Dressing Up Failure

In a Sept. 9 press release from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson cheerfully trumpeted the "encouraging news that more American youths are getting the message that drugs are dangerous, including marijuana."

Headlined "Nation's Youth Turning Away From Marijuana," the statement announced the results of the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Thompson gave credit to President Bush, saying that stepped-up anti-drug efforts are "a cornerstone of his compassionate agenda." White House drug czar John Walters chimed in, declaring, "Young people are getting the message," particularly about marijuana.

Thompson and Walters – who appeared together at a Washington D.C. press conference – failed to mention that drug use remains at near-record levels, vastly higher than when President Richard Nixon declared "war on drugs" back in1970.

Central to Thompson's claim of progress is a reduction in the percentage of 12- to-17-year-olds who say they have ever used marijuana; from 20.6 percent in 2002 to 19.6 percent in 2003. But that 19.6 percent figure is two and a half times the 1970 rate, and exactly equal to the previous historical peak, 1979. The only time it's ever been higher was during a record-setting spike from 1998 to 2002.

Overall, use of illicit drugs actually rose a bit in 2003, and the number of Americans who have used marijuana reached an all-time high of 97 million. Some 15 million Americans used marijuana at least monthly, also an increase from 2002. That's the equivalent of every man, woman and child in Alabama, Maine, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Wyoming and North Dakota lighting up each month.

Given that for three years running the administration has carpet-bombed the airwaves with commercials designed to terrify the public about the dangers of marijuana, this is an astonishing record of failure.

The number of Americans using cocaine in the past month also rose. Sifting through the data, one finds a number of other little bombshells that Thompson and Walters neglected to mention. Particularly telling are the numbers of Americans trying illicit drugs for the first time.

In 2002 – the latest figure included in the NSDUH report – just under 1.8 million kids under 18 tried marijuana for the first time. That is barely lower than the late-'70s peak and one third higher than when Nixon began the modern drug war in 1970. The number of Americans trying marijuana is now running neck and neck with the number smoking cigarettes for the first time, while the number of teens trying cocaine for the first time is now nearly four times the 1970 figure.

If this is "encouraging news," one wonders what bad news would look like.

Even the figures the government touts as positive news have a dark underside. If, as Thompson would have us believe, the federal anti-marijuana campaign is responsible for recent, modest declines in teen marijuana use, it may be coming at the expense of efforts to discourage underage drinking.

That's important, because scientifically speaking, there is no doubt about which is the more dangerous drug. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that, when taken in excess, may cause the user to stop breathing and die. Marijuana has no such effect and there is no documentation that it has ever caused a fatal overdose. Prolonged, heavy alcohol use causes gross and potentially life-threatening damage to the brain, liver and other organs. Marijuana does not.

So while the drug warriors focus on marijuana, reasonable people might be concerned that teen alcohol use edged up last year. Even more disturbing, 10.6 percent of 12- to-17-year-olds reported "binge drinking" (having five or more drinks on the same occasion) within the last month – far higher than the 7.9 percent who used any marijuana in the past month.

We seem to have convinced young people that binge drinking is safer than smoking even a little marijuana. 54.4 percent of 12- to-17-year olds said they considered it a "great risk" to their health to smoke any amount of marijuana once or twice per week. Only 38.5 percent saw great risk in binge drinking once or twice a week.

Policy has come completely unhinged from reality. Despite a tripling of marijuana arrests since the Nixon era, marijuana use has skyrocketed while officials pick through the data for encouraging snippets and ignoring the big picture. Worse, they find reason to cheer at figures suggesting that we may be driving kids away from a comparatively benign drug toward one that is far more lethal.

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