Learning More, and Making the Case

My four favorite drug related websites are linked to at the bottom of the menu bar. All of them have made great contributions to the struggle to end the drug war, but none have tried to offer a well-constructed alternative, which is why this website exists. Please browse them all if this matters to you.

The table below is meant to help you talk to people about why the drug war needs to stop and why legal drugs would be so, so much better. I have tried to condense everything down to good, crisp talking points, stuff you can back up and that can lead to lively conversation over a beer.

Finally, the stuff below adds lots of detail to certain things said elsewhere on this site that would have been too dry and long to include in the relevant sections. These are important points, and fascinating if you are into this kind of thing - but i get it, lots of people aren't. But it's all here if it comes up. You never know when you might need to drag the UNODC through the dirt or slag the survey methodology of the NSDUH.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - Politics and Bad Research

It is amazing how often figures are quoted in support of prohibition that have absolutely no truth to them. My favourite is this persistent idea that if you use a drug even one time, you will be hooked, doomed to addiction. That was addressed pretty thoroughly here, so i won´t go on about that again.

The big thing you have to consider here is how the game of politics works. The DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration, a federal agency in the United States) has a staff of about 11,000 and a budget of about $2.5 billion. Their sole purpose is the enforcement of drug prohibition laws. If prohibition ends, out they go. That´s what you call a vested interest - it is absolutely natural that when they say stuff about drugs, it is always with the intention of convincing you that a) the DEA is really important, and b), the DEA is doing a good job. Because their jobs depend on this, they are likely to be either blind to realities that don´t make them look good, or to just plain lie about them. Poor things. That´s human nature, so when you hear people talk about any kind of statistics on drugs, it is very important to know how reliable the source is.

So now let´s talk about the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). There may be nothing more political in the world than the United Nations. Nobody at the U.N. is voted into office, it´s all about who you know and your popularity with the powers that be. That isn´t to say that the U.N. doesn´t do good work - they do - it´s just to say that the people who work there are all the kind of people who are very sensitive to how things appear, regardless of how they really are. Especially since all the money the U.N. has comes from the nations who are members. If those nations aren´t happy with them, they can simply not pay, and there will be absolutely no repercussions from that. It is a trick the United States, in particular, uses often. And everybody knows the USA is the big gun in town.

There was this one time that the UN, through the WHO, wrote a report saying that cocaine actually isn´t a big deal, and maybe it should even be legal. Whoa. They won´t be doing that again. The United States freaked. They stopped the study from being published, and the WHO (World Health Organization) deny it even exists.

The UNODC does not make such tactical errors. They tow the official line, even when they don´t really have the facts straight, and they know it. They showed that Plan Colombia had indeed been an impressive success in reducing cocaine in Colombia despite the people on the team knowing they really didn´t have the info to draw such a conclusion. The misgivings they had are apparent if you read their latest report on coca cultivation in Colombia.

Let´s look at some excerpts from the Colombia Coca Cultivation Survey, 2009, conducted by the UNODC. This first one is from page 78 of the report.

Here we learn that the UNODC staff have nothing to do with the aerial spraying program. It is all done by Colombia´s anti-narcotics police. As mentioned in the World Drug Report, 2010, it simply isn´t safe for the UNODC staff to go out in the field in the kinds of places where coca is actually grown. There´s a lot of shooting in those places, and UN anti-drug officials would make excellent targets. We also learn that the anti-narcotics police figure spraying kills 90% of the coca bushes in those areas, and the UNODC faithfully base their coca crop calculations on that.

That is surprising, considering what the UNODC themselves admit on page 80:

Interesting. If it rains, or the farmers wash the leaves, or coat them to protect them from the herbicide (apparently cane juice is popular), ´affectation varies significantly´, in other words, spraying doesn´t work so well. Yet they stick by that strangely high figure of 90% crop killed fed them by the Colombian cops. They also don´t mention Boliviana Negra, even though they must know about it. The herbicide sprayed to control coca bush, which is basically RoundUp, doesn´t kill it. It keeps right on going. It is leafier than previous coca bush, too. As you can imagine, Boliviana Negra is spreading like crazy throughout Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.

On page 85 of the report, we learn the UNODC staff has nothing to do with data collection on seizures or destruction of cocaine labs, either. It is all done by Colombian forces. Perhaps it should be mentioned that the whole Colombian army-police system has collaborated heavily with the cocaine industry for a long, long time. If you didn´t read about that on the "Toll of Drug Prohibition" page, the section about that is here.

Page 98 tells us that the UNODC displays such faith in the truthfulness of Colombia´s anti-narcotics police, they don´t even check their satellite images of areas the Colombians tell them were manually eradicated (the bushes were uprooted). It´s right there in the second paragraph. Another good reason to not check those areas would be so you could avoid the awkwardness of seeing evidence that most of the time the area stays exactly the same as it was before.

And then there is the process of finding the coca fields in the first place. They do this by studying satellite images. Maybe you´ve heard about that. It is very high-tech, and they are quite proud of it. Have you looked at the high-res satellite images on Google Earth? Could you identify the species of a bush 1 meter (1 yd) across using one of those photos? Well, the images the UNODC crew uses are much fuzzier than that - 1 pixel equals 15 meters (that´s about 16 yards for you Imperial folks). Apparently the trick is to look at the spectral analysis (the colour). That is quite a challenge, as they admit here:

What they are saying, in their charming, academic way, is that coca can be planted at any time of year in Colombia. Coca fields are a mish-mash of just-harvested to harvest-ready all year, which means the UNODC team has to look for a range of crop colours that correspond to different stages of crop growth. So, a bunch of different shades of green, which are extremely similar to the green of any number of other plants. From low-earth orbit at least 150km above the Earth, through the entire thickness of the atmosphere, averaged over an area 15 meters wide and 15 meters long. Let's be honest - they aren't identifying coca plants, they are just identifying areas where stuff seems to have been planted covertly, away from prying eyes. In a country where tiny towns are scattered all over the place and small farmers plant tiny fields in remote areas all the time.

Even worse, they know that the big coca farmers are already wise to the system and employ various tricks to get around it. They already said so on page 80, shown in the 2nd image of this article. The farmers sow mixed crops - throwing in a row of coca here and there among rows of other plants. Or they scatter around a bunch of small plots. Labour is cheap in Colombia, the extra work is no big deal.

Finally, in 2008, the UNODC team took the suggestion to check their accuracy by getting aerial photographs from a plane and checking them against their satellite interpretations. One wonders why they didn´t do that a long time ago. Oh, that´s right, it´s because they know the whole thing is a bunch of hooey, but they like the paycheck... Anyhow, they did that, and this is what they concluded (pg. 100):

Notice how they don´t say how well the satellite interpretations matched the aerial photos. They just say that ´field verifications notably improve the interpretation´. In other words, their interpretations were crap. When you pay for a bunch of aerial photos for a very expensive program, and they back up the great job you're doing, you say so, with charts and graphs and all that stuff analysts are so great at producing. The only reason for being this vague about something so central to justifying your salary is to cover up how badly you are doing. But at least they can blame this on ´the new challenges brought by the use of images different than LANDSAT´. And ´the difficulty to get accurate ground truth data´. Which, if you think about it, means they are pretty much admitting they know all the data they use is worthless.

So now you know. What the UNODC says is ´blah, blah, blah, the US is right, blah, blah, blah´. That is their job, and they do it well. All in all, i have to commend their Colombia staff for the professionalism they have shown, despite its gaps. The truth of their results is in there, if you have the eyes to see. What more can a monitoring team do in the situation they are in?

How the NSDUH overcounts addictions

Here let us note that the NSDUH overcounts addictions. Many of the cases it counts are either mild cases that many wouldn't regard as addiction, or outright errors due to the vagueness of the criteria used, counting drug use as addiction which wasn't. To be considered dependent on a drug, respondents had to fulfill any 3 of 7 criteria, only one of which asked if respondents experienced withdrawal if not using a drug. Withdrawal symptoms, especially craving, are the classic proof of addiction. The questions on this NSDUH didn't even include the withdrawal criteria for many drugs, as they can't cause physical withdrawal symptoms - and they didn't directly ask about craving at all. Here is a list of the criteria used, with notes regarding how people could easily fulfill many of them without being a heavy user of the drug in question:

  1. Spent a great deal of time over a period of a month getting, using, or getting over the effects of the substance. (One month - this is definitely behaviour anyone would regard as addiction, but some respondents would qualify even though they had just a one month spree, and then smartened up. Surely such behaviour doesn't count as addiction if it lasts only one or two months during one crazy summer, or something like that.)
  2. Used the substance more often than intended or was unable to keep set limits on the substance use. (This is meant to determine whether respondents were compulsively taking drugs, but any broken limit counts. A person could fit this criteria if they occasionally failed to stick to a personal decision to use a substance no more than once a week, or no more than a small amount.)
  3. Needed to use the substance more than before to get desired effects or noticed that the same amount of substance use had less effect than before. (This determines if a respondent had developed tolerance, but again, there is no knowing how much tolerance the respondent actually had. Mild tolerance to a drug can occur without heavy use, if the use is regular. And the tolerance may not even have been real - a respondent may have felt more drug was needed to get the same effect, but that could be because they got drugs from a different batch or source that were weaker.)
  4. Inability to cut down or stop using the substance every time tried or wanted to. (Have you noticed this is the same as criteria 2? And that if you lapse once during the course of an entire year, you qualify? And again, there is no knowing if the respondent was trying to cut down or stop from a level of use that would generally be regarded as heavy use.)
  5. Continued to use the substance even though it was causing problems with emotions, nerves, mental health, or physical problems. (No argument with this one...)
  6. The substance use reduced or eliminated involvement or participation in important activities. (The 2007 report didn't say what the question for this qualified as "important activities", but in 2000 it included "doing fun things such as hobbies and sports". If this question hasn't been modified since, that's a pretty low standard.)
  7. Experienced withdrawal symptoms if drug was not used. (No argument here. This question was included only for users of cocaine, heroin, alcohol, pain relievers, stimulants, and sedatives. For each drug, the respondent was asked if they experienced specific physical symptoms if they stopped taking their drug of choice.)

To be asked the questions in the section on dependence, respondents had to say they had used the drug on at least 5 days in the past year, in the case of marijuana and alcohol. For cocaine, heroin, and stimulants, these questions were asked to all respondents who said they had used them even once. The report didn't say what the protocol was for the remaining drugs. If the dependence questions were only asked to people who were clearly heavy users, i could cut the study more slack, but they were asked to almost everyone who had used drugs. The people answering the questions didn't know they were being asked if they were addicted, that is standard procedure to avoid people distorting the facts. That means that occasional users could easily have misinterpreted the implications of the questions, and said they fulfilled criteria for addiction when what they meant was something quite different.

For instance, for criteria 2 and 4, people set limits or try to cut down on illegal drug use for reasons other than addiction - like to save the expense, or to avoid the social stigma, or because the reputation of such drugs makes them over-estimate the risk of addiction and they worry about even occasional use. If they knew the questions for criteria 3 were about tolerance, respondents may have answered differently, because they knew the difference was the drug was weaker, not that they had developed tolerance. If they knew questions for criteria 6 were actually asking if drug use interfered with important activities, they might not have answered yes if what they meant was something like they ended up skipping their aerobics class on three of the eight occasions they smoked some grass. Another thing - criteria 2, 3, and 4 are all going to overcount illegal drug dependence more than alcohol dependence. 2 and 4 are things people are more likely to consciously attempt and track with illegal drugs than alcohol for the reasons already mentioned - social stigma, expense, and overblown fear of addiction. 3 isn't going to happen with alcohol due to a change in its strength because alcohol content is standardized. Also, the social acceptance of drinking makes it a lot less likely that people will notice it now takes them 5 drinks to get drunk instead of 4. But if it now takes you 5 lines of coke instead of 4 to get really high, at $100 a gram, you definitely notice. A casual user who was wrongly scored positive on 2 would likely also have been wrongly scored positive on 4, and then only needed to wrongly qualify as positive on either 3 or 6 to be counted as dependent. Considering that almost all drug users were asked the dependence questions, that could have made a big difference. Therefore, there is strong reason to consider that addiction rates to all drugs are lower than the NSDUH estimates, and even more so in the case of the illegal drugs studied. When you keep that in mind, the incidence of addiction to illegal drugs looks pretty good.