge who was obviously seeking some leeway and had already demonstrated uncommon courage by imposing a comparatively light sentence.

However, given the extraordinary medical circumstances in this particular case, just the raid and prosecution were abominations. That they were instigated by a remorseless and arrogant sheriff was recently made abundantly clear when he was interviewed by John Stossel. What's now also clear is that we have some truly evil people in California law enforcement.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 02:06 AM | Comments (0)

August 06, 2009

The Belly of the Beast (Personal)

Yesterday I had an experience I won't soon forget; one I have been unwittingly prepping for since opposition to America’s war on drugs became a personal cause in late 1995. I was brought to a new level of understanding of the phenomena I’ve been studying for fourteen years by visiting the Elmwood Correctional Facility, a division of the Santa Clara County Jail. The opportunity itself was unusual, perhaps even unique; it came about when a judge issued a court order to perform a medical evaluation on an incarcerated marijuana user for the purpose of assisting his personal attorney (not a public defender) with his defense. I now realize that a number of unusual circumstances had to combine for that to happen, but rather than confuse this account with tedious detail, I’ll go right to the visit itself, because it demonstrated unequivocally that not only is our criminal justice system a travesty, its continuing reciprocity with the drug war is trapping us in a pattern of institutionalized cruelty that will be difficult to undo.

The Elmwood facility is in Milpitas, only a few miles from several of Silicon Valley’s premier companies, something I discovered by getting lost long enough to discover unmistakable signs of economic blight, even there: new properties with empty parking lots sporting ‘For Sale” or For Rent” signs.

Elmwood turned out to be a sprawling, forbidding complex of two story buildings surrounded by an enclosed chicken wire run that gives away its mission. Separate men’s and women’s divisions had their own parking lots. The men’s was much larger, as was its entrance complex, bristling with signs reminding visitors of a list of forbidden items & behaviors, also that anyone entering is subject to search.

The staff were armed and uniformed in quasi-military blue uniforms with combat boots and baseball caps. They were, with few exceptions, remote and unfriendly. Once inside, its low security level was apparent because prisoners, unmistakable in their wide striped uniforms were not escorted. Visitors wore large numbered plastic ID badges that are returned upon leaving. What struck me immediately was the oppressive mood inspired by the sprawling facility’s sheer size, drab architecture and narrow windows. Also how much it must cost to operate, even for a rich county like Santa Clara (Pop. 1682585 in 2000), Hard information about the county's jails is surprisingly hard to come by at its website, probably the best overview is supplied by a self-serving video narrated by a uniformed officer that revealed it's the fourth largest in California (fourteenth in US) and how hard they must struggle with overcrowding.

The most important emotional revelation from my visit (which I’ll return to in future posts) was also unexpected: the degree to which I was made to feel the same humiliation and dehumanization prisoners must experience and which have become so much a part of our system of criminal “justice;” also, the degree for which our patently absurd "drug control" policy bears responsibility.

What was brought home to me yesterday is that although I had interviewed many people who had spent time in jail for marijuana offenses and had participated vicariously in Dustin Costa’s imprisonment in the Fresno County Jail, (I now receive phone calls from his Texas prison a couple of times a week), nothing had prepared me for the feeling of being inside such a place, even one as comparatively “easy” as Elmwood.

That we routinely incarcerate young men who have been victimized by their upbringing and are "guilty" only of treating their troubled emotions with an effective medicine proved even more depressing than I could have imagined.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at 07:06 PM | Comments (0)