Weed Whackers


The president, the vice president, and the speaker of the House are all former pot smokers. They don't seem to think this is a big deal, and neither do we. Last year, when Bob Dole tried to show that the president was soft on drugs by broadcasting an interview clip in which Bill Clinton lightheartedly discussed his experience with marijuana, nobody cared.

Yet the government–with the enthusiastic support of Clinton, Al Gore, and Newt Gingrich–continues to arrest people for doing what the president joked about on MTV. In 1996, according to recently released FBI figures, state and local law enforcement agencies arrested more people on marijuana charges than ever before: some 642,000, up 80 percent since 1990.

Eighty-five percent of these arrests were for possession, the rest for sale/manufacture, a category that includes cultivation for personal use. Marijuana accounted for over two-fifths of drug arrests, more than any other substance.

People are often surprised to hear that marijuana is the main target of the war on drugs, but it could hardly be otherwise. Cannabis is by far the most widely used illegal drug–more than four times as popular as cocaine, more than 40 times as popular as heroin. Survey data indicate that nearly 70 million Americans have used it.

Thus, Clinton, Gore, and Gingrich support a policy that has criminalized a quarter of the population–including them. The Clinton administration's position on marijuana is so rigid that it cannot even make room for people suffering from cancer, AIDS, and other serious illnesses who find that cannabis helps relieve their suffering or prolong their lives.

Here is the explanation offered by Donna Shalala, Clinton's secretary of health and human services: "Marijuana is illegal, dangerous, unhealthy, and wrong."

The first part is undeniably true: Marijuana is illegal. But this is not a very meaningful response to people who argue that the legal status of marijuana should be changed.

The second and third parts are partially true. Marijuana is dangerous and unhealthy in the sense that all drugs, legal and illegal, are dangerous and unhealthy: Heavy or inappropriate use can disrupt people's lives and impair their health. Still, marijuana is less likely to cause serious harm than just about any other popular intoxicant.

This is not news. In 1972 the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse concluded, "There is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of natural preparations of cannabis…..Existing social and legal policy is out of proportion to the individual and social harm engendered by the drug."

Twenty-five years later, to explain why current marijuana use is so much more troubling than their own youthful experimentation, politicians such as Clinton, Gore, and Gingrich insist that marijuana is (1) more dangerous than we used to think or (2) more dangerous than it used to be. Lynn Zymmer and John P. Morgan refute both of these claims in their meticulous yet accessible book Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, just published by the Lindesmith Center.

Zimmer, a sociologist at the City University of New York, and Morgan, a physician and professor of pharmacology at the CUNY Medical School, show that despite decades of research there is still little evidence of significant hazards associated with moderate marijuana use. The most serious health risk of heavy marijuana smoking is probably bronchitis. Lung cancer is possible in theory, but you'd have to smoke a hell of a lot to approximate the risk faced by the typical tobacco smoker.

Zimmer and Morgan also demolish the argument that pot is more hazardous nowadays because it's much more potent than it was when Clinton, Gore, and Gingrich were toking up. First, claims of dramatic increases in THC content are based on faulty sampling and invalid comparisons. Second, even if average potency has risen, that would tend to reduce health risks, since people would smoke less to achieve the same effect.

So we are left with the last part of Shalala's rationale for marijuana prohibition. This one stumps me, because I don't understand how a plant can be "wrong." If Shalala means that using marijuana is wrong, she needs to explain the moral distinction between the responsible use of cannabis and the responsible use of, say, alcohol.

But the real distinction the Clintonites seem to have in mind is this: Do as we say, not as we did.