Despite new measures from the federal government that suggests a shift away from the War on Drugs, reefer madness remains alive and well in the Obama administration. Michael Botticelli, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, reiterated the federal government's opposition to legalizing marijuana at a House panel hearing last week.
While the hearing was focused on the opioid crisis, Botticelli talked about cannabis in a way that was more reminiscent of the Nixon administration than the Obama administration's supposed progressiveness.
"We have historically high levels of marijuana use among youth and we also see historically low levels of perception of risk of marijuana use among the youth in our country," said Botticelli.
"What about the kids?!" is an argument that has been trotted out by prohibitionists for decades. But even federal data show that cannabis consumption by teens in legal-weed states is flat. A study that looked at more than one million teenagers in 48 states found no evidence that legal medical marijuana led to increased youth use. Worries that legalization will contribute to lower risk perception and increased consumption have not played out.
Botticelli also deployed a favorite of prohibitionists – the gateway theory. "I think the evidence is pretty clear that early use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana – often used together – significantly increases the probability that someone will develop a more significant addictive disorder later in their life," he said. "Early substance use actually effects brain development and predisposes people for more significant vulnerabilities later in their life."
Scientists have repeatedly debunked the gateway drug myth. Even the National Institute of Drug Abuse states on its website: "The majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, 'harder' substances." Both President Obama and Botticelli should know these things: They have both used cannabis without any problems in the past. The scientist who coined the term "gateway drug" found that nicotine "appeared to be the most effective gateway of all." Yet no one in the federal government wants to make cigarettes illegal – they recognize education as a more useful tool for decreasing consumption than prohibition.
President Obama has granted clemency to non-violent drug offenders and allocated federal dollars to treatment. While it seems like the White House has taken some steps back from the criminal justice approach, the anti-marijuana rhetoric of the drug war still rears its ugly head. Thankfully there are members of Congress that are pushing back against it – Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) disputed Botticelli's gateway claims during the hearing.
We can only hope that as more states legalize medical and recreational cannabis, fewer members of Congress will be swayed by the drug-war narrative. But one thing is clear: the Obama administration is still committed to fighting the War on Drugs.