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New Drug Survey Demolishes Drug Czar's Claims

The numbers are in. Marijuana prohibition is a wasteful farce. And John Walters' tenure as drug czar has been a failure.
 
 
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"When we push back against the drug problem, it gets smaller." -- John Walters, White House Drug Czar

Well, now we know why federal officials chose to release the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) on a day when the Republican convention's climax and a string of hurricanes is likely to keep it out of the headlines. The survey pretty much dynamites Office of National Drug Control Policy chief John Walters' claims of success in reducing marijuana and drug use during his tenure, which he'd like us to attribute to his aggressive policies, and particularly ONDCP's near-obsession with demonizing marijuana.

First, some raw numbers: The total number of Americans who have used illicit drugs is up from 108 million in 2002, the first full year of Walters' tenure, to 114 million in 2007. And the number of Americans who've used marijuana has passed the 100 million mark for the first time -- up from 95 million in 2002.

Rates of drug use have gone up as well. In 2002, 46.0 percent of Americans had used an illicit drug at some point in their lives. In 2007 it was 46.1 percent. For marijuana, the rate went from 40.4 percent to 40.6 percent. Both the "any illicit drug" and marijuana use rates had dropped a bit in 2006 and spiked notably in the new survey. Illicit use of painkillers such as OxyContin is up notably -- a disturbing trend considering the addictive nature of such drugs, not to mention the risk of fatal overdose (a nonexistent risk with marijuana). "Current" (past 30 days) use of illicit drugs is down only marginally since 2002 -- from 8.3 percent to 8.0 percent for all illicit drugs, and the trend for marijuana is similar.

And, strikingly, despite all of Walters' huffing and puffing about marijuana, the number of Americans starting marijuana use for the first time has not budged during his tenure.

If this is success, someone please tell me what failure looks like.

But wait, there's more. ONDCP officials regularly argue that maintaining criminal penalties for marijuana possession is essential to stopping drug abuse. So what's happened with a dangerous drug whose possession is legal: cigarettes? NSDUH conveniently provides figures for past-month cigarette use, and both the number of users and the rate of cigarette use is down markedly. In 2002, 26 percent of Americans were current cigarette smokers; now it's 24.2 percent, continuing a decades-long decline. And the decline in current cigarette smoking for 12-to-17-year-olds is even more dramatic, from 13 percent to 9.8 percent.

That, of course, is with zero arrests for cigarette possession, compared with 739,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2006 (the last year for which stats are available).

The numbers are in. Marijuana prohibition is a wasteful farce. And John Walters' tenure as drug czar has been a failure.

Bruce Mirken is communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project .

 
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