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Drug Law

The DEA’s Top 10 “Facts” on Marijuana Legalization

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Our Executive Director has posted the latest salvo of propaganda from the Drug Enforcement Administration on the NORML Blog and provided a very thorough rebuttal to the notion that Alaskans “legalized” marijuana in the 1970s, freaked out over the carnage and, my god, the children!!, and in the 1990s made it illegal again.  This “failed experiment” with “drug legalization” is supposed to be a dire warning to those on the West Coast who are trying to regulate the third-most popular recreational substance somewhat like the first, but Allen St. Pierre tells you the history of Alaskan constitutional privacy rights the DEA would like you to forget.

But left there hanging on the vine are the other nine “facts” the DEA are presenting, a la David Letterman (but not as funny), in something we’re calling the…

“These here, Paul, from our own government, from somewhere deep in Dick Cheney’s secret bunker, the Top Ten Facts About Legalization from the DEA…”

Fact 1: We have made significant progress in fighting drug use and drug trafficking in America. Now is not the time to abandon our efforts.

The Legalization Lobby claims that the fight against drugs cannot be won. However, overall drug use is down by more than a third in the last twenty years, while cocaine use has dropped by an astounding 70 percent. Ninety-five percent of Americans do not use drugs. This is success by any standards.

Actually, two out of three Americans use drugs if you include alcohol and one out of ten Americans use cannabis (National Survey on Drug Use & Health 2008) every year, so I’m not sure how you can say 95% of Americans do not use drugs.  If we were to include prescription and over-the-counter drug use, I’m sure something close to 95% of Americans actually use drugs.

But we weren’t talking about “legalizing drugs”, we’re talking about regulation of cannabis.  Whether cocaine or other drug use has risen or fallen is beside the point.  Fierce marijuana criminalization laws haven’t stopped the United States from leading the world in lifetime marijuana use and open tolerance of cannabis coffeehouses in The Netherlands haven’t moved the Dutch from having half the lifetime use rates and one-third the young teen (<=15) use rates of cannabis as Americans.  Portugal has decriminalized drugs to a large extent and the international community calls it “a resounding success”.  Singapore and Indonesia have some of the harshest anti-cannabis laws in the world, and yet they still have to keep executing the smugglers who keep bringing it in to the country.  We can’t even keep drugs out of our SuperMax federal prisons; what makes the DEA think it can succeed in keeping drugs out of free adult hands?

Lifetime cannabis use = 31% in 1988 to 41% in 2008

Drug use rates have very little to do with drug laws.  But even the DEA’s claim that drug use is down a third in twenty years is suspect.  If we define “drug use” as the lifetime rates that have been tracked by the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health over the past twenty years (1988-2008), then cannabis use has risen dramatically in the past twenty years, from 31% to 41% of the population aged 12 and older who have tried cannabis.

Lifetime crack use = more than double; heroin use = almost double; hallucinogen use = almost double; coke, meth, and inhalants = all increased >20%

In fact, when you take a look at the lifetime use of illegal drugs (cocaine, crack, meth, heroin, hallucinogens, and inhalants), you find that all those figures have risen over the past twenty years, too.

Annual alcohol consumption = steady; annual cigarette consumption = 38% in 1988 to 28% in 2008

The most interesting figures appear when you look at lifetime, annual, and monthly use of the legal drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.  Alcohol use has remained steady but declining, while cigarette use has plummeted.

What this all tells us is:

  • People that want to use substances will;
  • Maintaining prohibition over marijuana and drugs hasn’t stopped anyone; in fact use has risen;
  • Regulating dangerous and addictive drugs like alcohol and tobacco hasn’t encouraged greater use; in fact use has decreased.

 

 

Fact 2: A balanced approach of prevention, enforcement, and treatment is the key in the fight against drugs.

A successful drug policy must apply a balanced approach of prevention, enforcement and treatment. All three aspects are crucial. For those who end up hooked on drugs, there are innovative programs, like Drug Treatment Courts, that offer non-violent users the option of seeking treatment. Drug Treatment Courts provide court supervision, unlike voluntary treatment centers.

Almost twice as much of your tax money goes to trying to arrest you for drugs as trying to help you quit them

That’s a nice sentiment, but it is not how the government actually prosecutes the War on (Certain American Citizens Using Non-Pharmaceutical, Non-Alcoholic, Tobacco-Free) Drugs.  49.8% of all drug arrests are for marijuana violations, with 89% of those marijuana arrests made for possession alone.  The “balanced approach” in President Obama’s FY 2011 Budget makes the DEA the fat kid on the see-saw, with $9.9 billion appropriated for law enforcement and interdiction vs. $5.6 billion appropriated for treatment and prevention.

Fact 3: Illegal drugs are illegal because they are harmful.

There is a growing misconception that some illegal drugs can be taken safely. For example, savvy drug dealers have learned how to market drugs like Ecstasy to youth. Some in the Legalization Lobby even claim such drugs have medical value, despite the lack of conclusive scientific evidence.

Once again, I haven’t seen any movement on the West Coast to put legalization of MDMA on the ballot; we’re talking about regulating marijuana.

Remember, this is a graph on a logarithmic scale. Cannabis is actually 2,000 times safer than alcohol.

However there is a way of measuring how safe a particular substance is to ingest; it’s called a “therapeutic index“.  It’s the ratio of “ED-50″, that is, a  minimum dose that will have the desired effect in 50% of test subjects, to the “LD-50″, which is the size of a lethal dose that will kill 50% of test subjects.  For example, half the people who cop a buzz on a “dose” of alcohol – whatever amount that is – will die if they drink ten times that amount.  That’s a “therapeutic index” of 1:10.

When measured by therapeutic index, most “illegal” drugs are technically safer than alcohol and cannabis is the safest of all with a therapeutic index that’s practically immeasurable.  Cannabis is so non-toxic that it’s ratio is estimated to be 1:20,000 to 1:40,000.  The DEA’s Administrative Law Judge Francis L. Young concluded it would take a man smoking 1,500 lbs. of cannabis in 15 minutes to die of an overdose.

Fact 4: Smoked marijuana is not scientifically approved medicine. Marinol, the legal version of medical marijuana, is approved by science.

According to the Institute of Medicine, there is no future in smoked marijuana as medicine. However, the prescription drug Marinol—a legal and safe version of medical marijuana which isolates the active ingredient of THC—has been studied and approved by the Food & Drug Administration as safe medicine. The difference is that you have to get a prescription for Marinol from a licensed physician. You can’t buy it on a street corner, and you don’t smoke it.

"The DEA's doing research like it's 1999..."

Nice of the DEA to reference the 1999 Institute of Medicine report.  That was the report that concluded, as every report on the subject has, that marijuana use “does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse.

That report also noted that only 9% of marijuana users develop “dependence”, compared to 15% for alcohol, 17% for cocaine, 23% for heroin, and 32% for tobacco.

It also noted that “A distinctive marijuana and THC withdrawal syndrome has been identified, but it is mild and subtle compared with the profound physical syndrome of alcohol or heroin withdrawal,” which can cause seizures, hallucinations, and severe cravings.  According to the report, “the symptoms of marijuana withdrawal include restlessness, irritability, mild agitation, insomnia, sleep EEG disturbance, nausea, and cramping.”

So if sometime later in the Top Ten list the DEA wants you to believe that legalization of marijuana will lead to increased addiction, remember that they were the ones using this report to argue against the medical efficacy of smoked marijuana.

However, it is interesting that the DEA makes no mention of the 2009 statement by the American Medical Association which concluded “Results of short term controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis…. To the extent that rescheduling marijuana out of Schedule I will benefit this effort [to develop cannabinoid medicines], such a move can be supported.

It’s also interesting how the DEA never mentions vaporization, tinctures, and edibles, which have been proven to eliminate the major harm of cannabis use – smoking.

And I never tire of the DEA that warns us about the super-potent Schedule I “Pot 2.0: Not Your Father’s Woodstock Weed” that approach average THC potencies of 10% with maximums in the 30% range, then turns around and tells us how  Schedule III 100% potent Marinol is so safe and effective.

Fact 5: Drug control spending is a minor portion of the U.S. budget. Compared to the social costs of drug abuse and addiction, government spending on drug control is minimal.

The Legalization Lobby claims that the United States has wasted billions of dollars in its anti-drug efforts. But for those kids saved from drug addiction, this is hardly wasted dollars. Moreover, our fight against drug abuse and addiction is an ongoing struggle that should be treated like any other social problem. Would we give up on education or poverty simply because we haven’t eliminated all problems? Compared to the social costs of drug abuse and addiction—whether in taxpayer dollars or in pain and suffering—government spending on drug control is minimal.

Finally, something sort or true from the DEA: “Drug control spending is a minor portion of the U.S. budget.”  At $15.5 billion compared to the overall fiscal year budget of $3.7 trillion, they’re right.  The entire drug war budget doesn’t even equal  the single “Military Construction” line ($16.9 B) in the Pentagon’s $548 billion budget.

But then they pivot that fact to the falsehood that saving money on law enforcement and making money in tax revenues by regulating marijuana markets would not match the gross expenses we’d suffer from our kids becoming slaves to drug addiction.  Never mind that they just ignored the previous point from the 1999 IOM Report about the gateway theory – what they are telling you is that legal marijuana users will cost society more than it saves and earns from taxation.

Canadian study of costs per substance user per year

To bolster this point, drug warriors like to point out that “sin” taxes on alcohol and tobacco only bring in a fraction of money compared to the measurable social costs of alcoholism and tobacco cancers.  It’s another example of starting from a fact and pivoting to a falsehood.  Alcohol and tobacco cost society a lot of money because (a) they’re addictive (see 1999 IOM Report above) and (b) they can kill you (see therapeutic index above).  A Canadian study on the annual health costs of one tobacco, alcohol, or cannabis user were $800, $165, and $20, respectively, while the enforcement costs on tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis per user were $0, $153, and $328, respectively.  In essence, Canada is spending $328 per toker to save $20 in health care costs!  Those numbers must be worse in America.

But set aside the numbers for a moment and just use some common sense.  If cannabis users cause such a great social harm that they are a cost burden to society, we are costing society right now.  It’s not as if nobody smokes pot now and suddenly legalization on the West Coast will create a country full of 22 million pot smokers imposing a new burden on society.  I’ve broken down this cost argument before, but basically whatever we cost now (some number far less than alcohol or tobacco, certainly), we’d cost less once you’ve made some tax revenue off of us.  The California Board of Equalization estimates $1.4 billion in revenues from legalization, so there would have to be $1.4 billion-worth of new pot smokers recruited and old tokers puffing more for this theory to make any sense at all.  If California double its current 2.3 million tokers after legalization, those 2.3 million new tokers would have to cost the state $608 each to eat up the tax revenues.

For comparison’s sake, according to the UC San Francisco Institute on Health and Aging, alcohol abuse costs California $17.8 billion and kills 13,000 Californians annually.  The NSDUH State Reports tell us that 62.5% of Californians 18 and older use alcohol, which works out to 17.1 million drinkers.  That division works out to a drinker costing California $1,041 each.

So in order to swallow this whopper, we need to believe that a legalized toker will cost California 60% as much as a legal drinker, when the studies show that in Canada a legalized toker would cost about 6% as much as a legal drinker.

Fact 6: Legalization of drugs will lead to increased use and increased levels of addiction. Legalization has been tried before, and failed miserably.

Legalization has been tried before—and failed miserably. Alaska’s experiment with Legalization in the 1970s led to the state’s teens using marijuana at more than twice the rate of other youths nationally. This led Alaska’s residents to vote to re-criminalize marijuana in 1990.

Again, see Allen St. Pierre’s deconstruction of the Alaska story, and remember that the same DEA that cited the 1999 IOM Report above that said marijuana use doesn’t lead to hard drug addiction is now telling you West Coast legalization of cannabis will lead to increased addiction.

When we look at the experience of thirteen states that have decriminalized marijuana and the fourteen states that have legalized medical use of marijuana, we find the DEA’s theory blown to bits.  In fact, that same 1999 IOM Report cited by the DEA above even concluded, “In sum, there is little evidence that decriminalization of marijuana use necessarily leads to a substantial increase in marijuana use.

Fact 7: Crime, violence, and drug use go hand-in-hand.

Crime, violence and drug use go hand in hand. Six times as many homicides are committed by people under the influence of drugs, as by those who are looking for money to buy drugs. Most drug crimes aren’t committed by people trying to pay for drugs; they’re committed by people on drugs.

60% of the revenue for Mexican murderers comes from marijuana prohibition

Drugs, drugs, drugs… what does this have to do with cannabis?  The notion of a cannabis user deprived of weed and jonesing so bad he commits a crime to get the money for weed is ridiculous and the idea that cannabis users are driven to crime by the effects of cannabis is ludicrous.  Every study (like this one) that looks at violence and marijuana finds that cannabis use tends to inhibit violence by its users.

The only violence commonly attributed to marijuana is directly caused by its prohibition.  Mexican drug syndicates are not murdering 18,000 people over a three year span to protect their breweries, vineyards, beer and wine trucks, and hops and tobacco crops.  The only crime commonly attributed to marijuana use is the plundering of munchies from the fridge.

Fact 8: Alcohol has caused significant health, social, and crime problems in this country, and legalized drugs would only make the situation worse.

The Legalization Lobby claims drugs are no more dangerous than alcohol. But drunk driving is one of the primary killers of Americans. Do we want our bus drivers, nurses, and airline pilots to be able to take drugs one evening, and operate freely at work the next day? Do we want to add to the destruction by making drugged driving another primary killer?

No, I actually claim that cannabis is far safer than alcohol, see the therapeutic index data above.  This is another talking point that pivots from a fact (drunk driving is a serious problem) to a falsehood (the implied threat that legalization of cannabis would lead to more highway fatalities).

Nobody's suggesting you hot-box your ride and see how well you do on the test... but you will out-perform a drinker.

First of all, the US Dept. of Transportation fact sheet on cannabis states, “Effects from smoking cannabis products are felt within minutes and reach their peak in 10-30 minutes. Typical marijuana smokers experience a high that lasts approximately 2 hours.”  So if the bus driver, nurse, and airline pilot want to smoke a joint before bed and drive, treat, or fly me the next day, I’m not at all worried; no more so than if they decide to have shot of bourbon the night before work.

Then we have to remember that if cannabis smokers are driving, they are driving now.  If pot smoking were such a threat on our roadways we’d have seen the bodies pile up by now.  Numerous studies have confirmed what we all know:

  • Drivers under the influence of cannabis tend to follow less closely to the vehicle in front of them;
  • Drivers tend to decrease speed following cannabis inhalation;
  • Drivers with blood alcohol levels of 0.05% were three times as likely to have engaged in unsafe driving activities prior to a fatal crash as compared to individuals who tested positive for marijuana;
  • Drivers with low levels of alcohol present in their blood (below 0.05%) experienced a greater elevated risk as compared to drivers who tested positive for high concentrations of cannabis (above 5ng/ml).

 

In other words, even the highest cannabis-using driver is less dangerous than an alcohol-buzzed driver who is still below the per se impairment limits (0.08%) for alcohol.

Fact 9: Europe’s more liberal drug policies are not the right model for America.

The Legalization Lobby claims that the “European Model” of the drug problem is successful. However, since legalization of marijuana in Holland, heroin addiction levels have tripled. And Needle Park seems like a poor model for America.

Compared to Americans, Dutch teenagers use marijuana at half the rates, even though it is sold openly in coffeehouses

The Dutch began their policy of cannabis tolerance in 1976.  According to the 2008 EMCDDA National Report for The Netherlands, lifetime prevalence of heroin use was 0.3% in 1997 and 0.2% in 2001.  I looked all over the DEA’s website and press releases for 2001 looking for them to claim that Dutch cannabis tolerance has led to a one-third decrease in heroin use, but I never found it.  Prevalence of heroin use in 2005 was reported to be 0.6%, which would be triple the 2001 figure, but only double the 1997 figure.

But once again, the DEA cited the 1999 IOM Report above that tells us smoking pot doesn’t lead to heroin addiction, so I’m not sure what the DEA’s point is.  It also doesn’t help their case that their heroin use rates are less than half of American heroin use rates (1.52% lifetime prevalence).

Fact 10: Most non-violent drug users get treatment, not jail time.

The Legalization Lobby claims that America’s prisons are filling up with users. Truth is, only about 5 percent of inmates in federal prison are there because of simple possession. Most drug criminals are in jail—even on possession charges—because they have plea-bargained down from major trafficking offences or more violent drug crimes.

"The fact is that finding a first-time. non-violent offender in prison for marijuana is like finding a unicorn." -- John Walters, former drug czar, on the 11,200 Marijuana Unicorns in a cage right now.

Oh, only 1 out of 20 of the 2.3 million people we imprison are there for simple possession?  My math tells me that’s 115,000 Americans in a cage for their personal use of drugs.  The Sentencing Project determined that 11,200 of those Americans are in a cage for simple marijuana possession alone.  Of course, this is just federal prison we’re talking about, when most marijuana users are processed through city and county jails and housed in state prisons.

Another bit of falsehood pivoted to from these imprisonment facts is that pronouncement that most “drug criminals” are plea-bargaining down from more serious charges.  Often those are “intent to distribute” charges filed when a cannabis user makes the mistake of keeping separate strains in separate bags (multiple bags in the eyes of the law means you must be selling), “conspiracy” charges filed against cannabis users who “go in” with other cannabis users to split the cost of expensive cannabis, and “manufacture” charges filed when a cannabis user grows his own instead of participating in the black market.

But whether people are serving a day, 29 years, or 93 years for marijuana charges is irrelevant; it is the the arrest for marijuana possession itself that causes the harms to the user irrespective of any stay in a jail cell:

  • If you’re convicted or enter a plea, you’ll be on probation and mandatory Urinalysis Tests will be performed.
  • A conviction could impact child custody issues in family court.
  • An arrest for Possession with Intent to Distribute or an arrest for theManufacture of 5 or more plants may result in the State attempting to Forfeit your home, your car, your cash and other assets which they can do even if charges are later dismissed or you are acquitted at trial! This heinous law is know as “Asset Forfeiture”.
  • A conviction can impact Federally insured student loans
  • A felony conviction deprives you of the right to vote
  • A felony conviction deprives you of the right to possess firearms
  • A conviction can get you tossed out of government subsidized housing
  • A conviction can impair your ability to obtain food stamps and other welfare benefits
  • Your ability to ever adopt children will be jeopardized
  • You will be denied entry into Canada and possibly other countries
  • misdemeanor conviction remains on your record and available to the public for three years before it can be expunged, which may have an impact on current or future employment
  • felony conviction remains on your record and available to the public for five years before it can be expunged, which may have an impact on current or future employment.

 

The DEA is terrified because there is a legitimate shot for the voters to legalize marijuana use, manufacture, and sales in one, possibly two, and maybe even three West Coast states this year.  If this bit of reefer madness is the best counter they have to offer, I really like our chances!

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