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Drug Czar: Can't Legalize Pot Because of Prescription Drug Abuse


By "Radical" Russ Belville

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – Gandhi (kinda)

Paul Armentano, NORML’s Deputy Director, and Paul Kuhn, from the NORML Board, co-wrote an op-ed for marijuana legalization in Tennessee’s largest newspaper.  Usually when NORML composes these things we might get a response from “Parents United for Safe Healthy Youth” (or some-such anti-legalization group) but the Drug Czar’s office ignores us.

Apparently we’re now in the “they fight you” stage, because a deputy director at the ONDCP, David Mineta, took the time to rebut our op-ed.  You can tell how desperate the prohibitionists are in the age of Google to maintain the fear-mongering over cannabis right out of the gate:

Proponents of marijuana legalization often argue it will do everything from fixing our economy to ending violent crime (“Marijuana legalization bill offers safer alternative,” Tennessee Voices, Aug. 15). Yet, the science is clear: Marijuana use is not a benign drug and it is harmful to public health and safety.

I agree: marijuana use is not a benign drug.  Marijuana may be fairly benign drug, marijuana use may be a relatively benign act, but I know my verbs from my nouns.  (Is this the level of writing accepted at Berkeley these days?)  The stilted construction of the second sentence is only bested by the two strawman arguments in the first.  Nobody says it will “fix” the economy or “end” violent crime, but that legalization will help in those goals.  Kinda like how the drug czar always tells us that drug abuse is something that never goes away but prohibition will help in those goals.

After the strawmen are introduced, we dive right into the Reefer Madness lies (I’ll count them for you):

Decades of scientific study, including research from the prestigious National Institutes of Health, show marijuana use is associated with addiction (1), treatment admissions among young people (2), fatal drugged driving accidents (3), and visits to emergency rooms (4). Data also reveal that marijuana potency has almost tripled in the past 20 years (5). This is especially troubling for use among teens because the earlier a person begins to use drugs, the more likely they are to develop a more serious abuse and addiction problem later in life (6).

(1) According to the prestigious National Institutes for Health, the dependency rate for first-time users of cannabis is about 9%.  For alcohol it is 15% and for tobacco it is 32%.  So, we’re making booze and cigs prohibited soon, right?

(2) Treatment admissions are fueled by an ever-rising number of drug courts, whichsentence young people caught with cannabis to a rehab many of them don’t need or want.  A majority (57%) of admissions to rehab for cannabis are due to the criminal justice system; only 15% are self-admissions.  Over a third (37%) of cannabis rehab admissions hadn’t used any cannabis in the month prior to rehab.

(3) When you test the blood or urine of people who have been in fatal accidents and discover THC or its metabolites, what you’ve learned is that many people use cannabis.  Since metabolites stay in the urine for days or weeks and THC in the blood stays for hours or days, we aren’t learning a thing about cannabis’ culpability in accidents.  We don’t even know if the cannabis driver’s death was due to the other driver in a crash abusing meth or cocaine or heroin, since in many cases those metabolites are eliminated by the time the driver is tested.

(4) Ditto for emergency rooms – if you’re admitted for a broken leg from playing touch football and the pee test shows you smoked weed last weekend, that’s counted as a “marijuana-related emergency room admission.”

(5) Average potency of seized cannabis has varied over the years but has steadily increased.  The average now is about twice that of twenty years ago.  However, the inference that more potent marijuana equals greater addictive potential is another fallacy.  It would be like saying people who drink wine are more likely to become alcoholics than beer drinkers.  More potent pot means you get the same high with less pot, that’s all, or if you smoke more, you fall asleep.  It’s not like alcohol where a beer drunk is friendly and a tequila drunk is mean (generalizing).

(6) It’s true, the percentage of hard drug users who started with cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco is much greater than those who started with hard drugs.  That’s as meaningful as saying the percentage of people in the Hell’s Angels who rode a bicycle as kids is much greater than those who started on a Harley.  It doesn’t mean bicycles lead to biker gangs any more than cannabis leads to heroin.  The “gateway theory” has been disproved by that same prestigious National Institutes for Health report that Mineta cites above.

Would marijuana legalization make Tennessee healthier or safer? One needs to look no further than Tennessee’s current painful experience with prescription drug abuse. In Tennessee, prescription drugs are legal, regulated, and taxed — and yet rates of the abuse of pain relievers in the state exceed the national average by more than 10 percent.

So…. because Tennessee has a problem with people abusing toxic, addictive, legal prescription drugs, we need to make sure we lock ‘em in a cage if they use a non-toxic, non-addictive medicinal herb?  Is this an argument for making prescription drugs illegal?  The Drug Czar’s office is getting very desperate if the way they defend keeping marijuana in Schedule I is that they can’t control the Schedule II and III drugs.

Nationally, someone dies from an unintentional drug overdose — driven in large part by prescription drug abuse — on average every 19 minutes. What would America look like if we had just as many people using marijuana as we currently have smoking cigarettes, abusing alcohol, and abusing prescription drugs? The bottom line is that laws that control substances have had a real and lasting effect on keeping drug use rates relatively low. They keep prices higher which helps hold use rates relatively low. Moreover, other addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco, which are already legal and taxed, cost much more in social costs than the revenue they generate.

Considering that some people would substitute marijuana for alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs, I think America would look a whole lot better.  The bottom line is that Mineta equates all marijuana use with abuse, as he does tobacco use.  ”Using marijuana” and “smoking cigarettes” are equated with “abusing alcohol” and “abusing prescription drugs”, implying that alcohol and prescriptions have legitimate and acceptable uses.

Now consider Mineta’s point that prohibition keeps drug prices high.  It’s not true; in inflation-adjusted 1981 dollars, heroin is 81% cheaper, meth is 57% cheaper, cocaine is 80% cheaper, and crack is 60% cheaper.  Only cannabis is more expensive; it costs 86% more now than 1981.  So, prohibition has made the safest substance more expensive and it has acted as a price support for weed dealers and Mexican drug lords.  It hasn’t stopped anyone from accessing cannabis; 1-in-3 young adults toke annually, 1-in-8 toke weekly, and 80+% of teenagers say cannabis is easy to access.

Finally, alcohol and tobacco tax revenues don’t cover alcohol and tobacco’s social costs because… wait for it… alcohol and tobacco are toxic, addictive, and harmful to your organs.  If there are social costs from cannabis – a big “if” and a small amount – we are recovering zero in tax revenue to offset it and spending billions in a futile attempt to stop it.


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