Drug expert speaks on policies, legalization

Published Jun 19, 2013 at 7:54 am (Updated Jun 17, 2013 at 11:22 am)

“There’s probably no hotter topic than drug policy in the United States.”

That’s what Mt. Lebanon Library Director Cynthia Richey said before introducing guest speaker Dr. Beau Kilmer at the library on June 13.

Kilmer, the co-director of RAND, a national nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and development, spoke to about a dozen people at the library on the “hot topic” of drug policy in the U.S. during a program titled “Clearing the Smoke on Drug Policy in America.”

He talked about drug use in America, as well as prescription drug use, and how it has gone up in recent years. Kilmer also touched on the marijuana legalization topic that has been in the news lately.

Kilmer, who earned his doctorate in public policy from Harvard University, is a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School and is also under contract with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to generate the official estimates of marijuana consumption for the country. Kilmer is also currently working with the state of Washington to help legislators there understand the implications of marijuana legalization options.

RAND has been in existence for about 60 years, Kilmer said, but in the 1980s its drug policy research center was created to help learn about ways to deal with the crack cocaine problem in the United States at that time. He said RAND has worked on developing drug prevention programs for schools and communities.

Kilmer told the audience at the program that there is good news and bad news as far as drugs are concerned. He said the good news is that cocaine and crack cocaine use have gone down significantly in the past five years.

“A lot of the heaviest users are just aging out,” Kilmer said. He added that in recent years, many companies are requiring drug tests in order to be able to work. Kilmer said there has been a large reduction in the total amount of cocaine trafficked in from other countries.

The bad news, Kilmer said, is that prescription drug abuse has risen. He said national statistics show that between 2004 and 2008 the number of emergency room visits due to prescription drug overdose has doubled. He said in 1999, about 4,000 people died from overdoses of prescription drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin. That number increased to 16,000 in 2010, Kilmer said.

“If you look at everyone who died from prescription drugs or (drugs like) cocaine, more people are dying of drug overdoses than traffic accidents,” Kilmer said.

Kilmer said RAND has started a project that focuses on what different areas of the country are doing to deal with drugs.

He said a program called the HOPE program was implemented in Hawaii to deal with an increase in methamphetamine use. Kilmer said a judge there implemented swift, certain justice by calling for random drug tests among those on probation. Kilmer said surprisingly, “A lot of people didn’t violate. They knew they had to stop.”

A similar program for alcohol-related offenders has been put in place in South Dakota called 24/7 Sobriety. “The nation’s No. 1 drug problem is alcohol,” Kilmer said.

In South Dakota, those who have committed alcohol-related violations must come into the sheriff’s office twice a day – once in the morning and once at night – and take a breathalyzer test. Those people also have to pay $1 every time they take the test and that money goes back to the county or sheriff’s office. He said the pass rate for the test is about 99 percent.

“It holds people accountable,” Kilmer said. He said the program in South Dakota spread to the entire state and at one point there were 25,000 people in the program. They saw a nine percent decrease in repeat DUI arrests, as well as a reduction in domestic violence arrests.

Kilmer said the real question is, “Can this work in other places?”

As for the legalization of marijuana, it is legal in both Washington state and Colorado, although marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Eighteen states have medical allowances for marijuana. With the legalization comes details like taxes and enforcement.

Klimer said in a survey done in 2011, about seven percent of Americans admitted to using marijuana in the past month.

He said if marijuana is ever farmed like any other crop the “production costs would just plummet.” Legislators could then tax it on the high side, but that may mean that a black market for marijuana would still exist.

RAND has also been looking into the cannabinoids found in marijuana. He said there are “literally dozens of cannabinoids,” or the chemical compounds in marijuana that can produce a number of effects. THC is one cannabinoid that causes the psychedelic effect associated with marijuana, but it can also produce panic in some users.

Another type of cannabinoid is CBD, which can actually offset the effects of THC and can help anxiety and pain. He said marijuana with high amounts of CBD can help those with pain, “but doesn’t really get you high.” He said he thinks that marijuana – if legalized – should be taxed as a function of THC. “It seems to be a reasonable way to start out.” He said Colorado and Washington are going into “unchartered waters.”

After the program, Michael Sarinek of Mt. Lebanon said he “thought it was an interesting topic.” He said he was especially concerned with the increases in prescription drug overdoses.

“I thought it was something we all should know more about,” said Nina Helbling of Scott Township. “It’s interesting how much research is going on and how much more you need to do.”

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