Steve Fox

Priming the Propaganda Mill

Much noise has been made, and rightly so, about the Bush administration's habit of secretly paying pundits and columnists to tout the White House line in the guise of independent journalism or commentary. But as we sound the alarm over covert propaganda, shouldn't we also be concerned about the overt kind?

The federal government spends enough scarce tax dollars on overt propaganda to make the $241,000 paid to Armstrong Williams look like chickenfeed, and that ought to be cause for real outrage. In a democracy, the people are supposed to tell the government what to think, not vice versa.

On just one issue – our policy toward marijuana and illegal drugs – the federal government has spent over a billion dollars in recent years telling Americans what to think. Every time a proposal to allow seriously ill patients to use marijuana for medical purposes under their doctors' supervision comes before voters or legislators, officials from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) stream into town, repeating dire and often misleading warnings. That those warnings often have little effect (Montana voters ignored the White House and gave 62 percent approval to a medical marijuana proposal last November) does not make the practice any less inappropriate.

Perhaps even more pernicious are those ONDCP anti-drug ads on television, radio and in print. Though officially aimed at curbing teen drug abuse, independent evaluations of the campaign have consistently failed to find any such effect. Business Week got it right last October when it reported, "The ads' main focus is anti-marijuana messages aimed at state ballot initiatives for drug-policy reform."

Here the White House is having it both ways: Overt propaganda aimed at kids that also serves as covert political propaganda targeting adults. Worse, the ads are misleading and very likely counterproductive.

In recent years ONDCP's commercials have focused overwhelmingly, almost obsessively, on marijuana. But marijuana is well-documented to be far less toxic or addictive than alcohol and tobacco, much less cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. A scientific review by Oxford University researcher Leslie Iversen in the February issue of Current Opinion in Pharmacology concludes, "Overall, by comparison with other drugs used mainly for 'recreational' purposes, cannabis could be rated a relatively safe drug."

But you would never know that from those government ads, which suggest that if you smoke a joint you will shoot your friends, run down little girls on bicycles and end up a homeless derelict. Far more dangerous substances are rarely mentioned in this ad blitz, whose government origins are typically disclosed in a minimal, easy-to-miss fashion.

There are clear signs that this distorted emphasis, driven by politics instead of science, is hurting our kids. According to the latest federally funded Monitoring the Future survey of American teenagers, adolescent use of marijuana declined slightly last year while use of potentially lethal inhalants and cocaine went up. And teens rated occasional use of marijuana as being more dangerous than trying crack cocaine, drinking nearly every day or taking LSD regularly.

Amazingly, White House drug czar John Walters called the survey's results "good news for American parents and teens." One can only wonder what he thinks bad news would look like.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is preparing to introduce legislation requiring all government-purchased ads to state that they were bought at taxpayer expense. Such truth-in-labeling is an essential step in the right direction. An even better idea is for the government to get out of the propaganda business entirely.

NFL Should Drop Anti-Pot Rule

2002 National Football League rushing champion Ricky Williams would like to return to the Miami Dolphins. Not only should he be allowed to do so, the NFL should get rid of the pointless rule that pushed Williams toward early retirement.

That rule, of course, refers to marijuana. Because Williams tested positive for marijuana's chemical byproducts in NFL-mandated drug testing, he has faced escalating penalties, including a $650,000 fine and a four-game suspension.

But there is no good reason why having used marijuana should disqualify Williams from playing professional football.

Let's be clear about a couple of things. First, there is no hint that Williams ever showed up for a game or for practice stoned, something that would indeed be reasonable cause for discipline.

And we're not talking about use of a performance-enhancing drug, which also would be a legitimate subject for discipline. Marijuana may do many things, but increasing speed or strength is not known to be among them.

Williams has faced the potential loss of his career for one reason: The NFL sees nothing wrong with a player choosing to unwind after a game with a beer or a martini, but will punish or expel a player who prefers using a joint to accomplish the same purpose. Indeed, press reports indicate that the penalties faced by Williams for simply testing positive for marijuana are far steeper than he would have faced had he been convicted of drunk driving – an act that could easily kill someone.

In Williams' case, we aren't even talking about purely recreational use, equivalent to that after-the-game beer. He suffers from a condition called social anxiety disorder, for which he used the prescription antidepressant Paxil, but he has said that marijuana helps him more than pharmaceutical drugs. His assertion is backed by considerable science: A White House-commissioned report by the Institute of Medicine listed anxiety among the ailments that "can be mitigated by marijuana," and several other studies suggest that marijuana can treat a number of mood disorders. Indeed, the Israeli army is now using THC – the marijuana component that produces the "high" – as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

But let's put that aside and assume, for the sake of argument, that Williams would just rather have a joint than a brew. Since there is no reason to think marijuana would give Williams or the Dolphins an unfair advantage over opponents, why should the NFL care?

Is it because marijuana is addictive? No. Research has shown marijuana to be less addictive than booze, roughly comparable to coffee.

Is it because marijuana causes violence? No. Research has consistently shown that while alcohol is a major cause of violent, aggressive behavior, marijuana typically has the precise opposite effect.

Is it because marijuana can do great physical or mental harm? No. While heavy alcohol use can indeed cause serious and even life-threatening damage to the brain, liver and other organs, marijuana has no such severe effects.

Is it because of the risk of overdose? No. Accidental alcohol overdoses kill Americans every year, as do plenty of other legal drugs (acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is estimated to cause over 400 fatal cases of liver failure annually). Marijuana has never, ever been proven to cause a fatal overdose.

The only reason for the NFL rule is because marijuana is illegal. Like our laws, the NFL has created an Alice-in-Wonderland system under which the more dangerous drug is allowed (not to mention celebrated and advertised during game telecasts), while use of the less harmful substance is severely punished.

Foolish, destructive laws can take years, even decades, to change. But the NFL should drop its anti-marijuana rule immediately.

Why More Kids Smoke Marijuana Than Cigarettes

The biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey, released May 21 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contained a bombshell:

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An Anniversary That Calls for Action

One year ago, on June 4, 2003, something remarkable happened in a California courtroom: A judge who could have sentenced the defendant in front of him to 40 years in federal prison instead heeded the pleas of the jurors who had convicted the man, who said that their own verdict was wrong. The judge let the man walk free, sentenced only to time already served, and a tragic injustice was averted.

Still, Ed Rosenthal -- who was simply obeying the laws of his state and trying to help sick people -- left that courthouse a convicted felon. Congress must make sure that such an injustice never happens again.

Eight states allow seriously ill patients to use medical marijuana legally, and in a matter of days Vermont will become the ninth. These laws have given a measure of comfort to tens of thousands of patients battling cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis and other horrific illnesses. But the federal government refuses to accept these laws and continues to wage a bizarre and cruel war on the sick.

Federal agents have stormed into homes and businesses, arresting sick people and their caregivers. In one particularly grotesque raid, Drug Enforcement Administration agents pointed automatic rifles at the head of Suzanne Pfeil, paralyzed from the after -- effects of polio, demanding that she stand -- and when she couldn't, they handcuffed her to her bed.

Congress will soon have an opportunity to stop this madness by passing what is called the Hinchey/Rohrabacher amendment. This measure, to be introduced by a New York Democrat and a conservative California Republican during consideration of the Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill, would prevent the federal government from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. It would end the DEA's raids on medical marijuana patients and caregivers following state law. It would not prevent the DEA from arresting individuals who are involved in marijuana-related activities unconnected to medical use.

Last year, 152 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted for this sensible, humane proposal -- an impressive start, but not nearly good enough. It will take 66 more votes for the House to pass this amendment.

Those votes shouldn't be hard to come by, since a huge majority of Americans supports medical marijuana. According to a Time/CNN poll taken in October 2002, 80 percent of the American people "think adults should be able to use marijuana legally for medical purposes." The public understands that it is cruel and pointless to criminalize people battling terrible illnesses for trying to relieve some of their suffering.

Support for protecting medical marijuana patients continues to grow in America's public health community. At its 2003 annual meeting, the 2.6 million member American Nurses Association adopted a resolution supporting medical marijuana, calling for "legislation to remove criminal penalties including arrest and imprisonment for bona fide patients." Other groups taking a similar stand in recent months include the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the Rhode Island Medical Society, as well as the United Methodist Church.

These groups join an impressive list of organizations supporting legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill patients, including the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Public Health Association and the New England Journal of Medicine.

The federal government has been consistently hostile to medical marijuana, yet a federally funded study concluded that marijuana is an effective medicine. According to the 1999 National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine's report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, "Nausea, appetite loss, pain, and anxiety are all afflictions of wasting, and all can be mitigated by marijuana."

The experts and the public agree: It makes no sense to subject people fighting for their lives to arrest and jail just because they and their doctor find that medical marijuana provides relief when standard medicines fail. It is time for Congress to stop this madness, now.

Steve Fox is director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.

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