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Updated: 2018-03-18T00:00:00-04:00


5 Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria


Federal prosecutors have filed charges against 13 Russians who allegedly sought to "sow discord in the U.S. political system" through social media posts, ads, and videos falsely presented as the work of Americans. After the indictment was unveiled in February, The New York Times reported that Donald Trump's "admirers and detractors" both agree with him that "the Russians intended to sow chaos" and "have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams." But Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum says a close look at the indictment tells a different story. Here are "5 Reasons Not to Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria:" 1) Russian trolling was a drop in the bucket. According to the indictment, Russian trolls associated with the so-called Internet Research Agency (IRA) in Saint Petersburg spent "thousands of U.S. dollars every month" on social media ads, which is a minuscule fraction of online ad revenue. Facebook alone reported advertising revenue of $9.16 billion in the second quarter of 2017. The Russians are said to be responsible for producing 43 hours of YouTube videos, but that doesn't seem like very much when you consider that 400 hours of content are uploaded to the site every minute. 2) Russian trolls were not very sophisticated. Russian trolls supposedly had the Machiavellian know-how to infiltrate the American political system, but their social media posts don't look very sophisticated. The posts often featured broken English and puzzling topic choices. A post promoting a "buff" Bernie Sanders coloring book, for instance, noted that "the coloring is something that suits for all people." Another post showed Jesus and Satan in an arm wrestling match under this caption: "SATAN: IF I WIN CLINTON WINS! JESUS: NOT IF I CAN HELP IT!" The post generated very few clicks and shares. 3) Russian troll rallies apparently did not attract many participants. The indictment makes much of pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rallies instigated by Russian trolls, but it does not say how many people participated. The New York Times reported that a Russian-organized rally in Texas opposing Shariah law attracted a dozen people. An anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in Idaho drew four people. Attendance at other rallies was similarly sparse. 4) Russian trolling probably didn't change anyone's mind. Broken English aside, the social media posts were not qualitatively different from content created by American activists, and they seemed to be aimed mainly at reinforcing pre-existing beliefs and divisions. The Russians might have gotten a few Trump supporters to show up at anti-Clinton rallies, but that does not mean they had an impact on the election. 5) Russian troll hysteria depicts free speech as a kind of violence. The Justice Department describes the messages posted by Russians pretending to be Americans as "information warfare." But while the posts may have been sophomoric, inaccurate, and illogical, that does not distinguish them from most of what passes for online political discussion among actual Americans. The integrity of civic discourse does not depend on verifying the citizenship of people who participate in it. It depends on the ability to weigh what they say, checking it against our own values and information from other sources. If voters cannot do that, maybe democracy is doomed. But if so, it's not the Russians' fault. Produced and edited by Paul Detrick. Camera by Alex Manning. Ghost Dance by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license ( Source: Artist: Russian Folk Dance by Sam Bikov is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives ( Source: Artist: Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes. [...]

Don’t Deny Young Adults the Right to Self-Defense


After last month's mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Donald Trump said he favored raising the minimum age for buying rifles or shotguns from federally licensed dealers, currently 18, to 21. On Monday he backed away from that position, saying the decision should be left to the states. The president was immediately criticized for kowtowing to the National Rifle Association. But there are sound reasons, aside from crass political considerations, for questioning the effectiveness and fairness of new restrictions on young adults' access to firearms. Since the Parkland massacre was perpetrated by a 19-year-old with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle that he legally purchased from a gun store, the idea of banning such sales is superficially appealing. But there is little reason to think it would have a measurable impact on mass shootings. Of the 23 deadliest shootings in modern U.S. history, three were perpetrated by killers younger than 21 who used rifles. In addition to Parkland, there was the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado and the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The Sandy Hook shooter, who was 20, used a Bushmaster XM-15 bought by his mother, so a higher purchase age clearly would not have thwarted him. The Columbine killers, who were both younger than 18 when they started collecting weapons, illegally obtained two shotguns, a Hi-Point 995 carbine, and an Intratec TEC-DC9 pistol through older third parties. If the policy that Trump initially endorsed had been in place, the Parkland perpetrator would not have been allowed to buy a rifle from a gun store. But he still could have legally bought one in a private transaction, where the minimum age would have been 18. The bill that Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law last week goes further, making it a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, for anyone younger than 21 to buy any kind of firearm from anyone. Florida is now one of just three states with such a rule, which still leaves would-be mass murderers with indirect or illegal options, as illustrated by the Sandy Hook and Columbine attacks. While the public safety benefits of banning gun purchases by 18-to-20-year-olds are doubtful, the burdens on millions of law-abiding adults are clear. At 18, the NRA notes in a lawsuit challenging Florida's new law, Americans "are considered adults for almost all purposes," and it seems anomalous to deny them the constitutional right of armed self-defense, which is also a fundamental human right. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a longtime gun controller who wants to raise the minimum federal age for buying long guns, thinks the existing policy is the real anomaly. "Under current law," she says, "licensed gun dealers cannot sell a handgun to anyone under 21, but they are allowed to sell assault rifles like the AR-15 to anyone over 18. This policy is dangerous and makes absolutely no sense....If you can't buy a handgun or a bottle of beer, you shouldn't be able to buy an AR-15." The AR-15, a semiautomatic that fires just once per trigger pull, is not, strictly speaking, an assault rifle, which is capable of automatic or burst fire. Furthermore, Feinstein favors giving actual assault rifles to 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds—provided they are members of the armed forces. Florida's law likewise makes an exception for a "servicemember," which highlights an inconsistency that is logically and morally indefensible. As the NRA notes, adults younger than 21 are considered old enough to lay down their lives in defense of the country—old enough, in fact, to be conscripted into that role whenever Congress deems it necessary. Out of uniform, however, these same young adults not only can't legally buy a beer; under Florida's new policy, they can't legally buy firearms to defend themselves, their homes, and their families. To borrow a phrase from Feinstein, that policy is dangerous and makes absolutely no sense. © Copyright 2018 by Creators Syndicate Inc. [...]

America's War on Pain Pills Is Killing Addicts and Leaving Patients in Agony


Craig, a middle-aged banking consultant who was on his school's lacrosse team in college and played professionally for half a dozen years after graduating, began developing back problems in his early 30s. "Degenerative disc disease runs in my family, and the constant pounding on AstroTurf probably did not help," he says. One day, he recalls, "I was lifting a railroad tie out of the ground with a pick ax, straddled it, and felt the pop. That was my first herniation." After struggling with herniated discs and neuropathy, Craig consulted with "about 10 different surgeons" and decided to have his bottom three vertebrae fused. He continued to suffer from severe lower back pain, which he successfully treated for years with OxyContin, a timed-release version of the opioid analgesic oxycodone. He would take a 30-milligram OxyContin tablet twice a day, supplemented by immediate-release oxycodone for breakthrough pain when he needed it. Then one day last May, Craig's pain clinic called him in for a pill count, a precaution designed to detect abuse of narcotics or diversion to nonpatients. The count was off by a week's worth of pills because Craig had just returned from a business trip and forgot that he had packed some medication in his briefcase. He tried to explain the discrepancy and offered to bring in the missing pills, to no avail. Because the pill count came up short, Craig's doctor would no longer prescribe opioids for him, and neither would any other pain specialist in town. "I have lived my life by the rules," says Craig (whose name I've changed at his request). "I made one mistake, and they condemned me for it. They were basically saying that I'm a druggie when I have been fine for four years. My first pill count ever, and they boot me." He says a nurse at the practice told him "the doctors were getting tired of all the scrutiny, so they were booting all the opioid patients." Without the OxyContin, Craig says, "every morning is a challenge to get out of bed." Even with liberal use of ice packs and Biofreeze, he says, "It's horrible. I can't expect to live a life like this. I'm not a junkie. I'm not a threat to society. I'm not a threat to myself. I simply want to live my life without pain." Like other patients across the country, Craig is a victim of the recent crackdown on prescription opioids, which is based on a narrative that mistakenly blames pain treatment for a plague of addiction and death. Most Americans believe we are in the midst of an "opioid crisis" that began in the 1990s with the introduction of OxyContin. According to the generally accepted account, deceptive marketing encouraged reckless prescribing, which led to widespread addiction among patients and record numbers of opioid-related fatalities—a situation President Donald Trump has declared a public health emergency. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who chaired the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, invokes that narrative when he talks about "the injured student-athlete who becomes addicted after [his] first prescription" or remembers the law school classmate who died of an overdose after getting hooked on the oxycodone he was taking for back pain. Such examples are misleading because they are rare, accounting for only a small percentage of opioid-related deaths. Contrary to the impression left by most press coverage of the issue, opioid-related deaths do not usually involve drug-naive patients who accidentally get hooked while being treated for pain. Instead, they usually involve people with histories of substance abuse and psychological problems who use multiple drugs, not just opioids. Conflating those two groups results in policies like the pill count that left Craig without the pain medication he needed to get out of bed in the morning, go to work, and lead a normal life. The rationale is that cutting people like him off will stop them from ending up dead of an overdose in a Walmart parking lot next to a baggie of fentanyl-laced hero[...]

Trump, Slayer of Pushers


The president wants to kill drug dealers, which he thinks would be a legal, moral, and effective way to prevent opioid-related deaths. He is wrong on all three counts. "Some countries have a very, very tough penalty—the ultimate penalty—and by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do," Donald Trump said during a White House summit on opioid abuse last Thursday. The remark was consistent with reports of private conversations in which Trump has said drug dealers deserve the death penalty. Federal law already authorizes execution for certain drug traffickers. Offenders subject to "the ultimate penalty" include leaders of criminal enterprises that sell 60,000 kilograms of marijuana, 60 kilograms of heroin, 17 kilograms of crack cocaine, or 600 grams of LSD. That provision has been on the books since 1994, but it has never been carried out. It probably never will, since it seems to be unconstitutional under a 2008 decision in which the Supreme Court said the Eighth Amendment requires that the death penalty be reserved for "crimes that take the life of the victim." Trump thinks drug dealing falls into that category. "We have pushers and drugs dealers [who] are killing hundreds and hundreds of people," he said on Thursday. "If you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people, and nothing happens to them." That way of characterizing the situation is rather misleading, since drugs do not fly up the noses or flow into the veins of anyone without assistance. People who choose to take drugs surely bear some responsibility for what happens afterward, especially if they combine different substances, as people who die from drug poisoning typically do. There is nothing inherently criminal, let alone homicidal, about exchanging psychoactive substances for money, even if some of your customers die after consuming them. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which counted about 15,500 heroin-related deaths in 2016, attributes some 88,000 deaths each year to alcohol and 480,000 to cigarettes. If heroin dealers are murderers, what about bartenders and tobacconists? There is one important way in which illegal drugs differ from legal ones: Their composition and potency are much harder to predict. A vodka buyer knows he is getting a beverage with an alcoholic strength of 40 percent, while a heroin buyer has no idea what he is getting, which makes consuming it much riskier. That uncertainty has been magnified in recent years by the increased use of fentanyl as a heroin adulterant and substitute. Since fentanyl is much stronger than heroin, it makes potency even more variable, multiplying the chances of lethal error. You might think that a drug dealer who passes fentanyl off as heroin, leading to a fatal overdose, is guilty of something akin to negligent manslaughter. But when it comes to the content of the powder they are selling, dealers may be just as much in the dark as their customers. Treating such deaths as homicides is not only unjust; it may have the perverse effect of making opioid-related fatalities more likely. The people who face prosecution tend to be relatives, friends, and acquaintances—the same people who are best positioned to seek medical assistance in the event of an overdose but who might be deterred by the possibility of a homicide charge should rescue attempts fail. As that example illustrates, the government's role in all of this is usually to make drug use deadlier. Prohibition created a black market in which purity and potency are inconsistent. Drug warriors drove nonmedical users of prescription opioids into that market by cracking down on pain pills and made the illicit substitutes more dangerous by trying to cut off the heroin supply, which fostered the proliferation of fentanyl. If drug dealers have blood on their hands, so does anyone who supports the policies that created this situation, starting with the president. © [...]

Will Hawaiians Who Use Medical Pot Lose Their Right to Own a Gun?


Hawaii is one of 29 states that allow medical use of marijuana. It's also the only state that requires registration of all firearms. If you are familiar with the criteria that bar people from owning guns under federal law, you can probably surmise what the conjunction of these two facts means for patients who use cannabis as a medicine, which Hawaii allows them to do only if they register with the state.

"Your medical marijuana use disqualifies you from ownership of firearms and ammunition," Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard said in a November 13 letter received by about 30 people on Oahu. "If you currently own or have any firearms, you have 30 days upon receipt of this letter to voluntarily surrender your firearms, permit, and ammunition to the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) or otherwise transfer ownership."

Hawaii legalized medical marijuana in 2000. It's not clear what prompted the letters now, but the opening of the state's first dispensary last August may have had something to do with it. Ballard cited a state law that says "no person who is…prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition under federal law shall own, possess, or control any firearm or ammunition." Federal law forbids possession of firearms by any "unlawful user" of a controlled substance and, unlike Hawaii law, does not recognize any legitimate reason for consuming cannabis.

In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which includes Hawaii, upheld a ban on gun sales to people with medical marijuana cards, even if they do not consume cannabis. The appeals court reasoned that possessing such a card is a good if imperfect indicator of illegal drug use, which it said is associated with violence, "impaired mental states," and "negative interactions with law enforcement officers." The court concluded that there is a "reasonable fit" between the ban and a substantial government objective, which means it passes "intermediate scrutiny" and is therefore consistent with the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

Disarming medical marijuana patients nevertheless proved controversial in Hawaii, where local criticism led Ballard to backpedal in December. Although the HPD will continue to reject gun permit applications from patients on the state's registry, she said, for the time being it will not try to take firearms away from those who already own them.

"This is a new area of concern for cities across the country, and we in Honolulu want to develop a policy that's legally sound and serves our community," the police chief said in a press release. "Formulating the policy will take time, but we want to do it right."

Supreme Court’s Silence Clouds Gun Control Debate


This month's mass shooting at a high school in Florida has predictably provoked demands for new restrictions on guns, most of which are dubious on practical grounds, constitutional grounds, or both. But while logic and experience can help us figure out which measures are likely to be effective, the debate about which ones are consistent with the Second Amendment occurs in a shadowland only partly illuminated by the Supreme Court. In the decade since the Court officially recognized the individual right to armed self-defense, it has passed up one opportunity after another to clarify the boundaries of that right. "The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this Court's constitutional orphan," Justice Clarence Thomas observed last week as the Court declined to hear yet another Second Amendment case. That case involved California's 10-day waiting period for buying firearms, which applies even when state and federal background checks take less time and even when the buyer has previously been cleared and already owns a gun. In 2014 a federal judge ruled that the waiting period violates the Second Amendment rights of people who are buying additional firearms or who hold concealed-carry licenses. When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned that decision in 2016, Thomas noted, "it did so without requiring California to submit relevant evidence, without addressing petitioners' arguments to the contrary, and without ac­knowledging the District Court's factual findings." That highly deferential approach, he said, was clearly inappropriate for an enumerated constitutional right and inconsistent with the Court's Second Amendment precedents. Thomas suggested that his colleagues would have been keen to correct such a blatant error if the case had implicated a different amendment. "Our continued refusal to hear Second Amendment cases only enables this kind of defiance," he wrote. It was not the first time Thomas had complained about the Court's neglect of the Second Amendment. Last year he and Justice Neil Gorsuch strenuously objected when the Court declined to review a 9th Circuit decision upholding California's requirement that concealed-carry licenses be issued only for "good cause," which gives local officials broad discretion to reject applicants. Thomas called the 9th Circuit's focus on concealed guns, as opposed to the more general right to armed self-defense outside the home, "untenable" and "indefensible." He noted that the Second Amendment protects the right to "bear" as well as "keep" weapons, adding, "I find it extremely improbable that the Framers understood the Second Amendment to protect little more than carrying a gun from the bedroom to the kitchen." In 2015 Thomas was similarly skeptical of the idea that guns arbitrarily identified as "assault weapons" are beyond the scope of the Second Amendment. He wrote that the Court should have reviewed a decision in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld an "assault weapon" ban imposed by the city of Highland Park, Illinois, which covered "many of the most commonly owned semiautomatic firearms." The Supreme Court's 2008 decision overturning the District of Columbia's handgun ban made it clear, Thomas said, that the Second Amendment encompasses "firearms that millions of Americans commonly own for lawful purposes." Yet the 7th Circuit upheld Highland Park's ban based on little more than "speculation about the law's potential policy benefits," including the possibility that it "may increase the public's sense of safety." The illusion of safety is the main thing such laws have to offer, since they target features that make guns look scarier without making them more lethal. "If a broad ban on firearms can be upheld based on conjecture that the public might feel safer (while being no safer at all)," Thomas observed, "then the Second Amendment guar­antees nothing." Given the recent agitation for a n[...]

Don’t Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria


According to a federal indictment unveiled on Friday, Russians who pretended to be Americans while participating in online political discourse during the last few years committed a bunch of felonies. Whether they accomplished anything else of significance is by no means clear, notwithstanding all the scary talk about "information warfare" that supposedly undermined our democratic institutions and interfered with the electoral process. The crimes described in the indictment, which names 13 Russians associated with the so-called Internet Research Agency (IRA) in Saint Petersburg, include fraud and identity theft as well as violations of immigration law, campaign finance rules, and the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But everyone knows the real crime was, as Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch put it in Senate testimony last fall, conspiring to "sow division and discord" and "undermine our election process" by committing "an assault on democracy" that "violates all of our values." The New York Times, which last year breathlessly claimed that "Russia Harvested American Rage to Reshape U.S. Politics," reports that Donald Trump's "admirers and detractors" both agree with him that "the Russians intended to sow chaos" and "have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams." A Times editorial assures skeptics that "the Russian subversion effort" was "sophisticated" and "breathtaking" in scope. That analysis is at odds with the paper's own reporting, which describes Russian trolls as "sloppy" and "amateurish" bumblers who sounded suspiciously like foreigners while posing as Americans, left a trail that made it easy to catch them, and produced crude propaganda that amounted to a drop in the raging river of online political speech. The only thing breathtaking about this influence campaign is the hyperventilation of the alarmists who talk as if we are just a few angry tweets from the abyss. According to the indictment, the IRA 13 and their co-conspirators were so sophisticated that they had to learn the importance of targeting "purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida" in the context of the presidential election from an activist "affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization." They thought a $150 million donation to Hillary Clinton's campaign from the conservative Bradley Foundation would be a plausible hoax, and they created a Facebook ad showing Satan arm wrestling Jesus while proclaiming, "If I win, Clinton wins." It generated 71 impressions and 14 clicks. The indictment makes much of the rallies instigated by IRA operatives but never says how many people participated in them. In 2016, the Times reports, "a dozen people" attended an IRA-orchestrated "Stop the Islamization of Texas" rally in Houston, while a simultaneous counterprotest, also organized by the Russians, attracted "a far larger crowd." Two dozen? The indictment says the IRA spent "thousands of U.S. dollars every month" on social media ads. That's roughly one-millionth of the ad revenue that Facebook alone receives each month. According to Facebook, ads bought by the IRA, most of which weighed in on contentious social issues rather than endorsing or opposing candidates, represented "four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed." Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett testified in October that "the 1.4 million election-related Tweets that we identified through our retrospective review as generated by Russian-linked, automated accounts constituted less than three-quarters of a percent (0.74%) of the overall election-related Tweets on Twitter at the time." Richard Salgado, Google's senior counsel on law enforcement and information security, testified that the company found 18 YouTube channels offering about 1,100 videos with political content that were "uploaded by individuals who we suspect are associated with this [Russian] effort." The videos, which totaled 43 [...]

Jeff Sessions’ Cruel Prescription for Pain


When Attorney General Jeff Sessions advised people in pain to "take some aspirin" and "tough it out" during a speech in Tampa last week, the federal prosecutors in his audience laughed. Mitzie Katzen, who has suffered from complex regional pain syndrome since she was a teenager, had a different reaction. "I was just floored," Katzen says. "I could not believe what I was reading, and I thought that has to be somebody who has never experienced really severe pain for any length of time." Katzen's perspective on Sessions' remarks illuminates the depravity of a policy that sacrifices the interests of patients like her in the name of fighting the "opioid epidemic." Saying "this country prescribes too many opioids," Sessions cited the stoic example set by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former Marine general who refused to take pain medication while recovering from hand surgery. Although "it did hurt," Sessions said, "you can get through these things." It's not clear why people would choose to suffer postsurgical pain that could be easily relieved by an opioid analgesic, especially since the risks associated with medical use of such drugs are minimal. A large study reported last month in The BMJ found that just 1 percent of people who took prescription analgesics after surgery showed signs of "opioid misuse." The risk of a fatal overdose among people who take opioids for pain is even lower—something like 0.02 percent annually, judging from 2015 study reported in the journal Pain Medicine. The attorney general's medical advice is not just senseless but cruel, especially if it is applied to chronic pain patients like Katzen. A 55-year-old mother of three who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, Katzen began experiencing nerve pain after a bout of Rocky Mountain spotted fever when she was 15. The pain became disabling after she caught mononucleosis while working as a child life specialist at a hospital in New Mexico, spreading from her torso to her legs, knees, feet, and face. Katzen has tried a bewildering array of treatments, including acupuncture, acupressure, biofeedback, physical therapy, nerve blocks, trigger point injections, cognitive behavioral therapy, physical therapy, ultrasound, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and "a whole list of medications." The one thing that kept the agony at bay was opioids. Katzen currently takes methadone and oxycodone, occasionally supplemented by injections of Demerol (meperidine) when the pain gets really bad. "Without medication, I really can't function," she says. "It's hard to move my arms. It's hard to walk." Katzen knows that because a doctor who disapproved of the drugs she was taking once cut her dosage in half, leaving her essentially bedridden. That is the sort of indignity that an indiscriminate drive to reduce opioid use inflicts on people with severe chronic pain, who are often treated like drug-seeking criminals instead of patients. Thanks to an arbitrary cap that took effect at the beginning of this year, Katzen's insurer is now covering just a fraction of the pain medication she takes. She worries that regulatory pressure will discourage doctors like hers from prescribing opioids, that "they'll decide it's just too great a risk." That fear is well-founded. "There are many pain clinics flooded with patients who have been treated previously by their primary care physician," says Jianguo Cheng, president-elect of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. He says these refugees include patients who "have been functional" and "responding well" to opioids for "many years." Some have been driven to suicide. If Sessions talked to people like her, Katzen says, maybe he could "see what it looks like to live with pain all the time." Then he might understand how the conviction that "this country prescribes too many opioids" can lead to policies that hurt innocent people. "I'm[...]

There’s Still No Big ‘There’ in the Russia Probe


Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who called Donald Trump an "idiot" and rooted against him in 2016, was nevertheless reluctant to join the investigation of possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russians who sought to influence the presidential election. Strzok, who was removed from the probe after his anti-Trump comments came to light, expressed his qualms in a May 19 text message to FBI lawyer Lisa Page, his girlfriend at the time: "I hesitate in part because of my gut sense and concern there's no big 'there' there." It is looking more and more like Strzok's gut was right. The FBI's surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, which Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee criticize in a memo that was declassified last week, shows investigators putting a lot of time and effort into a line of inquiry that apparently led nowhere. Given the low legal bar for wiretapping suspected foreign agents, it seems likely that the FBI could have obtained permission to wiretap Page even without the evidence that the memo portrays as questionable and tainted by partisan bias. But that does not mean the bureau's investigation of Page, an oil industry consultant known for his pro-Russian views, was fruitful. The FBI questioned Page in 2013 about his encounter with a Russian intelligence agent (who he apparently did not realize was a spy) and reportedly monitored his conversations in 2014. In October 2016, after press coverage of Page's chumminess with the Russian government led him to part ways with the Trump campaign, the FBI obtained a new warrant, which lasted 90 days and was renewed three times, meaning he was under FBI surveillance for a full year. Despite all this interest in Page, a peripheral figure in the Trump campaign who served as a foreign policy adviser for half a year, he was never charged with a crime. Two other Trump associates, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign consultant George Papadopoulos, have admitted lying to the FBI about direct or indirect contacts with Russian officials. But the contacts themselves were not illegal. Neither was Donald Trump Jr.'s June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who claimed to have dirt on Hillary Clinton. Although former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon called that meeting "treasonous," it clearly did not meet the legal definition of treason, which involves giving aid and comfort to an enemy at war with the United States. Some of President Trump's opponents argue that by agreeing to the meeting, Donald Jr. knowingly solicited a campaign contribution from a foreigner, which would be illegal. That seems like quite a stretch. It is even harder to see how the president's role in crafting a misleading public statement about the meeting with Veselnitskaya—a subject in which Special Counsel Robert Mueller reportedly has shown a keen interest—violated any laws. If lying to the public were a crime, Trump would be eligible for a life sentence. Lying to federal investigators is a different matter, as Lynch and Papadopoulos discovered. That explains why several of Trump's lawyers are advising him against agreeing to an open-ended interview with Mueller, which would give the president ample opportunity to commit a felony, even if only to deny knowledge of contacts that look shady but were not actually criminal. It is less clear whether a president can commit obstruction of justice by doing things he has undisputed legal authority to do, such as firing the FBI director. In practice, since it is doubtful whether a sitting president can be indicted, a president's obstruction of justice, which figured prominently in the impeachment of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, is whatever Congress says it is. The current Congress, controlled by the president's party, has shown little interest [...]

Don't Blame Pain Pills for the Opioid Crisis


Chris Christie, the outgoing governor of New Jersey, has repeatedly told the story of a law school classmate who died of an overdose after getting hooked on oxycodone prescribed for back pain. A recently released final report from the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which Christie chaired, wrongly implies that such cases are typical. "A widely held and supportable view is that the modern opioid crisis originated within the healthcare system," the report says; the problem began with "a growing compulsion to detect and treat pain." According to this narrative, doctors in the late 1990s began to underestimate the risk of addiction and overdose among patients prescribed narcotics for pain. Responding to advocacy on behalf of pain patients and deceptive marketing by drug companies, they supposedly began prescribing opioids left and right, leading to a surge in "iatrogenic addiction" (addiction caused by treatment) and overdose deaths. To correct that disastrous mistake, the Christie commission says, doctors need to worry less about the suffering caused by untreated pain and more about the dangers posed by painkillers. But that conclusion is fundamentally misguided, because the commission's explanation is wrong in several crucial ways. Opioid addiction and opioid-related deaths typically involve multi-drug users with histories of substance abuse and psychological problems, not drug-naive patients who accidentally get hooked while being treated for pain. Attempts to prevent overdoses by closing off access to legally produced narcotics make matters worse for both groups, depriving pain patients of the analgesics they need to make their lives bearable while driving nonmedical users into a black market where the drugs are more variable and therefore more dangerous. As Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, noted in a 2016 New England Journal of Medicine article, "addiction occurs in only a small percentage of persons who are exposed to opioids—even among those with preexisting vulnerabilities." A 2010 review found that less than 1 percent of patients taking opioids for chronic pain experienced addiction. A 2012 review likewise concluded that "opioid analgesics for chronic pain conditions are not associated with a major risk for developing dependence." Volkow found that "rates of carefully diagnosed addiction have averaged less than 8% in published studies." The risk of fatal overdose is even lower. A 2015 study that had followed pain patients treated with narcotics for up to 13 years found that one in 550 died from an opioid-related overdose, which is a risk of less than 0.2 percent. A study of opioid-related deaths in North Carolina found 478 fatalities among 2.2 million residents who were prescribed opioids in 2010, making the annual rate 0.022 percent. The risk of addiction and overdose is not random. A 2012 study of opioid-related fatalities in Utah found that 61 percent of the decedents had used illegal drugs, 80 percent had been hospitalized for substance abuse (including abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs as well as prescription medications), 56 percent had a history of mental illness, and 45 percent had been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons other than substance abuse. The vast majority of opioid-related deaths—more than 90 percent, according to data from New York City—involve combinations of substances. For the most part, people are not dying simply by taking too many pain pills. Even Christie's friend washed down his Percocet with vodka. If the aim is reducing deaths from drug poisoning, there is not much logic to making prescription analgesics even harder to obtain, as the Christie commission recommends. According to a 2016 analysis of opioid-related fatalities in Massachusetts, just 8 percent of[...]

Poland’s Holocaust Bill Is a Hate Speech Ban


In Poland, as in several other European countries, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust. Soon, thanks to a bill that was approved by the lower house of the Polish parliament on Friday, it may also be a crime to discuss the Holocaust too frankly. The pending ban on references to Polish complicity in Nazi genocide, which has provoked outrage in Israel and around the world, may seem inconsistent with the ban on Holocaust denial. But the two taboos are of a piece with each other and with Poland's prohibition of ethnic insults—a fact that should give pause to American fans of European-style speech regulation. The Polish bill makes it a crime, punishable by fines and up to three years in prison, to accuse "the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich." The legislation was motivated largely by anger at the common use of phrases like "Polish death camps," which could be read to mean that the war crimes committed by Germans in occupied Poland were a project of the Polish government. "German Nazi crimes are attributed to Poles," Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki complained last week. "And so far the Polish state has not been able to effectively fight these types of insults to the Polish nation." Some of these "insults" happen to be true, since part of "the Polish nation" was "complicit in the Nazi crimes." Poles saved Jews, but Poles also murdered Jews, under Nazi instruction and on their own initiative. Acknowledging that complicated and troubling reality could expose people to criminal liability under the proposed law, notwithstanding its focus on statements "contrary to fact" and its exemption for people engaged in "artistic or scientific activities." The bill, which applies to mistakes as well as deliberate misrepresentations, charges the government with determining what is true and whose motives are elevated enough to shield them from prosecution. The impact of such a system goes far beyond the people who are actually fined or imprisoned, since the possibility of an investigation encourages self-censorship. The result—people afraid to speak their minds, lest they attract unwanted attention from the government—hardly seems consistent with the "freedom to express opinions" and "disseminate information" guaranteed by the Polish constitution. The same could be said of the Polish laws that make a criminal out of anyone who minimizes or denies Nazi war crimes or who insults or incites hatred against people based on their nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion. These are fuzzy categories that invite arbitrary and unpredictable enforcement, chilling speech that might offend the sensibilities of protected groups. The proposed ban on charges of Polish complicity in the Holocaust is similar in logic as well as impact, since it criminalizes "insults to the Polish nation," a kind of group defamation. The same principle that is aimed at protecting minorities from verbal oppression can be easily adapted by majorities seeking to suppress speech that makes them uncomfortable. We need not look abroad to see how slippery the concept of hate speech can be. Last year Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, argued that the University of California at Berkeley's decision to cancel a speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter did not raise any constitutional issues because "hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment." Dean was wrong about that, since "hate speech" is not a legally relevant category in the United States, and his loose use of the phrase demonstrated why making it so would be dangerous. Why bother to argue with your opponents when you can have them arrested? The Polish legislators who want to [...]

E-Cigarettes Can Be Lifesavers


This week the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) weighed in on the question of whether e-cigarettes are a public health menace or a public health boon. The answer is yes, according to a NASEM report published on Tuesday. The report, which was sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), concludes that "e-cigarettes cannot be simply categorized as either beneficial or harmful to health." While that is true in principle, the report gives too much weight to scenarios in which these products could be harmful, even while confirming that they dramatically reduce exposure to toxins and carcinogens for smokers who switch to them. NASEM's advice is important because it will guide the FDA as the agency decides how to regulate the vaping industry, which last year got a four-year reprieve from rules that threatened to drive the vast majority of companies out of business. The demands that the FDA ultimately imposes on manufacturers of vaping equipment and liquids will affect the options available to consumers and their knowledge of them, which in turn will determine the extent to which they take advantage of products that could save their lives. The NASEM report, which is the work of a committee chaired by University of Washington toxicologist David Eaton, acknowledges the harm-reducing potential of e-cigarettes. "E-cigarette aerosol contains fewer numbers and lower levels of most toxicants than smoke from combustible tobacco cigarettes does," Eaton et al. say. "Laboratory tests of e-cigarette ingredients, in vitro toxicological tests, and short-term human studies suggest that e-cigarettes are likely to be far less harmful than combustible tobacco cigarettes." When people who otherwise would be smoking use e-cigarettes instead, that represents an unambiguous gain from a public health perspective, which seeks to minimize disease and preventable death. "If e-cigarette use by adult smokers leads to long-term abstinence from combustible tobacco cigarettes," the report says, "the benefit to public health could be considerable." But Eaton and his colleagues worry that e-cigarettes also could increase tobacco-related morbidity and mortality if they encourage teenagers to smoke. Depending on how big that effect is, they say, it might even outweigh the benefit from smoking cessation among adults. That concern seems wildly implausible in light of current trends. Cigarette smoking by teenagers has continued to fall despite a surge in experimentation with vaping, and last year it reached the lowest level ever recorded by the Monitoring the Future Study, which began surveying high school students in 1975. Two other factors make it unlikely that significant numbers of teenagers become smokers after getting hooked on nicotine in e-cigarettes. The vast majority of nonsmoking teenagers who vape do so only occasionally, and most of them use nicotine-free e-liquids. Against these facts, the NASEM report cites studies that find teenagers who try vaping are more likely than those who don't to subsequently try smoking. According to Eaton et al., these studies amount to "substantial evidence that e-cigarette use increases risk of ever using combustible tobacco cigarettes among youth and young adults." As the report acknowledges, however, these observational studies do not distinguish between correlation and causation. They may simply show that teenagers who are inclined to try vaping are also inclined to try smoking. Such research cannot tell us how many of these teenagers become regular smokers or whether they would have experimented with tobacco even if e-cigarettes did not exist. Under the collectivist calculus prescribed by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, Eaton et al. note, it is not [...]

Stop Warrantless Snooping on Americans


Over the course of two hours last Thursday morning, Donald Trump offered two diametrically opposed takes on a surveillance bill making its way through Congress. Both were wrong. The FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017, which the House approved last week and the Senate is considering this week, has nothing to do with purported wiretapping at Trump Tower or any other direct surveillance of the Trump campaign, as the president initially suggested. But neither is its impact limited to "foreign bad guys on foreign land," as Trump said in a corrective tweet after alarmed advisers explained his administration's position to him. The bill would renew for six years Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which authorizes warrantless collection of communications between people in the United States and people in other countries when "a significant purpose" of the snooping is obtaining "foreign intelligence information." Although the official target is supposed to be a "non-U.S. person" (i.e., neither a U.S. citizen nor a legal permanent resident) who is believed to be located in a foreign country, the National Security Agency "incidentally" gathers a great deal of information about Americans, including their international emails, chat sessions, and phone calls. Once the information has been collected, the FBI can peruse it at will, looking for evidence of crimes that may have nothing to do with foreign intelligence (itself a very broad category), let alone terrorism or national security. Section 702 thus gives the FBI and other law enforcement agencies a way to dodge the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, which is generally understood to require a warrant based on probable cause for surveillance that reveals the content of private conversations. The bill that the House approved implicitly acknowledges this problem by requiring a warrant to search Section 702 data about Americans—but only when the FBI is looking for information about someone who is already the target of a criminal investigation (and only when the investigation is not related to national security). Criminal suspects, in other words, would receive more privacy protection than people who the government has no reason to believe have broken the law. The FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act also opens the door to reviving a suspended program that collected international communications "about" a foreign intelligence target. That kind of surveillance can pick up exchanges where neither party is the target and, due to technical problems in screening out domestic internet traffic, even when both parties are in the United States. Last week, by a vote of 233 to 183, the House rejected an amendment that would have required a warrant for searches of Section 702 data and for surveillance partly motivated by a desire to collect information about Americans. That amendment, known as the USA RIGHTS Act, also would have explicitly banned "about" surveillance and limited the use of Section 702 information to cases involving foreign intelligence or national security. The legislators who supported the USA RIGHTS Act included conservative Republicans such as James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Ted Poe (Texas) as well as progressive Democrats such as Jared Polis (Colo.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.). They were united by a belief that constitutional rights must be respected even when they inconvenience people who think invoking national security should be the end of the argument. "Our Founders gave us the Fourth Amendment to prevent a tyrannical government from invading our privacy, and we are fools to relinquish that hard-won right because of fear," writes Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who cosponsored the USA RIGH[...]

Federalists Can’t Support a Cannabis Crackdown


Before last Thursday, state-licensed marijuana merchants operated in a highly uncertain legal environment, subject to the whims of federal prosecutors who could at any moment decide to shut them down, take their property, and send them to prison. Now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has clarified the Justice Department's policy regarding the cannabis industry, state-licensed marijuana merchants operate in a highly uncertain legal environment, subject to the whims of federal prosecutors who could at any moment decide to shut them down, take their property, and send them to prison. Sessions calls this "a return to the rule of law." The description is dubious, not only because the situation for state-legal marijuana growers and distributors is fundamentally unchanged but also because the cannabis crackdown threatened by Sessions offends a basic principle of constitutional law: The federal government may not exercise powers it was never granted. U.S. attorneys prosecute a minuscule percentage of marijuana violations, and they have very broad discretion to decide which ones are worth their time. Sessions rescinded Justice Department guidelines that said a violator's compliance with state law was one factor prosecutors should consider. The reasoning, as explained in a 2013 memo from James Cole, then the deputy attorney general, was that state-regulated marijuana businesses are less likely to impinge on "federal enforcement priorities" such as stopping interstate smuggling and sales to minors. Cole did not tell U.S. attorneys to leave state-legal cannabusinesses alone, but since 2013 they generally have. It's not clear whether Sessions' memo will change that. Sessions called the marijuana-specific guidelines "unnecessary" and said prosecutors should be guided by "the Department's well-established general principles." Last week the interim U.S. attorneys in Colorado and the Southern District of California, both Sessions appointees, said they would continue as before. But given Sessions' well-known opposition to marijuana legalization, his memo was widely seen as portending more aggressive enforcement of the federal ban. That prospect provoked bipartisan criticism from state officials and members of Congress, uniting Democrats who support drug policy reform with Republicans who support federalism. Sessions' boss counts himself in the latter group, and he has repeatedly applied the principle of state autonomy to marijuana. In July 2016, for instance, a TV reporter in Colorado Springs asked Donald Trump what he thought about using federal power to shut down the state-authorized cannabis industry in states such as Colorado. "I wouldn't do that, no," Trump replied. "I'm a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely." That position is broadly popular. Last summer a Quinnipiac University poll found that 75 percent of Americans, including 59 percent of Republicans, opposed "enforcing federal laws against marijuana" in the 29 states that "have already legalized medical or recreational marijuana." Refraining from such interference also happens to be what the Constitution requires. Under the 10th Amendment, "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." Unlike alcohol prohibition, the national marijuana ban was never authorized by a constitutional amendment. Its purported legitimacy instead relies on reading the power to regulate interstate commerce so broadly that it accommodates nearly anything Congress wants to do. In 2005 the Supreme Court said the Commerce Clause covers every last speck of cannabis in the country, even if it never cross[...]

Stop Pretending Sober Drivers Are Stoned


Last year Kali Su Schram was sentenced to six months in jail because of a fatal traffic accident she did not cause, thanks to Michigan's unjust and unscientific definition of drugged driving. Schram had the right of way when a bicyclist suddenly appeared in front of her at an intersection, but she was blamed anyway because she had a detectable amount of THC in her blood. California, where state-licensed marijuana stores began serving recreational consumers on Monday, takes a more rational approach to driving under the influence of cannabis, requiring evidence of impairment. But three of the eight states where marijuana is legal for nonmedical use have adopted versions of the Michigan model, falsely equating impairment with arbitrary levels of THC in the blood. In Michigan any amount of THC suffices for a DUI conviction. The cutoff in Nevada, where legal recreational sales began last year, is two nanograms per milliliter, which is not quite as strict but still criminalizes driving by many marijuana users who pose no threat to the public. Because THC is absorbed by fatty tissue, it can be detected in the blood of frequent cannabis consumers as long as a month after last use. In a 2009 study, a frequent pot smoker had a THC level of seven nanograms on the first day of abstinence, then between two and four nanograms during the next six days. A 2015 study found that a cannabis consumer tested at or above five nanograms as long as five days after last use. Five nanograms is the legal cutoff in Washington, where any driver who hits that level is automatically guilty of DUI. Colorado allows juries to infer impairment at a THC level of five nanograms or more but lets defendants rebut that inference. In 2015 Melanie Brinegar, a medical marijuana patient who tested at 19 nanograms after she was pulled over for driving with an expired tag, used the latter provision to win an acquittal. Even though Brinegar's THC concentration was nearly four times the level that Colorado treats as presumptively equivalent to driving under the influence, she persuaded a jury that she wasn't. In 2013 KIRO-TV, the CBS station in Seattle, found that regular cannabis consumers could pass driving tests at even higher THC levels. Nor does a five-nanogram rule make sense for less frequent users. According to experiments at the National Advanced Driving Simulator in Iowa City, occasional cannabis consumers with THC levels exceeding 13 nanograms, more than twice Washington's cutoff, show lane weaving similar to drinkers with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, the usual DUI threshold. "Per se" rules that define stoned driving based on THC in the blood appeal to politicians and the general public because they look similar to state laws that define drunk driving based on alcohol in the blood. But the latter policy, while problematic because of individual variability, has a much stronger scientific basis. "Whereas the impairment effects for various concentration levels of alcohol in the blood or breath are well understood," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes, "there is little evidence available to link concentrations of other drugs to driver performance." Hence "specific drug concentration levels cannot be reliably equated with a specific degree of driver impairment." A 2016 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety noted that THC blood levels do not predict performance on roadside sobriety tests. It said "there is no evidence from the data collected…that any objective threshold exists that established impairment." As Staci Hoff, research director at the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, noted in a TV interview last summer, "Mor[...]