Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Put Off By Constant Drug Tests, Eighth Grader Skips Honor Society

At Susquenita Middle School in Duncannon, Pa., a community 20 minutes north of Harrisburg, an eighth-grader chose to skip the National Junior Honor Society this year, reports Eric Veronikis at PennLive

Leila May was drug-tested once during her fifth grade year, once in sixth grade and three times as a seventh grader because Susquenita School District randomly tests students in grades five through 12 who participate in extracurricular activities and apply for parking permits.

She always tested negative but her parents have tired of the intrusion and embarrassment and her mother Melinda says they’re weren’t willing to sign another consent form. “It’s sad that this is what we had to resort to. It’s ridiculous.”

Twelve years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Board of Education v. Earls (2002) that schools generally have discretion to impose drug testing on participants in extracurricular activities even without particularized suspicion, on the grounds that such activities are voluntary. It declined to follow an amicus brief in which the Cato Institute and other groups had argued that random suspicionless searches in this instance amount a Fourth Amendment violation, and pointed out that kids who join academic honors groups appear less prone to engage in drug abuse than their peers, not more. Instead the Court extended the reach of a 1995 precedent, Vernonia School Dist. v. Acton, which had approved a similar regime for high school athletes

Even if the courts will not restrain the Susquenita district, common sense should. Stop the madness and let kids be kids. 

Pareto on Piketty

“The man in whose power it might be to find out the means of alleviating the sufferings of the poor would have done a far greater deed than the one who contents himself solely with knowing the exact numbers of poor and wealthy people in society.”

—Vilfredo Pareto, “The New Theories of Economics,” Journal of Political Economy 5: 485–502 (1896–97).

June’s Cato Unbound: The Snowden Files, One Year Later

This month at Cato Unbound, we’re discussing Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.

We mostly know the story, but it bears repeating: One year ago this week, Glenn Greenwald wrote a news story that would change the world forever. In it, we learned that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting enormous amounts of telephone metadata on what were presumably ordinary American citizens. The agency had done so without a warrant and without suspicion of any indiviudal person. The revelation changed forever how Americans think about national security, privacy, and civil liberties in the digital age.

More revelations soon followed. Among many others, these included NSA surveillance of web activitymobile phone location data, and the content of email and text messages. The NSA also conducted many highly embarrassing acts of surveillance against allied or benign world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the conclave that recently elected Pope FrancisIt had subverted commonly used encryption systems. It had co-opted numerous tech companies in its plans. Its leaders had repeatedly lied to, or at the very least misled, the U.S. Congress

How far should surveillance go? What has been the value of the information gained? What have we given up in the process? What are the risks, should malign actors ever get their hands on the controls of the system?

We are able to ask these questions today because of one individual: Edward Snowden, a systems administrator for the NSA who chose to make public the information to which he had access. We have no choice now but to debate it. That’s simply what democracies do whenever such momentous information becomes public.

Joining us at Cato Unbound this month are four individuals with extensive knowledge in the fields of national security and civil liberties: Cato Senior Fellow Julian Sanchez, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Benjamin Wittes, Georgetown University Professor Carrie F. Cordero, and independent journalist Marcy Wheeler. Each brings a somewhat different perspective on the matters at hand, and we welcome them all to what is sure to be a vigorous debate.

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in May

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we have selected the worst case for May.  It was the Georgia police officers who threw a flashbang grenade into an infant’s crib after ramming the door open to look for a drug dealer.  The officers were executing a no-knock warrant when they threw the flashbang grenade through the cracked door without looking or knowing who was inside the room.  The grenade (sometimes the government uses the euphemism “distraction device”) landed on the 19-month-old’s pillow and exploded, causing severe burns to his face and chest.  The child and his relatives, who were also sleeping in the converted garage room, were temporary visitors in the home because theirs had recently burned down.  The person the police were looking for was not there.

The officers involved expressed regret, and said that they had no idea there was a child present and that if they had, they would have done things differently.  The police chief said the incident is going to make them “double question” next time.  Hmm.  First, why would anyone not already “double question” before blindly tossing a grenade into a room?  Second, is the indication that a child is present really the only reason not to go full-Rambo on a house where human beings live?  Think about it.  Even if the police had solid proof that an adult was selling marijuana, meth, or cocaine from his home, is a flash bang grenade on his pillow a legit police tactic?  A legit risk?

Cases like this one not only underscore the brutal collateral damage of the drug war, but also the lack of adequate oversight over police raids like this one.   Yes, there will be a lawsuit, but that’s an insufficient response.

Check out the Cato raid map for more police raids that went awry.

Kevin Sabet’s “Seven Myths” About Marijuana

Kevin Sabet is a former senior policy adviser to then–White House Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske. In this interview with the Heritage Foundation, Sabet discusses his recent book, Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths about Marijuana. Let’s examine Sabet’s “Seven Myths.”

Myth #1. I can’t become addicted to marijuana.

That might be a myth, but who cares? Addiction is not, per se, a problem for society or an indvidual; just think about how many people are addicted to caffeine.

Myth #2. Today’s marijuana is the same old Woodstock weed my parents used.

True. Potency is now higher. But who cares? If a given puff has more THC, users can get high while inhaling less. That does not mean people get more stoned.  

Myth #3. Smoking marijuana once in a while won’t harm me as a teen.

No statistically valid study finds negative health effects from occaissional use. See here for an excellent debunking of science that claims otherwise.

Myth #4. Marijuana is not tobacco - it won’t harm my lungs.

Little evidence finds that marijuana smoking harms the lungs. Most users do not puff all day, every day.

But even if marijuana does harm the lungs, this is an argument for legalization. When marijuana is legal, users can more readily find high potency marijuana, which, as noted above, means less inhalation. Legalization also faciliates ingestion methods other than smoking (e.g., vaporization, edibles), which reduces risks to the lungs.

Myth #5. I can’t die from marijuana use.

The number of documented deaths from marijuana use is infinitessimal. Does Sabet want to ban Ibuprofen? Swimming pools? Peanuts? Penicillin?

Myth #6. Marijuana is medicine.

Why does it matter whether marijuana is medicine? True, some prohibition opponents base their case on marijuana’s reputed medicinal value, but the case for legalization is strong regardless. Bombay Sapphire martinis are not “medicine,” but they make me feel better at the end of the day (and I’m glad they are legal).

Myth #7. Marijuana will make me a more focused and better driver.

Give me a break. Perhaps a few zealots have made this claim, but virtually all legalizers agree that people should not drive under the influence of marijuana.

Bottom Line: Sabet’s seven myths are spin, pure and simple.

Chief Justice Roberts Again Rewrites Law, Avoids Duty to Hold Government’s Feet to the Constitutional Fire

In today’s ruling in Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court was obviously right to reverse as federal overreaching the conviction of a woman who used certain chemicals to attack her husband’s paramour. This was a “purely local crime,” and the decision to prosecute Carol Anne Bond for it under a law that implements the international Chemical Weapons Convention was an abuse of federal power.

But in deciding the case so narrowly, creatively reinterpreting an expansive federal statute instead of reaching the constitutional issue at the heart of this bizarre case, the Court’s majority abdicated its duty to check the other branches of government. Bond was a case about the scope of the treaty power—can Congress do something pursuant to a treaty that it can’t otherwise do?—and yet the majority opinion avoided that discussion altogether in the name of a faux judicial minimalism. That’s not surprising given that its author is Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to avoid hard calls whenever possible. (Sometimes the practical result is still the right one, as here, sometimes it’s disastrously not, as in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Obamacare case, and sometimes even Roberts finds it impossible to avoid the Court’s constitutional duty, as in Citizens United and Shelby County.)

It was thus left to Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito (in part), to do the hard work—to make those balls-and-strikes calls that Roberts promised at his confirmation hearing—and repudiate Missouri v. Holland, the 1920 case that’s been understood to mean that the federal government can indeed expand its own power by agreeing to do so with a foreign treaty partner. (Scalia’s opinion tracks Cato’s amicus brief closely, and cites my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s groundbreaking work in this area.)

One other takeaway here is that the Obama administration has yet again lost unanimously at the Supreme Court, adding to its record number of goose eggs—particularly in cases involving preposterous assertions of federal power. Here Chief Justice Roberts provides the apt langiappe: “The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.”