[UPDATE! I have a revised version of this blog post online now on The Hill.com’s Congress blog. This is the website where Washington DC insiders go to blog. Click here to read my op/ed, and when you are done please leave a polite comment for the Drug Czar.]
Since 1975 the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has been tracking students self-reported use of cannabis and other intoxicants, and every year their use of these substances trends either up or down from the prior survey. Predictably, when self-reported use goes down, drug war lackeys like Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske claim that drug prohibition is working. Conversely, when use trends upward — as it did this past year — drug warriors respond by pointing the blame at everyone else.
Teenagers are beginning to think of marijuana as medicine, and more and more young people are toking up as a result, White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske argues upon the release of a major survey on teenage drug use.
The 2010 Monitoring the Future Survey queried 50,000 eighth, 10th and 12th graders about their use of, and attitudes toward, illicit drugs.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy survey found that daily pot use among high school seniors is at 6.1 percent, its highest point since the early 1980s. In the past month, 21.4 percent of 12th graders said they had used marijuana, continuing an upward tick that began in the middle of the decade. Monthly, more seniors now smoke pot than cigarettes, a phenomenon not seen in nearly three decades.
It’s the decreasing perception of the harm of marijuana that is leading to increased pot use, according to the drug czar.
“If young people don’t really perceive that [marijuana] is dangerous or of any concern, it usually means there’ll be an uptick in the number of kids who are using. And sure enough, in 2009, that’s exactly what we did see,” Kerlikowske told ABC News Radio.
“We have been telling young people, particularly for the past couple years, that marijuana is medicine,” the former Seattle police chief argued. “So it shouldn’t be a great surprise to us that young people are now misperceiving the dangers or the risks around marijuana.”
On the other hand, he said, a broad understanding of the harms of tobacco and alcohol has led to lower cigarette smoking and binge drinking in teens. Regular cigarette smoking continues its decline, and binge drinking (five or more drinks at one sitting) among high school seniors is down from 25.2 percent to 23.2 percent. Tougher enforcement has also contributed to these declines, Kerlikowske said.
“We know that through education and enforcement, something can be done. But I think we should also be very concerned about these marijuana numbers, particularly among these very young people,” Kerlikowske said.
Okay, let me get this straight: California enacted legislation legalizing the physician-supervised use of medical marijuana in 1996 — some fourteen years ago — thus kicking off the national debate that is still taking place today. Between 1996 and 2005, nine additional states enacted similar laws (Alaska, 1999; Colorado, 2000; Hawaii, 2000; Maine, 1999; Montana, 2004; Nevada, 2000; Oregon, 1998; Vermont, 2004; Washington, 1998). Yet, the Drug Czar claims to the national media that this discussion has only been taking place in earnest for “the past couple years”?! Does he really think the public is that stupid?!
Further, the Czar is well aware that throughout this period of time, youth-reported use of marijuana declined across the nation — including in the very same states that enacted medical cannabis access. NORML Advisory Board member Mitch Earleywine co-authored a comprehensive review of this data here, concluding: “More than a decade after the passage of the nation’s first state medical marijuana law, California’s Prop. 215, a considerable body of data shows that no state with a medical marijuana law has experienced an increase in youth marijuana use since its law’s enactment. All states have reported overall decreases – exceeding 50% in some age groups – strongly suggesting that the enactment of state medical marijuana laws does not increase marijuana use.”
Investigators at the Texas A&M Health Science Center also assessed whether the passage of medical cannabis laws encourages greater recreational use. They too found, definitively, that it does not. “Our results indicate that the introduction of medical cannabis laws was not associated with an increase in cannabis use among either arrestees or emergency department patients in cities and metropolitan areas located in four states in the USA (California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington). … Consistent with other studies of the liberalization of cannabis laws, medical cannabis laws do not appear to increase use of the drug.”
As this government map (Marijuana Use in Past Year among Persons Age 12 or Older) so keenly illustrates, marijuana use rates as a percentage of the overall population vary only slightly among states, despite states having remarkably varying degrees of marijuana enforcement and punishments. In fact, several states with the most lenient laws regarding marijuana possession — such as Nebraska (possession of up to one ounce is a civil citation) and Mississippi (possession of up to 30 grams is a summons) — report having some of the lowest rates of marijuana use, while several states that maintain strict penalties for personal users (e.g., Rhode Island) report comparatively high levels of use. The Drug Czar is aware of this of course, yet he is forbidden by his office from ever acknowledging it publicly.
But wait, it gets even sillier. One statistic gleaned from the Monitoring the Future study that was not emphasized by the Drug Czar (for obvious reasons) was that more than eight out of ten 12th graders report that marijuana is “fairly easy” or “very easy” to get — a percentage that has remained constant for three and a half decades! So much for the notion that criminal prohibition is limiting youth marijuana access. It never has and it never will. On the other hand, Kerlikwoske concedes that the legalization, regulation, and the imposition of age restrictions on alcohol and cigarettes is associated with a reduction in teens use of those drugs. Nevertheless, the Czar irrationally brags that, when it comes to cannabis, those words are not even in his vocabulary. Seriously.
Finally, as to the Czar’s notion that teens are ‘misperceiving’ (a term that was apparently made up by Kerlikowske) the harms of marijuana compared to cigarettes and alcohol, let’s get real. Cigarette smoke is far more dangerous to humans than cannabis smoke, the latter of which has been shown to have an inverse relationship with incidences of certain types of cancer, even when consumed long-term. Further, unlike alcohol, marijuana is incapable of causing lethal overdose, is relatively nontoxic to healthy cells and organs, and its use is not typically associated with violent, aggressive, or reckless behavior. That’s why, according to the latest Rasmussen poll, fewer than one in five Americans nationwide now believe that consuming marijuana is more dangerous than drinking alcohol, and by a nearly two-to-one majority, respondents agree that marijuana is far less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. In short, the public has gotten it right even though their government keeps getting it wrong.
As for the Drug Czar and his mindless rhetoric, never forget the words of novelist Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In reality, Kerlikowske is not nearly as stupid as his sound bytes imply; he just assumes that you are.