Sunshine Recorder

Link: Michael Pollan: Opium Made Easy

"The legality of growing opium poppies […] took me the better part of the summer to sort out."

Last season was a strange one in my garden, notable not only for the unseasonably cool and wet weather—the talk of gardeners all over New England—but also for its climate of paranoia. One flower was the cause: a tall, breathtaking poppy, with silky scarlet petals and a black heart, the growing of which, I discovered rather too late, is a felony under state and federal law. Actually, it’s not quite as simple as that. My poppies were, or became, felonious; another gardener’s might or might not be. The legality of growing opium poppies (whose seeds are sold under many names, including the breadseed poppy, Papaver paeoniflorum, and, most significantly, Papaver somniferum) is a tangled issue, turning on questions of nomenclature and epistemology that it took me the better part of the summer to sort out. But before I try to explain, let me offer a friendly warning to any gardeners who might wish to continue growing this spectacular annual: the less you know about it, the better off you are, in legal if not horticultural terms. Because whether or not the opium poppies in your garden are illicit depends not on what you do, or even intend to do, with them but very simply on what you know about them. Hence my warning: if you have any desire to grow opium poppies, you would be wise to stop reading right now.

As for me, I’m afraid that, at least in the eyes of the law, I’m already lost, having now tasted of the forbidden fruit of poppy knowledge. Indeed, the more I learned about poppies, the guiltier my poppies became—and the more fearful grew my days and to some extent also my nights. Until the day last fall, that is, when I finally pulled out my poppies’ withered stalks and, with a tremendous feeling of relief, threw them on the compost, thereby (I hope) rejoining the ranks of gardeners who don’t worry about visits from the police.

It started out if not quite innocently, then legally enough. Or at least that’s what I thought back in February, when I added a couple of poppy varieties (P. somniferum as well as P. paeoniflorum and P. rhoeas) to my annual order of flowers and vegetables from the seed catalogues. But the state of popular (and even expert) knowledge about poppies is confused, to say the least; mis- and even disinformation is rife. I’d read in Martha Stewart Living that “contrary to general belief, there is no federal law against growing P. somniferum.” Before planting, I consulted my Taylor’s Guide to Annuals, a generally reliable reference that did allude to the fact that “the juice of the unripe pod yields opium, the production of which is illegal in the United States.” But Taylor’s said nothing worrisome about the plants themselves. I figured that if the seeds could be sold legally (and I found somniferum on offer in a half-dozen well-known catalogues, though it was not always sold under that name), how could the obvious next step—i.e., planting the seeds according to the directions on the packet—possibly be a federal offense? Were this the case, you would think there’d at least be a disclaimer in the catalogues.

So it seemed to me that I could remain safely on the sunny side of the law just as long as I didn’t attempt to extract any opium from my poppies. Yet I have to confess that this was a temptation I grappled with all last summer. You see, I’d become curious as to whether it was in fact possible, as I’d recently read, for a gardener of average skills to obtain a narcotic from a plant grown in this country from legally available seeds. To another gardener this will not seem odd, for we gardeners are like that: eager to try the improbable, to see if we can’t successfully grow an artichoke in Zone 5 or make echinacea tea from the roots of our purple coneflowers. Deep down I suspect that many gardeners regard themselves as minor-league alchemists, transforming the dross of compost (and water and sunlight) into substances of rare value and beauty and power. Also, one of the greatest satisfactions of gardening is the independence it can confer—from the greengrocer, the florist, the pharmacist, and, for some, the drug dealer. One does not have to go all the way “back to the land” to experience the satisfaction of providing for yourself off the grid of the national economy. So, yes, I was curious to know if I could make opium at home, especially if I could do so without making a single illicit purchase. It seemed to me that this would indeed represent a particularly impressive sort of alchemy.

I wasn’t at all sure, however, whether I was prepared to go quite that far. I mean, opium! I’m not eighteen anymore, or in any position to undertake such a serious risk. I am in fact forty two, a family man (as they say) and homeowner whose drug-taking days are behind him. Not that they aren’t sometimes fondly recalled, the prevailing cant about drug abuse notwithstanding. But now I have a kid and a mortgage and a Keogh. There is simply no place in my grownup, middle-class lifestyle for an arrest on federal narcotics charges, much less for the forfeiture of my family’s house and land, which often accompanies such an arrest. It was one thing, I reasoned, to grow poppies; quite another to manufacture narcotics from them. I figured I knew where the line between these two deeds fell, and felt confident that I could safely toe it.

But in these days of the American drug war, as it turns out, the border between the sunny country of the law-abiding—my country!—and a shadowy realm of SWAT teams, mandatory minimum sentences, asset forfeitures, and ruined lives is not necessarily where one thinks it is. One may even cross it unawares. As I delved into the horticulture and jurisprudence of the opium poppy last summer, I made the acquaintance of one man, a contemporary and a fellow journalist, who had had his life pretty well wrecked after stepping across that very border. In his case, though, there is reason to believe it was the border that did the moving; he was arrested on charges of possessing the same flowers that countless thousands of Americans are right now growing in their gardens and keeping in vases in their living rooms. What appears to have set him apart was the fact that he had published a book about this flower in which he described a simple method for converting its seedpod into a narcotic—knowledge that the government has shown it will go to great lengths to keep quiet. Just where this leaves me, and this article, is, well, the subject of this article.

Link: How a Single Oxycontin Pill Nearly Ruined One Man's Life

Over the last several years, media outlets have reported hundreds of horror stories about Florida’s prescription drug epidemic. News consumers have been treated to stories about crooked doctors, shady pharmacists, and pill-popping addicts with violent tendencies and bad parenting skills. But as is so often the case with drug war coverage, there’s more to the story than that. 

There are nonviolent offenders who aren’t addicts, or dealers, or scammers. You don’t hear their stories from drug warriors, because they can’t be used to bolster the case for prohibition. You also don’t hear their stories from bipartisan drug policy reformers, because these people don’t need addiction recovery treatment. They don’t really need anything at all. 

Nevertheless, many of these people have had their lives turned upside down in the name of public safety and public health, and are worse off for it, financially and emotionally. We asked Reason magazine’s Facebook followers to tell us if they knew someone who had been put through the ringer after being caught with a small amount of drugs. We promised anonymity, so long as we could verify their claims. A man who we’ll call “James” reached out to us. This is his story. 

James was pulled over for speeding in 2006 in Vero Beach, Florida while driving back to his home in Jacksonville after a concert. The officer who pulled him over said the car smelled like marijuana, and asked to conduct a search. James agreed, because neither he nor his passenger had been using drugs. When his passenger was found to be in possession of a pipe and several screens (but no marijuana), the officer searched James. His pockets were empty save for a single Oxycontin pill. James told the officer he received the pill from a friend at the concert, but that he had never tried Oxycontin, and intended to give it away.  

A second officer was called to the scene. James’ passenger was arrested for possession of paraphernalia, and James was arrested for illegal possession of a prescription narcotic.

The next morning, James’ mother drove to Indian River County to plead for a lightening of her son’s bond. She told the judge that James, then 24, was both a full-time graduate student at the University of North Florida and a full-time stock broker with Merrill Lynch. James’ lawyer advised him to plead no-contest, saying he would likely get probation and then have his record expunged.

"After being assured that the penalty would be light," James told Reason in an email, “it turned into a bigger ordeal than I could ever imagine.”

The judge who heard James’ case accepted the no-contest plea. Then he began stacking on penalties. 

Despite having no criminal record and never having taken Oxycontin, James was required to attend two Narcotics Anonymous meetings a week for an entire year, and 15 weekend-long state-run drug classes (the latter he was required to pay for). Despite the fact that he was going to school at night for his MBA, James was given a curfew, and had to be inside his own home between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. every day of the week, for the entire year. As a final punishment, the judge instructed James to immediately report his arrest to his employer, and to let his probation officer know when he had done so.

With his case settled, James returned to Jacksonville and told his boss at Merrill Lynch what happened. His supervisor told him not to worry. A week later, he was instructed to modify his broker’s license to reflect that he’d pled no-contest to drug possession. This is both a federal and a state-level requirement, generally meant to protect investors. It ended up ruining James’s career. The modification to his license triggered an internal warning at Merrill Lynch. The firm placed him on paid leave for two weeks, and then fired him.

The experience has changed not just James’s life, but his thinking about drug policy.

"I could really see how someone could get caught ‘in the system’ and have a stigma attached to them, and, for people with, say, a high school diploma, why they would just resort to drug dealing, or worse, because the government prevented their ability to find a job due to this," James said.

"It’s sad that the government creates this group of ‘drug offenders’ who are not harming anyone, be it pot smokers or pill poppers, and then indirectly prevents them from getting jobs. Once you get something like this on your record, it is either start your own business or become under-employed."

Link: Shoot the Messenger: Carolina’s Costly Mistake on Sea Level Rise

The North Carolina Senate has approved legislation that would prohibit the state from considering projected sea level increases in its coastal management strategy. But a scientist involved in the debate argues that ignoring these projections will wind up costing North Carolina — and the rest of the U.S. — far more.

The state Senate in North Carolina voted overwhelmingly last week to pass a bill on sea level rise that has been widely reported in the national media.  This bill prevents all state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents that consider the possibility of a significant increase in the rate of sea level rise in the future.  In other words, when looking for guidance on how to protect the coastal economy and environment over the next century, the state’s planners may only look backward to historical data, not forward to expected changes in the Earth’s climate dynamics.This bill has been widely ridiculed in many news outlets and science blogs, culminating with a biting satire of the proposal by Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report. Personally, the whole thing just makes me sad.

I serve on the science panel that advises the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC).  Two years ago, the CRC solicited a report from the panel that would summarize the state of the science regarding sea-level rise and recommend the expected increase that planners should consider when looking down the road to 2100.  Our report included a detailed review of the published literature.  It was externally peer-reviewed by out-of-state scientists.  It contained no alarmist rhetoric or nightmare scenarios.  The final recommendation was for the state to plan for 39 inches of sea level rise.  This number corresponds well with expert reports produced in other states.

Link: The Success of Drug Decriminalization in Portugal

I [Richard Branson] visited Portugal, as one of the Global Drug Commissioners, to congratulate them on the success of their drug policies over the last 10 years. Ten years ago the Portuguese Government responded to widespread public concern over drugs by rejecting a “war on drugs” approach and instead decriminalized drug possession and use. It further rebuffed convention by placing the responsibility for decreasing drug demand as well as managing dependency under the Ministry of Health rather than the Ministry of Justice. With this, the official response towards drug-dependent persons shifted from viewing them as criminals to treating them as patients.

Under Portugal’s new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker, and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.

It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the problem far better than virtually every other Western country does. Compared to the European Union and the US, Portugal drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal has the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the EU: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%, Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%. Drug use in older teens also declined. Life time heroin use among 16-18 year olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8%. New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003. Death related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. The number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and the considerable money saved on enforcement allowed for increase funding of drug – free treatment as well. Property theft has dropped dramatically (50% - 80% of all property theft worldwide is caused by drug users).

America has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world, and while most of the EU (including Holland) has more liberal drug laws than the US, it also has less drug use. Current policy debate is that it’s based on “speculation and fear mongering”, rather than empirical evidence on the effect of more lenient drug policies. In Portugal, the effect was to neutralize what had become the country’s number one public health problem.

(Source: sunrec)

Link: American Public Opinion & NASA

In thinking about the recent battles over NASA’s budget, it seems like the problem is simply citizen support. People don’t care that much about space, so space doesn’t get funded. Back in the Apollo days, people loved the space program! Except, as this Space Policy paper pointed out, they didn’t. A majority of Americans opposed the government funding human trips to the moon both before (July 1967) and after (April 1970) Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind. It was only in the months surrounding Apollo 11 that support for funding the program ever reached above 50 percent.

Quite surprising to me.

Link: Burden of Proof: Should Evidence Determine Policy?

A growing number of activists are calling for science to play a larger role in policy. But will it work? Richard Wilson asks the experts.

Pushing in the same direction is Sile Lane, Campaigns Officer of the pressure group Sense about Science, which has recently launched the “Ask for Evidence” campaign. Whenever a company, journalist or politician makes a seemingly dubious scientific claim, Sense about Science says we should demand to see their evidence. The campaign is backed by a broad coalition of patient groups, scientists, journalists and celebrity supporters. “We’ve been working with scientists and the public for years,” Lane told me, “to challenge misinformation, whether it’s about homeopathy for malaria or the causes of cancer and wi-fi radiation.” Like Imran Khan, Lane believes that public engagement is the key to improving the situation – if politicians, PRs and journalists start to see that the misuse of data or citations of dodgy evidence are routinely challenged by the public, “policy-based evidence” could become a thing of the past. “Imagine a world,” Lane says, “where every exaggerating scientist, or politician, or company, or advertising firm, or someone writing on the internet, or journalist expects to be asked for the evidence behind every claim they make. That will make them think twice.”

It sounds good, but is it a realistic outcome? And, if we want public policy to be guided by values, is it even a desirable one? After all, this is not the first time we have heard the benefits of evidence-based policy trumpeted. It’s worth reviewing the recent history of the term.

Link: The Success of Drug Decriminalization in Portugal

I [Richard Branson] visited Portugal, as one of the Global Drug Commissioners, to congratulate them on the success of their drug policies over the last 10 years. Ten years ago the Portuguese Government responded to widespread public concern over drugs by rejecting a “war on drugs” approach and instead decriminalized drug possession and use. It further rebuffed convention by placing the responsibility for decreasing drug demand as well as managing dependency under the Ministry of Health rather than the Ministry of Justice. With this, the official response towards drug-dependent persons shifted from viewing them as criminals to treating them as patients.

Under Portugal’s new regime, people found guilty of possessing small amounts of drugs are sent to a panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker, and legal adviser for appropriate treatment (which may be refused without criminal punishment), instead of jail.

It has enabled the Portuguese government to manage and control the problem far better than virtually every other Western country does. Compared to the European Union and the US, Portugal drug use numbers are impressive. Following decriminalization, Portugal has the lowest rate of lifetime marijuana use in people over 15 in the EU: 10%. The most comparable figure in America is in people over 12: 39.8%, Proportionally, more Americans have used cocaine than Portuguese have used marijuana.

The Cato paper reports that between 2001 and 2006 in Portugal, rates of lifetime use of any illegal drug among seventh through ninth graders fell from 14.1% to 10.6%. Drug use in older teens also declined. Life time heroin use among 16-18 year olds fell from 2.5% to 1.8%. New HIV infections in drug users fell by 17% between 1999 and 2003. Death related to heroin and similar drugs were cut by more than half. The number of people on methadone and buprenorphine treatment for drug addiction rose to 14,877 from 6,040, after decriminalization, and the considerable money saved on enforcement allowed for increase funding of drug – free treatment as well. Property theft has dropped dramatically (50% - 80% of all property theft worldwide is caused by drug users).

America has the highest rates of cocaine and marijuana use in the world, and while most of the EU (including Holland) has more liberal drug laws than the US, it also has less drug use. Current policy debate is that it’s based on “speculation and fear mongering”, rather than empirical evidence on the effect of more lenient drug policies. In Portugal, the effect was to neutralize what had become the country’s number one public health problem.

Link: EU climate policy is working

The EU remains on track to exceed the international carbon emissions targets imposed through the Kyoto Protocol, despite a 2.4 per cent in emissions last year driven by the bloc’s gradual economic recovery. According to figures released today as part of the European Commission’s annual report on its progress to meeting its Kyoto targets, EU greenhouse gas emissions for 2010 were 15.5 per cent below 1990 levels despite economic growth of 41 per cent over the same period.

Significantly, emissions across the EU fell for six consecutive years through to and including 2009, even when the bloc was enjoying economic growth. EU climate change commissioner Connie Hedegaard hailed the report as evidence the EU has successfully decoupled emissions from economic growth through the wider use of low carbon technologies. “The EU continued decoupling emissions from GDP during the recession,” she said in a statement. “Between 2008 and 2009, emissions fell by 7.1 per cent in the EU-27, much more than the around four per cent contraction in GDP.” However, she added that the estimated 2.4 per cent increase in emissions last year “shows that we need to continue the decoupling process”. “Pursuing our efforts to make Europe a low-carbon society is the way forward,” she said. “It will stimulate technological innovation, spur economic growth and create jobs while further reducing emissions so that we meet our 2020 climate and energy targets and long term goals.” The report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) also confirms the EU-15 countries that face a legally binding requirement to cut emissions by eight per cent against 1990 levels by 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol are on track to meet the target and are “most likely to overachieve it”.