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Drug Czar Fails Spectacularly at Cutting Marijuana Consumption

This is your government on drugs.
 
 
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The White House drug czar's office, aka the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has been claiming loudly and frequently for several years now that its aggressive anti-marijuana campaign has been a rousing success. As deputy ONDCP director Scott Burns put it in a recent California newspaper interview, "drug use is down in the United States dramatically since 2001 by every barometer and indicator that we use. ... Twenty-four percent reduction in marijuana use by young people 12 to 18 years old."

Uh, not quite.

In fact, the major U.S. government study of drug use, the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, shows that the drug czar's office has badly failed to meet its own goals for reducing use of marijuana and other illegal drugs, according to a pair of new reports by George Mason University senior fellow Jon Gettman, Ph.D. In addition, ONDCP and drug czar John Walters have misused treatment statistics to suggest that marijuana is dangerously addictive when the government's own data suggest that arrest-driven treatment admissions have wasted tax dollars by treating thousands who were not truly drug-dependent.

During Walters' tenure, ONDCP has released at least 127 separate anti-marijuana TV, radio and print ads and 34 press releases focused mainly on marijuana, in addition to 50 reports from ONDCP and other federal agencies on marijuana or anti-marijuana campaigns. Beyond doubt, this anti-marijuana blitz -- coupled with record marijuana arrests year after year, to the point where in 2007 an American was arrested on marijuana charges every 36 seconds -- constitutes the most intense war on marijuana since "Reefer Madness."

Gettman, who made international headlines in December 2006 with an analysis showing that marijuana is the top cash crop in the United States, catalogues the failures in detail. In 2007 there were 14.5 million current users of marijuana in the United States, compared with 14.6 million in 2002, while the number of Americans who have ever used marijuana actually increased.

ONDCP has not even come close to meeting its goal of reducing illegal drug use by 25 percent by 2007 in any age group. In fact, among adults, overall illegal drug use actually increased 4.7% from 2002 to 2007. Teen marijuana use is down a bit but still remains common: One in nine (12 percent) 14- and 15-year-olds and one in four (23.7 percent) 16- and 17-year-olds used marijuana in 2007.

Walters loves to cite increases in marijuana treatment admissions as proof that marijuana is addictive and dangerous. But Gettman's analysis of data from the government's Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) shows that the percentage of marijuana treatment admissions referred by the criminal justice system jumped from 48% to 58% from 1992 to 2006. In other words, most of the increase in treatment admissions was driven by people being arrested and offered treatment instead of jail. Strikingly, just 45 percent of marijuana admissions met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) criteria for marijuana dependence.

Also arguing against claims that treatment admissions reflect dangerously addictive "pot 2.0" (yes, some officials have actually used that phrase, and some in the press have repeated it as if it meant something) is the fact that, as Gettman notes, "Use of residential detox -- a clear sign of a serious addiction problem -- is used for 24% of heroin admissions and 21% of alcohol admissions, but just 2% of marijuana admissions."

Gettman's bottom line on those treatment stats is simple and depressing: "Increases in drug treatment admissions for marijuana, often cited by officials as evidence that marijuana is dangerously addictive, are driven by criminal justice policies rather than medical diagnosis. These policies increase public costs for providing drug treatment services and reduce funds for and availability of treatment of more serious drug problems."

This is your government on drugs.

Bruce Mirken is communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project .

 
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