When the Obama Administration decided to invite petitions from the public, it no doubt anticipated that there would be one or more about legalizing cannabis, a proposal that now has roughly 50% public support. Of course, the Administration isn’t ready to go there, but it had a perfectly sensible response:
Marijuana is the most widely used of the illicit drugs, and clearly not as risky for users or others as cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. Of course it is not benign: about 10% of those who start to use it come to meet clinical criteria for abuse or dependency. Use by juveniles – the median first user is now in the 11th grade – is especially hazardous, just as youthful drinking is especially hazardous.
Marijuana prohibition is also not benign: it generates an illicit market measured in the tens of billions of dollars, leads to three-quarters of a million possession arrests each year, and keeps tens of thousands of people behind bars for dealing. Marijuana-smuggling revenues contribute their bit to drug-related violence in Mexico.
If it were possible to end the prohibition – to legalize marijuana – without greatly increasing the number of people who wind up dependent on the drug or the number of young people damaged by early exposure to it, that course of action would have strong arguments in its favor. But no one has actually proposed a detailed plan for legalization that would not lead to a large upsurge in use, including use by minors. Certainly, “regulating marijuana like alcohol” does not describe such a policy, since alcohol has many more abusers, and many more youthful users, than marijuana, in part due to history but in part due to the fact that alcohol is legal and heavily marketed.
The President would like to encourage those who favor changes in marijuana policy to develop concrete proposals for a post-prohibition policy. Perhaps it would be possible to have legal access without mass commerce. Until such a proposal is on the table, any move toward legalization would be premature.
The question of the medical utility of the cannabis plant or of the chemicals it contains is separate from the question of its availability for recreational use. “Marijuana” does not name a medicine: there is too much variability in the chemical composition of different cannabis preparations for a physician to prescribe it with any assurance about its likely effects on a patient. If someone figures out a way to produce either plant material or extracts with a known and reproducible pharmaceutical profile, and performs clinical studies with that material demonstrating safety and efficacy for the treatment of some condition, that product can and will be approved, in the normal process, by the Food and Drug Administration, and will then be available as a prescription medicine. But that work has yet to be carried out; the Federal government has some responsibility for that, because regulations have obstructed the process of research. Today I am instructing the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Attorney General to work together to eliminate the administrative barriers that currently impede the necessary research, and to consider what financial or other help the government could provide to the effort to develop specific cannabis preparations or extracts for medical use.
That’s the good news: the Administration had a good response available.
The bad news is that the actual response was this appalling bit of flannelmouth:
What We Have to Say About Legalizing Marijuana
By: Gil Kerlikowske
When the President took office, he directed all of his policymakers to develop policies based on science and research, not ideology or politics. So our concern about marijuana is based on what the science tells us about the drug’s effects.
According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health- the world’s largest source of drug abuse research – marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment. We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms. Studies also reveal that marijuana potency has almost tripled over the past 20 years, raising serious concerns about what this means for public health – especially among young people who use the drug because research shows their brains continue to develop well into their 20’s. Simply put, it is not a benign drug.
Like many, we are interested in the potential marijuana may have in providing relief to individuals diagnosed with certain serious illnesses. That is why we ardently support ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine. To date, however, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine have found smoked marijuana to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition.
As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem. We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.
That is why the President’s National Drug Control Strategy is balanced and comprehensive, emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of drugs entering our communities. Preventing drug use is the most cost-effective way to reduce drug use and its consequences in America. And, as we’ve seen in our work through community coalitions across the country, this approach works in making communities healthier and safer. We’re also focused on expanding access to drug treatment for addicts. Treatment works. In fact, millions of Americans are in successful recovery for drug and alcoholism today. And through our work with innovative drug courts across the Nation, we are improving our criminal justice system to divert non-violent offenders into treatment.
Our commitment to a balanced approach to drug control is real. This last fiscal year alone, the Federal Government spent over $10 billion on drug education and treatment programs compared to just over $9 billion on drug related law enforcement in the U.S.
Thank you for making your voice heard. I encourage you to take a moment to read about the President’s approach to drug control to learn more.
The first test of honest policy analysis is that it must reflect the potential disadvantages of the proposed course of action. The statement above fails that test, in that it doesn’t acknowledge that cannabis prohibition carries heavy costs. The second test is that it not say anything obviously false. Unless “cognitive impairment” refers to intoxicated behavior, I’m not aware of any research that shows that cannabis use damages cognitive functioning (as heavy alcohol use clearly does).
You needn’t disagree with the Administration’s decision not to open yet another front in the culture wars by proposing marijuana legalization to be grossly disappointed that the Administration couldn’t come up with a reasoned defense of that decision.