Westminster Police Used Dog for “Drug Checkpoint”

My wife and I drove past signs stating “Drug Checkpoint Ahead” on the night of June 12 as we headed northwest on Highway 36; the signs were placed before the Church Ranch exit, which we use on our route home.

Here are the basic facts already established about the incident based on direct observation and news accounts (see also my first, second, and third reports):

  • The police pulled over 23 vehicles, arrested one man for felony marijuana possession, and issued three citations.
  • The police did not stop every passing vehicle; rather, they pulled over people for an alleged “identified violation” (and yet, again, they issued only three citations).
  • My wife witnessed the police in the process of searching six vehicles, two along Highway 36, and four more along Church Ranch. I do not know how many vehicles in total the police searched.
  • The Department of Homeland Security was involved in training the Westminster police to conduct these sorts of “drug checkpoints.”

The new information is that the Westminster police used at least one police dog in the course of the “drug checkpoint,” and Randy Corporon, a defense attorney and fill-in host for Grassroots Radio, had a conversation with Trevor Materasso of the Westminster Police.

There’s a humorous aside regarding the bit about the drug dogs. Complete Colorado features a headline, “Homeland Security trained police dogs for HWY 36 checkpoints?!?” Accompanying this headline is a photo of a police dog. However, the link goes to my article about Homeland Security; there is no mention of a dog. So yesterday Ken Clark invited me on to Grassroots Radio to discuss the police dogs, and I had nothing for him on that topic. (Clark is one of the show’s two regular hosts.)

But it turns out Westminster Police did use a police dog, though my wife and I didn’t see it.

In the June 22 North Jeffco Westsider (front page, “Police enforce drug checkpoint”), Ashley Reimers cites Materasso: “One of the biggest resources we use in these checkpoints is K-9 units. We have a dog on scene that alerts us as to whether or not . . . drugs are in the vehicle, and then we search the vehicle.”

But that must not be much a police dog, given the police searched six vehicles that we saw and made only one arrest for drugs.

Today I went back on Grassroots radio to discuss this detail and hear Corporon’s additional insights.

Mostly Corporon verified previously reported facts, including Materasso’s claim that police pulled people over for “identified violations.” One example Corporon gave of an alleged violation was an illegal u-turn.

However, it seemed to me that Corporon was overly credulous regarding Materasso’s claims. My wife and I witnessed no cars pulled over on the other side of Highway 36, as would have been the case for an illegal u-turn. Moreover, as previously noted, the police issued only three citations (and made one arrest) out of 23 stops. These alleged “violations” were evidently mere pretexts, for the most part.

Again, the issue is not whether such police activity passes muster in court, but whether these “drug checkpoints” inappropriately harass citizens “guilty” of nothing more than going about their business.

Image: City of Westminster

Homeland Security Trained Westminster Police for “Drug Checkpoints”

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

What is Homeland Security doing training local police to operate “drug checkpoints”?

Today the Denver Post published an editorial condemning the Westminster Police “drug checkpoints” that I wrote about last week. The editorial follows Vincent Carroll’s June 15 piece on the same topic for the Post‘s opinion blog.

The Daily Camera, which the Post cites, published the first newspaper account (to my knowledge) of the “drug checkpoints”:

Westminster police stopped 23 cars and made one arrest at a high-profile drug checkpoint in the Boulder-bound lanes of U.S. 36. . . .

Of the 23 stopped, it’s unclear how many were searched for drugs, but three traffic tickets were issued, and one man was arrested on suspicion of felony marijuana possession, [police investigator Trevor] Materasso said.

The Post also cites a Colorado Independent story that contains the information about Homeland Security:

In a Friday email to the Independent, Materasso added that the drug stop operations have not been designed by the Westminster force in isolation but are a product of interactions with federal agencies.

“The operation [was] established based on training provided by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and Homeland Security, which has guidelines, protocols and procedures to ensure Constitutional rights are not violated. These govern how we conduct this type of operation.”

The Post rightly retorts, “[J]ust because a policy does not, strictly speaking [and according to the courts], violate constitutional rights hardly means it earns an A-plus for respecting civil liberties.”

I checked in with Cory Lamz, one of the two Camera reporters who covered the story, and he said his paper got a news tip about the “drug checkpoints” and that multiple staff members also saw the signs as they drove by on Highway 36. Once he started working on the story, he said, he saw my initial post on the subject and then asked my wife and me for a statement.

What I want to know is this: What does training local police to search innocent people’s cars for drugs without substantial reason have to do with “Protecting the Homeland”? In this case, the threats against which Americans need protection are the police abuses encouraged by the Department of Homeland Security and the other agencies involved.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Westminster’s “Drug Checkpoint” Fishing Expedition

June 17 Update: Vincent Carroll wrote about this issue Friday for the Denver Post. He hopes these sorts of checkpoints don’t become a policing habit, and he agrees I make “a number of compelling arguments” in the post below:

On Tuesday night, my wife and I passed two signs stating “Drug Checkpoint Ahead” as we drove northwest on Highway 36, just before the Church Ranch exit. (See yesterday’s initial report.)

Here’s the statement my wife sent to Cory Lamz of the Daily Camera on the matter (a bit of which was quoted in the paper):

Here’s what I saw. We were heading westbound on Highway 36, and we saw two signs that said ‘drug checkpoint ahead.’ We exited on Church Ranch to head home, and there were two cop cars that had two civilian cars pulled over on the shoulder of the highway, just past the exist. They had orange cones flagged out for those cars. The trunks and doors were all open, so they were obviously doing a search. Then we were on Church Ranch, heading west, and we got to the Eagle Landing apartment complex—there’s a traffic light there—and to the left of the traffic light (by the apartment complex), there were four cop cars and four civilian cars. There were two cop cars paired with two civilian cars on each side of that road. There were cops mulling about, trunks open, people standing nearby.

The reporting of Lamz and Joe Rubino adds some important details about what happened:

Westminster police stopped 23 cars and made one arrest at a high-profile drug checkpoint in the Boulder-bound lanes of U.S. 36 on Tuesday night. . . . [T]hree traffic tickets were issued, and one man was arrested on suspicion of felony marijuana possession, [Westminster police investigator Trevor] Materasso said.

Materasso told the reporters that the cars were pulled over “for some identified violation,” but that’s obvious nonsense. If the cars had been pulled over for real violations, the police would have issued 22 citations rather than three. Quite obviously, the police pulled over these vehicles on mere pretexts in order to search the cars for drugs. This was a fishing expedition, pure and simple. Or, to put the matter another way, Westminster police used tax dollars to flagrantly violate the rights of Colorado citizens. (And please let nobody claim that these rights violations are fine just because the police can get away with them in court.)

Moreover, assuming that three of the drivers were in fact violating traffic laws, the police could have pulled them over and cited them without the “Drug Checkpoint” setup.

The police, then, pulled over 23 vehicles at a “Drug Checkpoint” and made one arrest. That’s a four percent success rate. And apparently the guy arrested didn’t actually have large amounts of marijuana, or Materasso surely would have trumpeted that fact.

To state these facts a different way, the police pulled over 19 drivers for no significant reason. For the “crime” of going about their business, they were harassed and intimidated by the police. That’s wrong. (And this is not the first time the Westminster police have employed this tactic.)

And how much did this cost taxpayers? Clearly the Westminster Police Department needs a budget cut, if they best way the police can spend a Tuesday night is to harass and intimidate innocent drivers.

Know Your Rights

The silver lining to this incident is that at least it has prompted many Coloradans to talk about police actions and abuses.

Mark Silverstein of the Colorado ACLU told the Camera:

One of the disappointing facts about the state of people’s awareness of civil liberties is many, many, many people don’t know they have the right to say “no” to a search. If a cop stops you and says, “Mind if I look in your trunk?” it’s your choice.

The ACLU offers some good material on the subject. The ACLU advises:

Stop the car in a safe place as quickly as possible. Turn off the car, turn on the internal light, open the window part way and place your hands on the wheel. Upon request, show police your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. If an officer. . . asks to look inside your car, you can refuse to consent to the search. But if police believe your car contains evidence of a crime, your car can be searched without your consent. Both drivers and passengers have the right to remain silent. If you are a passenger, you can ask if you are free to leave. If the officer says yes, sit silently or calmly leave. Even if the officer says no, you have the right to remain silent.

The state ACLU also published a multi-part video; here’s the first part.

The group Flex Your Rights offers the video, Busted: The Citizen’s Guide to Surviving Police Encounters.

Of course the problem of overzealous policing is a concern to citizens on the right as well. Grassroots Radio invited me on Wednesday from 5:30 to 6:30 to discuss the issue; I joined host Ken Clark and Randy Corporon, a defense attorney sitting in for Jason Worley. Listen to Part I (starting at minute 23) and Part II.

I argued the following (starting at minute 33 in the first hour):

Here’s my concern. With these quasi-random checkpoints, either for drugs or alcohol, without any other . . . serious cause of wrongdoing, or reason for the police to think you’ve done something wrong; with things like no-knock raids (which, as we know here in Denver, sometimes the police don’t even get the right address for those); with things like TSA doing these invasive types of searches, even for young children—my fear is that Americans are being conditioned to a state in which, instead of the police officers working for the citizens, and protecting our rights, and being our servants, instead we’re in a state where usually we’re afraid of the police officers, and afraid that we’re going to be intimidated or harassed, even when we’re doing nothing wrong. . . . While I dislike the checkpoint that I witnessed last night, in and of itself, I worry about this growing trend toward—it seems like police have control over the citizens, instead of vice versa.

Corporon, a defense attorney, added some excellent points about asserting one’s rights.

His main advice was to “shut up” if the police are questioning you without the presence of your attorney. He said his biggest headache is when clients call him after they’ve already gone down to the police station and given a statement, without legal representation.

A related video I’ve seen advises, Don’t Talk to the Police. See also my write-up of Boston T. Party’s talk at the University of Colorado about “You and the Police.”

Corporon also advised people never to voluntarily consent to a police search of one’s vehicle. He pointed out that consenting, when the officer has neither cause nor a warrant, only encourages abusive practices.

“Be polite,” Corporon urged.

He pointed out a great reason to roll your window only part-way down: in addition to protecting the driver from overly-intrusive policing, it offers the officer assurance that the driver can’t reach out the window aggressively.

Clark added that his personal practice, as a holder of a concealed carry permit, is to always have his permit in hand with his other paperwork—with his hands on the steering wheel—and to tell the officer right away that he has a permit. (Please note that I’m not an attorney and am not offering legal advice, but merely reporting what others said.)

The upshot is this. As a citizen, you need to assert your rights. By asserting your rights, you encourage decent policing and remind police officers that they work for us, not the other way around. You also need to defend your rights, to speak out against rights violations and injustices. Finally, we need to think seriously about the sort of political system that fosters rights-protecting government activity—and the sort of political system that fosters oppression and systematic rights violations by government agents. Yes, it is a large task, but it is a necessary one if we wish to continue to live in the Land of the Free.

Image: City of Westminster

Drug Checkpoint Outrage

I was shocked and outraged to see two “Drug Checkpoint Ahead” signs this evening along Highway 36 northbound ahead of the Church Ranch exit (in Westminster, Colorado). Even worse, the police had pulled over two vehicles along Highway 36, and another four vehicles along Church Ranch, and were in the process of searching those vehicles.

I do not know which police agency or agencies were involved in this frankly fascistic violation of the civil rights of the citizens. I called the “Administration” and “Desk Officer” lines of the Westminster Police Department but got a recording. (This was at 10:21 pm; I doubted that those at dispatch would be in a position to answer my questions on the subject.)

Apparently the police were pulling over cars totally at random; they did not pull me over (as they all seemed to be occupied searching others’ vehicles).

What is especially angering about this is that the police are spending MY tax dollars for the purpose of violating people’s rights.

Ironically, I witnessed this travesty as I returned from Liberty In the Books, where we had just reviewed an extraordinary set of lectures by Ludwig von Mises on the importance of limiting government to the protection of rights. In those lectures Mises criticizes America’s first “experiment” with Prohibition; I will conclude with his commentary:

[T]he notion that a capitalist form of government can prevent people from hurting themselves by controlling their consumption is false. The idea of government as a paternal authority, as a guardian for everybody, is the idea of those who favor socialism. In the United States some years ago, the government tried what was called “a noble experiment.” This noble experiment was a law making it illegal to buy or sell intoxicating beverages. It is certainly true that many people drink too much brandy and whiskey, and that they may hurt themselves by doing so. . . . This raises a question which goes far beyond economic discussion: it shows what freedom really means. . . .

[O]nce you have admitted [that government should stop people from drinking too much], other people will say: Is the body everything? Is not the mind of man much more important? Is not the mind of man the real human endowment, the real human quality? If you give the government the right to determine the consumption of the human body, to determine whether one should smoke or not smoke, drink or not drink, there is no good reply you can give to people who say: “More important than the body is the mind and the soul, and man hurts himself much more by reading bad books, by listening to bad music and looking at bad movies. Therefore it is the duty of the government to prevent people from committing these faults.”

Drug Reform Bill Favors Treatment Over Felonies

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published March 30 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Politicians trying to save people from the consequences of their own stupidity is itself stupid. The effort breeds invasive, Nanny State laws that undermine individual responsibility. The ultimate effect is to encourage stupidity rather than curb it.

Whether we care about personal health, responsible living, or responsible governance, what we need above all is a people capable of thinking for themselves and taking responsibility for their own actions. A government that attempts to do people’s thinking for them undermines responsible action.

Politicians trying to save people from the consequences of their own stupidity by threatening to destroy their lives with felony convictions is outright insanity. Yet that is precisely how Colorado law currently treats low-level drug offenders.

Thankfully, Senate Bill 163 would bring a touch of sanity to Colorado’s drug laws. Fox31 reports that the bill would “reduce the crime of possession of 4 grams or less of a schedule I or II controlled substance or 2 grams or less of methamphetamine from a felony to a misdemeanor.” The bill pertains to possession only, not distribution.

Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) and a supporter of the bill, explained the measure would alter criminal penalties for “everything from heroin and cocaine to methamphetamines,” drugs whose abuse often involves serious addictions. The bill would not impact marijuana, she added.

Those tempted to think of this as a weepy leftist “soft on crime” bill should consider that two of the bill’s sponsors, Shawn Mitchell and Don Beezley, are perhaps the legislature’s two most stalwart defenders of economic liberty.

In a remarkably personal moment, Mitchell said during a media conference (as reported by Fox31): “My younger brother has been a meth addict for nearly a decade. He’s has been in jail in more than one state, he has a felony conviction. He got a treatment program in a county jail in Utah that helped him see things differently and my family is filled with love and hope for his turnaround.”

Representative Claire Levy, a Boulder Democrat (if we may repeat ourselves), also talked sense: “Going to prison does not help someone with a drug problem. They don’t get treatment in prison, and it’s a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources. This bill is not only about being smarter on crime, but it’s about saving taxpayer money and devoting those resources to better purposes.”

In an email alert, CCJRC added, “A felony conviction is a lifetime punishment, resulting in significantly reduced ability to obtain housing and employment, the basics of productive life. Low-level drug possession does not warrant a lifetime of diminished opportunity.”

To be sure, the bill is not perfect. While the bill would pay for drug treatment out of savings from reduced incarceration, we’re not convinced the government should be in the business of financing drug treatment with dollars forcibly taken from taxpayers. We’d rather see voluntary efforts to fund drug treatment. But the bill wouldn’t spend any additional taxes, and its positive effects far outweighs our concern here.

Of course, the bill will do nothing directly to reduce the problems of criminal violence, toxically tainted drugs, and property damage associated with the criminal distribution of drugs. The simple fact is that all the worst problems associated with drugs result directly from the prohibition of those drugs, not the drugs themselves.

The largest and most obvious problem is all the gang violence surrounding the drug trade. As during the prohibition of alcohol, drug prohibition confers enormous wealth to violent criminal gangsters.

Moreover, we think it’s very likely that the nasty methamphetamines of today never even would have been invented but for the prohibition of milder amphetamines that pharmacists sold over the counter until a few decades ago.

But we don’t expect the legislature to embrace our radical views for at least a few more years. As a matter of practical politics, Bill 163 represents a good-faith effort by the bill’s sponsors to bring incremental but meaningful reform to the state’s drug laws.

We should not confuse a reduction in criminal penalties for possessing these drugs with any sort of sanction of the drugs’ abuse. Obviously these drugs can be extremely harmful to those abusing them. We personally know people who have seriously harmed their lives by abusing these drugs. Chances are good that you do, too.

But we’re not doing people with drug problems any favors by locking them up with hardened criminals or slapping them with a felony record. As Mitchell said, “If we’re trying to stop people from ruining their life with poison, it doesn’t make sense to ruin their life legally with the permanent consequences of a felony conviction.”

Those with drug problems deserve the chance to straighten out their lives, get on a good career path, and move on. For many, Bill 163 would give them that chance.

Stop the Hatchet Job on Medical Marijuana Shops

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published July 8 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Around the turn of the last century, Carrie Nation opposed alcohol use. So zealous was her crusade that she gained a reputation for barging into bars armed with her Bible and a hatchet to smash up the establishments. Some say she even excused the assassination of President William McKinley, as he allegedly drank alcohol.

Today’s prohibitionists, too civilized for direct physical force, instead seek to impose the force of the vote. Rather than send in a woman with a hatchet, they threaten to send in police armed with guns.

Grand Junction voters already banned medical marijuana dispensaries. Apparently they want to punish people with debilitating pain and nausea by making their medicine harder to obtain. (Disclosure: One of our relatives uses a medical marijuana card.)

The modern Carrie Nations now want to legally destroy the lonely medicalmarijuana shop in Palisade. But does this make any sense?

To vote for such a ban, you must believe that mob rule properly trumps rights of property, economic production, and voluntary exchange. Once the mob gains the sanction of the government and the use of its guns, it can be difficult to contain. Who will become the next victim, and on what pretext? Should the mob also be empowered to shut down gun stores or politically incorrect bookstores?

Another victim of Carrie’s hatchet is individual responsibility. Most early Americans placed the responsibility of overindulgence on the user. For example, they condemned drunkenness as an abuse of a God-given gift. But alcohol was no more to blame for being drunk than food was responsible for being fat or guns for being careless. While God made no bad drink, people tended to think, some people made bad choices. Today many count medical marijuana as a God-given gift.

We wonder whether Carrie Nation would gleefully applaud or recoil in horror to witness her modern intellectual heirs. Today, rather than blame individuals for obesity, many blame the clown Ronald McDonald, promotional toys, and supersized portions. Who needs parental responsibility? Far easier to blame inanimate objects.

Modern-day Carrie Nations have taken the hatchet to all of Mexico, where the United States’ prohibitionist policies have decimated the country by enriching violent and well-armed narcoterrorists. Tea Party favorites such as Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, and Tom Tancredo have suggested scaling back the drug war as a way to curtail that violence.

That prohibition causes crime waves and police corruption should come as no surprise. Alcohol Prohibition enriched violent gangsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Today, we don’t know brewers of alcoholic beverages as violent gangsters with names like “Johnny the Hick,” we know them as respectable citizens with names like “Governor John Hickenlooper.” Yes, alcohol is a drug, so we elected a one-time drug dealer to lead our state.

We wonder whether Carrie Nation would have been proud that her prohibitionist legacy included the government intentionally poisoning people. Last year Deborah Blum wrote an article for Slate titled, “The Chemist’s War: The little-told story of how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition with deadly consequences.”

Blum writes, “Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.”

Collateral damage, right? Just like the sick in the Grand Valley who no longer have access to their medicine.

Blum quotes a 1927 editorial from the Chicago Tribune: “Normally, no American government would engage in such business… It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified.”

By the logic of prohibition, the ends justify the means, and individuals and their rights become expendable.

At least medical marijuana is available now in Colorado — though the state recently saddled the industry with onerous rules and regulatory incompetence. We seem to be lurching in the right direction.

We are also heartened that Rep. Jared Polis from Boulder has signed on to a bill to help return marijuana policy to the states. Polis joins other Democrats as well as Republicans Ron Paul and Dana Rohrabacher.

Polis stated in a release, “When a small business, such as a medical marijuana dispensary, can’t access basic banking services [because of federal laws] they either have to become cash-only — and become targets of crime — or they’ll end up out of business.”

Frankly people of the Grand Valley should be embarrassed to let Boulder take the lead on such an important issue of property rights and individual liberty.

The AIDS Party

Colorado Republicans never cease to astound me. Here were are, on the eve of a major “Tax Day Tea Party,” when plenty of Americans are irritated with the Democrats over intrusive government, and Colorado Republicans issue a media release reminding everybody that they also want an intrusive government, especially when it results in more people getting AIDS and Hepatitis C. But, hey, some people deserve to get those diseases, according to one senior Republican.

It is this sort of nonsense that persuades me that 2010 may still be the year when Republicans manage, against all odds, to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Again. Because they are just that stupid.

As Tim Hoover over at the Denver Post reviews, the state senate’s Health and Human Services committee referred Bill 10-189. The bill would “allow needle exchange programs for illegal drug users,” as Hoover summarizes.

Here’s the most remarkable line from Hoover’s report: “Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, said the bill was a move toward eliminating ‘the negative consequences of this behavior that’s not acceptable to the majority of Coloradans.'” Negative consequences like AIDS and Hepatitis C. Because who would want to remove those!

Of course, as Hoover also points out, the Republicans were not unanimous in opposing the bill. In fact, the Republican vote was only two-to-one against. Because Shawn Mitchell, who often sides with liberty in the legislature, has not absolutely lost his mind.

Now, it is not always clear why members vote for or against certain amendments and bills in committee. Sometimes a Senator is playing some longer-range strategy. However, given that, on the face of it, one of the three Republicans on the committee supports the bill, it is unclear to me why the GOP’s Colorado Senate News issued a media release stating Republican opposition to the bill. Is not Mitchell one of the most respected Republicans in this state?

Regardless, the media release itself is dishonest:

“Nobody wants to see the spread of infectious diseases, but I hardly think it is the taxpayers’ job to foot the bill for a needle exchange program,” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. “And with just a month left in the session we should be focused on the economy and next year’s $1 billion budget cliff. There just isn’t room to debate the creation of a new public health program.” … He also lamented the fact that bill doesn’t explicitly bar the use of public funds for needle exchange programs.

But neither does the bill promise “public funds for needle exchange programs.” Instead, the bill explicitly says that a county or district public health agency may contract with a nonprofit organization to run a needle exchange program. If Lundberg were genuinely interested in cutting off tax funding for needle exchange, he would have restricted his position to modifying the bill accordingly, not arguing against all needle exchange programs. (Of course, I do not believe a nonprofit should have to suck up to bureaucrats to get permission to do good works in the community, but such a truly liberty-oriented bill would have faced even harsher opposition.)

The comments by Senator Minority Leader Josh Penry are equally dishonest:

“Dirty needles are an occupational hazard for drug users, sure, but so are laced drugs and gun fights,” said Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. “Does Senator Steadman think we should buy heroin and bullet proof jackets for druggies too?”

Penry leaves his “we” conveniently vague. Regarding clean needles, does he mean taxpayers or willing contributers to nonprofits? If he means taxpayers, he should address that narrow issue.

The obvious difference between clean needles and heroin or bullet proof vests is that the spread of AIDS and Hepatitis C can have more extensive spill-over effects onto other parties. Of course Penry understands this point very well, only he is trying to score political points through willful distortion of the issues.

Rob Corry Discusses Marijuana Policy

Attorney Rob Corry discussed marijuana policy on March 17, 2010, at Denver’s Liberty On the Rocks. (The date, St. Patrick’s Day, explains his flair.)

In this second video, Corry discusses Colorado legislation, how to present his case to conservatives, the use of medical marijuana in the work place, and the clash between state and federal laws.

Finally, Corry addresses the criticism that medical marijuana is a ploy to legalize marijuana generally.

Marijuana and Psychosis: Correlation or Causation?

The Denver Post republished an article by Nicole Ostrow of Bloomberg News that begins, “Young adults who used marijuana as teens were more likely to develop schizophrenia and psychotic symptoms…”

Ostrow claims, “The authors said the study was the first to look at sibling pairs to discount genetic or environmental influence and still find marijuana linked to later psychosis.”

No, the authors did not “discount genetic or environmental influence,” nor did they discount other nongenetic differences between siblings.

Here’s what the study (John McGrath etc., Archives of General Psychiatry) says instead: “Prospective cohort studies have identified an association between cannabis use and later psychosis-related outcomes, but concerns remain about unmeasured confounding variables. The use of sibling pair analysis reduces the influence of unmeasured residual confounding.”

Reducing “the influence of unmeasured residual confounding” is hardly demonstrating the direction of causal flow.

Quite obviously, siblings are quite different from each other, not only genetically but according to their environmental interactions and, of critical importance, in their choices. (Does anyone doubt that “psychosis-related outcomes” are at least in many cases significantly the result of a person’s poor choices?) The most obvious explanation for the study’s findings is that the the siblings with the most problems tended to abuse drugs more. In other words, the drug abuse was a symptom of a person’s problems, not a cause of them.

Notably, the study uses an extremely wide definition of “psychosis-related outcomes” that includes “nonaffective psychosis, hallucinations, and Peters et al Delusions Inventory score.” But marijuana is a hallucinogenic drug. So, in part, the study is claiming, “People who take hallucinogenic drugs tend to suffer hallucinations.” (And it cost how much money to figure that out?)

“Nonaffective psychosis” includes things like poor concentration and mood disorders, which are obvious short-term effects of using the drug as well as reflections of personalities with deeper problems.

And what, you may wonder, is the “Peters et al Delusions Inventory score?”It asks questions like the following:

“Do you ever feel as if people seem to drop hints about you or say things with a double meaning?”

“Do you ever feel as if some people are not what they seem to be?”

Besides the fact that some of these questions are ridiculous and need not indicate psychosis, again, people with more problems tend to abuse drugs more. Big insight, there.

Moreover, the differences associated with marijuana use are relatively small. For example, whereas 26 of 1246 people (two percent) who never used marijuana showed signs of “nonaffective psychosis,” 12 of 310 people (3.9 percent) who had used marijuana for six years or more showed signs. Nintety of 1182 people (7.6 percent) who had never used marijuana showed signs of hallucinations, while 54 or 268 (20 percent) of those who had used marijuana for six years or more showed signs (again, not surprising given that marijuana is a hallucinogenic drug).

The upshot is that a small minority of people who didn’t use marijuana showed “psychosis-related outcomes,” while a somewhat larger minority of people who did use marijuana showed such signs. Again, this is consistent with the idea that people with more problems tend to abuse drugs more.

Now, I do not doubt that abusing marijuana (or any drug) can also contribute to a person’s mental and emotional problems. Certainly drug abuse can reinforce a person’s negative tendencies; I don’t need a costly study to convince me of that. However, it is equally obvious that far and away the major problem is something other than the drug abuse. Mostly, the drug abuse is a symptom of deeper problems, not a cause of them. (Regardless, there are many other good reasons not to use marijuana except perhaps medicinally.)

I’m sure that won’t stop politicians and bureaucrats from citing nonsensical news reports of meaningless studies to stir up more Reefer Madness. (Say, wouldn’t paranoia about the impacts of smoking marijuana count as a “psychosis-related outcome?”)

Drug-War Insanity

Speaking of insanity, here’s the latest news about the drug war from an e-mail from DRCNet:

One would think after Atlanta police killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, that they would get the idea, but they haven’t, and the carnage continues. Last Friday, 1/4/08, a SWAT team, serving an ordinary drug search warrant, invaded the Ohio home of Tarika Wilson — an innocent woman — shot and killed her, and shot her one-year-old son. “They went in that home shooting,” her mother said at a vigil that night. The boy lost at least one of his fingers. Two dogs were shot too.

Radley Balko, who tracks such abuses, has more about the raid in a first, second, and third post. Here’s a quote from Balko’s third post:

Lima police and city officials are bunkering down, as almost always happens in these cases. We do now know that Tarika Wilson and her son were shot on the second floor, after police had taken her boyfriend Anthony Terry–the man they were after–into custody. Police still haven’t said what quantity of drugs they found, nor have they mentioned whether Wilson or Terry fired a weapon.

Even assuming the worst about the victims, the police in this case were totally out of control. Why do we continue to let this happen, here, in America?