Pot Matters: The Drug Czar Is on Drugs

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When it comes to marijuana, the nation’s drug czar and his office are still against it. This should come as no surprise to anyone. But it’s important to keep an eye on the official position of this cabinet level office as marijuana’s legalization goes before voters in five states November. The current Director of National Drug Control Policy is Michael Botticelli, and this makes him the nation’s drug czar. What he thinks about marijuana and legalization are important, but the focus here, really, is what his agency publishes in terms of information and official policy positions.

Indeed, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has a part of their website devoted to marijuana. Pot is, after all, “a topic of significant public discourse in the United States.” And ONDCP is not too happy about this because “Confusing messages being presented by popular culture, media, proponents of ‘medical’ marijuana, and political campaigns to legalize all marijuana use perpetuate the false notion that marijuana is harmless. This significantly diminishes efforts to keep our young people drug free and hampers the struggle of those recovering from substance use disorders.”

For this reason, they oppose legalization because it marijuana causes “distorted perceptions” and reform would “would increase the availability of and use of illicit drugs.” And that, they argue, poses “significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.”

Is this news? No, not really. It will be news if and when they change their position on the issue of legalization. But it’s good to keep track of what they think, because this is ground zero for opposition to legalization.

Their main weapon is misinformation.

The ONDCP statement says that proponents “perpetuate the false notion that marijuana is harmless.” Reform advocates do not argue that cannabis is harmless, just that the risks of its use have been overstated—and that prohibition causes even greater harm.

ONCDP would also like the public to know that the drug is addictive and that it is not used by everyone. Okay, two separate issues. On the first, they eventually acknowledge that “users can become addicted” (which is different from “will”), and frankly many experts have rated marijuana’s abuse potential as lower than or safer than that of alcohol and other drugs. But second, it is interesting how defensive ONDCP has gotten about marijuana’s popularity that they feel they have to address the question “Doesn’t everyone use marijuana?”

The really, really interesting admission by ONDCP concerns just how much a monumental failure prohibition has become. Consider this: “In 2011, approximately 2.6 million Americans aged 12 or older used marijuana for the first time. This averages out to about 7,100 new marijuana users every day.” Yes, prohibition does not keep people from trying marijuana. Indeed, it can be argued that prohibition increases the availability of marijuana to young people. After all, the average age of new marijuana users is 17.5 years old. That exposes the simple truth that, under prohibition, teenagers are able to access and use marijuana.

The other comment that really deserves some attention here is this: “Simply stated, there are very few people in state or Federal prison for marijuana-related crimes.” This is a spurious, misleading claim. Now, granted, there is a technical issue here of definitions, an issue of terminology that many in the public are not aware of but one criminal justice professionals ought to know. There is a difference between prison and jail. Prison is for offenders convicted of felonies, serious crimes with sentences of a year of more. Marijuana possession, on the other hand, is a misdemeanor, a crime punished by a sentence of less than a year, and people incarcerated for marijuana possession go to jail, not prison.

ONDCP then takes on the reformer claim that legalization will cut criminal justice costs. The office says this is wrong, because legalization will create other burdens for the criminal justice system, and “ultimately to more arrests for violations of laws controlling its manufacture, sale, and use.” (Of course, this is what taxes on a legalized product will cover and a lot more.)

They acknowledge, though, that “Federal, state, and local laws pertaining to marijuana do lead to criminal justice costs” but they really don’t explain what these costs are, and they try to deflect assessment of these costs by explaining that people don’t go to prison. Sound convoluted? It is. Arrests take police off of the streets. They cost money to process at the police station, process through the court system, and process through the corrections system – even if plea bargained, and even if sanctioned with probation. It all costs money, and diverts resources from more pressing and important issues. (There’s also the social costs of folks in jail not working, paying taxes, saving up for their kids’ education and so forth.) But instead of addressing this issue, ONDCP deflects by arguing that no one goes to prison, so it’s all okay, and that legalization will more trouble than its worth.

Let’s recap the Drug Czar’s logic. Prohibition results in 7,100 new marijuana users every day, but it ought to continue because users are not sent to prison and legalization will actually increase criminal justice costs. And marijuana is dangerous, and our current approach dangerous drug is so effective that we’re producing those 7000-plus new users, many of them teens.

And they think marijuana causes “distorted perceptions”?

Perhaps a different approach—one that might reduce teenage access—is something the nation should look into? That’s exactly what’s happening. And they reason the nation is looking into alternatives is that more and more of the public has discovered that the Drug Czar and his office just aren’t making sense.

Previously in Pot Matters:  Should You Vote Libertarian?
For all of Jon Gettman’s Pot Matters columns, click here.



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