"Since day one, President Obama has led the way in reforming our Nation's drug policies by, among other things, addressing drug use and its consequences as a public health problem,” reads a statement posted on We the People, the petition site started by the, er, Obama administration. If you've been the victim of a federal raid—one in which, say, your two-year-old was yanked out if his crib—or worked at one of the 500 California medical pot dispensaries the DEA and the IRS have shut down in the last year, you're probably rolling your eyes right now.
No way, no how, has Obama ended the war on drugs. So why does the drug czar insist that he has? Magical thinking helps, but so does magical accounting. Washington's drug warriors have relied for decades on wacky stats and context-free claims to justify banning some drugs while rubber-stamping the sale of others. Fuzzy campaign promises aside, the Obama administration is no different. Here are three accounting tricks federal agencies under Obama continue to use to justify the war on drugs and hide its true costs.
3.) Anti-drug agencies obscure alcohol abuse numbers in order to exagerrate the dangers of illegal drugs.
When veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan asked the Obama administration for legal cover to treat their PTSD with medical marijuana instead of heavy duty prescription narcotics, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske told them, "We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms."
How significant? Click the link in Kerlikowske's letter about emergency room visits and you get a report put together by DAWN, the Drug Abuse Warning Network, which documents emergency room visits by substance:
With 376,467 visits a year, marijuana seems like a big offender. But there are two problems with that figure. The first is that the data, which comes from the annual National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS), doesn't distinguish between people who sought emergency care because of marijuana, and people who were high on marijuana when they sought care. Hence the careful wording at the top of DAWN's chart: "drugs most commonly involved in emergency department visits."
But let's say marijuana was actually responsible for all those marijuana-related ER visits. How does that compare to, say, alcohol? If you read the fine print, you'll notice that NIDA accounts for alcohol only when used in conjunction with other drugs or when used by minors. A footnote at the end of the report tells us why: "Underage use of alcohol only is considered to be drug misuse or abuse."
Put another way, the National Institute for Drug Abuse doesn't consider adults who go to the emergency room solely as a result of alcohol to be misusing or abusing a drug. But wouldn't alcohol, a ubiquitous and legal drug, provide a great benchmark for measuring the overall ER impact of other drugs?
Yes, but it would also undermine the drug czar's claims about the dangers of pot.
Here are the facts: Alcohol, when used alone, is "involved" in far more emergency department visits than every illegal drug combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control, "In the single year 2005, there were more than 1.6 million hospitalizations and more than 4 million emergency room visits for alcohol-related conditions." A study published this year in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, meanwhile, suggests that as many as 50 percent of emergency room visits could be alcohol-related. And that number is only going up. In New York City, for instance, "nearly 74,000 people wound up in hospitals in 2009 for alcohol-related reasons, compared with just 22,000 in 2003."
While NIDA has acknowledged that "ED [emergency department] visits involving alcohol among the general population is thought to be significantly higher than what is reported in DAWN," there's no need to say "thought to be." It's clear from the data that alcohol alone sends more people to the emergency room than marijuana and every other drug.
Furthermore, more people also seek addiction treatment for alcohol than for pot. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly half of all substance abuse treatment center admissions "involving college or other post secondary school students ages 18 to 24 were primarily related to alcohol disorders." In fact, alcohol leads the pack in addiction treatment admissions across every age group.
There's enough data to put illicit drugs in context. Why does NIDA--"the world's largest source of drug abuse research," according to Kerilikowske--obscures them? Because NIDA's job isn't just documenting the effects of drugs that are illegal, but also providing the "scientific" justification for keeping them that way.
The next accounting trick: hiding the cost of burning ditchweed.