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What you need to know for 08/18/2017

Op-ed column: Misplaced priorities

Op-ed column: Misplaced priorities

The broader drug war is a bad idea, and I am no advocate of increasing penalties across the board. B

If you’re a fan of hallucinogens, your life got a little harder last week.

At long last, New York state is taking seriously the latest drug craze: hallucinogenic bath salts. The Department of Health issued new regulations to crack down on the spread of these synthetic drugs, and a wide range of ingredients used to make them. Moreover, local officials will now be able to go after users, dealers and manufacturers on their own, though they’ve been cooperating with federal Drug Enforcement Administration officials for a while.

Don’t get confused, though. If you like putting oils or other fragrances in your tub, you’ll still be able to. “Bath salts” are synthetic concoctions that don’t actually go in the bath — you snort or sniff them to get high. Their colloquial name is a way to cover up their intended purpose: Users experience the usual effects of hallucinogens, oftentimes accompanied with extremely bizarre behavior. People have found themselves with a desire to eat dogs, excrement or bite police officers responding to the crazed scene.

Though the infamous “Miami Cannibal,” who ate 60 percent of a homeless man’s face, wasn’t on bath salts after all (as previously believed), you don’t have to go far to hear about bath salt users who go out of their minds. Last month, a woman from Munnsville, in Madison County, was found naked, biting people and chasing her terrified 3-year-old son. After handcuffs and pepper spray didn’t work, police had to use a Taser to subdue her. She later died from cardiac arrest.

Cases on increase

Sadly, cases like these are only growing in number. Already this year, 191 upstate New Yorkers went to the emergency room after getting high on bath salts — 120 of them in the past two months.

Now, we’re doing something about it: New York’s new criminal penalties will include 15 days in jail and a $500 fine, with civil penalties up to $2,000. Authorities have been raiding dealers, and though these laws are relatively weak, it’s a start and a signal that authorities are serious about dealing with the growing problem.

Don’t get me wrong: The broader drug war is a bad idea, and I am no advocate of increasing penalties across the board. By banning essentially all buzz-creating substances (except of course, alcohol, caffeine and nicotine), we waste finite resources (taxpayer dollars) and ruin people’s lives. Marijuana, the main “culprit,” isn’t particularly good for you, but it doesn’t turn you into a lunatic on a rampage.

Nevertheless, we waste time and money on this modern-era Prohibition, distracting from other societal ills and doling out unreasonable punishment for innocuous behavior. Depending on the amount confiscated, marijuana possessors can get various sentences: Less than 25 grams will get you a $100 citation the first time and $200 the second. A misdemeanor results from a third offense, and you can get fined $250 and/or spend five days in jail. On the higher end, half a pound or more of pot could get you years of jail time.

Then there are the federal laws. Possession of any amount can get you up to a year in federal prison and a fine of $1,000 for a first offense. Mandatory federal minimum sentences come into effect for further offenses, with higher fines and more jail time. Dealers and cultivators are guilty of felonies, and can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars or spend years in jail.

The federal government relies, to a certain extent, on the active cooperation of state and local officials to prosecute drug policy — which has cost taxpayers $1 trillion over the past 40 years and ruined untold lives with convictions, mostly for smoking a relatively harmless plant. And though New York state can’t override federal regulations, laws are only as good as the enforcement mechanisms.

A few months ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo wisely promoted a plan that would decriminalize public possession of small amounts of marijuana, something supported by Assembly Democrats and New York City officials, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But the measure died in the state Senate. Said one Senate Republican in opposition, “Marijuana still is a gateway drug to so many other much more dangerous things.”

That misunderstanding comes from 1930s-era anti-hemp propaganda, and confusion of correlation and causation. Study after study has shown, in fact, that the opposite is true — that marijuana availability makes slipping on to harder drugs less likely. Yet this myth and others like it persist. They cloud our conversation about drugs, preventing us from smart, effective policy. We should keep hard drugs off the streets. To do so, we should loosen state marijuana laws so our state police can focus on the really dangerous drugs.

Setting priorities

It would seem that there’s an easy way to define which ought to be our priority, and it involves respecting freedom: If you’re the only one that’s affected when you take a certain drug, then that’s your business — and really should be if we value personal responsibility in this country. But if your consumption of that drug affects other people, either because of your behavior or exorbitant costs we all have to bear because of abuse and addiction, then it becomes everyone’s business.

By that definition, cracking down on pot isn’t worth the cost. Bath salts, on the other hand, are worth the crackdown. If a drug makes you into a naked, biting lunatic, that’s the one to go after. Let’s revisit Gov. Cuomo’s marijuana proposal, see where else we can re-evaluate antiquated drug laws, and keep an eye on bath salts to keep upstate New York safer.

Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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