Is the Drug Czar Afraid to Debate?

On September 10, White House Drug Czar John Walters called for "a national debate" about marijuana policy. The Marijuana Policy Project hopes he meant it.

As soon as Walters' offer to debate was reported in the September 17 Seattle Weekly, we faxed the following letter to his office:

John Walters, Director
Office of National Drug Control Policy
The White House

Dear Mr. Walters,

I was pleased to hear that in your Sept. 10 news conference in Seattle, you said, "The real issue is, should we legalize marijuana? Let's have a national debate about that."

You were absolutely correct when you told your Seattle audience that marijuana policy has never been properly and thoroughly debated in this country. It's time to have that debate, so I am pleased to accept your invitation.

I propose that you and I immediately agree to hold a public debate within the next six months in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. The time and place should be suitable for national television coverage, and the debate should be moderated by a neutral journalist chosen by mutual agreement.

I am confident your offer represents a genuine desire to move past the demonization of those who disagree with your policies by finally having an honest debate about the impact of marijuana prohibition. I have no doubt that -- once armed with all the facts -- the American people will make wise choices.

Please have your staff contact my executive assistant, Jen Grizard, as soon as possible so that we can begin making the necessary arrangements. I look forward to working with you on this effort.

Robert Kampia, Executive Director
Marijuana Policy Project
The offer to debate marks a shift for Walters, who has previously ducked every opportunity to debate knowledgeable critics of his policies. Instead, he has made phony offers -- for example, singling out just one of my organization's 13,000 members and offering to debate him -- while hiding from real debate invitations.

Is he serious this time? We don't know. We haven't received a response yet, but remain hopeful, because Walters' Seattle statement was right: It is time for a national debate on marijuana prohibition.

It is time for the White House's drug czar to explain why he continues to paint a distorted, exaggerated picture of marijuana's dangers while experts around the world are coming to the opposite conclusion. Just a few days ago, for example, the Swiss Institute for Prevention of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse told the medical journal The Lancet, "For the sake of our own credibility we cannot allow that alcohol and tobacco, which kill 10,000 people a year in Switzerland, are sold with all kinds of marketing wizardry, while consumption of cannabis, a less dangerous product, is a legal offense."

It is time for the drug czar to explain why he wants to continue present policies when all signs point to their utter failure. Consider the results from the just-released national PRIDE Survey of U.S. teenagers, one of two surveys designated by Congress as official measures of the drug czar's success. Walters carpet-bombed the airwaves with scary commercials telling teens that if they light up a joint they're likely to commit date rape and shoot their friends, and what happened?

  • The proportion of eighth graders using marijuana in the past month ("current use" in research parlance) rocketed from 7.2 percent to 10.2 percent -- a 43 percent increase.

  • Among sixth graders, current marijuana use doubled, from 1.7 percent to 3.4 percent.

  • Current use of cocaine rose among all age groups over the last year, nearly doubling among sixth and ninth graders.

  • Current heroin use among junior high students increased 60 percent.

No sane person can look at these numbers without being alarmed. All of us owe the public an informed, fact-based debate on whether our country should be considering alternatives to marijuana prohibition. The lives of our nation's young people are at stake.

We're ready, Mr. Walters. Are you?

Robert Kampia is executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C.

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