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Hoffman, Heroin, and What Is To Be Done [FEATURE]

The news last Sunday that acclaimed actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman had died of an apparent heroin overdose has turned a glaring media spotlight on the phenomenon, but heroin overdose deaths had been on the rise for several years before his premature demise. And while there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth -- and quick arrests of low-level dealers and users -- too little has been said, either before or after his passing, about what could have been done to save him and what could be done to save others.

cooking heroin (wikimedia.org)
There are proven measures that can be taken to reduce overdose deaths -- and to enable heroin addicts to live safe and normal lives, whether they cease using heroin or not. All of the above face social and political obstacles and have only been implemented unevenly, if at all. If there is any good to come of Hoffmann's death it will be to the degree that it inspires broader discussion of what can be done to prevent the same thing happening to others in a similar position.

Hoffman, devoted family man and great actor that he was, died a criminal. And perhaps he died because his use of heroin was criminalized. Criminalized heroin -- heroin under drug prohibition -- is of uncertain provenance, of unknown strength and purity, adulterated with unknown substances. While we don't know what was in the heroin that Hoffman injected, we do know that he maintained his addiction and went to meet his maker with black market dope. That's what was found beside his lifeless body.

In a commentary published by The Guardian, actor Russell Brand, a recovered heroin addict, laid the blame for Hoffman's demise on the drug laws. "Addiction is a mental illness around which there is a great deal of confusion, which is hugely exacerbated by the laws that criminalise drug addicts," Brand wrote, calling prohibitionists' methods "so gallingly ineffective that it is difficult not to deduce that they are deliberately creating the worst imaginable circumstances to maximise the harm caused by substance misuse." As a result, "drug users, their families and society at large are all exposed to the worst conceivable version of this regrettably unavoidable problem."

We didn't always treat our addicts this way. Even after the passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, doctors continued for years to prescribe maintenance doses of opiates to addicts -- and hundreds of them went to jail for it as the medical profession fought, and ultimately lost, a battle with the nascent drug prohibition bureaucracy over whether giving addicts their medicine was part of the legitimate practice of medicine.

The idea of treating heroin addicts as patients instead of criminals was largely vanquished in the United States, but it never went away -- it lingers with methadone substitution, for example. But other countries have for decades been experimenting with providing maintenance doses of opioids to addicts, and to good result. It goes by various names -- opiate substitution therapy, heroin-assisted theatment, heroin maintenance -- and studies from Britain and other European countries, such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, as well as the North American Opiate Medications Initiative (NAOMI) and the follow-up Study to Assess Long-Term Opiate Maintenance in Canada have touted its successes.

Those studies have found that providing pharmaceutical grade heroin to addicts in a clinical setting works. It reduces the likelihood of death or disease among clients, as well as allowing them to bring some stability and predictability to sometimes chaotic lives made even more chaotic by the demands of addiction under prohibition. Such treatment has also been found to have beneficial effects for society, with lowered criminality among participants and increased likelihood of their integration as productive members of society.

The dry, scientific language of the studies obscures the human realities around heroin addiction and opioid maintenance therapy. One NAOMI participant helps put a human face on it.

"I want to tell you what being a participant in this study did for me," one participant told researchers. "Initially it meant 'free heroin.' But over time it became more, much more. NAOMI took much of the stress out of my life and allowed me to think more clearly about my life and future. It exposed me to new ideas, people (staff and clients) that in my street life (read: stressful existence) there was no time for."

"After NAOMI, I was offered oral methadone, which I refused. After going quickly downhill, I ended up hopeless and homeless. I went into detox in April 2007, abstained from using for two months, then relapsed. In July 2008 I again went to detox and I am presently in a treatment center... I am definitely not "out of the woods" yet, but I feel I am on the right path. And this path started for me at the corner of Abbott and Hastings in Vancouver... Thank you and all who were involved in making NAOMI happen. Without NAOMI, I wouldn't be where I am today. I am sure I would be in a much worse place."

Arnold Trebach, one of the fathers of the drug reform in late 20th Century America, has been studying heroin since 1972, and is still at it. He examined the British system in the early 1970s, when doctors still prescribed heroin to thousands of addicts, and authored a book, The Heroin Solution, that compared and contrasted the US and UK approaches. Later this month, the octogenarian law professor will be appearing on a panel at the Vermont Law School to address what Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has described as the heroin crisis there.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman (wikimedia.org)
"The death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a tragedy all the way around," Trebach told the Chronicle. "It's a bad idea to use heroin off the street, and he shouldn't have been doing that."

That said, Trebach continued, it didn't have to be that way.

"If we had had a sensible system of dealing with this, he would have been in treatment under medical care," he said. "If he was going to inject heroin, he should have been using pharmaceutically pure heroin in a medical setting where he could also have been exposed to efforts to straighten out his personal life, and he could have access to vitamins, weight control advice, and the whole spectrum of medical care. And if he had had access to opioid antagonists, he could still be alive," he added.

While Hoffman may have made bad personal choices, Trebach said, we as a society have made policy choices seemingly designed to amplify the prospects for disaster.

"This is a sad thing. He is just another one of the many victims of our barbaric drug policy," he said. "This was a totally unnecessary death at every level. He shouldn't have been using, but we should have been taking care of him."

The stuff ought to be legalized, Trebach said.

"I'm an advocate of full legalization, but if we can't go that far, we need to at least provide social and psychological support for these people," he said. "And even if we were to decriminalize or legalize, I would still want to figure out ways to provide support and love and kindness to people using the stuff. I advise you not to do it, but if you're going to use it, I want to keep you alive. I remember talking to people from Liverpool [a famous heroin maintenance clinic covered in the '90s by Sixty Minutes, linked above] about harm reduction around heroin use back in the 1970s. One of the ladies said it is very hard to rehabilitate a dead addict."

"There are plenty of things we can be doing," said Hilary McQuie, Western director for the Harm Reduction Network, reeling off a list of harm reduction interventions that are by now well-known but inadequately implemented.

"We can make naloxone (Narcan) more available. We need better access to it. It should be offered to people like Hoffman when they are leaving treatment programs, especially if they've been using opiates, just as a safeguard," she said. "Having treatment programs as well as harm reduction programs distribute it is important. We can cut the overdose rate in half with naloxone, but there will still be people using alone and people using multiple substances."

There are other proven interventions that could be ramped up as well, McQuie said.

"Safe injection sites would be very helpful, so would more Good Samaritan overdose emergency laws, and more education, not to mention more access to methadone and buprenorphine and other opioid substitution therapies (OST)," she said, reeling off possible interventions.

Dr. Martin Schechter, director of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, knows a thing or two about OST. The principal study investigator for the NAOMI and the follow-up SALOME study, Schechter has overseen research into the effectiveness of treating intractable addicts with pharmaceutical heroin, as well as methadone. The results have been promising.

"What we're using is medically prescribed pharmaceutical diacetylmorphine, the active ingredient in heroin," he explained. "It's what you have when you strip away all the street additives. This is a stable, sterile medication from a pharmaceutical manufacturer. We know the precise dose tailored for each person. With street heroin, not only is it adulterated and injected in unsterile situations, but people really don't know how strong it is. That's probably what happened to Mr. Hoffman."

Naloxone (Narcan) can reverse opiate overdoses (wikimedia.org)
In NAOMI, 90,000 injections were administered to study participants, and only 11 people suffered overdoses requiring medical attention.

"Never did we have a fatal overdose," Schechter said. "Because it was in a clinic, nurses and doctors are right there. We administer Narcan (naloxone), and they wake up."

Heroin maintenance had even proven more effective than methadone in numerous studies, Schechter said.

"There have been seven randomized control trials across Europe and in Canada that have shown for people who have already tried treatments like methadone, that medically prescribed heroin is more effective and cost effective treatment than simply trying methadone one more time."

Those studies carry a lesson, he said.

"We have to start looking at heroin from a medicinal point of view and treat it like a medicine," he argued. "The more we drive its use underground, the more overdoses we get. We need to expand treatment programs, not only with methadone, but with medically prescribed heroin for people who don't respond to other treatments."

Safe injection sites are also a worthwhile intervention, Schechter said, although he also noted their limitations.

"Injecting under supervision is much safer; if there is an overdose, there is prompt attention, and they provide sterile equipment, reducing the risk of HIV and Hep C," he said. "But they are still injecting street heroin."

He would favor decriminalizing heroin possession, too, he said.

Harm reduction measures, opioid maintenance treatments, and the like are absolutely necessary interventions, said McQuie, but there is a larger issue at hand, as well.

"We still need to look at the overall issue of the stigmatization of drug users," she said. "People aren't open about their use, and that puts them in a more dangerous situation. It's really hard in a criminalized environment."

Stigmatization means to mark or brand someone or something as disgraceful and subject to strong disapproval. Defining an activity, such as heroin possession, as a crime is stigmatization crystallized into the legal structures of society itself.

"The ultimate harm reduction solution," McQuie argued, "is a regulated, decriminalized environment where it is available by prescription, so people know what they're getting, they know how much to use, and it's not cut with fentanyl or other deadly adulterants. People wouldn't have to deal with all the collateral damage that comes from being defined as criminals as well as dealing with the consequences of their drug use. They could deal with their addictions without having to worry about losing their homes, their families, and their freedoms."

While such approaches have a long way to go before winning wide popular acceptance, policymakers should at least be held to account for the consequences of their decision-making, McQuie said, suggesting that the turn to heroin in recent years was a foreseeable result of the crackdown on prescription opioid pain medication beginning in the middle of the last decade.

"They started shutting down all those 'pill mills' and people should have anticipated what would happen and been ready for it," she said. "What we have seen is more and more people turning to injecting heroin, but nobody stopped to do an impact statement on what would be the likely result of restricting access to pain pills."

The impact can be seen in the numbers on heroin use, addiction, and overdoses. While talk of a "heroin epidemic" is overblown rhetoric, the number of heroin users has increased dramatically in the past decade. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the number of past year users grew by about 50% between 2002 and 2011, from roughly 400,000 to more than 600,000. At the same time, the number of addicted users increased from just under 200,000 to about 370,000, a slightly lesser increase.

If there is any good news, it is that, according to the latest (2012) National Household Survey of Drug Use and Health, the number of new heroin users has remained fairly steady at around 150,000 each year for the past decade. That suggests, however, that more first-time users are graduating to occasional and sometimes, dependent user status.

And some of them are dying of heroin overdoses, although not near the number dying from overdoses from prescription opioids. Between 1999 and 2007, heroin deaths hovered just under 2,000, even as prescription drug deaths skyrocketed, from around 2,500 in 1999 to more than 12,000 just eight years later. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control, by 2010, the latest year for which data are available, heroin overdose deaths had surpassed 3,000, a 50% increase in just three years.

While the number of heroin overdose deaths is still but a fraction of those attributed to prescription opioid overdoses and the numbers since 2010 are spotty, the increase that showed up in 2010 shows no signs of having gone away. Phillip Seymour Hoffman may be the most prominent recent victim, but in the week since his death, another 50 or 60 people have probably followed him to the morgue due to heroin overdoses.

There are ways to reduce the heroin overdose death toll. It's not a making of figuring out what they are. It's a matter of finding the political and social will to implement them, and that requires leaving the drug war paradigm behind.

New York City, NY
United States

Could Different Drug Policies Have Saved Philip Seymour Hoffman?

The tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman yesterday has prompted expressions of grief and of praise for his talent. It also, naturally, has prompted discussions of addiction, the impact of pain pill prescriptions on the addicted, even of pain pill restrictions causing more people to turn to heroin.

Philip Seymour Hoffman at the 81st Academy Awards (courtesy Chrisa Hickey, flickr.com/photos/chrisahickey/, via wikimedia.org)
While the latter raises the question about whether different drug policies could make things safer or less damaging or risky for heroin addicts, I haven't heard that question directly raised in the media. Although we don't know how Hoffman would have fared under a different system -- a system that had more options available, we do have information from places that do offer more options, and they are worth examining.

One of those options is heroin maintenance programs (also known now as heroin assisted treatment, or HAT). The most famous such program operated in Liverpool, England, before the conservative Thatcher government, encouraged by the Reagan administration (so we heard), shut it down. But HAT programs current operate in Switzerland, The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and the Canadian cities of Vancouver and Montreal. Patients in such programs receive a supply of pharmaceutically-produced heroin from a clinic (for free, though one can infer similar benefits if the heroin were merely cheap). They regularly access health services as a part of their participation. Those who need to inject the drug to relieve their cravings receive instruction on how to do so without damaging their veins, and heroin is made available in other forms as well.

A 2009 paper by leading drug policy researcher Peter Reuter, written for The Abell Foundation in Baltimore, reviewed research done in three of those countries. According to Reuter, Switzerland found a decrease in criminal involvement from 70% of the patients down to 10% after 18 months; and an increase in employment, from 14% to 32%. The health safety results were particularly impressive, including decreased contact with the street drug scene, and with very few adverse events or safety issues.

Many of those findings relate more to indigent addicts than they would to a famous actor. But the final point seems key, very few "adverse events" (e.g. overdoses and so forth) or safety issues, in any of the programs. Again, we don't know how Hoffman would have fared if he had entered a heroin maintenance program instead of buying it on the street. For that matter, we don't know if under legalization, broad or just for the addicted, whether Hoffman would have accessed such services in time, or chose to access them at all. But we know that many people do access these services in the countries that offer them, and that very few of the patients enrolled suffer overdose.

More generally, by prohibiting heroin, even for people who are already addicted to it, we prevent a whole class of possible approaches from every being taken to try to help people -- a whole set of options that people with substance abuse problems might be able to use to manage their problems -- to literally save their lives.

In the meanwhile, there are things to do that are legal even now, at least in a few states that have moved forward with them, with no federal laws standing in the way. These are Good Samaritan policies, that protect people from criminal liability when they seek help in an overdose situation; and use of the antidote medication for heroin overdoses, Naloxone. Meghan Ralston wrote about these in an oped yesterday.

We can also improve the debate. It's not enough to talk about the challenges of addiction and the risk of relapse people can face their entire lives, important as that is. It's a good start that people are starting to recognize the unintended consequences of the pain pill crackdown. But that isn't enough either. It's also important to take the next logical step in the argument, and rethink prohibition.

Michael Douglas Tribute to Mike Gray

Actor Michael Douglas gave a tribute to our friend Mike Gray at the memorial service in Los Angeles this week. He talked about first working with Mike on the movie The China Syndrome, and about MIke's work on drug policy reform and how the drug war has affected him and his family. You can listen to it on the Drug Truth Network here.

It was recorded by Doug McVay, who attended the memorial with Common Sense for Drug Policy. Mike was the board chair of CSDP, and Doug and I are both board members.

Documentary: How to Make Money Selling Drugs

A new documentary from Tribeca Films has hit the wires. How to Make Money Selling Drugs was produced by Adrian Grenier ("Entourage") and Bert Marcus, and directed by Matthew Cooke. It features interviews with celebrities Russell Simmons, Susan Sarandon, David Simon (creator of "The Wire"), and Arianna Huffington. Some of my colleagues also figure in the movie, including Neill Franklin, Eric Sterling and Howard Wooldridge, among others.

It is opening in select theaters in some cities (see the web site for info), and is available through iTunes and OnDemand. There's also an iPhone app, Tug of War on Drugs.

Cameron Douglas Writes from Behind Bars

Actor Cameron Douglas was serving five years prison time for a drug law violation, when he was tested positive for drug use. The judge added 4.5 more years to his sentence, the heaviest penalty ever dealt out in that situation. He wrote an editorial, "Words Behind Walls," submitted by his girlfriend on his behalf to the Huffington Post.

"Words Behind Walls" is not mainly about his own story -- although he goes into being kept in solitary confinement for 11 months -- but mostly about the tragedy and injustice of half a million nonviolent drug offenders in the prisons and jails, many simply in a cycle of addiction and relapse like he is.

His piece, linked above, is worth reading -- but not before I remark on the incomprehensible cruelty shown by the judge in this case. That judge must be some kind of lost soul himself. At least that is how it looks from here.

Celebrities Urge Obama Forward on Drug, Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

A coalition of more than 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials, and civil rights and civil liberties advocates Tuesday sent an open letter to President Obama urging him to redouble his efforts to shift from a punitive, repressive federal criminal justice policy to one emphasizing prevention and rehabilitation.

Russell Simmons, 2012 Tribeca Film Festival (courtesy David Shankbone via Wikimedia)
The US is the world's leading incarcerator, with more than 2.3 million people behind bars. The US leads the world both in absolute numbers of prisoners and in prisoners per capita, with 715 per capita, comfortably leading the nearest per capita contenders, Russia (584) and Belarus (554).

Of those 2.3 million people behind bars, more than 500,000 are charged with drug offenses. While the number of prisoners being held by the states and the number of drug offenders held by the states have begun to decline slightly in recent years as state-level policy makers grapple with economic problems, the federal prison population continues to grow, driven in part by drug offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were some 95,000 federal drug war prisoners at the end of 2011, nearly half the federal prison population. That's up from only 70,000 a decade ago.

"It is critical that we change both the way we think about drug laws in this country and how we generate positive solutions that leave a lasting impact on rebuilding our communities," said hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who helped organize the star-studded effort. "We need to break the school to prison pipeline, support and educate our younger generations and provide them with a path that doesn’t leave them disenfranchised with limited options."

In the letter, the coalition praised Obama for criminal justice reforms he had undertaken, such as the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced (but did not eliminate) the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, but urged him to do more. "Mr. President, it is evident that you have demonstrated a commitment to pursue alternatives to the enforcement-only "War on Drugs" approach and address the increased incarceration rates for non-violent crimes," the letter said. "We believe the time is right to further the work you have done around revising our national policies on the criminal justice system and continue moving from a suppression-based model to one that focuses on intervention and rehabilitation."

The coalition called for specific reforms.

"Some of the initial policies we recommend is, under the Fair Sentencing Act, extend to all inmates who were subject to 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity a chance to have their sentences reduced to those that are more consistent with the magnitude of the offense," the letter said. "We ask your support for the principles of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (Senate Bill 619), which allows judges to set aside mandatory minimum sentences when they deem appropriate."

The letter also implicitly chided the Obama administration for its failure to make much use of his power to pardon and commute sentences. In fact, Obama has pardoned prisoners or commuted sentences at a much lower rate than any of his recent predecessors. He has granted only 39 pardons and one commutation (of a terminally ill cancer patient) in five years in office, while failing to act on such deserving and well-publicized cases as that of Clarence Aaron, who is now 20 years into a triple life sentence for a cocaine deal in which he was neither the buyer, seller, or supplier of the drugs.

"We ask that you form a panel to review requests for clemency that come to the Office of the Pardon Attorney," the letter said. "Well-publicized errors and omissions by this office have caused untold misery to thousands of people."

The letter also applauded Obama's "staunch commitment" to reentry programs for prisoners who have finished their sentences and urged him to expand those transition programs, and it urged him to support the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education (Youth PROMISE) Act (House Bill 1318), "a bill that brings much needed focus on violence and gang intervention and prevention work."

The coalition also asked for a meeting with the president.

"We request the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these ideas further and empower our coalition to help you achieve your goals of reducing crime, lowering drug use, preventing juvenile incarceration and lowering recidivism rates," the letter said.

From the Hollywood community, signatories to the letter included: Roseanne Barr, Russell Brand, Jim Carrey, Cedric The Entertainer, Margaret Cho, Cameron Diaz, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Woody Harrelson, Ron Howard, Eugene Jarecki, Scarlett Johannson, the Kardashians, LL Cool J, Eva Longoria, Demi Moore, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Chris Rock, Susan Sarandon, Sarah Silverman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, and Mark Wahlberg.

From the music community, signatories included: Big Boi of Outkast, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Chuck D, DJ Envy, DJ Pauly D, Ani Difranco, Missy Elliot, Ghostface Killah, Ginuwine, Jennifer Hudson, Ice-T, Talib Kweli, John Legend, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Natalie Maines, Nicky Minaj, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, RZA, and Angela Yee.

From the civil rights and civil liberties community, signatories included: Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition leader Neill Franklin, Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP head Benjamin Todd Jealous, National Urban League leader Marc Morial, Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann, Rev. Al Sharpton, ACLU head Anthony Romero, Families Against Mandatory Minimums head Julie Stewart, and Dr. Boyce Watkins.

From the faith community, signatories included:  Bishop James Clark, Bishop Noel Jones, Bishop Clarence Laney, Bishop Edgar Vann, Dr. Iva Carruthers, Deepak Chopra, Father Michael Pfleger, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Rabbi Nina Mandel, Rev. Jamal Bryant, Rev. Delman Coates, Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, Rev. Dr. Fredrick Haynes, Rev. Michael McBride, Rev. Dr. W Franklyn Richardson, and Rev. Barbara Skinner Williams.

Media and academic figures who signed on include: CNN's TJ Holmes, Radio One's Cathy Hughes and Alfred Liggins, former MSNBC host (and now hydroponic farmer!) Dylan Ratigan, "The New Jim Crow" author Michelle Alexander, Michael Eric Dyson, Naomi Klein, Julianne Malveaux, and Spelman College's Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Also signing were businessmen Virgin Airlines magnate Sir Richard Branson, US Black Chamber of Commerce head Ron Busby, and St. Louis Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom, elected officials Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL), and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), and professional athletes Brendon Ayanbadejo, Lamar Odom, Isaiah Thomas, and MikeTyson, among others.

"The letter is intended to be a respectful appeal to the Obama administration asking that we develop productive pathways to supporting families that have been harmed by the War on Drugs," said Dr. Boyce Watkins, author, entrepreneur, and current scholar in residence in entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University. "Countless numbers of children have been waiting decades for their parents to come home, and America is made safer if we break the cycle of mass incarceration. Time is of the essence, for with each passing year that we allow injustice to prevail, our nation loses another piece of its soul. We must carefully examine the impact of the War on Drugs and the millions of living, breathing Americans who've been affected.  It is, quite simply, the right thing to do."

"So called 'tough on crime' policies have failed our nation and its families, while 'smart on crime' policies work," said NAACP head Benjamin Todd Jealous. "When we know that drug treatment is seven times more effective than incarceration for drug addicts, basic human decency demands our nation makes the switch. The fate of hundreds of people and the children who need them home and sober hang in the balance. Great progress is being made in states from New York to Georgia with strong bipartisan support. The time has come for all of us to do all that we can. The future of our families, states, and nation demand it."

Will President Obama respond to this clarion call for action? Stay tuned.

Bill Maher Talks 'Offshore' Pot Smoking and the War on Drugs

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, the insanely smart and funny Real Time host talks Palin, marijuana, and politics, among other topics. Here -- in honor of 4/20 -- is the marijuana part.
Publication/Source: 
Rolling Stone (NY)
URL: 
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/national-affairs/bill-maher-talks-offshore-pot-smoking-and-the-war-on-drugs-20110420

Marijuana Is Serious Business, But Leno and Conan are Hooked on Bad Pot Jokes

Although cannabis has been known to give people the giggles, there isn't exactly an abundance of amusement to be found in U.S. marijuana policy. Even as the nation moves towards a more sensible approach to the drug, our top comedians are still looking for laughs and coming up short.

Last week's news that the medical marijuana market is valued at $1.7 billion and will soon outsell Viagra was destined to become the butt of a late-night groaner or two, but Leno and Conan managed to mangle this one even worse than anyone could have anticipated. Here's Jay Leno's attempt (at 4:20, which I hope is a coincidence):


And here's Conan (at 4:40):




Of course, these guys are just doing their jobs, and I'm sure the combined marijuana/Viagra hook on this one was just too much to pass up. But is marijuana so funny that you don't even need a serviceable punchline to joke about it? Leno's was insulting to sick people, and Conan's didn't even make sense (at least not to me or Andy Richter).

So, at the risk of sounding like a humorless, oversensitive social justice advocate, I'm calling out the purveyors of pathetic attempts at pot comedy. I care too much about both humor and cannabis to let either be degraded any further by the false assumption that jokes about pot are automatically funny. The opposite has been made clear to a cringe-inducing extent too many times now, and I think we could all use a break and perhaps a period of reflection in which to carefully consider what is and is not amusing about marijuana. For example, we all know that it can give you the munchies, but the whole pot-makes-you-eat-twinkies punchline deserves to die. Jokes about glaucoma are lower still.

None of this is to say that comedians can't or shouldn’t ever joke about marijuana, but rather that what passes for a pot joke really ought to be re-examined. In particular, if professionals like Leno and Conan are having a hard time pulling this stuff off, then there's absolutely no excuse for public officials to look for laughs when responding to serious concerns about the harms of our marijuana laws (see here or here for gratuitous examples).

As a culture, marijuana users have survived far worse than a few dumb jokes, but it's gotten old nonetheless, and meanwhile those who've advocated our continued persecution have often escaped the mockery they so thoroughly deserve. I'd love to see Conan take a jab at the Drug Czar one of these days. In the meantime, please share your favorite (or least favorite) pot jokes in the comment section.

U.K. Reggae Star Smiley Culture Dies During Drug Raid

Location: 
United Kingdom
British reggae musician Smiley Culture has died after a drug raid on his home. The incident at Culture’s home is currently being investigated by the U.K. Independent Police Complaints Commission, after having been reported by Scotland Yard.
Publication/Source: 
National Post (Canada)
URL: 
http://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/03/15/u-k-reggae-star-smiley-culture-dies-during-drug-raid/

Tommy Chong Lights Up Canadian New Democratic Party Campaign

Location: 
BC
Canada
Other contenders for B.C.'s NDP leadership race might be making campaign promises and rolling out platforms, but candidate and pot activist Dana Larsen is bringing out actor and comedian Tommy Chong. The celebrity marijuana user — one half of the former movie duo Cheech and Chong — has publicly endorsed Larsen for the leadership.
Publication/Source: 
CBC Radio-Canda (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/story/2011/03/07/bc-larsen-ndp-tommy-chong.html

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