Speed Freaks Are Scarier, but There Are a Lot More Potheads


Marijuana is the most serious drug problem in America! No, methamphetamine is! Hey, can't we just agree that they're both serious problems?

That's the thrust of an ongoing spat among drug warriors in which both sides are right and both sides are wrong. It is entertaining to hear federal officials urging Congress not to be swept along by the latest drug panic, while state and local officials ridicule the Bush administration for its obsession with marijuana. Those who want more money for anti-meth efforts argue that speed is worse than pot. Those who defend the current priorities argue that, while marijuana may not be as bad as meth, it leads to meth and other scary drugs. Then there is the question of effectiveness:

"It seems to be very unlikely that increasing attention to marijuana is going to greatly affect marijuana use, but getting out in front of meth while the epidemic is still in the nascent stages might," Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at U.C.L.A. and director of the university's drug policy analysis project, said in an interview.

But Joseph A. Califano Jr., president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, said, "If you don't reduce the use of marijuana, you can't possibly reduce illegal drug use because marijuana is far and away the most used drug."

In other words, if the government targets a drug that is not very popular, it is more likely to be successful, but not in a way that will make a noticeable dent in overall drug use. What to do, what to do? Continue to argue, I hope, but I suspect the Bush administration will feel compelled to get alarmed about meth, and pretty soon the president will be following in his father's footsteps by holding up a plastic bag of whitish chunks on TV. Since meth is not big in D.C., though, the DEA may have trouble luring a dealer into Lafayette Park.

[Thanks to Alan Vanneman for the link.]