Earlier this month, a survey from the National Association of Counties reported that local law enforcement agencies think the federal government has its anti-drug priorities backward, putting too much emphasis on marijuana and not enough on truly lethal drugs like methamphetamine. Now a new report suggests that even the federal government's top drug cops - the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration - know something is very wrong.
They'll never say it explicitly, of course. Executive branch agencies don't openly criticize White House policies. But the message in the DEA's 2005 "National Drug Threat Assessment" - prepared in February but released with no publicity this month - is unmistakable: The war on marijuana is a failure, and cops overwhelmingly see meth as a greater threat.
For reasons no one outside the Bush administration understands, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under director John Walters has been obsessed with marijuana. In November 2002, the office sent a letter to the nation's prosecutors declaring flatly, "Nationwide, no drug matches the threat posed by marijuana."
That emphasis has continued, most visibly in ONDCP's press conferences, news releases and ad campaigns. Recent efforts have included highly dubious claims that marijuana causes mental illness and even more dubious claims that marijuana causes lung cancer.
America's police have different priorities, the DEA found. Asked to identify the greatest drug threat in their communities, only 12 percent of local law enforcement agencies named marijuana - a figure that has been declining for years. In contrast, 35.6 percent named cocaine and 39.6 cited methamphetamine as the greatest threat - despite the fact that marijuana use is much more common.
The DEA said, "Data indicate that, despite the volume of marijuana trafficked and used in this country, for many in law enforcement marijuana is much less an immediate problem than methamphetamine, for example, which is associated with more tangible risks such as violent users and toxic production sites."
While sucking resources away from more serious drug problems, the government's war on marijuana hasn't even succeeded on its own terms. Despite the eradication of some 31/2 million marijuana plants last year, the DEA could find "no reports of a trend toward decreased availability" anywhere in the country. And rates of marijuana use among both adults and teens remain higher than they were when President Nixon first declared "War on Drugs" more than three decades ago. "Indeed," the report noted, "reporting from some areas has suggested that marijuana is easier for youths to obtain than alcohol or cigarettes."
This is crazy. America desperately needs drug policies based on science, reason and common sense. If the current regime at ONDCP is incapable of moving in that direction, the president must replace director Walters with someone who lets policy be guided by facts, not ideology.