TIME politics

An Economic and Moral Case for Legalizing Cocaine and Heroin

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Drug user's stash Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

Criminalization comes at a large cost--elevated prices, impurities, and the vagaries of black markets--and does marginal good for the few very abusive users.

We’ve come a long way since Reefer Madness. Over the past two decades, 16 states have de-criminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and 22 have legalized it for medical purposes. In November 2012, Colorado and Washington went further, legalizing marijuana under state law for recreational purposes. Public attitudes toward marijuana have also changed; in a November 2013 Gallup Poll, 58 percent of Americans supported marijuana legalization.

Yet amidst these cultural and political shifts, American attitudes and U.S. policy toward other drugs have remained static. No state has decriminalized, medicalized, or legalized cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. And a recent poll suggests only about 10 percent of Americans favor legalization of cocaine or heroin. Many who advocate marijuana legalization draw a sharp distinction between marijuana and “hard drugs.”

That’s understandable: Different drugs do carry different risks, and the potential for serious harm from marijuana is less than for cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. Marijuana, for example, appears incapable of causing a lethal overdose, but cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine can kill if taken in excess or under the wrong circumstances.

But if the goal is to minimize harm – to people here and abroad– the right policy is to legalize all drugs, not just marijuana.

In fact, many legal goods cause serious harm, including death. In recent years, about 40 people per year have died from skiing or snowboarding accidents; almost 800 from bicycle accidents; several thousand from drowning in swimming pools; more than 20,000 per year from pharmaceuticals; more than 30,000 annually from auto accidents; and at least 38,000 from excessive alcohol use.

Few people want to ban these goods, mainly because while harmful when misused, they provide substantial benefit to most people in most circumstances.

The same condition holds for hard drugs. Media accounts focus on users who experience bad outcomes, since these are dramatic or newsworthy. Yet millions risk arrest, elevated prices, impurities, and the vagaries of black markets to purchase these goods, suggesting people do derive benefits from use.

That means even if prohibition could eliminate drug use, at no cost, it would probably do more harm than good. Numerous moderate and responsible drug users would be worse off, while only a few abusive users would be better off.

And prohibition does, in fact, have huge costs, regardless of how harmful drugs might be.

First, a few Economics 101 basics: Prohibiting a good does not eliminate the market for that good. Prohibition may shrink the market, by raising costs and therefore price, but even under strongly enforced prohibitions, a substantial black market emerges in which production and use continue. And black markets generate numerous unwanted side effects.

Black markets increase violence because buyers and sellers can’t resolve disputes with courts, lawyers, or arbitration, so they turn to guns instead. Black markets generate corruption, too, since participants have a greater incentive to bribe police, prosecutors, judges, and prison guards. They also inhibit quality control, which causes more accidental poisonings and overdoses.

The bottom line: Even if hard drugs carry greater health risks than marijuana, rationally, we can’t ban them without comparing the harm from prohibition against the harms from drugs themselves. What’s more, prohibition creates health risks that wouldn’t exist in a legal market. Because prohibition raises heroin prices, users have a greater incentive to inject because this offers a bigger bang for the buck. Plus, prohibition generates restrictions on the sale of clean needles (because this might “send the wrong message”). Many users therefore share contaminated needles, which transmit HIV, Hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases. In 2010, 8 percent of new HIV cases in the United States were attributed to IV drug use.

Prohibition enforcement also encourages infringements on civil liberties, such as no-knock warrants (which have killed dozens of innocent bystanders) and racial profiling (which generates much higher arrest rates for blacks than whites despite similar drug use rates). It also costs a lot to enforce prohibition, and it means we can’t collect taxes on drugs; my estimates suggest U.S. governments could improve their budgets by at least $85 billion annually by legalizing – and taxing – all drugs. U.S. insistence that source countries outlaw drugs means increased violence and corruption there as well (think Columbia, Mexico, or Afghanistan).

It’s also critical to analyze whether prohibition actually reduces drug use; if the effects are small, then prohibition is virtually all cost and no benefit.

On that question, available evidence is far from ideal, but none of it suggests that prohibition has a substantial impact on drug use. States and countries that decriminalize or medicalize see little or no increase in drug use. And differences in enforcement across time or place bear little correlation with uses. This evidence does not bear directly on what would occur under full legalization, since that might allow advertising and more efficient, large-scale production. But data on cirrhosis from repeal of U.S. Alcohol Prohibition suggest only a modest increase in alcohol consumption.

To the extent prohibition does reduce drug use, the effect is likely smaller for hard drugs than for marijuana. That’s because the demands for cocaine and heroin appear less responsive to price. From this perspective, the case is even stronger for legalizing cocaine or heroin than marijuana; for hard drugs, prohibition mainly raises the price, which increases the resources devoted to the black market while having minimal impact on use.

But perhaps the best reason to legalize hard drugs is that people who wish to consume them have the same liberty to determine their own well-being as those who consume alcohol, or marijuana, or anything else. In a free society, the presumption must always be that individuals, not government, get to decide what is in their own best interest.

Jeffrey Miron is Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard University and Senior Fellow and Director of Economic Studies at the Cato Institute.

TIME Drugs

FDA Approves New Pain Pill Designed To Be Hard to Abuse

The FDA has been under growing pressure to fight the national epidemic of prescription opioid abuse

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The Food and Drug Administration approved on Wednesday a new pain pill that was created to discourage abuse, the Associated Press reports.

The new pill, Targiniq ER, combines oxycodone, a potentially addictive opioid used in many pain medications, with naloxone, often used to trim the effects of opioids. The naloxone isn’t activated if the pill is swallowed as normal. If a would-be drug abuser crushes the pill to snort or inject it, however, the naloxone activates. That can potentially make Targiniq ER less attractive to abusers.

“Targiniq ER has properties that are expected to deter, but not totally prevent, abuse of the drug by snorting and injection,” FDA said in a statement.

TIME Drugs

Oregon Voters to Decide on Pot Legalization in November

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Bob Leeds, co-owner of Sea of Green Farms, shows some of the marijuana he produces during a tour of his company's facility in Seattle on June 30, 2014. Jason Redmond—Reuters

Oregon could become the third state to legalize recreational weed

Oregon voters will vote in November on whether they will live in the third state to legalize recreational marijuana for people 21 or older.

The Oregon Secretary of State certified a petition Tuesday for the Control, Regulation, and Taxation of Marijuana and Industrial Hemp Act, confirming it had enough signatures to land on the November ballot, according to the New Approach Oregon campaign, a group advocating for the law.

“This is our moment to be part of history and lead a movement,” Dominique Lopez, an organizer at New Approach Oregon, said in a statement. “Treating marijuana use as a crime has failed, but together we can win a more sensible approach and better the lives of Oregonians.”

The proposal would allow individuals to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana at home and cultivate up to four plants. It would require recreational marijuana to be taxed at $1.50 a gram and $35 an ounce. That income would be used for schools, law enforcement and drug treatment programs.

Oregonians opposed a poorly-funded and less organized legal recreational cannabis initiative in 2012, 55-45%, the Statesman Journal reports, but New Approach Oregon says it has learned from those mistakes.

Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use.

TIME Drugs

7 Signs You’re Drinking Too Much

Drinking hangover
mattjeacock—Getty Images

Actors Shia LaBeouf and Robin Williams both announced last week that they’re seeking treatment for alcoholism: LaBeouf as an outpatient following an outburst in a New York City theater and Williams in a rehab facility. A representative for Williams, 62, told People that the comedian is still sober—as he has been since a 2006 relapse—but wants to “focus on his continued commitment” to recovery.

Now, not everyone who drinks too much starts hitting strangers at a Broadway play like LaBeouf did. They could be having a more silent struggle like Williams. Regardless, alcohol problems are more common than you think. About 15% of people who drink go on to become alcohol dependent, says Carlton Erickson, PhD, director of the Addiction Science Research and Education Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Those who recognize the problem before they develop full-blown addiction have a greater chance they’ll be able to cut down and minimize the role alcohol plays in their life,” says John F. Kelly, PhD, director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

So how can you tell if you’re developing a problem? Not all the clues are the same for all people, but here are common signs you could be headed for trouble—and how to turn it around.

Health.com:27 Mistakes Healthy People Make

You set limits…but can’t stick to them

If you always try to limit yourself to a certain number of drinks and fail every time, you could be struggling with alcohol. “If you find yourself repeatedly going over your self-defined limit, that’s a common early sign you’re losing control over your drinking,” says Kelly, who is also president of the American Psychology Association’s Society of Addiction Psychology.

What to do about it: Figure out what triggers your desire to drink and try to avoid these people, places, and situations. This drinking analyzer card from the National Institutes of Health is a good place to start; the NIH also has a 4-week tracker to see how well you can stick to your limit. If you can’t avoid a trigger, keep a list of reasons not to drink nearby, as well as a list of trusted confidantes you can call.

Your friends comment on your drinking

One of the first signs your drinking is spiraling out of control is when friends or acquaintances express surprise about how much you’re drinking or how “well” you “handle” your alcohol. “People start to get feedback from [other] people long before they realize it themselves,” says Kelly. “That’s a sign.”

What to do about it: Compare how much you drink with the limits for “low-risk” drinking, which, for women, is up to 3 drinks on any single day and no more than 7 drinks per week. The National Institutes of Health says that only about 2 in 100 people who drink within these limits have alcohol problems. But remember that “low risk” still doesn’t mean “no risk.” While alcoholism can derail your entire life, even smaller amounts of alcohol can raise the risk for pancreatic, liver, esophageal, and even breast cancer.

Health.com: How Alcohol Affects Your Body

The majority of your plans involve alcohol

If drinking becomes the center of your social and home life, if you’re the one urging others to order another round, or if you find yourself cutting back on activities that you used to enjoy that don’t involve drinking, you could be in dangerous territory.

What to do about it: Instead of meeting for drinks, ask friends to do things that don’t involve alcohol, like meeting for coffee, taking a yoga class, going to the movies, or lacing up for a run.

You reach for booze whenever you’re stressed

Everyone experiences stress, from a serious break-up to a biting comment from a colleague. Alcohol can give you some short-term relief from the upset but it can also backfire pretty quickly, leaving you with the stress of everyday life AND the stress of a drinking problem.

What to do about it: Find other ways to handle stress such as breathing deeply, taking a walk, or logging a workout (hey, playing basketball helps President Obama unwind).

Health.com:25 Surprising Ways Stress Affects Your Health

You worry about your own drinking

Your alcohol use could be problematic when your first thought in the morning is of how much you drank the night before. “You wake up concerned that you’ve broken your self-defined limit. You wake up thinking, ‘I didn’t stick to it’,” says Kelly. “The worry comes from the innermost part of yourself. That’s a sign of beginning of alcohol dependence.”

What to do about it: Confide in someone you trust. And get a reality check and personalized feedback on your drinking patterns with the Drinker’s Checkup, an online screening tool which also provides strategies on how to moderate your drinking.

Your doctor says you’re drinking too much

Doctors’ visits often involve answering questions about your lifestyle, including how much alcohol you drink. If you’re honest and if your doctor comments that the amount seems excessive, you should pay attention.

What to do about it: A doctor’s remark is not only a sign but also the start of a solution. “It has been shown that when physicians are astute enough to find out more about a person’s drinking behavior, if they make a statement like ‘I think you’re drinking too much,’ patients tend to listen,” says Erickson.

Health.com:15 Signs You Have an Iron Deficiency

You frequently wake up with a hangover

Even a sometimes-drinker gets the occasional hangover but if it starts to happen more and more often, you could be headed for trouble. “If you’re waking up three to four times a week with a hangover, that’s indicative,” says Kelly. And if you can’t remember what happened when you were drinking or you have only a hazy recollection, that’s a not-so-subtle clue that your drinking is out of control.

What to do about it: Monitoring your intake can help you stop before you go too far. Track how much you drink with the note function on your phone or an app—try IntelliDrink ($1.99, itunes.com) or AlcoDroid Alcohol Tracker (free, play.google.com). Just record the drink before you actually imbibe, which can help you slow down if necessary. You should include both the number of drinks and the size of each drink.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Drugs

FDA Warns Against Powdered Caffeine

The agency issued a statement Friday recommending that consumers avoid the potent powders

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning Friday about the dangers of pure powdered caffeine after the death of a teenager in Ohio in May.

A mere teaspoon of pure powdered caffeine, the FDA said, is equivalent to 25 cups of coffee and can be lethal. “Pure caffeine is a powerful stimulant and very small amounts may cause accidental overdose. Parents should be aware that these products may be attractive to young people,” the agent noted. The substance can be easily purchased online.

Taking too much of the drug can result in heartbeat disruptions, seizures, vomiting, diarrhea and disorientation. “These symptoms are likely to be much more severe than those resulting from drinking too much coffee, tea or other caffeinated beverages,” according to the statement.

The announcement comes almost two months after Logan Steiner, 18, of LeGrange, Ohio, died after overdosing on powdered caffeine on May 27.

TIME Drugs

The Rules About Pot Just Changed in Washington D.C.

Pot Marijuana Weed
Getty Images

Adults caught with up to one ounce of pot will be fined $25 in the nation's capital

Washington D.C.’s pot decriminalization policy went into effect Thursday, lowering the penalties for marijuana possession to just a $25 civil fine for adults caught with up to one ounce.

The law may still encounter some pushback from Congress, as the Republican-controlled House passed a bill Wednesday that includes an amendment to stop D.C. from using federal or local funds to implement the law. The bill was passed largely along party lines; only six Democrats supported the bill.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), who sponsored the D.C. provision, told the Washington Post that pot is “poison to a teenager’s brain” and that the new law would treat teenagers in a dramatically different way to young people right across the Maryland border, where violators younger than 21-years-old are required to appear in court.

The Administration “strongly opposes” the House provision, writing in a letter released Monday that it poses legal challenges to the Metropolitan police department’s enforcement and violates the principle of D.C. home rule.

Washington D.C. has an extraordinarily high rate of marijuana arrests, ranked seventh out of 945 counties examined in a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report. There’s also a huge racial disparity in who gets penalized for smoking weed, according to the same report, which found that black people are eight times more likely than non-blacks to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Possession of any amount of marijuana in the District was formerly counted as a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. It remains a criminal offense to smoke pot in the nation’s capital.

TIME Drugs

House Votes to Help Pot Businesses Use Banks

Rethinking Pot Border Town
Customers gather at a medical-marijuana store on July 9, 2014. Zachary Kaufman—AP

But the measure may stall in the Senate

The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed one measure designed to help legitimate marijuana businesses gain access to the financial system, and rejected another that would have blocked them from doing so. But the votes may not force a resolution to the cannabis industry’s long-running fight to bank its cash.

The House easily approved an amendment to an appropriations bill that would bar regulators from punishing banks who transact with legal marijuana businesses. The measure, which passed 231-192, is designed to ease the fears of financial institutions, who mostly eschew pot clients, even in states that have relaxed marijuana laws, because the drug remains illegal under federal law.

In the other vote, the House rejected an amendment sponsored by a conservative Republican that would have blocked the implementation of Treasury Department guidelines, issued earlier this year, that gave a yellow light for banks to accept legitimate cannabis clients.

Industry activists hailed the votes as a major triumph. “This is a huge step forward for the legal cannabis industry,” Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in a statement. “Access to basic banking services is one of the most critical challenges facing legal cannabis businesses and the state agencies tasked with regulating them.”

Pro-pot votes in the Republican-controlled House are another marker of just how mainstream marijuana is becoming. But they are not necessarily a sign that the banking issue will be resolved anytime soon.

A bill to open the banking industry to pot clients would still have to clear the U.S. Senate, which is no easy feat for far less controversial legislation. There is no guarantee the measure will come up for a vote in the midst of a contentious election season, with control of the chamber up for grabs. And some legislators from both parties oppose opening the financial system to marijuana money. After the Treasury guidelines were issued, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) co-authored a blistering letter arguing that the department had “severely undermined” its mission.

“Following the guidance may expose financial institutions to civil or criminal liability,” Feinstein and Grassley wrote. “Congress and the President may reconsider marijuana’s legality, but until federal law is changed, selling marijuana, laundering marijuana proceeds, and aiding and abetting those activities all remain illegal. Far from clarifying the obligations of financial institutions, FinCEN’s guidance appears to create uncertainty where none had existed beforehand.”

Multiple Democratic Senate aides did not immediately respond to questions about the measure’s chances of passage in the upper chamber. Without Congressional approval, banks are unlikely to take the risk of changing their policy.

TIME Culture

Up in Smoke: The Rise and Fall of Big Tobacco

"According to this survey, more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette," is just one of the phrases we no longer hear in commercials

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Earlier this week, a $27.4 billion deal was announced that will merge two of the largest American tobacco companies, Reynolds American and Lorillard.

The deal comes at a time when cigarette smokers are at a steady decline. Even so, Marlboro still makes some lists of most valuable brands in the world.

And while it’s hard to remember the days when Camels were advertised as the most preferred cigarettes by doctors, a small segment of the industry is quickly growing: e-cigarettes.

Above, take a quick look at the history of America’s complicated relationship with the addictive habit.

TIME Crime

First Woman Charged Under Tennessee’s Controversial Drugs-During-Pregnancy Law

The new law has garnered criticism from the state's American Civil Liberties Union and others

A woman in Tennessee last week became the first person to be charged under a controversial state law that can count illegal drug use during pregnancy as assault.

26-year-old Mallory Loyola was arrested July 8 and charged with misdemeanor assault after she and her newborn baby tested positive for meth, ABC News reports. Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens told a local news station in Knoxville, Tenn., that Loyola admitted to smoking meth days before the birth of her child.

Earlier this month, a law went into effect that allows mothers to be “prosecuted for assault for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant” if the child is harmed by, or becomes addicted to, the drug.

Critics of the law say it discourages women battling addiction from seeking treatment or pre-natal care. The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee in particular has called the law “dangerous” and it said it raises “serious constitutional concerns regarding equal treatment under the law.” The law does allow anyone charged, as a defense, to enter a treatment program while pregnant and complete it following the birth.

“Anytime someone is addicted and they can’t get off for their own child, their own flesh and blood, it’s sad,” Bivens said. “Hopefully [Loyola's arrest] will send a signal to other women who are pregnant and have a drug problem to seek help. That’s what we want them to do.”

Loyola was released on a $2,000 bail, ABC News reports.

[ABC News]

TIME neuroscience

A ‘High’ From Marijuana Is Really the Opposite in Your Brain

Daily Life In South Africa
A youth smokes marijuana in Soweto township, near Johannesburg, on July 2, 2013 Christopher Furlong—Getty Images

Marijuana dulls your response to dopamine

A new study suggests marijuana blunts the brain’s reaction to dopamine, making users less responsive to the chemical responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure.

In the study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers studied the brains of 24 marijuana abusers — that is, people who smoked multiple times a day — and how they reacted to methylphenidate, a stimulant often used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. Using personality tests and brain imaging, the researchers found the pot users had blunted behavioral, cardiovascular and brain responses to methylphenidate compared with control participants. Marijuana abusers scored lower on tests of positive emotional activity and higher on negative emotional reactions.

The researchers believe that pot not only dampens the brains’ dopamine reaction to stimulants but also influences the area of the brain involved in reward processing. The participants had lower reward sensitivity, higher levels of irritability, and likely more depression and anxiety.

The researchers conclude that the way pot interferes with the brain may contribute to drug cravings. And that a “high” is really the opposite in the brain.

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