Thursday, January 20, 2011

Paranoia and the Politics of Pot

Peter Hitchens, brother to the better known Christopher Hitchens, is similar to his brother, in that he is also a writer. Unlike Christopher, I've never met Peter and can't say what type of man he is. His writing, however, is another matter. That is public record and can be judged. And, if his recent piece on the Tucson shooting is any example, his writing is not to be respected.

Hitchens argued in the Right-wing Daily Mail's Sunday edition that the cause of the shooting was marijuana. He starts out, correctly in my opinion, noting that guns are not increasing crime in the US. But after making a valid point he veers off into cloud-coo-coo land. (Mr. Hitchens is not happy with my article. See his comments and my reply here.)

His string of logic is astoundingly bad. First, he notes Loughner was photographed grinning in his mug shot after his arrest. True. He notes that Loughner could be executed for his crime. Also true. So the smilig indicates "he has lost his reason." Perhaps true, but most likely true. Loughner is pretty clearly crazy and behaves in a schizophrenic manner.

From that Hitchens argues that the "most likely cause is Loughner's daily cannabis-smoking habit." Hitchens even invokes the cult of victimology claiming that Loughner " is a marijuana victim." Hitchens, unlike his more rational brother, is a theist. Would the theistic Hitchens say that the dead at Jonestown were "victims of God?" I doubt it. Similarly, God-fearing (literally) fanatics attacked the Twin Towers killing 3,000. Were the killers "God victims?"

Loughner shows all the classic signs of schizophrenia, and for men the average age when this issue first appears is 19. Loughner has been delusional for a couple of years now. Hitchens says this "dangerous and unpredictable poison" is the reason that Loughner went nuts. His logic is pathetic:
"Arizona has always had plenty of guns. America has always had heated political rhetoric. What is new is that it now has legal dope as well."
Hitchens is bullshitting. He knows that marijuana is not legal in Arizona. True, Arizona voters just voted to legalize medical marijuana, but it has not taken effect yet. There was no "legal dope" available. Hitchens may try to claim he means it is technically legal since many pot smokers don't get arrested—ignoring the many who do.

As proof of legality he writes: "The town council of liberal Pima (scene of the murders) last week took the first step towards licensing 'dispensaries' for dope." This shows little respect for facts.

The town of Pima did recently pass an ordinance regarding medical marijuana dispensaries. That is not proof it is "liberal" given that the voters of the state passed a measure and all towns in Arizona are obligated to draw up such a regulation for legal distribution of medicinal marijuana. Even conservative towns have to do this. But the Right-wing, God-fearing Hitchens has to throw in the "liberal" label as part of his political smear. Yes, liberals will often want to legalize pot. But, in this case, voters mandated the changes and towns following that mandate are not indicating any political preference whatsoever. It is just muddying the waters to pretend otherwise.

Next, we have another problem with the claim by Hitchens: the town of Pima was not the "scene of the murders," as he falsely alleges. The shooting incident took place in Tucson. The town of Pima is around 2 1/2 hours away, in a completely different county. Hitchens just didn't bother to verify the facts before writing his column. Hitchens admits that not all pot smokers go crazy, just as most tobacco users don't get cancer, "But in both cases the risk is enough to cause concern." Really?

One has to wonder exactly where Hitchens got the idea for this article. It seems to be a rewrite of someone else's article on the same topic. Did Mr. Hitchens borrow the article without attribution?

Mr. Hitchens wrote:
Look at the strange picture of the alleged killer Jared Loughner. He has just been arrested for a crime for which he could be put to death, if convicted. And he is smiling.
Where did this theory originate? Hitchens didn't come up with it on his own. He borrowed it from another right-wing loon: Cliff Kincaid. If you compare Kincaid's article to Hitchens' article it appears the latter is a rewrite of the former. Kincaid opined:
A photograph of a smirking Jared Loughner, after he was taken into custody, seems to prove beyond doubt that he is seriously disturbed, as a result of prolonged drug use. He exhibited symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.
He never showed proof that Loughner became disturbed "as a result of prolonged drug use." Kincaid actually lies about things to prove his case. He admits that, "One of Loughner's friends is quoted by Mother Jones magazine as saying that he thought that Loughner had given up alcohol and marijuana during the fall of 2008, but that was before he was rejected from Army service on grounds of drug use."

Mr. Kincaid is not being accurate. In fact, he is writing in a manner intended to induce a false conclusion on the part of his readers. Look carefully at what he is sayin. He notes that reports indicated Loughner had ceased using marijuana and alcohol three years ago. That would undermine Kincaid's theory that pot caused the shooting. So, he then implies that Loughner continued using pot because "that was before he was rejected from Army service on grounds of drug use." The implication was that continued use of marijuana by Loughner was the reason he was rejected, thus indicating he had not given up marijuana as his friend had believed.

In fact, the Army did not reject Loughner because he was using pot. The Army gave Loughner a test for drugs in his system and says he came up clean. Time reported: "Army officials say Loughner passed a urinalysis designed to detect drug use." They quote an Army official saying: "He didn't fail a drug test..." That indicates the opposite of what Kincaid was implying. What the Army said was that they rejected Loughner because he said that previously had used drugs. There was no indication to the military that Loughner was still using drugs and evidence to the contrary. The rejection was based on his prior use of drugs, not on continuing use as Kincaid tries to imply. The Army also found it odd that Loughner went through the entire process only to admit drug use. Another Army official told them: "I certainly wouldn't go through the whole process only to say, "Hey, I've been smoking marijuana for the past couple of years." But Loughner's schizophrenia was asserting itself by then, right on schedule for young men with this problem, so he acted irrationally.

Kincaid claims that schizophrenics "are twice as likely to smoke marijuana as non-schizophrenics." But that doesn't mean marijuana caused the schizophrenia but it may mean that people with mental problems find marijuana to be soothing, comforting, or helpful when it comes to dealing with their problems. The marijuana use may be the result of the schizophrenia and not the other way around. Secondly, Kincaid claims "People who smoke marijuana are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia as those who do not smoke."

What is the alleged risk of schizophrenia from marijuana use? Those who theorize a link say that it doubles the risk. The current risk that someone will be schizo is 1%. But this link is theory not fact.

Hitchens' paper, the Daily Mail, has pushed this hysteria before. They previously said "a single joint of cannabis raises the risk of schizophrenia by more than 40 per cent." By the way the "more than 40 per cent" means 41 per cent. Why they couldn't say 41 per cent I don't know, other than the term they used sounds scarier. Percentages are funny things. For instance, if 50% of the population was going to die from cancer, and if going to Sunday School increased that risk by 41% it would mean that out of 100 people, instead of 50 dying then 70 to 71 would die. That is a huge increase. It is huge because the percentage is based on a large base.

For schizophrenia the percentages are no where near 50%. It is actually 1%. A 41% increase of 1% now means 1.4% instead. That is a rather minuscule increase in actual terms. As one researcher, Dr. Stanley Zammit, noted: "Even if cannabis does cause an increased risk of developing psychosis, most people who use cannabis will not develop such an illness."

And are the risks equal as Hitchens implies. Smoking is said to increase lung cancer risks by 20 to 30 times what they would be otherwise. For every one person who would contract lung cancer without smoking 20 to 30 will contract it by smoking. A 20 to 30 increase risk is far, far greater than the alleged 1.4 risk.

But the real problem is that there may be no increased risk at all. The researchers said:
Although individual lifetime risk of chronic psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, even in people who use cannabis regularly, is likely to be low - less than three per cent - cannabis use can be expected to have a substantial effect on psychotic disorders at a population level because exposure to this drug is so common
Please note that they say the total numbers of psychotics ought to increase because "exposure to this drug is so common." And that's a problem for the theory. In the last fifty years the use of cannabis has dramatically increased. Yet the percentage of people who are said to be schizophrenic has remained the same, or perhaps even slightly decreased. As pot use increased substantially then the total percentage of schizophrenics, if the theory is correct, would have increased as well. But that hasn't happened. Given how marijuana use exploded in the 60s we have had decades to see if the rates for schizophrenia would increase. And it hasn't. That would seem to be fairly conclusive evidence that the theory is flawed. And it gets more complicated when you realize that schizophrenics who smoke pot saw memory improve, verbal abilities improve, and brain processing speeds improve—which is not expected from pot use under normal circumstances.

But, even if we were to grant the absurd logic of Kincaid/Hitchens, it does not follow that public policy on marijuana should be prohibitionist in nature. Hitchens/Kincaid are clearly trying to use the fact that this insane young man killed six people to make a case for prohibition. But the war on drugs also kills people. Drug warriors kill people all the time, including people who have nothing to do with drugs. We have one schizophrenic man, who previously used, pot and the Drug Warrior authoritarians are blaming the deaths on marijuana. The link is tenuous at best and, under scrutiny, fairly worthless. But the connection between the Drug War and killing people is strong.

• Todd Blair was unarmed and at home when a SWAT team of Drug Warriors burst into his home to see if he had pot. Typical of no-knock violent attacks by Drug Warriors, Blair had no idea who was breaking into his house, or why. He armed himself with a dangerous golf club. Standing there holding a golf club he was instantly shot three times and killed.

• Eurie Stamps was a 68-year-old grandfather described as "the nicest guy in the world." An armed SWAT team of Drug Warriors attacked his home to arrest the son of the woman who lived with Stamps. The suspect was arrested outside the house. As police describe it, "During the execution of the search warrant a firearm was discharged by a SWAT team member and a round struck a resident." Notice how things just happen, not that police officers fired but that the firearm "discharged." No weapons were found on the property. So the Drug Warriors killed an unarmed elderly man, who was not connected to drugs.

• Ishmael Mena was home asleep with his wife and seven children. Armed Drug Warriors attacked his home based on wrong information. Hearing the attack Mena grabbed a weapon to defend his family, not knowing the criminals were law enforcement officers. He was shot eight times. No drugs were found.

• Salvador Hernandez, 62, was at home making breakfast. This former police officer was very hard of hearing. A team of 47 armed Drug Warriors attacked his home. He was holding a knife, because he was making breakfast. Police claimed he looked menacing and shot him in the chest five times. No drugs were found.

• Thirteen Drug Warriors decked out in black masks and body armor attacked the home of 75-year-old Rev. Accelyne Williams looking for drugs. Rev. Williams responded to the violent assault by having a heart attack and dying. It was the wrong house.

• Kathryn Johnston, 88, was terrified of criminals and stayed locked in her home out of fear. Drug Warriors attacked her home using falsified evidence to claim a drug dealer lived there. Not knowing who was violently attacking her Johnston grabbed a gun in self defense. She was shot to death by the lying Drug Warriors.

• Cheryl Noel was asleep in her bed when violent Drug Warriors attacked. Terrified by the violence she was hearing, she grabbed a handgun in self defense, not even getting out of bed. As the door burst open the Drug Warriors shot her to death. The only drugs involved were marijuana seeds found in her garbage can outside. There is no evidence showing Noel put the seeds there.

• Alberta Sprull, a 57 year-old devout church member was home alone when violent Drug Warriors attacked. They used flash grenades to begin their assault. The terrifying assault caused the woman to go into cardiac arrest and she died as a result. No drugs were found.

• Jose Colon, 19, walked out of his house as violent Drug Warriors were beginning an assault. Police claimed an officer tripped his gun "accidentally" discharged—three times. Colon was unarmed and killed. Some pot was found in the house.

Even if the Hitchens/Kincaid paranoid theory of pot were an accurate one the choice is not a simple one between pot-head schizos killing and that of prohibitionist paradise with everyone living happily. The Drug Warriors themselves are deadly, and more people die from drug prohibition than from drug use. Even the violence associated with the drug trade is entirely due to prohibition. We saw the same sort of violence associated with alcohol when the prohibitionists succeeded in banning all liquor. That violence ended when booze was legalized. Illegal markets are markets with all sorts of artificially created problems, problems created by the imposition of the law.

Even if we took the cost of caring for a tiny increase in the number of schizophrenics it would be chump change compared to the trillions that have been spent on the Drug War. Yes, individuals like Jared Loughner do harm, but the evidence that the harm was caused by pot use is scarce and unconvincing. At the same time the costs of arming thuggish Drug Warriors is a very high one, not just in money wasted, but in human lives lost, because we have unleashed legalized criminal gangs who do kill. Drugs may kill those who use them, though not often. But the Drug Warriors kill as well, and they don't limit their bloodshed to drug users. They have killed elderly grandmothers, retired ministers, children and countless dogs in their botched military-style assaults on the homes of tens of thousand Americans every year.

For Hitchens and Kincaid to support such a war is for them to take responsibility for the consequences. Jared Loughner has blood on his hands. But he went nuts. Cliff Kincaid and Peter Hitchens don't have that excuse.