Should Barack Obama Legalize Marijuana?

Writing in The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg profiles the history of marijuana and Barack Obama, and why the President should move to legalize marijuana:

For a start, he could arrange for the Justice Department to end the absurd classification of marijuana as a supremely dangerous Schedule I drug, like heroin. And he shouldn’t just knock it down to Schedule II, cheek by jowl with cocaine. Better to demote it to Schedule IV, where it would have Xanax and Ambien for company, or clear down to Schedule V, reserved for cough medicine. Better still, take it off the “schedule” altogether. If alcohol isn’t on there, marijuana shouldn’t be, either.

Second, he could make it clear—to the public, to the Justice Department, to the D.E.A.—that his policy is to avoid making life unnecessarily difficult for the eighteen states (plus D.C.) that allow marijuana use for medical purposes, for the two states that have made its recreational use permissible under state law (including Colorado; see Ryan Lizza’s piece on John Hickenlooper, the governor, in this week’s issue), for the dozen or so states and hundreds of localities that have decriminalized possession of small amounts, and, overall, for peaceful, otherwise inoffending marijuana smokers. To date, the Obama Administration’s signals in these areas have been confusing and its actions only slightly better (some would say slightly worse) than its predecessors’.

Third, but by no means last, he could change the name of the Office of National Drug Control Policy—a.k.a. the White House “drug czar”—to the Office of National Harm Reduction Drug Policy, and tell it to come up with something halfway as reasonable as the report of the Nixon-appointed Shafer commission, which, in 1972, when Obama was in sixth grade, recommended making marijuana legal.

Obama is a busy man. He doesn’t have time to read, let alone encode, everything that appears over his robo-signature. But he really ought to feel a smidgen of shame that the government he heads treats people who do exactly what he used to do, and now casually jokes about, as criminals.

I’m so distant from this conversation that I had no idea what “buzzfeed” was before reading the article.

The Milk Smugglers in Hong Kong

Bloomberg reports on the milk smugglers in Hong Kong:

Since the former British colony on March 1 restricted outbound travelers to two 2-pound cans each, a syndicate has been cracked and more people have been arrested for smuggling milk powder than were detained all of last year for carrying heroin.

The reason? Mainland Chinese demand for the formula, fueled by distrust of locally made food after product- safety scandals that included the deaths of at least six babies due to tainted milk. The U.K. and New Zealand are among countries that restricted milk sales as bulk purchases of brands such as Danone’s Aptamil and Mead Johnson Nutrition Co. (MJN)’s Enfamil caused local shortages.

Who knew?

Google Search Queries as Pharmacovigilance

A new paper on the Internet “pharmacovigilance” explored how users taking multiple drugs cold be used to determine unreported side effects, by analyzing search queries. From the abstract:

Adverse drug events cause substantial morbidity and mortality and are often discovered after a drug comes to market. We hypothesized that Internet users may provide early clues about adverse drug events via their online information-seeking. We conducted a large-scale study of Web search log data gathered during 2010. We pay particular attention to the specific drug pairing of paroxetine and pravastatin, whose interaction was reported to cause hyperglycemiaafter the time period of the online logs used in the analysis. We also examine sets of drug pairs known to be associated with hyperglycemia and those not associated with hyperglycemia. We find that anonymized signals on drug interactions can be mined from search logs. Compared to analyses of other sources such as electronic health records (EHR), logs are inexpensive to collect and mine. The results demonstrate that logs of the search activities of populations of computer users can contribute to drug safety surveillance.

The New York Times summarizes:

They determined that people who searched for both drugs during the 12-month period were significantly more likely to search for terms related to hyperglycemia than were those who searched for just one of the drugs. (About 10 percent, compared with 5 percent and 4 percent for just one drug.)

They also found that people who did the searches for symptoms relating to both drugs were likely to do the searches in a short time period: 30 percent did the search on the same day, 40 percent during the same week and 50 percent during the same month.


Tide Detergent: For Stains and Crack

This New York Magazine story profiles the popularity of Tide detergent. It’s such a hot product that it’s used by criminals in the drug trade. Since the bottles aren’t easily traceable, they aren’t a nuisance to steal and then resell in the black market. The money paragraphs:

The criminal cost-­benefit ­analysis of a bottle of Tide is more straightforward. Most of the people stealing the detergent, Sergeant Thompson points out, are the same criminals who used to break into houses or mug pedestrians—male addicts whose need to feed their habits can foster a kind of innovative streak. “They are smart. They are creative. They want high reward and low risk,” he says. Theft convictions can come with a maximum fifteen-year prison sentence, but the penalty for shoplifting is often just a small fine, with no jail time. For the most active thieves, says Thompson, stolen Tide has in some ways become more lucrative than the drugs it’s traded for. “It’s the new dope,” he says. “You can get richer and have less chance of doing jail time.”

For stores, stopping Tide shoplifting presents unique challenges. Most frequently stolen goods—GPS devices, smartphones, and other consumer electronics—are pricey, light, and easily concealed. They’re also not routine purchases, which means they can be locked up until buyers ask for them. Bulk goods like detergent are harder to run off with, but they’re also bought by dozens of customers daily—lock those products up, and a store manager adds more time to his customers’ errand runs, potentially sending them to shop elsewhere. “Any time you secure something, it impacts the sale of that item at some level,” says Jerry Biggs, the director of Walgreens’ Organized Retail Crime Division.

 Nor is relying on clerks to head off suspected thieves a realistic option. Cashiers and stockists, working for low pay, are often disinclined to confront a potential criminal. “People at the cash register don’t stop you,” says one of Thompson’s informants, an ex-con who shoplifted for years. “They just let you go past.” What’s more, stolen bottles of Tide aren’t easily traceable. Many merchants don’t record the lot and batch numbers for most grocery-store products, because that takes precious man hours. And Procter & Gamble has not made its own database of that information publicly available. Some stores have tried attaching tracking stickers to bottles to establish their provenance, only to find that thieves just wash them off.

Interesting throughout.

As an aside, I am loyal to the Tide brand (the NY Mag feature touches nicely on brand loyalty). The current version I use to do my laundry is the high efficiency Tide with Febreze.

How the Mexican Drug Cartel Operates

Patrick Keefe’s New York Times Magazine piece on the Mexican cartel is one of the best things I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the best things I’ve read this month. He goes in depth on the operations of the Mexican drug cartel, its relationship with clients, suppliers, politicians, and law enforcement personnel. I couldn’t stop reading it…

On the Sinaloa cartel and its distribution:

The Sinaloa cartel can buy a kilo of cocaine in the highlands of Colombia or Peru for around $2,000, then watch it accrue value as it makes its way to market. In Mexico, that kilo fetches more than $10,000. Jump the border to the United States, and it could sell wholesale for $30,000. Break it down into grams to distribute retail, and that same kilo sells for upward of $100,000 — more than its weight in gold. And that’s just cocaine. Alone among the Mexican cartels, Sinaloa is both diversified and vertically integrated, producing and exporting marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine as well.

On the drug war in Mexico and the cartel’s ability to thrive in the recession:

The drug war in Mexico has claimed more than 50,000 lives since 2006. But what tends to get lost amid coverage of this epic bloodletting is just how effective the drug business has become. A close study of the Sinaloa cartel, based on thousands of pages of trial records and dozens of interviews with convicted drug traffickers and current and former officials in Mexico and the United States, reveals an operation that is global (it is active in more than a dozen countries) yet also very nimble and, above all, staggeringly complex. Sinaloa didn’t merely survive the recession — it has thrived in recent years. And after prevailing in some recent mass-casualty clashes, it now controls more territory along the border than ever.

On how modern technology isn’t stopping the drugs from crossing the U.S. border (the catapult bit):

Moving cocaine is a capital-intensive business, but the cartel subsidizes these investments with a ready source of easy income: marijuana. Cannabis is often described as the “cash crop” of Mexican cartels because it grows abundantly in the Sierras and requires no processing. But it’s bulkier than cocaine, and smellier, which makes it difficult to conceal. So marijuana tends to cross the border far from official ports of entry. The cartel makes sandbag bridges to ford the Colorado River and sends buggies loaded with weed bouncing over the Imperial Sand Dunes into California. Michael Braun, the former chief of operations for the D.E.A., told me a story about the construction of a high-tech fence along a stretch of border in Arizona. “They erect this fence,” he said, “only to go out there a few days later and discover that these guys have a catapult, and they’re flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side.” He paused and looked at me for a second. “A catapult,” he repeated. “We’ve got the best fence money can buy, and they counter us with a 2,500-year-old technology.”

A wise reminder:

There’s a reason coke and heroin cost so much more on the street than at the farm gate: you’re not paying for the drugs; you’re compensating everyone along the distribution chain for the risks they assumed in getting them to you.


Smugglers often negotiate, in actuarial detail, about who will be held liable in the event of lost inventory. After a bust, arrested traffickers have been known to demand a receipt from authorities, so that they can prove the loss was not because of their own negligence (which would mean they might have to pay for it) or their own thievery (which would mean they might have to die). Some Colombian cartels have actually offered insurance policies on narcotics, as a safeguard against loss or seizure.

On corruption being king:

The surest way to stay out of trouble in the drug business is to dole out bribes, and promiscuously. Drug cartels don’t pay corporate taxes, but a colossus like Sinaloa makes regular payments to the federal, state and municipal authorities that may well rival the effective tax rate in Mexico. When the D.E.A. conducted an internal survey of its top 50 operatives and informants several years ago and asked them to name the most important factor for running a drug business, they replied, overwhelmingly, corruption…The cartel bribes mayors and prosecutors and governors, state police and federal police, the army, the navy and a host of senior officials at the national level.

An anecdote of one man’s accumulation of cash while working for the cartel:

In 2007, Mexican authorities raided the home of Zhenli Ye Gon, a Chinese-Mexican businessman who is believed to have supplied meth-precursor chemicals to the cartel, and discovered $206 million, the largest cash seizure in history. And that was the money Zhenli held onto — he was an inveterate gambler, who once blew so much cash in Las Vegas that one of the casinos presented him, in consolation, with a Rolls-Royce.

There is so much more in the piece. Set aside half an hour and read the whole thing.