Bruce Mirken

Governor Brown Signs Landmark Climate Legislation Helping Underserved Communities and Low-Income Californians

FRESNO, CALIFORNIA – In what advocates for underserved communities are calling “the greatest story no one knows,” California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Wednesday dramatically expanding California’s commitment to use climate change policy to attack pollution and poverty together. In a Fresno ceremony at 11:30 this morning, Brown will sign AB 1550 (Gomez), which guarantees that going forward, at least 35 percent of Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund proceeds will benefit underserved communities and low-income Californians.

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California Extends Climate Fight to Help Disadvantaged Communities Battling Poverty and Pollution

SACRAMENTO — A series of measures to extend and strengthen California’s fight against climate change while enhancing benefits for communities battling poverty and pollution drew applause Thursday from the climate justice advocates of the SB 535 Coalition.

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The Marijuana Cancer Cure Cult

In his 1971 State of the Union speech, President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, prompting passage of the National Cancer Act, aimed at making the "conquest of cancer a national crusade." Just four years later, scientists from the National Cancer Institute published a study demonstrating that a group of compounds taken from a common, widely cultivated plant shrank lung tumors that had been implanted in mice, extending their survival.

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More Evidence That Marijuana Prevents Cancer

Among the more interesting pieces of news that came out while I was on vacation the first half of August was a new study in the journal Cancer Prevention Research, which found that marijuana smokers have a lower risk of head and neck cancers than people who don’t smoke marijuana. Alas, this important research has been largely ignored by the news media.

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Could Medical Marijuana Have Saved Michael Jackson?

Okay, let me say right up front that a) I know that headline is provocative, and b) neither I nor anyone can answer the question with any certainty given what we know and don’t know so far about Michael Jackson’s death. But the question needs to be asked.

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Can THC Help Some Schizophrenics?

The surprising finding that THC might help at least a small percentage of schizophrenia patients for whom conventional treatments have failed was reported in the June issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology.

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Stop Subsidizing Mexican Drug Gangs

The horrifying drug-war violence south of our border with Mexico continues to worsen: beheadings, killings that now number several thousand at least, honest officials in fear for their lives. It's time to put an end to U.S. policies that subsidize these murderous drug gangs.

According to U.S. and Mexican officials, some 60 percent of the profits that fuel these thugs come from just one drug, marijuana. While much is smuggled over the border, an increasing amount is produced in the U.S. by foreign gangs operating on American soil -- often in remote corners of national parks and wilderness areas.

Every year, we read more headlines about clandestine marijuana farms being uncovered on these precious, environmentally sensitive public lands. These rogue farms not only pose a threat to hikers and the environment, they cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars each year in eradication and clean-up efforts.

This appalling situation, which now carries a real risk of destabilizing Mexico, is not just happenstance. It is the direct result of U.S. policies.

Like it or not, marijuana is a massive industry. Some 100 million Americans admit to government survey-takers that they've used it, with nearly 15 million acknowledging use in the past month.

That's a huge market -- more Americans than will buy a new car or truck this year, or that bought one last year. Estimates based on U.S. government figures have pegged marijuana as the number one cash crop in America, with a value exceeding corn and wheat combined.

Our current policies are based on the fantasy that we can somehow make this massive industry go away. That's about as likely as the Tooth Fairy paying off the national debt.

We haven't stopped marijuana use -- indeed, federal statistics show a roughly 4,000 percent rise since the first national ban took effect in 1937 -- but we have handed a virtual monopoly on production and distribution to criminals, including those brutal Mexican gangs.

There is a better way. After all, there's a reason these gangs aren't smuggling wine grapes.

We've seen this movie before. During the 13 dark years of alcohol Prohibition, ruthless gangsters like Al Capone and “Bugs” Moran had a monopoly on the lucrative booze market. So lucrative, in fact, that these scoundrels would routinely gun each other down rather than let a competitor share their territory. Sound familiar?

Today, the bloodbath is taking place in cities like Tijuana and Juarez, Mexico, but it's beginning to spill across our border. Prohibition simply doesn’t work – not in the 1930s and not now.

The chief of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Mexico and Central America Section recently told the New York Times that marijuana is the “king crop” for Mexican cartels. He added that the plant “consistently sustains its marketability and profitability.”

The situation is so intolerable that three former presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Brazil have recently joined the chorus calling for a shift in U.S. marijuana policy.

There is no reason to believe that our nation’s current marijuana policies are reducing the use and availability of marijuana. Indeed, in the Netherlands -- where, since the mid 1970s, adults have been permitted to possess and purchase small amounts of marijuana from regulated businesses -- the rate of marijuana use is less than half of ours, according to a recent World Health Organization study. More importantly, the percentage of teens trying marijuana by age 15 in the Netherlands is roughly one-third the U.S. rate.

By taking marijuana out of the criminal underground and regulating and taxing it as we do beer, wine and liquor, we can cut the lifeline that makes these Mexican drug gangs so large and powerful. And at the same time we'll have a level of control over marijuana production and distribution that is impossible under prohibition.

Will Legalizing Pot Save California from its Cash Crunch?

California state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) has announced the introduction of legislation to tax and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcoholic beverages. The bill, the first of its kind ever introduced in California, would create a regulatory structure similar to that used for beer, wine, and liquor, permitting taxed sales to adults while barring sales to or possession by those under 21.

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Drug Czar Fails Spectacularly at Cutting Marijuana Consumption

The White House drug czar's office, aka the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has been claiming loudly and frequently for several years now that its aggressive anti-marijuana campaign has been a rousing success. As deputy ONDCP director Scott Burns put it in a recent California newspaper interview, "drug use is down in the United States dramatically since 2001 by every barometer and indicator that we use. ... Twenty-four percent reduction in marijuana use by young people 12 to 18 years old."

Uh, not quite.

In fact, the major U.S. government study of drug use, the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, shows that the drug czar's office has badly failed to meet its own goals for reducing use of marijuana and other illegal drugs, according to a pair of new reports by George Mason University senior fellow Jon Gettman, Ph.D. In addition, ONDCP and drug czar John Walters have misused treatment statistics to suggest that marijuana is dangerously addictive when the government's own data suggest that arrest-driven treatment admissions have wasted tax dollars by treating thousands who were not truly drug-dependent.

During Walters' tenure, ONDCP has released at least 127 separate anti-marijuana TV, radio and print ads and 34 press releases focused mainly on marijuana, in addition to 50 reports from ONDCP and other federal agencies on marijuana or anti-marijuana campaigns. Beyond doubt, this anti-marijuana blitz -- coupled with record marijuana arrests year after year, to the point where in 2007 an American was arrested on marijuana charges every 36 seconds -- constitutes the most intense war on marijuana since "Reefer Madness."

Gettman, who made international headlines in December 2006 with an analysis showing that marijuana is the top cash crop in the United States, catalogues the failures in detail. In 2007 there were 14.5 million current users of marijuana in the United States, compared with 14.6 million in 2002, while the number of Americans who have ever used marijuana actually increased.

ONDCP has not even come close to meeting its goal of reducing illegal drug use by 25 percent by 2007 in any age group. In fact, among adults, overall illegal drug use actually increased 4.7% from 2002 to 2007. Teen marijuana use is down a bit but still remains common: One in nine (12 percent) 14- and 15-year-olds and one in four (23.7 percent) 16- and 17-year-olds used marijuana in 2007.

Walters loves to cite increases in marijuana treatment admissions as proof that marijuana is addictive and dangerous. But Gettman's analysis of data from the government's Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) shows that the percentage of marijuana treatment admissions referred by the criminal justice system jumped from 48% to 58% from 1992 to 2006. In other words, most of the increase in treatment admissions was driven by people being arrested and offered treatment instead of jail. Strikingly, just 45 percent of marijuana admissions met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) criteria for marijuana dependence.

Also arguing against claims that treatment admissions reflect dangerously addictive "pot 2.0" (yes, some officials have actually used that phrase, and some in the press have repeated it as if it meant something) is the fact that, as Gettman notes, "Use of residential detox -- a clear sign of a serious addiction problem -- is used for 24% of heroin admissions and 21% of alcohol admissions, but just 2% of marijuana admissions."

Gettman's bottom line on those treatment stats is simple and depressing: "Increases in drug treatment admissions for marijuana, often cited by officials as evidence that marijuana is dangerously addictive, are driven by criminal justice policies rather than medical diagnosis. These policies increase public costs for providing drug treatment services and reduce funds for and availability of treatment of more serious drug problems."

This is your government on drugs.

The White House Returns to Stoking Fears About Potent Pot

In what is becoming a nearly annual ritual, on June 12 the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released yet another report filled with dire warnings about rising marijuana potency. And the U.S. media -- led by the Associated Press, by far the nation's most powerful wire service -- once again mistakenly treated the story as if it was actual news.

AP's story, picked up by newspapers and TV and radio stations all over the country, began, "Marijuana potency increased last year to the highest level in more than 30 years, posing greater health risks to people who may view the drug as harmless, according to a report released Thursday by the White House."

One had to read six paragraphs into the story to get the first hint of a dissenting view, voiced by Dr. Mitch Earleywine, author of the book, Understanding Marijuana. Earleywine, a substance abuse researcher and psychology professor at the Albany campus of the State University of New York, noted that marijuana smokers simply smoke less when the product is more potent, just as drinkers imbibe smaller quantities of bourbon or vodka than they do of beer. Since the only serious proven harm from marijuana use consists of coughing and other respiratory symptoms caused by inhalation of smoke, higher potency marijuana is arguably healthier, since smoke intake is reduced.

But the AP story -- and most other coverage -- was dominated by dark suggestions of the dire consequences of this new "potent pot." ONDCP chief John Walters warned of the "serious implications" of increased potency, saying, "Today's report makes it more important than ever that we get past outdated, anachronistic views of marijuana."

And Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, added, "Particularly worrisome is the possibility that the more potent THC might be more effective at triggering the changes in the brain that can lead to addiction."

The operative word in Volkow's statement is "might." The claim that higher-potency marijuana means greater risk of addiction is entirely speculative, supported by precisely zero data. That, too, was pointed out by Earleywine, but in a comment buried at the very end of the story.

And not acknowledged anywhere, either by AP or most other news outlets, is the very large body of evidence suggesting that the whole "it's not your father's marijuana" scare story is phony. To understand why, a bit of context -- almost never provided by U.S. mass media -- is necessary.

First, the average potency level of 9.6 percent THC that has ONDCP so alarmed (and which overstates the potency of most domestic marijuana, which is around 5 percent) is actually low by world standards. As reported in the new edition of The Science of Marijuana, by Oxford University pharmacologist Dr. Leslie Iversen, the average THC content of seized marijuana products in Britain from 1998 to 2005 ranged from 10.5 percent to 14.2 percent. In the Netherlands, where marijuana is available by prescription through conventional pharmacies, the minimum permissible THC content set in government standards for medical cannabis (except for one special variety developed specifically to be high in cannabinoids other than THC) is 13 percent.

In other words, the minimum acceptable THC content for medical marijuana in the Netherlands is over one-third higher than the level that has Walters and Volkow in such a tizzy.

And more sober analysts around the world continue to be far less certain than U.S. drug warriors that potency is of great consequence. In a report issued earlier this spring, the British government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (of which Iversen is a member) expressed some ambivalence about the issue. While acknowledging a concern about young people using high-THC marijuana, the ACMD noted that most users may simply smoke less. It also noted that while potency has clearly increased in the United Kingdom over time, "there has been no concomitant reported increase in enquiries to the National Poisons Information Service nor an increase in hospital admissions due to cannabis intoxication."

A new analysis by a group of Australian researchers, published online May 20 by the journal Addiction, is even more skeptical, citing "claims about escalating cannabis potency made as far back as 1975." The Australians argue that "more research is needed to determine whether increased potency and contamination translates to harm for users." For good measure, they add that the evidence "is fragmented and fraught with methodological problems," explaining that the variations in marijuana samples (potency data comes from batches of marijuana seized by law enforcement) are so wide and the sources so varied that it is simply impossible to know if reported potency accurately represents what is available to marijuana consumers.

That said, there are some legitimate concerns about marijuana potency. A first-time user who happens upon some very high-octane marijuana could well have a more intense experience than they are prepared for. So could someone accustomed to lower-grade material who unexpectedly happens upon some high-quality sinsemilla.

There is an easy way to avert such unpleasant surprises, a method that's long been in use for alcoholic beverages: The bottle of white wine presently sitting in my refrigerator bears a label indicating an alcohol content of 13.7 percent, while the bottle of single-malt scotch I keep on hand for special occasions, contains 43 percent alcohol -- again clearly marked. Needless to say, I'll drink the scotch more slowly and judiciously than the wine.

Similar information could easily be given to marijuana consumers. But that, of course, would require replacing prohibition with a regulatory system similar to that now used for alcohol and tobacco. Oddly, neither Walters nor Volkow seem to have brought up that possibility.


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