Former Federal Judge Nancy Gertner was appointed to the federal bench by Bill Clinton in 1994. She presided over trials for 17 years. And Sunday, she stood before a crowd at The Aspen Ideas Festival to denounce most punishments that she imposed.
Among 500 sanctions that she handed down, “80 percent I believe were unfair and disproportionate,” she said. “I left the bench in 2011 to join the Harvard faculty to write about those stories––to write about how it came to pass that I was obliged to sentence people to terms that, frankly, made no sense under any philosophy.”
She went on to savage the War on Drugs at greater length. “This is a war that I saw destroy lives,” she said. “It eliminated a generation of African American men, covered our racism in ostensibly neutral guidelines and mandatory minimums… and created an intergenerational problem––although I wasn’t on the bench long enough to see this, we know that the sons and daughters of the people we sentenced are in trouble, and are in trouble with the criminal justice system.”
Whenever an irrational and inhumane law remains on the books far longer than any thinking person would consider appropriate, there’s usually one reason behind it: money.
Unsurprisingly, the continued federal prohibition on marijuana and its absurd classification as a Schedule 1 drug is no exception. Thankfully, a recent study published in the journal Health Affairs shows us exactly why pharmaceutical companies are one of the leading voices against medical marijuana. It has nothing to do with healthcare and everything to do with corporate greed.
So is it a war on drugs, or a war on cheap medicine. Decide for yourself.
The Washington Post reports:
There’s a body of research showing that painkiller abuse and overdose are lower in states with medical marijuana laws. These studies have generally assumed that when medical marijuana is available, pain patients are increasingly choosing pot over powerful and deadly prescription narcotics. But that’s always been just an assumption.
Now a new study, released in the journal Health Affairs, validates these findings by providing clear evidence of a missing link in the causal chain running from medical marijuana to falling overdoses. Ashley and W. David Bradford, a daughter-father pair of researchers at the University of Georgia, scoured the database of all prescription drugs paid for under Medicare Part D from 2010 to 2013.
They found that, in the 17 states with a medical-marijuana law in place by 2013, prescriptions for painkillers and other classes of drugs fell sharply compared with states that did not have a medical-marijuana law. The drops were quite significant: In medical-marijuana states, the average doctor prescribed 265 fewer doses of antidepressants each year, 486 fewer doses of seizure medication, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication.
But most strikingly, the typical physician in a medical-marijuana state prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in a given year.
The tanking numbers for painkiller prescriptions in medical marijuana states are likely to cause some concern among pharmaceutical companies. These companies have long been at the forefront of opposition to marijuana reform, funding research by anti-pot academics and funneling dollars to groups, such as the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, that oppose marijuana legalization.
Pharmaceutical companies have also lobbied federal agencies directly to prevent the liberalization of marijuana laws. In one case, recently uncovered by the office of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the Department of Health and Human Services recommended that naturally derived THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana, be moved from Schedule 1 to Schedule 3 of the Controlled Substances Act — a less restrictive category that would acknowledge the drug’s medical use and make it easier to research and prescribe. Several months after HHS submitted its recommendation, at least one drug company that manufactures a synthetic version of THC — which would presumably have to compete with any natural derivatives — wrote to the Drug Enforcement Administration to express opposition to rescheduling natural THC, citing “the abuse potential in terms of the need to grow and cultivate substantial crops of marijuana in the United States.”
The DEA ultimately rejected the HHS recommendation without explanation.
Yes, this DEA…
In what may be the most concerning finding for the pharmaceutical industry, the Bradfords took their analysis a step further by estimating the cost savings to Medicare from the decreased prescribing. They found that about $165 million was saved in the 17 medical marijuana states in 2013. In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the estimated annual Medicare prescription savings would be nearly half a billion dollars if all 50 states were to implement similar programs.
One limitation of the study is that it only looks at Medicare Part D spending, which applies only to seniors. Previous studies have shown that seniors are among the most reluctant medical-marijuana users, so the net effect of medical marijuana for all prescription patients may be even greater.
Naturally, any sane society would immediately declassify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. Unfortunately, we do not live in a sane society.
Meanwhile, since we’re already on the topic of the disastrously idiotic “war on drugs,” let’s examine another egregious example of how it’s abused in order to unnecessarily ruin countless lives across America.
What follows are excerpts from a recent New York Times article covering “$2 Roadside Drug Tests” (I strongly suggest reading the entire thing):
Prepare to be outraged.
The officer asked Wilson to step out of the car. Wilson complied. The officer leaned in over the driver’s seat, looked around, then called to his partner; in the report Officer Duc Nguyen later filed, he wrote that he saw a needle in the car’s ceiling lining. Albritton didn’t know what he was talking about. Before she could protest, Officer David Helms had come around to her window and was asking for consent to search the car. If Albritton refused, Helms said, he would call for a drug-sniffing dog. Albritton agreed to the full search and waited nervously outside the car.
Helms spotted a white crumb on the floor. In the report, Nguyen wrote that the officers believed the crumb was crack cocaine. They handcuffed Wilson and Albritton and stood them in front of the patrol car, its lights still flashing. They were on display for rush-hour traffic, criminal suspects sweating through their clothes in the 93-degree heat.
At the police academy four years earlier, Helms was taught that to make a drug arrest on the street, an officer needed to conduct an elementary chemical test, right then and there. It’s what cops routinely do across the country every day while making thousands upon thousands of drug arrests. Helms popped the trunk of his patrol car, pulled out a small plastic pouch that contained a vial of pink liquid and returned to Albritton. He opened the lid on the vial and dropped a tiny piece of the crumb into the liquid. If the liquid remained pink, that would rule out the presence of cocaine. If it turned blue, then Albritton, as the owner of the car, could become a felony defendant.
Helms waved the vial in front of her face and said, “You’re busted.”
Albritton was booked into the Harris County jail at 3:37 a.m., nine hours after she was arrested. Wilson had been detained for driving without a license but would soon be released. Albritton was charged with felony drug possession and faced a much longer ordeal. Already, she was terrified as she thought about her family. Albritton was raised in a speck of a town called Marion at the northern edge of Louisiana. Her father still drove lumber trucks there; her mother had worked as a pharmacy technician until she died of colon cancer. Albritton was 15 then. She went through two unexpected pregnancies, the first at age 16, and two ill-fated marriages. But she had also pieced together a steady livelihood managing apartment complexes, and when her younger son was born disabled, she worked relentlessly to care for him. Now their future was almost certainly shattered.
She heard her name called and stepped forward to the reinforced window. A tall man with thinning hair and wire-rim glasses approached and introduced himself as Dan Richardson, her court-appointed defense attorney.
Richardson told Albritton that she was going to be charged with possession of a controlled substance, crack cocaine, at an arraignment that morning. Albritton recalls him explaining that this was a felony, and the maximum penalty was two years in state prison. She doesn’t remember him asking her what actually happened, or if she believed she was innocent. Instead, she recalls, he said that the prosecutor had already offered a deal for much less than two years. If she pleaded guilty, she would receive a 45-day sentence in the county jail, and most likely serve only half that.
Albritton told Richardson that the police were mistaken; she was innocent. But Richardson, she says, was unswayed. The police had found crack in her car. The test proved it. She could spend a few weeks in jail or two years in prison. In despair, Albritton agreed to the deal.
Police officers arrest more than 1.2 million people a year in the United States on charges of illegal drug possession. Field tests like the one Officer Helms used in front of Amy Albritton help them move quickly from suspicion to conviction. But the kits — which cost about $2 each and have changed little since 1973 — are far from reliable.
Think about the insanity of this. 1.2 million people...for possession. This is beyond unethical since there’s no actual victim in the case of drug possession. If there’s no victim, how can there be a crime? It’s preposterous.
The field tests seem simple, but a lot can go wrong. Some tests, including the one the Houston police officers used to analyze the crumb on the floor of Albritton’s car, use a single tube of a chemical called cobalt thiocyanate, which turns blue when it is exposed to cocaine. But cobalt thiocyanate also turns blue when it is exposed to more than 80 other compounds, including methadone, certain acne medications and several common household cleaners.
There are no established error rates for the field tests, in part because their accuracy varies so widely depending on who is using them and how. In Las Vegas, authorities re-examined a sampling of cocaine field tests conducted between 2010 and 2013 and found that 33 percent of them were false positives. Data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab system show that 21 percent of evidence that the police listed as methamphetamine after identifying it was not methamphetamine, and half of those false positives were not any kind of illegal drug at all. In one notable Florida episode, Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputies produced 15 false positives for methamphetamine in the first seven months of 2014. When we examined the department’s records, they showed that officers, faced with somewhat ambiguous directions on the pouches, had simply misunderstood which colors indicated a positive result.
By 1978, the Department of Justice had determined that field tests “should not be used for evidential purposes,” and the field tests in use today remain inadmissible at trial in nearly every jurisdiction; instead, prosecutors must present a secondary lab test using more reliable methods.
But this has proved to be a meaningless prohibition. Most drug cases in the United States are decided well before they reach trial, by the far more informal process of plea bargaining. In 2011, RTI International, a nonprofit research group based in North Carolina, found that prosecutors in nine of 10 jurisdictions it surveyed nationwide accepted guilty pleas based solely on the results of field tests
We found that more than 10 percent of all county and state felony convictions are for drug charges, and at least 90 percent of those convictions come by way of plea deals. In Tennessee, guilty pleas produce 94 percent of all convictions. In Kansas, they make up more than 97 percent. In Harris County, Tex., where the judiciary makes detailed criminal caseload information public, 99.5 percent of drug-possession convictions are the result of a guilty plea. A majority of those are felony convictions, which restrict employment, housing and — in many states — the right to vote.
When Albritton pleaded guilty, she asked Franklin to explain the situation to her bosses at the rental-property firm, but Franklin decided it was safer to say nothing. She was going to be fired in any case, he reasoned, and alerting an employer about the drug felony would only hurt her future prospects. Albritton had managed the Frances Place Apartments, a well-maintained brick complex, for two years, and a free apartment was part of her compensation. But as far as the company knew, Albritton had abandoned her job and her home. She was fired, and her furniture and other belongings were put out on the side of the road. “So I lost all that,” she says.
Albritton gave up trying to convince people otherwise. She focused instead on Landon. Using a wheelchair, he needed regular sessions of physical and occupational therapy, and Albritton’s career managing the rental complex had been an ideal fit, providing a free home that kept her close to her son while she was at work, and allowing her the flexibility to ferry him to his appointments. But now, because of her new felony criminal record, which showed up immediately in background checks, she couldn’t even land an interview at another apartment complex. With a felony conviction, she couldn’t be approved as a renter either. Doug Franklin allowed Albritton and Landon to move in with him temporarily, and Albritton took a minimum-wage job at a convenience store.
In 1972, the Department of Justice published a training guide for forensic chemists in the nation’s crime labs, emphasizing that they were “the last line of defense against a false accusation,” but 40 years later, that line had largely vanished. A federal survey in 2013 found that about 62 percent of crime labs do not test drug evidence when the defendant pleads guilty. But the Houston crime lab, for all its problems, would not be among them.
The forensic scientists in Miller’s lab keep untested samples in Manila envelopes locked in cabinets below their work benches. Some sat there for as long as four years, lab records show. Albritton’s evidence stayed locked up for six months. On Feb. 23, 2011 — five months after Albritton completed her sentence and returned home as a felon — one of Houston’s forensic scientists, Ahtavea Barker, pulled the envelope up to her bench. It contained the crumb, the powder and the still-unexplained syringe. First she weighed everything. The syringe had too little residue on it even to test. It was just a syringe. The remainder of the “white chunk substance” that Officer Helms had tested positive with his field kit as crack cocaine totaled 0.0134 grams, Barker wrote on the examination sheet, about the same as a tiny pinch of salt.
Barker turned to gas chromatography-mass spectrometry analysis, or GC-MS, the gold standard in chemical identification, to figure out what was in Albritton’s car that evening. She began with the powder. First the gas chromatograph vaporized a speck of the powder inside a tube. Then the gas was heated, causing its core chemical compounds to separate. When the individual compounds reached the end of the tube, the mass spectrometer blasted them with electrons, causing them to fragment. The resulting display, called a fragmentation pattern, is essentially a chemical fingerprint. The powder was a combination of aspirin and caffeine — the ingredients in BC Powder, the over-the-counter painkiller, as Albritton had insisted.
Then Barker ran the same tests on the supposed crack cocaine. The crumb’s fragmentation pattern did not match that of cocaine, or any other compound in the lab’s extensive database. It was not a drug. It did not contain anything mixed with drugs. It was a crumb — food debris, perhaps. Barker wrote “N.A.M.” on the spectrum printout, “no acceptable match,” and then added another set of letters: “N.C.S.” No controlled substance identified. Albritton was innocent.
Her life was ruined, and for what?
If Albritton’s case is one of hundreds in Houston, there is every reason to suspect that it is just one among thousands of wrongful drug convictions that were based on field tests across the United States. The Harris County district attorney’s office is responsible for half of all exonerations by conviction-integrity units nationwide in the past three years — not because law enforcement is different there but because the Houston lab committed to testing evidence after defendants had already pleaded guilty, a position that is increasingly unpopular in forensic science.
Crime labs have been moving away from drug cases to focus on DNA and evidence from violent crimes. In some instances, the shift has been extreme. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s forensic laboratory analyzes the evidence in, on average, just 73 drug cases a year, internal records show. Nearly all of its 8,000 annual possession arrests rest exclusively on field-test results.
The United States Department of Justice was once among the leading voices of caution regarding field tests, and encouraged all drug evidence go to lab chemists. But in 2008, the Justice Department funded a program developed by the National Forensic Science Technology Center, a nonprofit that provides crime-lab training, to reduce drug-evidence backlogs. Titled Field Investigation Drug Officer, the program consisted of a series of seminars that taught local police officers how to administer color field tests on a large scale. In its curriculum, the technology center states that field tests help authorities by “removing the need for extensive laboratory analysis,” because “the field test may factor into obtaining an immediate plea agreement.” The Justice Department declined repeated interview requests.
The Department of Justice, why am I not surprised. The DOJ seems interested in all sorts of things; unfortunately, justice isn’t one of them.