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Is Obama Denying Science? The White House Responds to NORML's 'We the People' Petition

The response to the most popular petition on the 'We the People' website repeats tired lies and misdirections. Most of all, it fails to answer the petition's actual question.
 
 
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The Obama White House has released its official response to the “We the People” online petition for marijuana legalization submitted by NORML.  The petition, which garnered 74,169 signatures, was by far the most popular petition submitted.  The government response (released late on a Friday to avoid news cycles, we’ll note) repeats the same tired lies and classic misdirections.  Most of all, it fails to answer NORML’s actual petition, which asked:

Legalize and Regulate Marijuana in a Manner Similar to Alcohol.

We the people want to know when we can have our “perfectly legitimate” discussion on marijuana legalization. Marijuana prohibition has resulted in the arrest of over 20 million Americans since 1965, countless lives ruined and hundreds of billions of tax dollars squandered and yet this policy has still failed to achieve its stated goals of lowering use rates, limiting the drug’s access, and creating safer communities.

Isn’t it time to legalize and regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol? If not, please explain why you feel that the continued criminalization of cannabis will achieve the results in the future that it has never achieved in the past?

Following is the full official White House response, with NORML’s comments interspersed…

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.

Oh, good.  Then we’ll look forward to implementation the 1972 Shafer Commission Report or any of the other government and scientific studies that recommend the decriminalization of cannabis.

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.

“Addiction” links to a NIDA page noting the lifetime dependence rate of cannabis to be 9% – that is, 9 in 100 people who try cannabis will develop a dependence.  Kerlikowske does not mention that caffeine has the same 9% rate, alcohol is a 15% rate, and tobacco is a 32% rate.  NIDA scientists also rated the addictive qualities of those substances and rated cannabis about equal to caffeine in risk.  The withdrawal from this rare dependence ischaracterized by the Institute of Medicine as “mild and short lived” and “includes restlessness, irritability, mild agitation, insomnia, sleep disturbance, nausea, and cramping.”  (Speaking of withdrawal, Mr. Drug Czar, you do know withdrawal from alcohol can kill a person and it’s legal, right?)

“Respiratory disease” links to a 2008 Science Daily article on a study entitled “Bullous Lung Disease due to Marijuana” which looked at the cases of ten people who came in already complaining of lung problems, who admitted they smoked pot over a year.  The subject was featured in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine as it found “insufficient evidence for a causative link“.  Matthew Naughton, author of the 2008 study, co-authored a 2011 study which noted “unfortunately, it is difficult to separate marijuana use from tobacco smoking which does confound these reports".  (Speaking of tobacco, Mr. Drug Czar, you do know tobacco is much worse for the lungs and it’s legal, right?)

“Cognitive impairment” links to a 1996 NIDA fact sheet on studies of cognitive impairment involving card sorting.  Since then…

  1. A 2001 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found chronic users who quit for a week “showed no significant differences from control subjects”.
  2. A 2002 clinical trial published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal determined, “Marijuana does not have a long-term negative impact on global intelligence.”
  3. A 2003 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society also “failed to reveal a substantial, systematic effect of long-term, regular cannabis consumption on the neurocognitive functioning of users who were not acutely intoxicated.”
  4. A 2004 study of twins published in the journal Psychological Medicinereported “an absence of marked long-term residual effects of marijuana use on cognitive abilities.”
  5. A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Addictionsused magnetic resonance imaging and found “no significant differences” between heavy cannabis smokers compared to controls.
  6. A 2006 study published in the German journal Psychopharmacologyfound no “long-term deficits in working memory and selective attention in frequent cannabis users after 1 week of abstinence”.
  7. A 2009 study published in Human Psychopharmacology found “little indication of differences in executive functioning” for mild to moderate cannabis users.
  8. And a 2010 study published in Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior found regular cannabis users’ performance accuracy on episodic memory and working memory tasks “was not significantly altered by marijuana.”

Forgive the overkill, but as an organization that is honored to have regular cannabis consumer Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, as an Advisory Board Member, we’re particularly offended when the government claims science says that regular cannabis consumers are stupid.  (Speaking of cognitive impairment, Mr. Drug Czar, are you aware that frequent alcohol use is shown to have incredibly deleterious effects on cognition and it’s legal?)

But our petition wasn’t about whether or not cannabis is harmful, it was whether we should consider regulating cannabis like the far more harmful substances, alcohol and tobacco.

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.

“Voluntary drug treatment admissions” links to 2007 TEDS data tables showing that 37% of the people admitted to treatment for marijuana hadn’t used it in the past thirty days.  These tables are based on admissions data that show 57% of marijuana treatment admissions were coerced by law enforcement (drug courts) and only 15% of such admissions are actually “voluntary drug treatment admissions”.  (This is much easier to debunk when the Drug Czar links to the government tables that make our point.  Thanks, Gil!)

“Visits to emergency rooms” links to 2009 DAWN data which contains this interesting bit of fine print, “Within DAWN, the drug misuse or abuse category is a group of [emergency room] visits defined broadly to include all visits associated with illicit drugs.” That is, if you mention pot, have pot on you, or your urine or blood tests positive for pot, that’s a drug-related emergency room visit.  If you smoked a bowl last night, broke your leg skiing today, went to the ER, and they found metabolites of THC in your pee, that’s going into the DAWN stats as a pot-related ER visit.  Meanwhile, a 2011 study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found “marijuana dependence was associated with the lowest rates” of emergency room admittance compared to other drugs.

So we have illegal marijuana which lets government arrest people and make them choose jail or rehab, then those rising rehab numbers are an indication that we need to keep arresting people.  And we have emergency room data that tells us that some sick and injured people, like some Americans generally, smoke pot.  Can you tell us why we shouldn’t end those charades and consider regulating cannabis like alcohol and tobacco?

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.

“Marijuana potency has tripled” links to a paper (“Potancy [sic] Paper 2010″) at Ole Miss’s US Pot Farm showing potency tables from 1993 to 2008 (15 years, 20 years, whatever).  These figures include hashish and hash oil (concentrated preparations of cannabis), which is like throwing three Rhodes scholars into an eighth grade social studies class and then grading on a curve.  Figures for all samples (including the hash) show a rise from 3.4% to 8.8% THC (2.5x, not even “almost triple”), but what they call “marijuana” goes from 3.4% to 5.8% THC (1.7x, not even double) and “sinsemilla” goes from 5.8% to 11.5% THC (2x, double).

So today’s average marijuana is as good as yesteryear’s sinsemilla and today’s average sinsemilla is twice as good as yesteryear’s sensimilla.  Anybody recall any deaths, riots, or serious social disorder due to the sensimilla of 1993?  As we’ve said before, potency is irrelevant as cannabis smoking is a self-titrating behavior.  You smoke to get high.  If you have ditchweed, you smoke a lot to get high.  If you have kind bud you smoke a little to get high.  Less smoke in your lungs is a good thing and by that measure, smoking more potent marijuana may be a harm reduction strategy.  Besides, it’s hard to take seriously any concerns about non-toxic 11.5% THC sinsemilla when the government approves of 100% synthetic THC Marinol and marijuana of any potency has never killed anybody.

But nobody here said cannabis was a benign drug, only that it is far safer than the two current choices of legal substances, alcohol and tobacco, and we’re wondering why we couldn’t just regulate cannabis like them?

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.

That “ardent support” consists of six ongoing FDA-approved clinical trials (two of which have already been completed) worldwide involving subjects’ use of actual cannabis and fourteen researchers allowed to study inhaled cannabis on human subjects.  It does not include a recent FDA-approved study of medical marijuana use to treat post-traumatic stress in our returning combat veterans.  That study was ardently opposed by NIDA, which wouldn’t sell any Ole Miss US Pot Farm marijuana for the researchers to study.  Furthermore, a NIDA spokesperson admitted to the New York Times in 2010, “As the National Institute on Drug Abuse, our focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use.  We generally do not fund research focused on the potential beneficial medical effects of marijuana.”

The FDA and Institute of Medicine links take you to papers from 2006 and 1999, respectively.  The American Medical Association in 2009 issued a position paper stating, “smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis.”

It’s too bad our petition wasn’t about carving exceptions in federal law to allow medical use of marijuana, as 70% of Americans support.  It waswhether we should regulate marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco, like 50% of Americans support.

As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem.

If you recognize that, why were there virtually the same number of arrests this year for marijuana as last year, a number that still eclipses any arrest total under Presidents Bush and Clinton?  It seems you’re going to ignore our petition to end the strategy of arresting our way out of the problem by regulating marijuana like we do alcohol and tobacco.

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.

Right, legalizing marijuana won’t address drug use.  It will address marijuana use by regulating it like we do alcohol and tobacco. Legal marijuana would be an answer to many Americans’ health challenges.  Legal marijuana would raise tax revenues to benefit society and community.  Legal marijuana would help replace the “reefer madness”-style youth education proven not to work with honest, factual information.  Legal marijuana removes the cost of arresting, prosecution, and monitoring on parole and probation and, by definition, eliminates crime.

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.

The president’s budget is only slightly different than the drug control budgets of his predecessor; still a two-to-one tilt toward “Supply Reduction” (interdiction and domestic and international law enforcement) versus “Demand Reduction” (treatment and prevention).  Which takes us to the second part of our petition asking how the continued criminalization of cannabis will achieve the results in the future that it has never achieved in the past?

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.

See our rebuttal above to TEDS treatment admission statistics and forcing cannabis consumers into rehab via drug courts.  Bless the millions of Americans in successful recovery for drug (?) and alcoholism who didn’t miss out on an open bed because it was taken up by a coerced cannabis consumer who hadn’t smoked weed in a month.  Those drug courts only work thanks to arrests of cannabis consumers and we were wondering how the continued criminalization of cannabis will achieve the results in the future that it has never achieved in the past?

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.

Which is fuzzy math and see our rebuttal to President’s National Drug Control Strategy, which, as we mentioned, differs little from President Bush’s before him.  So how is the continued criminalization of cannabis going to achieve the results in the future that it has never achieved in the past?

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.

Thank you for wasting America’s time ignoring her wishes.  I encourage you to take a moment to actually read and answer the questions on these petitions.  Every answer you gave to “whether we should consider regulating cannabis like the far more harmful substances, alcohol and tobacco” was an excuse to make alcohol and tobacco prohibited like marijuana.  Every answer you gave to “how will the continued criminalization of cannabis achieve the results in the future that it has never achieved in the past?” illustrated that you’re continuing the same failed strategies as your predecessors.  We the People were hoping for some change.

Russ Belville is the NORML Outreach Coordinator.