ELKINS, West. Va. (7/13/10) — Apparently the latest scary thing that the kids are doing is smoking something called “K2,” which this recent New York Times article describes as “a blend of herbs treated with synthetic marijuana.” By packaging K2 as “incense,” purveyors “have managed to evade federal regulation,” so the stuff is widely, legally available. Only eight states have passed laws banning it to date, and, as soon as bans pass, chemists can quickly sidestep them by making minor tweaks at the molecular level.
Is it dangerous? The man who designed K2—for laboratory research purposes—says its “effects in humans have not been studied and [it] could very well have toxic effects.” Apparently so: implicated in one death so far (albeit a suicide, not an overdose), K2 is sending to emergency rooms and poison control centers more and more people who, while not necessarily at risk of dying, don’t seem to be enjoying the trip.
Even if it were established that K2 is in some sense “safe,” there is no one monitoring whether the gaudy little packets available from multiple manufacturers actually contain K2 or the aforementioned tweaked versions, which medical science knows even less about.
Why would anyone smoke this stuff? Simple: people like to get high, but smoking actual marijuana puts you at risk of failing employer-mandated drug tests as late as 100 days after your last puff, even if it is safer than aspirin. That, as the article explains, is the rub:
”[M]any users say they are undaunted by reports of negative reactions to the drug. K2 does not show up on drug tests, and users say that while they would like to know what is in it, they would take their chances if it means a clean urine test.”Naturally, the DEA stands ready to spend yet more of your tax money figuring out how to impose an effective nationwide ban on this synthetic marijuana substitute, but I have a better idea, one that more and more people—especially the voters of California—seem to be agreeing with: legalize the real thing.
This year marks the beginning of the fifth decade of America’s so-called “war on drugs,” a term first used by Richard Nixon in 1969 and codified into national policy with passage of the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. As of 2008, this war is costing us about $40 billion per year at the federal, state, and local levels, or more than $1,000 each second.
With all of this time and money invested, there can be no doubt that—any minute now—we will arrest the last remaining drug dealers and convert their final few customers from wanting to get high on controlled substances to wanting to get high on life—or at least on safe, legal drugs like Miller Lite and Marlboros.
Nonetheless, the state of California seems to be experiencing a failure of nerve, at least where marijuana is concerned. This November, that state’s voters will have the opportunity to legalize the deadly weed by voting yes on Proposition 19, and current polling finds that passage—i.e., legalization—is not out of reach.
Well, we can hope. Most people don’t start paying attention to elections this far out, and the polls don’t yet reflect the effects of whatever fear-mongering ads will run on television in the last weeks before Election Day, paid for by coalitions that may very well include medical-marijuana businesses and their suppliers. After all, a vote to legalize would bust their quasi-legal monopoly and probably lower prices as a result. But the fact that legalization is even on the ballot, much less that it’s still polling so well, is a significant development in itself.
Is this rare flicker of sanity concerning the “drug war” a sign of things to come nationwide? Maybe. One reason to think so is that, according to Josh Green, who writes for The Atlantic, Democratic Party leaders are realizing that referendums to legalize marijuana are a pretty good way to motivate the liberal base to get out the vote in off-year elections, in the same way that referendums to prevent gays from marrying are so often used to get Republican voters off of their couches. Says Green:
”Acting on a tip from an Obama official, I found a few Democratic consultants who have become convinced that ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana, like the one Californians will vote on in November, actually help Democrats in the same way that gay marriage bans were supposed to have helped Republicans.”So we may start to see more and more states follow California’s lead and offer their own legalization referendums.
Combine that with the public’s increasing frustration at the prospect of longer sentences for pot convictions than for rape and murder, and legalization just might be on the march.
It will still be an uphill march, of course. Most mainstream politicians—even those who’ve admitted to smoking up—remain unable to discuss the issue without giggling like a tenth-grader after his first bong hit. Unsurprisingly, many law enforcement officials remain fiercely opposed, too. They say the main reason for their concern is that, even though it is estimated that you would have to smoke 1,500 pounds of pot in 14 minutes to achieve a lethal dose, the substance deserves continued status as “dangerous” because it functions as a “gateway” to harder drugs.
I’m actually willing to concede this last point, but only in the sense that marijuana’s illegality forces its users into the kinds of associations that make other illegal drugs easier to obtain. But this is not a condition that will continue to hold for Californians if, by this time next year, you can buy a quarter bag in a San Francisco 7-Eleven. And if it doesn’t pass, and people continue to smoke K2 and its variants, couldn't we just as eaily say that marijuana prohibition is the “gateway” that leads them to use these more dangerous drugs?
The “gateway” claim against pot is mere rationalization, of course. The real reasons for law enforcement’s continued opposition to legalization probably lie somewhere near the intersection of two related counter-incentives.
First, there is the fact that pot arrests count as reportable victories in the “war on drugs,” at the same time that they are relatively easy arrests to make.
After all, if you were a cop, which door would you rather take? One with amped-up, paranoid crackheads on the other side? Or one where you can hear an occasional gurgling noise and a bunch of guys laughing at Pineapple Express?
Second, Washington pays local police to hate pot—as if getting to ride around in armored personnel carriers, wear ski masks, and carry rifles in tactical slings weren’t inducement enough to swell the ranks of “drug warriors."
A recent Wall Street Journal article detailed a federal program that provides billions of dollars per year to local law enforcement agencies around the nation, the “majority of [which has] to be used to fight pot.” In these cash-strapped times, it’s hard for cops to look past a ready source of funds like this one. The article quotes Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko as admitting that, while he’d rather use his $340,000 grant to hire three new officers to patrol for drunks and prevent street crime, marijuana is “where the money is.”
Combine feckless leaders with a program like that one, and it’s obvious that efforts to overcome official resistance to rationalizing our marijuana laws will constitute what pot farmers might call “a tough row to hoe.” Even if California does vote to legalize, well, it’s California—I’m guessing progress in other states will remain slow at best.
In the meantime, we will have to continue to endure a prison system overloaded by people guilty of the heinous act of taking the smoke of the wrong kind of dried plant into their lungs; the diversion of law enforcement resources from truly dangerous crimes; emergency-room visits from people burned by their efforts to legally approximate a THC high; and the ongoing massacre of innocent dogs in drug raids (seriously, it’s a problem).
But hey, war is hell, I guess.
Photo by Flickr user Paul Evans.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010 - Went West by Sutton Stokes