Straining on a Gnat

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In light of a recent update to federal regulation of commercial chemicals, pointed questions arise about laws governing controlled substances. Consider last week’s announcement of funding for a study of synthetic pot. The press release from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences emphasized the importance of knowing ‘what is safe.’ A federal grant of $2.7 million will fund research into K2 and Spice, a study to be led by Paul Prather, professor of pharmacology and toxicology.

“People who smoke K2 and Spice are basically playing Russian roulette,” Prather warned. “You’re injecting this compound that has literally never been tested.”

I had to laugh out loud. What are K2 and Spice compared to the 84,000 commercially used chemicals that have never been tested? What logic lies behind aggressive policing of intoxicants that a limited percentage of the population might voluntarily use periodically and the simultaneous abject failure to test chemicals that the entire population unwittingly touches, ingests, and inhales on a daily basis? Everything from dryer sheets to shampoo to spray sanitizers is loaded with mystery chemicals.

This lunacy fits perfectly with the hit-or-miss tradition of government policies rife with misinformation, driven by profiteering, and shrouded in hysteria and secret agendas instead of rational analysis of fact.

People who use K2 and Spice seek a legal alternative to marijuana.  Unlike these modern synthetics, however, marijuana has been in use as a medicine and intoxicant since pre-history. Archaeological evidence points to cannabis use in ancient China, ancient India, ancient Egypt, and by the Scythians contemporary to ancient Greece. If the criteria is ‘what is safe,’ then marijuana has long since exceeded the requirement.

If public policy were based on thoughtful analysis, marijuana would be legally sold like alcohol and this $2.7 million appropriated to study K2 would be spent on examination of why the U. S. has a higher rate of drug use and abuse than any other nation on earth (which goes hand in hand with our skyrocketing prison population).[1] The proportion of people in the United States who have used cocaine at some time during their lives is higher—by a factor of four—than in 16 other nations surveyed by the World Health Organization (WHO). The United States also leads in lifetime use of cannabis and tobacco.[2]

There’s a common misconception that drug laws are based on comprehensive scientific conclusions about the dangers of those drugs. Government funding to study drugs props up the fiction that our laws are based on ‘what is safe.’ This fantasy has been promoted by those with vested interests or a social agenda in mind. Drug laws have turned our local police departments into militaristic hit squads. Prisons are a growth industry. Selective enforcement of drug laws against immigrants, racial groups, the counter culture, and inner city poor places these potentially troublesome groups under government control.

Drug laws do nothing to stop addiction.

Consider the cautionary tale now unfolding about OxyContin. Blessed with extensive clinical testing and FDA approval, Oxy has been the darling of pain relief since the 1990s. Similarly, a century earlier Bayer Pharmaceutical introduced a new wonder drug named heroin.[3] “The sales pitch that created an instant market to American doctors and their morphine addicted patients was that heroin was a ‘safe, non-addictive’ substitute for morphine.”[4]

Now that OxyContin addiction rates have soared, a predictable crackdown has restricted supply. The result is a shift from oxy to black market heroin and rising overdose rates.

Drug warriors and doctors alike seem to be asking the wrong questions.

The more obvious right question: Why does the U.S. lead the world in substance abuse?

The less obvious: What role does our daily cocktail of manmade chemicals play in our mental and physical health, including addiction?

If the health and welfare of our citizenry were the force guiding federal and state policy, then why has it taken until June of this year for the federal government to authorize new provisions in the nation’s Toxic Substances Control Act? Originally passed in 1976, the TSCA allowed all 62,000 chemicals that were in commerce before that year to stay on the market unless the Environmental Protection Agency later found that they posed an “unreasonable risk.”

Now over 84,000 untested chemicals are in commercial use. In the intervening forty years, the EPA has required testing of only 250 chemicals and banned only nine, among them dioxin and hexavalent chromium. The new rules impose a mandatory requirement for the EPA to evaluate tens of thousands of in-use chemicals and establish risk-based safety standards along with requiring public transparency for chemical information. [5]

A day late and a dollar short. For decades, activists have pushed for laws more like those in Europe where substances generally can’t go to market unless manufacturers can provide data showing they’re safe.[6] Clearly we’ve got this backwards.

Before you start feeling reassured by this recent change in the U.S. regulation of chemicals, please note that

“The new law requires EPA to test tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals currently on the market, and the roughly 2,000 new chemicals introduced each year, but quite slowly. The EPA will review a minimum of 20 chemicals at a time, and each has a seven-year deadline. Industry may then have five years to comply after a new rule is made. At that pace it could take centuries for the agency to finish its review.”[7]

One gaping hole in our official ‘what is safe’ question is whether any of these chemicals might increase the risk of addiction. For example, the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) is found in many products, including canned foods, plastics, and dental sealants, and is similar in structure to the hormone estrogen. Ask any woman whether hormones affect mood and attitude. Or any man, for that matter. Studies have linked BPA exposure with many health problems including obesity, early puberty, and miscarriage. Whether levels of BPA in the environment are harmful to people is still being studied.

Other chemical pollutants may affect mood, impair reproduction, and trigger cancer and other disease. Consider just one particular chemical, tributyltin, which is used as a wood preservative and glass coating among other things. In animal studies, it was found that exposure to tributyltin increased the number of fat cells, thus possibly setting into motion a genetic propensity at birth for obesity.  Some chemicals have been found to cause male frogs to become female.  It’s a long and terrifying list.

84,000.

Admittedly other factors in American life influence the rates of intoxicant abuse. As a multi-cultural society, we have few ties that bind. What are our rituals that serve as guideposts, rites of passage that help define a young person’s purpose or meaning? What shortcomings in Western medicine lead us to treat an ailment’s symptoms rather than dig out the cause? What ignorance and greed allows drug companies to saturate our media with ads that condition us to seek a pill for every ill?

Simultaneously, chemicals have become the modern savior for everything from bad odors to agriculture. We are routinely exposed to a smorgasbord of substances which may trigger our need for drugs or at least compromise us in myriad ways we hardly understand. While government awards contracts to study K2 which last year caused fifteen people to lose their lives, cause of death data from 2013 finds 29,000 deaths from alcohol, 18,893 deaths from prescription drugs, and 17,000 from all illegal drugs combined.

We can rest assured K2 will be proven harmful. Then what? Build more prisons?

Even those numbers pale in comparison to data from 2006 showing workers in chemical industries suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths annually related to chemical exposures. Workplace chemical exposures have been linked to cancers and other lung, kidney, skin, heart, stomach, brain, nerve, and reproductive diseases.

Consider the following abstract for a 2008 study by the National Institutes of Health:

“While proper brain function requires the complex interaction of chemicals perpetually occupied in purposeful biochemistry, it is well established that certain toxic substances have the potential to disrupt normal brain physiology and to impair neurological homeostasis. As well as headache, cognitive dysfunction, memory disturbance, and other neurological signs and symptoms, disruption of brain function may also manifest as subtle or overt alteration in thoughts, moods, or behaviors. Over the last four decades, there has been the unprecedented development and release of a swelling repertoire of potentially toxic chemicals which have the capability to inflict brain compromise.

“Although the ability of xenobiotics to induce clinical illness is well established, the expanding public health problem of widespread toxicant exposure in the general population is a relatively new phenomenon that has spawned escalating concern. The emerging area of clinical care involving the assessment and management of accrued toxic substances such as heavy metals, pesticides, plasticizers and other endocrine disrupting or neurotoxic compounds has not been fully appreciated by the medical community and has yet to be incorporated into the clinical practice of many consultants or primary care practitioners.”[8]

That pretty well says it all.

~~~ 

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-leads-the-world-in-illegal-drug-use/

[2] https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/nida-notes/2009/11/united-states-ranks-first-in-lifetime-use-three-drugs

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroin

[4] http://www.narconon.org/drug-information/heroin-history.html

[5] https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/frank-r-lautenberg-chemical-safety-21st-century-act

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/03/19/our-broken-congresss-latest-effort-to-fix-our-broken-toxic-chemicals-law/

[7] http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/it-could-take-centuries-for-epa-to-test-all-the-unregulated-chemicals-under-a-new-landmark-bill/

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18621076

 

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/131023758/

Same Old

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Creek another thirty feet down on the right.

Oh, the wringing of hands as the State of Arkansas once again tries to cough up more money for prisons. One of the poorest states in the nation, Arkansas struggles to pay for schools and roads. But those programs are optional. Prisons are not.

That is, you see, because we must punish Crime.

Thus comes the grand news that Arkansas ranks third in the nation in prison population growth. Not only are prisons stuffed, so are the county jails where duly convicted criminals await prison space. Not only are all lockups in the state overflowing, we’ve now exported hundreds of prisoners to Texas where their for-profit system takes all the money we want to send them.

Most recently, the genius that is the current state legislature has passed a law wherein persons on probation or parole can be stopped and searched not only by parole/probation officers but also by any other law enforcement officer. The arguably reasonable rationale behind this law is that a would-be burglar might be gently nudged along a path of righteousness with more authority figures looking over his shoulder.

They actually believe this will reduce the prison population. My prediction is the opposite. More noses in private business means more marijuana arrests.

The disconnect lies in the reality of present day culture. Whether our criminal codes yet reflect it, marijuana is the new beer. Over half the states have now made marijuana legal for medical use and three (so far) have made it legal for recreational use. In those states, tax revenues are booming while teen drug use and crime in general are down.

We’ll have none of that in Arkansas. No sir.

No, here we prefer to rope goats and dip snuff. Here we produce an annual crop of Bible-thumpin’ preachers in jail for molesting children. Here we have state and federal legislators fixated on regulating a woman’s uterus and other people’s relationships. (I can say these things—I’m a native.)

I live on a dirt road. Periodically the road is graced by the passage of a road grader. The road grader moves dirt around, swiping it from the edges and piling it up in the middle where it is spread along to fill up holes and trenches cut by rain. Next time it rains, the holes appear again.

At the worst spot (pictured above), a cavernous roadside ditch abruptly ends. Water has nowhere to go. So it runs across the road. The solution is amazingly simple: cut the ditch another 30 feet to the creek. Like magic, no more bone-jarring trench.

I’ve long pondered this particular problem. I’ve sent carefully composed letters and drawings to the county road superintendent. I’ve chanced upon the grader mid-task and stopped to belabor my point with the operator. He’s always amiable, working a big cud and nodding while I talk and point. “Yes, Ma’am,” he says.

Then he grades the road exactly the same as before.

That quiet shredding sound you hear is me ripping my hair.

Is getting high a crime? If you get high on alcohol, it’s not a crime. If you zoom around all smiles on your script of Valium or Xanax, not a crime. Face it. People smoke weed. Water runs downhill. 

There’s never been a study showing that laws against drugs have been effective in stopping drug use or addiction. All we have to do is look at the status of our prisons to know those laws have failed. We have a greater percentage of people using drugs now than ever before. Great work, guys. Keep filling those holes.

In 2014, Arkansas arrest data show 14,480 crimes against persons (murder, rape, assault) with the largest subset of 8,103 for simple assault. There were 20,329 crimes against property (arson, burglary, vandalism, fraud, theft) with the largest subset of 8,360 for shoplifting.

Drug arrests (in the category of ‘crimes against society’) totaled 13,626 with 6965 for marijuana possession and 797 for marijuana sales or manufacture. The next largest subset in drug crimes was 1748 arrests for methamphetamine possession and 481 for meth sales/manufacture. (The other 1218 ‘crimes against society’ include gambling, prostitution, pornography, and weapons laws violations.)

Is possession of marijuana an offense equal to assault? Who is harmed? Equal to shoplifting? Whose goods are stolen? Does it make any sense that almost as many people are arrested for drugs as are arrested for crimes against people?

In 2013, Arkansas prisons held 23,384 inmates. Another 29,946 offenders were on probation and 23,227 on parole. The corrections budget that year was $449 million. We can only guess what percentage of the prison/jail population is serving time for drug offenses because the state doesn’t collect that information.

They don’t want to know.

If drug offenders are convicted at the same rate as offenders in other categories, then we could assume that 30% of our prison population is there for drug offenses and 57% of those for marijuana.

There has always been an element of society which believes its duty is to regulate how people think. Its lineage can be traced to the Inquisition and setting witches on fire. No one argues whether crimes against persons and property should be punished. But the idea that the state should attempt to regulate our minds violates every principle of a free society. 

The standard argument in support of drug prohibition involves token concerns about people harming themselves. Worse, people high on drugs can hurt other people. Yes. But people who harm themselves with potato chips or cigarettes aren’t arrested. People trashed on booze can beat up their wives or get behind the wheel and kill a carload of innocent people. But we don’t need alcohol prohibition to prosecute impaired driving or domestic violence.

Aside from trying to arrest our way out of behavior we don’t like, the would-be guardians of our minds have promulgated a flood of anti-drug propaganda. The drug problem flavor of the decade has moved from psychedelics to marijuana to methamphetamines. Now meth is so ’90s. Today the big evil is prescription drugs. (Ironic, considering the incessant television ads hawking drugs for every conceivable human ache and mood.)

By now there’s a nearly-one hundred year tradition of criminalizing certain substances and the persons who use them. The stigma once attached to demon rum has been transferred to a growing list of psychoactive substances. We have no choice. We have to build more prisons.

Let’s keep filling those holes.

Arkansas will be among the last to let go of its attempt to control what people do in the privacy of their homes or heads. These folks are still trying to get back to the 19th century. Even though the Bible says nothing on the subject of drug use and relates multiple instances of Jesus Christ Himself using wine—hey, even making it out of water—religious extremists in control of the state refuse to allow statewide alcohol sales and would fight to the death before legalizing marijuana even for medical use.

The facts have been clear for decades. Any cost/benefit analysis would show the terrible price we pay for this futile effort. We’re stuck with the same old reaction, prisons before schools, before roads, before social services and other interventions that have the potential to actually reduce drug abuse.

How long, oh Lord, ’til the ditch is cut to the creek?