Thursday, April 16, 2009

Global Drug Policy Must Change Now

We need to have a national -- and a global -- conversation about drugs. Let's start with the big picture.

It is clear that the world is currently undergoing a massive paradigm shift, away from the 20th-century and into the 21st. The specifics of this paradigm shift are not entirely clear yet (historians will be able to make better sense of it after it has occurred), but it is clear that the global financial system meltdown has spurred the housing market to shift from suburban sprawl towards more focused development in cities; for cars to shift from gas-guzzling SUVs to plug-in electric hybrids and similar more-efficient vehicles; for the American presidency to shift from a war-mongering rich white idiot towards a smart guy who actually understands the issues and has a clear progressive vision for the future. This paradigm shift, however, is not all roses and honey. There is massive bloodshed and economic hardship worldwide. What I would like to propose is a way to ease just a little bit of both, both abroad and domestically, through the following program:

* Legalize all drugs, worldwide
* Tax their productions and distribution
* Regulate them like alcohol and cigarettes are currently regulated
* Use some of the tax proceeds to help fund treatment programs and other initiatives to deal with the societal consequences of this program.

Currently, the United States is spending billions of dollars in places like the Andes of South America, Central America, Mexico and Afghanistan to fight drug production and battle with drug cartels and the terrorist/guerrilla/insurgent groups that are funded by their money. Instead of spending American taxpayer dollars on military spending for a war on drugs that cannot ever be won, we should cut out the financial legs of the international drug cartels by shifting drug profits to the sovereign nations within which drug production occurs, which will both empower and stabilize those governments while at the same time ridding them of some of their largest domestic problems.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban is largely funded by domestic drug production and international trafficking. Despite American and NATO efforts at drug eradication, hashish production is rising even as the military reports signs of progress in opium poppy eradication.

In Mexico, over 10,475 executions related to the drug war have occurred since President Calderon took office in 2006. This is just the latest Latin American country where drug violence has raised its ugly head, as thousands have died in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Panama and elsewhere in the decades since the United States has been fighting the drug war with all the force of its military might. There are signs, however, that this hemisphere is getting fed up with this failed policy, and that change may be on the horizon.

Latin American leaders, in releasing a report in February calling for a global paradigm shift in drug policy, said:
“Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.”

We will never eradicate drugs. We've tried for decades, indeed for nearly a century, and all the best efforts of the best minds and most powerful governments in the world have failed. Americans and others around the world continue to use drugs of all flavors, and the market continues to supply them. The time has come for a fundamental change in the system.

A recent essay in The Wall Street Journal strongly advocates for the legalization of drugs, saying:
Decriminalizing the possession and use of marijuana would raise billions in taxes and eliminate much of the profits that fuel bloodshed and violence in Mexico. ... The only long-term solution to the cartel-related murders in Mexico is to legalize the other illegal drugs we overlooked when we repealed Prohibition in 1933.

Obviously, the recent media storm regarding all of the drug-related deaths in Mexico is weighing heavily on the minds of many people in this country. But, the WSJ article goes further:
We cannot destroy the appetite for psychotropic drugs. Both animals and humans have an innate desire for the altered consciousness obtainable through drugs. What we can and should do is eliminate the black market for the drugs by regulating and taxing them as we do our two most harmful recreational drugs, tobacco and alcohol. ... Marijuana presents the strongest case for this approach. According to some estimates, marijuana comprises about 70% of the illegal product distributed by the Mexican cartels. Marijuana will grow anywhere. If the threat of criminal prosecution and forfeitures did not deter American marijuana farmers, America's entire supply of that drug would be home-grown. If we taxed the marijuana agribusiness at rates similar to that for tobacco and alcohol, we would raise about $10 billion in taxes per year and would save another $10 billion we now spend on law enforcement and imprisoning marijuana users and distributors. ... After we reap the rewards from decriminalizing marijuana, we should move on to hard drugs. This will encounter strong resistance. Marijuana is a relatively safe drug. No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose nor has anyone gone on a violent rampage as a result of a marijuana high. Cocaine, heroin and amphetamines, on the other hand, can be highly addictive and harmful, both physically and psychologically. But prohibition makes those dangers worse, unleashing on vulnerable users chemicals of unknown content and potency, and deterring addicts from seeking help with their dependency. There is burgeoning recognition, in the U.S. and elsewhere, that the health benefits and the myriad social and economic advantages of substituting regulation of hard drugs for their prohibition deserves serious consideration.

We must recognize that our global war on drugs has failed. We must recognize that our domestic war on drugs has failed. We must move immediately to legalize drugs, both internationally and domestically. This will not only allow us to achieve many elusive foreign policy goals that have been impossible up to now (such as finally defeating the Taliban and other drug-funded insurgency groups), but it will allow us to honestly deal with the myriad domestic issues created by our failed drug policies. This will require our national conversation to address some very tough topics, but luckily we are not without examples from abroad to help guide us as we make the difficult decisions and craft the policies that will be required to govern our changed society. The WSJ article gives us one lead:
A most impressive experiment has been underway in Portugal since 2001, when that country decriminalized the possession and personal use of all psychotropic drugs. According to a study just published by the Cato Institute, "judged by virtually every metric," the Portuguese decriminalization "has been a resounding success." Contrary to the prognostications of prohibitionists, the numbers of Portuguese drug users has not increased since decriminalization. Indeed, the percentage of the population who has ever used these drugs is lower in Portugal than virtually anywhere else in the European Union and is far below the percentage of users in the U.S.. One explanation for this startling fact is that decriminalization has both freed up funds for drug treatment and, by lifting the threat of criminal charges, encouraged drug abusers to seek that treatment.

There is thus an emerging national and international consensus that the war on drugs has failed, and that continuing to spend money fighting it is to throw more good money after bad. We can achieve many foreign policy goals, while also paving the way for a new golden era of enlightened domestic policy, by legalizing, taxing and regulating all drugs. This effort must be undertaken both within the United States and internationally, and it will involve renegotiating the many treaties that we have forced on our foreign allies over the years. This effort will be worth it, and it will pay off by providing for peace and prosperity in a way that nearly nothing else will that we could do as a nation right now. We must not let the difficulty of the effort deter us from this goal, as it is indeed the only reasonable option that we have left.

To a brighter future!


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

BART, Translink and MTC


Updated as of August 3rd, 2009: BART has apparently turned on Translink for revenue service! Congratulations are in order, all around. Also, I want to make clear that I am no longer an employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and write this in my capacity as a private citizen.


So, as of March 23, 2009, BART has announced that it will deploy the regional Translink card on its system beginning in early June, 2009. This is after a top BART official suggested in 2008 that the Bay Area dump the contractor running the project, and basically walk away from it. Though, if you attempt to go to the BART website now to confirm that date, you've met with a much-more-vague "this summer" as the predicted timeframe for the rollout.

Either way, I'll believe it when I see it.


The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC, my employer for eight-plus years), has been working on the idea of a regional electronic fare card, one that would allow for seamless travel amongst all 22+ Bay Area transit operators, since at least the early 1990s. Since then, over $88 million (out of an estimated $100 million total project cost)* has been spent, and yet the card is not even available for use on the Bay Area's flagship regional transit operator, BART.

However, right after I first started at MTC, in 2001, I was a part of the Translink pilot program, and used the electronic fare card for my daily commute on BART for over six months. It worked fine then (and it works fine now). Indeed, BART could have (and was originally scheduled to) turn Translink on for full service in 2002; however, for political and bureaucratic reasons, they never did.

Let's take a quick look at some of those reasons.

First, there's the money that BART receives from expired magnetic tickets. When you take your BART ticket out of the faregate at the end of your trip, and there's not enough value left on it for another full BART journey, but there is still a greater-than-zero value -- and you choose to buy a new ticket rather than to recharge this ticket -- BART gets to keep the change. This has been identified as a source of tens of thousands of dollars of BART's revenue each month, so it's not insignificant to them, regardless of how a reasonable person might feel about the morality of the practice (especially combined with the fact that BART provides no easy or convenient way for riders to roll multiple small-value-tickets into one larger-value ticket).

Second, "The Float." This is the vernacular name for the money that BART has in its bank accounts between the time that a person purchases a ticket, and the time that they use up the last of the value remaining on that ticket (as well as any left-over value that never gets redeemed at all). Other transit operators also have a float. Indeed, Translink has a float. The difference is that BART has been fiercely protective of their float over the years, as it numbers in the millions of dollars at any given time, and they make a significant amount of interest off of it. Translink also has a float; the problem is that, before a rider decides which transit system in the region they're going to use their card on, the Translink float can't really be assigned to a specific operator. (Of course, this could be addressed by, say, running the system for a couple of months, figuring out the overall percentage of the total that goes to each operator on average, and assigning this portion of the Translink float to them each month. If the actual disbursement varies from the estimate, the operator would just get an adjusted amount the following month. I could set up an Excel spreadsheet to track this in about an hour -- it's not complicated at all.)

So, that leads us to reason number three -- BART upper management is not only grossly incompetent, but they tend toward the total-jerk end of the human disposition spectrum. (Not to say bad things about BART employees in general -- I have many friends and colleagues who work at BART, and they're all nice, competent, intelligent folks who try their hardest to do the right thing.) This has made negotiations with the other transit agencies in the Bay Area difficult and mostly unproductive for many years. Just a couple of anecdotes: in the wake of the New Year's Day shooting of an unarmed man in the back of the head by a BART police officer, BART's current general manager decided to side with her police chief, even after serious allegations surfaced of gross misconduct in the BART police department's handling of the shooting case. The calls for her dismissal are not unjustified -- she's just not the type of enlightened leader that we need at the top of such a major transit agency. And her predecessor, Tom Margro, was such an A-1 specimen that after he left BART, he went down to Orange County to try to help them push a toll road through San Onofre State Beach, a popular surfing spot, picnic area, campground and endangered species wildlife habitat area. Wonderful fellow, Tom. And the other top BART officials involved with the Translink issue (such as Scott Schroeder, BART's controller-treasurer, the guy who suggested walking away from Translink rather than finishing implementation of the system -- as recently as summer 2008 -- despite the hundreds of millions of taxpayer funds spent on the project already) are not any better.

This issue is slowly rising in the community consciousness of the Bay Area, as people continue to hear news stories about the coming of Translink, and yet continue to endure delay after delay as BART stalls, obfuscates, delays, obstructs and otherwise does everything that they can to put off the actual opening day of Translink on their system as long as possible. This leads the educated populace of the Bay Area to ask important questions, like: BART, "Why are you still selling EZ Rider cards when Translink will take-over this process?"

Originally (around 2000-2001), MTC funded the roughly $99 million replacement of BART's aging original fare gates (which apparently were held together by duct tape and rubber bands) with new, modern fare gates with the understanding that the new faregates would be off-the-shelf compatible with the about-to-debut Translink electronic fare card. BART, however, had other ideas. They instead picked a faregate vendor (Cubic) that was in direct competition with MTC's Translink contractor (Motorola and their subcontractors). Though Cubic made claims that their system would be fully compatible with Translink, BART officials saw to it that they would have their own proprietary smart card system (EZ Rider) up and running and available to the general public years before they allowed Translink to come online.

There as some signs, however, that not only is BART finally on the verge of pulling their collective head out of their collective you-know-where and turning this system on; but that the region is on the verge of forcing some major changes on transit operators in the Bay Area. MTC suggests that "We need to undertake a fundamental reassessment of the region's transit system to identify ways to improve its productivity." This would include tackling the "tough questions," such as "overlapping services," "multiple services" that "complicate customer access," and "inconsistent service policies." Yes -- and we're all quite fed up with those "tough questions", we've had enough, and it's well past time to start looking for real solutions. Indeed, you know that somebody may have been pushed a bit too far, when even MTC begins to ask:
Can we continue to afford to support multiple operations, especially when the result is so complicated that it discourages ridership (e.g. Night Owl Service)?

Currently, after BART shuts down around midnight, the only way to leave San Francisco using transit (like, say, when the bars close at 2am) is by catching a bus that comes once an hour, and will take you to someplace where you will most likely need to transfer to another bus -- in the middle of the night -- to reach your final destination. Neither bus takes BART cards as fare payment. And, after closing down the bar and wandering out to take transit home -- how many people exactly have any money at all left in their wallet with which to pay transit fare? Did I mention that ticket machines for these buses do not exist at the bus stops where you catch them, and they don't take credit cards?

MTC continues to ask:
Can we continue to afford to accommodate inconsistent service policies when simple policy agreements are possible (e.g., discount fare eligibility)?

...and they go on to give an example of how none of the operators can agree on the percentage discount given to seniors and the disabled, the definition of "youth", the definition of "child," or how many children are allowed to ride free per paying adult rider.

MTC then presents an alternative, based on agreeing on common objectives as the starting point for a Regional Transit Sustainability Analysis:
Common Objectives

1.Identify changes in market demand
2.Develop cost-effective changes in
how service is delivered
3.Improve service reliability and
convenience to attract new riders
4.Create effective multi-year transition
to move riders into more productive

Regional Transit Sustainability Analysis

1. Analyze the transit system as a single network, ignore
jurisdictional lines.
2. Evaluate travel markets and best options for meeting demand.
3. Identify overlapping services -does the region supply too much
service in some corridors?
4. Identify cost-effective alternatives to unproductive services with
limited demand and higher subsidies.
5. Identify infrastructure improvements to reduce travel times and
increase service reliability on high volume routes.
6. Address duplication of basic customer service functions that can
be delivered more cost-effectively through consolidation.
7. Simplify fare policies and service information to encourage
transit use.

(I might add: Merge all of the Bay Area transit operators, fire all the top management, and consolidate all of the employee positions that don't actually involve driving or maintaining a bus, train, or ferry or their right-of-way, stations and associated facilities. Use the savings to help make transit operations more sustainable and focused on providing the best service on the most-heavily-traveled routes.)

Well, that brings us full circle. MTC is now suggesting that the transit operators simplify their fare policies to encourage transit use. Fully implementing Translink on all of the transit operators, beginning NOW with BART, would be a great first step along that path -- no study required, just flip the switch and enable people to get the cards!

*Correction: I originally stated that $338 million was the amount spent on Translink to date. This is incorrect. $338 million is the total amount budgeted for Translink over the life of the RTP to the year 2035/over the next 25 years.