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US Drug Czar Supports Venezuela Shooting Down "Drug Planes"

Over the weekend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said his country should consider shooting down drug-carrying planes. On Tuesday, US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske seemed to signal his approval of the idea.

Hugo Chavez is open to shooting down suspected drug planes (image via Wikimedia)
Chavez told lawmakers Saturday he is considering letting the military shoot down drug-laden planes if they ignore orders to land. Drug smugglers often ignore military orders to land and sometimes mock those orders over the radio, Chavez said. He added that he doesn't necessarily like the idea of shooting down planes, but that parliament should debate it.

Although no coca is grown in Venezuela, the country has become a major hub for drug traffickers smuggling Colombian cocaine. The Venezuelan government has been criticized by the US over the use of its territory by drug traffickers, but Venezuela contends that despite its lack of cooperation with the DEA, it is doing all it can to stifle the trade.

US drug czar Kerlikowske was in Colombia on a three-day trip when he commented on Chavez's remarks. "Venezuela has expressed clearly its support for curbing drug trafficking by air," he said, adding that other countries in the region should adopt similar measures.

The US supported a similar program in Peru beginning in the Clinton administration and even provided CIA and military personnel to support it. But that program came to a crashing halt after a Peruvian Air Force fighter jet shot down a plane carrying American missionaries in 2001, killing Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter.


A Revealing Conversation with the Drug Czar

In case you haven't seen it yet, the latest issue of The Nation is loaded with enough excellent drug policy coverage to keep you busy for hours. There's a heavy focus on the case for reform, but Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske also stops in for a long interview that I might find encouraging if we hadn't heard all of this stuff from him before.

"…merely trying to make arrests, make seizures, trying to incarcerate, is not a particularly smart way of addressing the drug problem."

"…understanding treatment can be effective and it's half the cost of incarceration."

"Arresting people for violations around drugs is not in many cases the smartest way to deal with the disease of addiction."

"We're a country that has a greater imprisonment rate than any other country in the world."

"…we can't arrest our way out of the problem."

"It'll take a while to not only convince ourselves that this isn't the best way to deal with the problem, but it will take longer to convince our foreign counterparts that we are being smarter about how we approach the drug problem."

Once again, we find the drug czar borrowing our talking points in a cynical attempt to feign sympathy for the increasingly popular idea that our drug policy is just a colossal disaster. As the war rages on, it's easy to dismiss such appeals to public frustration as nothing more than desperate and disingenuous pandering from an agency that's long struggled to maintain relevance. That's basically what we have here. But it's also an important milestone for our movement that the nation's official drug war cheerleader now believes he can enhance his credibility by presenting himself as a reformer.

But alas, this is the drug czar we're talking about, and no matter how hard he tries to change the tone, it's still just a matter of time before he slips up:

Well, you saw Bill Bennett, the first drug czar, supporting the drug policy this administration released. I've heard from former Attorney General Ed Meese, and others, that looking at this policy is smart. I've also been up on Capitol Hill, speaking with a number of incumbent members and staff members who see this policy as being a smart way to go after the drug problem.

He lost me at Bill Bennett. The endorsement of two notorious drug warriors and the U.S. Congress isn't at all what I'm looking for in a balanced and sensible drug policy. The fact that he would even go there is just such a perfect illustration of how the same twisted minds still exert forceful and perverse influence over our policymaking. Until the legacy of people like Bennett is firmly rejected and condemned, any discussion of taking things in a new direction is an obvious fraud.

Despite Pot Prohibition, Teen Marijuana Use Continues Slight Upward Trend

Marijuana use by 8th, 10th, and 12th graders increased slightly this year, according to figures released Tuesday by the annual Monitoring the Future survey of junior and senior high school students. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who see "great risk" in regular marijuana use continues a slight decline. In both cases, this year's figures reflect a continuation of a trend beginning about five years ago.

More than one in five (21.4%) of high school seniors reported using marijuana within the past 30 days. While that figure is higher than any year since 2002, it is in line with usage rates reported throughout the late 1990s and into the first year of the new millennium. In that period, 30-day usage rates among seniors ranged between 21.2% and 23.7%.

Although the latest teen drug use figures show that teen marijuana use is roughly stable over the past fifteen years, Office of National Drug Control Policy head Gil Kerlikowske was quick to lay blame on "mixed messages" from the effort to end marijuana prohibition.

"The increases in youth drug use reflected in the Monitoring the Future Study are disappointing," he said Tuesday. "And mixed messages about drug legalization, particularly marijuana legalization, may be to blame. Such messages certainly don’t help parents who are trying to prevent young people from using drugs."

Drug reform organizations, unsurprisingly, had a different take on the numbers. Both the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) were quick to blame not legalization talk but actually existing pot prohibition.

“It’s really no surprise that more American teenagers are using marijuana and continue to say it’s easy to get. Our government has spent decades refusing to regulate marijuana in order to keep it out of the hands of drug dealers who aren’t required to check customer ID and have no qualms about selling marijuana to young people,” said MPP executive director Rob Kampia. “The continued decline in teen tobacco use is proof that sensible regulations, coupled with honest, and science-based public education can be effective in keeping substances away from young people. It’s time we acknowledge that our current marijuana laws have utterly failed to accomplish one of their primary objectives – to keep marijuana away from young people – and do the right thing by regulating marijuana, bringing its sale under the rule of law, and working to reduce the unfettered access to marijuana our broken laws have given teenagers.” 

“Opponents of any change in America’s failed drug policies always throw out the myth that talking about reform sends a dangerous message to teens," said Bill Piper, national affairs head for DPA.  "Fifteen states (plus Washington, DC) have legalized marijuana for medical use and 13 states have deciminalized marijuana for personal use. Decades of research have consistently demonstrated that marijuana use rates in those states go up and down at roughly the same rates as in other states."

Piper pointed out that the annual gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over miniscule changes in the number of teens smoking pot laws is largely theater. The drivers of drug use are complex and have little to do with the moral crusade of the day in Washington. 

"The truth is that drug use rates fluctuate all the time and this fluctuation rarely has anything to do with what politicians are debating," Piper said. "Studies around the world have found that the relative harshness of drug laws matters surprisingly little. After all, rates of illegal drug use in the United States are higher than those in Europe, despite our more punitive policies. Look at US tobacco policy. Both teen and adult tobacco use is at record lows and we are achieving that without criminalization and mass arrests. And because it is legal the government can control, regulate and tax it – unlike marijuana or other prohibited drugs."

Indeed, teen pot smoking continues its slight upward trend despite the huge number of pot arrests each year—more than 850,000 last year alone.

"The US made almost 860,000 arrests for marijuana last year, including 760,000 arrests for mere possession, yet teen marijuana use is on the rise," Piper noted. "The moral of this story is that a public health approach and honest drug education works — and criminalization doesn’t."

Heritage Foundation Says Cut Drug Czar's Office, Byrne Grants, More

In an attempt to provide some specifics for Republican promises to reduce the budget deficit by cutting federal spending, the conservative Heritage Foundation has issued a backgrounder report saying Congress should eliminate the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the drug czar's office), the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities state grant program, and all Justice Department grant programs, except those for the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Institute of Justice. That means the drug task force-funding Justice Assistance Grants (JAG, formerly known as the Byrne grant) are on the chopping block, too.

Goodbye Gil?
The report said the federal government could cut a whopping $434 billion and the savings could come from eliminating waste, fraud, abuse, and outdated or ineffective programs;consolidating duplicative programs, targeting programs more precisely, privatization, and "empowering state and local governments" by reducing federal funding for them.

Taxpayers could save $30 million by axing the "duplicative" drug czar's office and $298 million by eliminating the Safe and Drug Free Schools state grants, which are used for violence and drug and alcohol prevention programs. The Byrne grant program, which can also be used to fund drug treatment and prevention, is set at $598 million in the Obama administration's FY 2011 budget request. 

The drug budget cuts are only a tiny fraction of  the $343 billion that Heritage said should be cut. The report takes the budget ax to nearly $20 billion in agriculture funding, nearly $8 billion in community development grants, nearly $8 billion in federal education spending, more than $7 billion in energy and environmental spending, nearly $92 billion from federal government operations (including federal employee pay freezes), and nearly $7 billion by cutting federal job training and Job Corps funds.

If the cuts proposed by the Heritage Foundation in its entirety were to be enacted, they would radically shrink the federal government and redraw the picture of what the people expect from government. But the Republicans only control one chamber of Congress, some of the proposed cuts could lead to dissent even within GOP ranks, and Democrats and people who stand to lose out are sure to fight them.

Still, it would be nice if the spirit of bipartisanship could prevail long enough to begin closing the book on decades of wasted and counter-productive federal drug prohibition spending, even though we wouldn't want to see proven prevention programs slashed.

Washington, DC
United States

Will South Dakota Voters Pass Medical Marijuana? [FEATURE]

[This article has been updated with additional interview commentary.]

South Dakota medical marijuana patients and advocates are hoping that in two weeks the Mt. Rushmore state will become the 15th medical marijuana state. They came close in 2006, losing by only four percentage points, but think they can get over the top this time around.

Pro-Measure 13 Demonstration, Rapid City (courtesy South Dakota Coalition for Compassion)
After that 2006 defeat, activists went back to the drawing board, eventually crafting a tightly-drawn medical marijuana initiative designed to win over a skeptical and conservative prairie electorate. The result, the South Dakota Safe Access Act, known on the ballot as Measure 13, would make the South Dakota medical marijuana law among the most restrictive in the nation.

The initiative limits medical marijuana access to patients with a list of specified illnesses and conditions. It requires that patients be in a "bona fide relationship" with the recommending physician and provides for a state registry and ID card system.

Patients are limited to an ounce of marijuana and six plants. They can designate one caregiver each, and each caregiver can grow for no more than five patients. Caregivers can be remunerated for costs, but cannot make profits. There is no provision for a dispensary system.

"This initiative addresses the concerns of people in South Dakota about people who just want to use it recreationally," said Tony Ryan, a former Denver police officer who is now a spokesman for the South Dakota Coalition for Compassion, the group behind the measure. "They won't be able to get it. People were worried it would get into the wrong hands, so it is really restrictive, but it will get the medicine to the patients who need it and keep them from getting arrested or going to the black market."

"I have a really good feeling about this," said Rep. Martha Vanderlinde (D-Sioux Falls), who sponsored a 2008 medical marijuana bill in the state legislature. "I think most of the people already have their minds made up. The more people I talk to, they say why not, if it's going to reduce the pain and suffering."

Vanderlinde, who is running for reelection, has been talking to a lot of people. She said she had knocked on 2,500 doors during the election campaign, and while she didn't always bring up the initiative, many of her constituents did.

"Just today, this little old lady leaned over and whispered 'How are you voting on 13?' and I told I had already voted for it, and she said 'Good,'" Vanderlinde said. "When people ask me, I tell them how I voted and that my father voted for it, too. People told me this was political suicide at the legislature, but my constituents don't think so," said the registered nurse.

Bob Newland has been South Dakota's one man marijuana movement  for years, playing a leading, if behind the scenes, role in the 2006 effort. After a pot bust near Rapid City last year, he was silenced for a year in an unusual sentence from a local judge, but now he's back, and he's cautiously optimistic.

"Everything I see tells me we're going to win," said Newland. "I was very optimistic in 2006, and we had reason to be. We got 47.3%. All of those people will vote for us, so we got a hell of a start before we even got this on the ballot."

Four years have made a difference, said Newland. "The national raising of consciousness and people's realization that, yes, this is of benefit to some people and it makes no sense to punish them have increased support," he said.

And last time around, the Office of National Drug Control Policy under Republican drug czar John Walters sent representatives to South Dakota to hold press conferences with local law enforcement opposing medical marijuana. This time, there is no sign the drug czar's office will intervene in the state ballot measure contest. Newland kind of misses the drug warrior types.

"I hope they come," he said. "Everything they say sounds stupid now, and we have a president and an attorney general who said they would quit arresting people in medical states."

Indeed, it has been a low-key, low-budget affair on both sides of the issue. The organized opposition, Vote No on 13, has an amateurish web site themed around "Compassion Shouldn't Mean Addiction," and no apparent advertising budget. Its lead spokesman, Vermillion Police Chief Art Mabry, head of the South Dakota Police Chiefs' Association, is out of the office all month and unavailable for comment.

Maybe Mabry needed that time off. He wasn’t exactly on message in an interview 10 days ago with the Rapid City Journal. "I think it's going to pass, I think South Dakota people are a caring people," he said, adding that the pro campaign will "tug at the heartstrings" of voters.

Watertown Police Chief Jo Vitek, who will shortly replace Mabry as head of the chiefs' association, had a litany of problems with the measure. "The research on the efficacy of marijuana as medicine is limited," she told the Chronicle. "The FDA, along with most national medical associations, does not support smoked marijuana as medicine."

Vitek also expressed concerns about administrative costs, citing the need to conduct background checks on caregivers and policing compliance. "In a state where significant 'cutbacks' have been made to balance an already tight budget, will positions be created to address the aforementioned matters?," she asked. "Who will pay for this added expense?" 

That question has an answer. Section 28 of the initiative, which discusses administrative rule-making and regulations, says: "The rules shall establish application and renewal fees that generate revenue sufficient to offset all expenses of implementing and administering this Act."

 Vitek worried about drugged driving as well, asking "Will we also see a rise in the crime rate?"

And the chief expressed worry about "the health concerns of indoor marijuana grow operations," wondering whether caregivers would be required to meet code requirements, whether they would have to disclose their grows to their neighbors, and whether they would be required to have their homes inspected for black mold before selling them. 

Vitek said the chief's' association had put $2,500 into the effort to defeat Measure 13. That's not a lot of money, even in South Dakota, but law enforcement has other means of influencing voters. Last week, the South Dakota Highway Patrol issued a statement noting what it called a trend toward highway drug busts of people carrying medical marijuana cards from other states. It counted seven incidents.

"That was clearly a political maneuver out of bounds with what the department should be doing," said an indignant Emmit Reistroffer, who has been the driving force behind the campaign during Newland's enforced absence. "We have one of the most popular east-west interstates in the country, and of course there will be some marijuana coming across. But no state allows licensed growers to take their product out of state, so pointing fingers at a handful of incidents where somebody abuses the program is really taking it out of context. I'm really disappointed," he said.

"I'm biting my nails," said Reistroffer. "We are working hard as hell, we've had some huge rallies in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, we've had patients in the newspapers, we're really pushing this grassroots style," he said from a cell phone as he canvassed voters door-to-door.

But the campaign doesn't have any money and, unlike two years ago, election dynamics are not working in the campaign's favor. Energized Republicans are expected to come out in large numbers in a bid to defeat Democratic incumbent US Rep. Stephenie Herseth-Sandlin, and a measure regarding public cigarette smoking is also on the ballot.

"We're really struggling for funds, and we're going to have to pull this off in the most grassroots way imaginable," said Reistroffer. "This could have passed easily in 2008 because of the surge of voters then, but we expect a much smaller turnout this year."

Now, barring last-minute explosive revelations, the die is largely cast. Neither side has the money for a late media campaign. Early and absentee voting has already begun, and it all comes down to getting out the vote.

United States

Federal Drug Numbers Are Garbage, RAND Corporation Finds

The independent RAND corporation said that federal drug statistics are pretty much total garbage.
East Bay Express (CA)

Drug Czars Past and Present Oppose Prop 19 Marijuana Init

In an absolutely unsurprising turn of events, current head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske and five former drug czars have come out against Proposition 19, California's marijuana legalization initiative. The six bureaucratic drug warriors all signed on to an op-ed, Why California Should Just Say No to Prop 19, published in the Los Angeles Times Wednesday.

Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske with President Obama
Joining Kerlikowske in the broadside against legalization were former drug czars John Walters, Barry McCaffrey, Lee Brown, Bob Martinez, and William Bennett.

The drug czars claim that Prop 19 supporters will "rely on two main arguments: that legalizing and taxing marijuana would generate much-needed revenue, and that legalization would allow law enforcement to focus on other crimes." Then they attempt to refute those claims.

Noting that marijuana is easy and cheap to cultivate, the drug czars predict that, unlike the case with alcohol and tobacco, many would grow their own and avoid taxes. "Why would people volunteer to pay high taxes on marijuana if it were legalized?" they asked. "The answer is that many would not, and the underground market, adapting to undercut any new taxes, would barely diminish at all."

Ignoring the more than 800,000 people arrested for simple marijuana possession each year, including the 70,000 Californians forced to go to court for marijuana possession misdemeanors (maximum fine $100), the drug czars claim that "law enforcement officers do not currently focus much effort on arresting adults whose only crime is possessing small amounts of marijuana."

They then complain that Prop 19 would impose new burdens on police by making them enforce laws against smoking marijuana where minors are present. Those laws already exist; Prop 19 does not create them.

The drug czars warn that if Prop 19 passes, "marijuana use would increase" and "increased use brings increased social costs." But they don't bother to spell out just what those increased costs would be or why.

The drug czars' screed has picked up a number of instant critiques, including those of Douglas Berman at the Sentencing Law and Policy blog, Jacob Sullum at Reason Online, and Jon Walker at Firedoglake.

We're waiting for a drug czar to come out for pot legalization, not oppose it. Now, that would be real news.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

The Drug Czar's Only Job is to Oppose Legalization (And He Sucks at It)

Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske is back in damage control mode again following Mexican President Felipe Calderon's call for a debate on legalizing drugs.

Kerlikowske, known officially as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, spoke this morning at a border security conference in El Paso, where he tried to debunk the belief that taxing and regulating currently illegal narcotics would somehow put narco-traffickers out of business.

“[Traffickers] would not change their ways and turn to legal pursuits if drugs were legal,” he said. “Legalizing drugs makes them cheaper, makes them more accessible and therefore makes them more widely abused.” [Texas Tribune]

I would love for Kerlikowske to explain to me how legalization is going to completely change everything, yet somehow fail to affect the illicit market. Rather obviously, if drugs become much cheaper, the cartels get screwed. That is so painfully simple, I'm running out of ways to explain it.

As usual, the argument once again comes down to this ridiculous division over whether or not legalization hurts drug kingpins. It shouldn't take more than a kernel of common sense to solve this riddle, and if that's too much to ask, history has also settled this debate rather decisively for us. We did once ban the most popular drug in the country, and then legalized it again, so there's plenty to be learned from that experience if one is so inclined. Alcohol prohibition was the only period in American history during which the alcohol industry was controlled by murderous gangsters. Everyone knows that.

Of course, the only reason we even have a drug czar is to confuse people about how drug policy actually works. We've spent enormous sums over the years empowering government propagandists to distort the debate, and if there's anything remarkable about Kerlikowske's various comments on legalization, it's how bland, brief and boring they've been. His job is literally to clarify the Obama administration's opposition to legalization in as few words as humanly possible, so as to avoid getting anyone excited. His goal is to make the conversation less interesting, and he does a pretty good job.

Unfortunately for the drug czar, it really doesn't matter very much how he expresses his opposition to legalizing drugs. He's just the latest stooge to be tasked with the miserable duty of dealing with us, and as long as we keep forcing the subject, we're scoring points.

Feature: Medical Marijuana Advocates Smell Victory in South Dakota

With Election Day still more than four months off, the South Dakota Coalition for Compassion is laying the groundwork for South Dakota to become the country's next medical marijuana state. The campaign is confident of victory in November, and low-key for now with no organized opposition in sight, but promises to progressively ramp-up its efforts through the summer and fall.

coalition banner
Bucking a recent trend in state medical marijuana laws, the South Dakota Safe Access Act (known as Measure 13 on the ballot) does not provide for state-operated or -regulated dispensaries. Instead, it allows patients or designated caregivers to possess up to one ounce of usable marijuana and six plants. A single caregiver can grow for no more than five patients.

The measure cites the usual list of diseases (cancer, glaucoma, HIV, MS, Alzheimer's) and conditions (wasting syndrome, intractable pain, severe nausea, seizures, spasms) for which marijuana could be used medicinally, and includes a provision allowing the state Department of Health to add other diseases or conditions. Upon getting a physician's recommendation, the patient and his caregiver (if any) would register with the department and receive registration ID cards.

South Dakota gained notoriety in 2006 when it became the only state to see voters reject a medical marijuana legalization initiative, defeating it by a margin of 52% to 48%. This year, the outcome will be different, the coalition said. "I am very confident we're going to get it this time around," predicted coalition spokesman Emmett Reistroffer.

The political atmosphere, both locally and nationally, is certainly better this time around. In 2006, the medical marijuana initiative faced in Republican Larry Long a South Dakota attorney general strongly opposed to it and a Bush administration concerned enough to send officials from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) to the state to campaign against it. Now, recently-appointed Attorney General Marty Jackley, while, like Long, a Republican, is on the fence on the issue, and the Obama administration seems much less inclined to interfere in a state initiative vote.

"I talked to Marty Jackley, and he is nowhere near as opposed to medical marijuana as Larry Long was," said Reistroffer. "His ballot explanation was very fair, unlike 2006, when MPP had to sue then Attorney General Larry Long to make him write a fair explanation," he said.

"Jackley told me he was open to a carefully managed program, but wasn't prepared to specifically support our proposal. What he's afraid of is what could be hidden in the details," Reistroffer related. "Jackley was appointed to office and is running for election the same day as our ballot measure. I don't expect him to support us, but I do expect that he will remain neutral."

Jackley's office did not return Chronicle calls asking his position on the initiative.

The coalition has enlisted some potent advocates with credentials that could help push the effort over the top. One is Tony Ryan, a retired police officer and member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "We are doing well, we seem to be well-received, we've been speaking to groups and have more invitations coming up," he said. "There seems to be a trend toward people being more accepting of the idea that we need to change our approach to drugs, and when you're talking specifically about medical marijuana and you can point to the ample evidence it is beneficial, people seem to be a lot more accepting than they were even four years ago."

Ryan was optimistic at the measure's prospects for passage this year. "Now that the American Medical Association has come out and said we need to think about getting it off Schedule I, things are really falling into place. This isn't about marijuana, this is about helping sick people -- that's the message we have to hammer home."

Another well-placed advocate is state Rep. Martha Vanderlinde (D-Sioux Falls), a practicing nurse who introduced a medical marijuana bill in the legislature, where it promptly went nowhere. "The South Dakota legislature is very conservative," she said. "They told me it was political suicide to sponsor that bill, but I felt it was necessary. There are people I talk to who say they want it, but they don't want to say so out loud," Vanderlinde explained.

"Medical marijuana is just one more tool in the kit for people with severe, debilitating medical conditions to use for relief," said Vanderlinde. "Working with cancer patients, MS patients, and others, I've seen it help so many people relieve their pain, their anxiety, their spasms. As a nurse working in the field, I see this as a simple herb that could help people, and that means a lot. Legalization for medical use is the only way to go."

This will be the year, she said. "With the AMA supporting medical marijuana, with the past president of the local MS Society on board, with Emmett and Tony crisscrossing the state to get the knowledge out there, the word is getting out. We want South Dakota to be the 15th state to legalize medical marijuana."

While the coalition is pleased with the AMA's acknowledgement of marijuana's medical benefits and call for a review of its scheduling, it's not so impressed with the local affiliate. The South Dakota Medical Association has been a disappointment, said Reistroffer. "We've received no support from them. They haven't even returned phone calls or emails. I'm hoping we can get them to remain neutral."

Things are about to start heating up, the coalition said. "We've got a little money set aside for some ads and we're ready to make a TV commercial featuring the former head of the state MS Society if the funding comes through," said Reistroffer. "Tony Ryan is in the middle of a long list of speaking engagements. Things are starting to pick up for us now, and July will be a big month, and the closer to the election we get, the more intense the campaign will get. I'm meeting with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) this week to probably set up our first polling."

"We helped draft the initiative and provided some strategic advice," said MPP spokesman Mike Meno. "The local campaign will be taking off soon. This almost passed in 2006; now, it's just a matter of getting people out to the polls."

"We will be reaching out to whoever we can," said Ryan. "We will be targeting college campuses," he said, noting the formation of a Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. "And we'll be using word of mouth. We'll be going places we didn't go in 2006, like some of those rural counties in the center of the state that voted strongly against it."

So far, so good in South Dakota. But let's see what the next four months bring.

Marijuana: Study Finds Minimal Changes in Driving Performance After Smoking

The head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, is pushing a campaign targeting drugged driving and has singled out marijuana as a main problem. But if the latest research findings on stoned driving are any indication, the drug czar may want to shift his emphasis if he wants to (as he claims) let policy be driven by evidence.

According to clinical trial data published in the March issue of the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, subjects tested both before and after smoking marijuana exhibited virtually identical driving skills in a battery of driving simulator tests. Researchers in the double-blind, placebo-controlled trial tested 85 subjects -- 50 men and 35 women -- on simulated driving performance. The subjects had to respond to simulations of various events associated with vehicle crash risk, such as deciding whether to stop or go through a changing traffic light, avoiding a driver entering an intersection illegally, and responding to the presence of emergency vehicles. Subjects were tested sober and again a half hour after having smoked a single medium-potency (2.9% THC) joint or a placebo.

The investigators found that the subjects' performance before and after getting stoned was virtually identical. "No differences were found during the baseline driving segment (and the) collision avoidance scenarios," the authors reported. Nor were there any differences between the way men and women responded.

Researchers did note one difference. "Participants receiving active marijuana decreased their speed more so than those receiving placebo cigarettes during (the) distracted section of the drive," they wrote. The authors speculated that the subjects may have slowed down to compensate for perceived impairment. "[N]o other changes in driving performance were found," researchers concluded.

Past research on marijuana use and driving has yielded similar results as well, including a 2008 driving simulator clinical trial conducted in Israel and published in Accident, Analysis, and Prevention. That trial compared the performance of drivers after they had ingested either alcohol or marijuana. "Average speed was the most sensitive driving performance variable affected by both THC and alcohol but with an opposite effect," the investigators reported. "Smoking THC cigarettes caused drivers to drive slower in a dose-dependent manner, while alcohol caused drivers to drive significantly faster than in 'control' conditions."

Something to keep in mind when lawmakers in your state start pushing for zero-tolerance "per se" Driving Under the Influence of Drugs laws that want to label people impaired drivers because of the presence of a few metabolites left over from last week.

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