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Is Anti-Pot Hysteria Waning at the Times?

Yesterday The New York Times ran a Fashion & Style article about marijuana that, in the usual fashion and style of drug scare stories, begins and ends with cautionary anecdotes of addiction. The story hypes the alleged hazards of rising cannabis potency, which it says may be "contributing to higher addiction rates," without quoting experts who question that claim or pointing out that marijuana users tend to compensate for higher THC content by smoking less. At the same time, the piece makes several concessions that undermine the anti-pot thesis. It notes, for example, that the percentage of pot smokers among Americans admitted to drug treatment has "increased significantly" in the last decade or so but allows that "57 percent of those admitted for marijuana addiction treatment were ordered to do so by law enforcement." (The significance of that concession would have been clearer had the Times mentioned that arrests for marijuana possession increased dramatically during the same period.) Here are a few other points that are not likely to show up in a DEA press release:

Addiction experts agree marijuana does not pose as serious a public health problem as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. The drug cannot lead to fatal overdose and its hazards pale in comparison with those of alcohol....

Advocates and even some addiction specialists say cannabis is an effective treatment for medical and emotional problems, and can even help some battling addictions to harder drugs.

The risk of addiction, they say, is less problematic than for alcohol and other drugs. For instance, of the people who had used marijuana, only 9 percent became addicted, according to a 1999 study by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, a nonprofit research organization on science and health. Of those who drank alcohol, 15 percent became addicted. For cocaine, the figure was 17 percent, and heroin, 23 percent....

Many people can smoke marijuana every day without ill effects, advocates say, just as many casually drink wine in the evening....

Marijuana withdrawal is not nearly as severe as withdrawal from most other drugs. Giving up drinking can cause fatal seizures....

Some doctors specializing in treating addicts would rather prescribe marijuana for anxiety and insomnia than sleeping pills or Valium and Xanax, which are highly addictive.

Even the opening anecdote about a writer in Manhattan who "started smoking pot when she was 15" and calls it "a slow form of suicide" falls short of the typical tale of degradation, destitution, and disease:

"I would come home from work, close my door, have my bong, my food, my music and my dog, and I wouldn't see another person until I went to work the next day," said Joyce..."What kind of life is that? I did that for 20 years."

From this account, I gather that Joyce has been gainfully employed her entire adult life and that her job pays well enough for her to afford her own apartment in Manhattan, one that is well-stocked with food and has a nice sound system. Scary stuff.

Even more encouraging than the article's relatively restrained tone is the online debate to which it links. The Times asked five drug policy experts to address the question of whether "addiction will rise" if "marijuana is legal." The general thrust of their answers is "maybe," but every participant is careful to note that prohibition also carries costs that have to be taken into account, and all of them seem to support more-liberal marijuana policies, ranging from decriminalization of possession for personal use to legalization of production and sale. Since the Times presumably tried to represent a wide array of opinion, the consensus against the status quo is striking.

[Thanks to Tom Angell at LEAP for the tip.]


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