When Gen. Barry McCaffrey took over the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 1996, he invited Americans to think about the difference between drugs as an enemy and drugs as a cancer. Lately, though, the former general has been prompting us to ponder the fine line between a gaffe and a fib.
"Marijuana is now the second-leading cause of car crashes among young people," McCaffrey wrote in USA Today last October. Dale Gieringer, California coordinator of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, called McCaffrey's office for the source of this claim and was referred to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A NHTSA spokesman confirmed that marijuana is the second most common drug detected after fatal crashes but emphasized that it does not necessarily cause those accidents.
As Gieringer noted in the November issue of California NORML Reports, a 1990-91 study by NHTSA found that 52 percent of drivers in fatal crashes had alcohol in their blood, compared to 7 percent with traces of marijuana. In analyzing the role that drugs played in the crashes, NHTSA found "no indication that marijuana by itself was a cause of fatal accidents."
Perhaps this distinction is too subtle for a bureaucrat to grasp. But anyone who keeps track of a $17 billion annual budget should understand the difference between one-quarter and two. "The murder rate in Holland is double that in the United States," McCaffrey said in July 1998, attributing the difference to Dutch tolerance of drug use. In fact, as the Dutch government was quick to point out, the U.S. murder rate is about four times as high as Holland's.
Well, numbers are tricky. A drug czar has to focus on the big picture and avoid getting bogged down in the details. Of course, sweeping statements can also be hazardous. "There is not a shred of scientific evidence that shows that smoked marijuana is useful or needed," McCaffrey has said, criticizing the medical marijuana movement. To anyone familiar with the substantial body of literature on the therapeutic uses of cannabis, such a claim signifies either appalling ignorance or bald-faced mendacity. Given McCaffrey's other misstatements, it's a hard to call to make.