Drugs

Feds' Utterly Pathetic Response to the New York Times' Call for Marijuana Legalization

The drug czar's office still opposes legalizing cannabis.

Photo Credit: Yarygin / Shutterstock.com

There once was a time when the mainstream media took the Drug Czar’s office seriously. Not anymore. The Office’s July 27 media release condemning the New York Times' historic decision to opine in favor of ending the federal prohibition of cannabis elicited hardly a whimper among the mainstream press. 
 
It’s easy to see why. The agency’s lack of credibility when it comes to all matters marijuana has now reached the point where it is simply no longer a participant in the ongoing public conversation surrounding pot policy. Writing on WashingtonPost.com, contributor Christopher Ingraham appropriately castigated the White House’s rebuttal as “incredibly poor” and “misleading.” The federal government’s case against marijuana reform is “surprisingly weak,” Ingraham criticized. “It's built on half-truths and radically decontextualized facts.” 
 
The editors at the New York Times, who were the target of the White Houses’s screed, were equally unimpressed, responding that the Drug Czar’s office was more obligatory than sincere. “The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy is required by statute to oppose all efforts to legalize any banned drug,” the Times David Firestone acknowledged, adding that the agency’s anti-pot stance is not an articulation of a scientific opinion but rather it is a public expression of a legally mandated ideology. 
 
Both Ingraham and Firestone are correct, of course. America’s longstanding drug war mentality – a mentality that forbids the nation’s top anti-drug cop from even publically acknowledging the objective fact that pot poses fewer risks to health than crack cocaine, methamphetamine, or heroin – commands that marijuana policy be based upon rhetoric, not rationality.
 
“Marijuana legalization is not the silver bullet solution to the issue,” the Drug Czar’s office purported in its rebuttal to The New York Times, as if they or anyone else ever suggested that it was. The agency goes on to warn that heavy cannabis consumption by young people may be associated with poorer academic achievement, ignoring the reality that the Times and other proponents of marijuana regulation explicitly advocate for the imposition of 21-and-over age restrictions. Indeed, it is the imposition and enforcement of age restrictions – coupled with science-based educational campaigns targeting young people – that have directly led to the historic reductions in young people’s use of alcohol and tobacco, the latter of which is at a historic low and is far less popular among teens than is use of the illegal herb.
 
The ONDCP also revisits the tired arguments that pot may induce dependence in a minority of users (estimated by the Institute of Medicine and others to be approximately 9 percent). But the agency fails to put this figure in context – neglecting to acknowledge that this percentage is similar to that of anxiolytics and is far lower than the dependence liability associated with other substances like alcohol (15 percent) and tobacco (32 percent).  Yet, under federal law, marijuana is classified as a schedule I drug – which, by definition, means that it possesses the highest potential for abuse of any controlled substance. Meanwhile, both alcohol and tobacco remain unclassified under the federal Controlled Substances Act.
 
Predictably, the agency also conjures up the specter of ‘stoned driving’ – a legitimate concern, but also one that is already adequately addressed by traffic safety laws criminalizing the behavior. “Marijuana … is the illicit drug most frequently found to be involved in automobile accidents, including fatal ones,” the ONDCP warned, implying that cannabis is a significant cause of fatal car crashes rather than simply a substance often detected in the blood or urine of motorists. (Because THC or its metabolite may be present in the blood or urine of users for several days post-abstinence, it is far more often detected than other substances which possess far shorter half-lives.) Yet the federal government’s own research on the subject largely downplays the impact of cannabis’ adverse effect on psychomotor performance, finding “The effects of low doses of THC … on … general driving proficiency are minimal when taken alone.” 
 
More recently, a recent meta-analysis of 66 studies assessing drug positive drivers and crash risk concluded that marijuana-positive drivers possessed an odds-adjusted risk of traffic injury of 1.10 and an odds-adjusted risk of fatal accident of 1.26. This risk level was among the lowest of any drugs assessed by the study’s author and it was comparable to the odds ratio associated with penicillin (OR=1.12), anti-histamines (OR=1.12), and antidepressants (OR=1.35). To put cannabis’ odds ratios in context, a separate study published earlier this year in the journal Injury Prevention reported that drivers with a BAC of 0.01 percent are "46 percent more likely (OR = 1.46) to be officially blamed for a crash than are the sober drivers they collide with."
 
The agency concludes by, once again, calling for a kinder, gentler drug war – making it clear that the White House is not open to the enactment of, or even the consideration of, any substantive alternatives. “The Obama Administration continues to oppose legalization of marijuana and other illegal drugs because it flies in the face of a public health approach to reducing drug use and its consequences.” Yet, marijuana criminalization, by its very definition, is not nor has it ever been a public health initiative. Rather, it is a destructive policy that results in hundreds of thousands of criminal arrests and prosecutions annually and compromises the very credibility of both lawmakers and the law. It makes no sense from a public health perspective, a fiscal perspective, or a moral perspective to perpetuate the prosecution and stigmatization of those adults who choose to responsibly consume a substance that is objectively safer than either alcohol or tobacco.
 
“Any discussion on the issue should be guided by science and evidence, not ideology and wishful thinking,” the White House concludes. On this point, we all agree. Too bad the Feds can no longer even recognize the difference.