In May, when drug czar Gil Kerlikowske disavowed martial rhetoric in the violent crusade to save Americans from the psychoactice substances they enjoy, some critics of the policy formerly known as the war on drugs were encouraged. My colleague Radley Balko, for instance, argued that "rhetoric matters." But the comments from Kerlikowske, a former cop, reminded me of Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey, a former general who likewise preferred medical metaphors but "turned out to be so hardline that he refused to admit there was any evidence of marijuana's therapeutic value and could not stomach the idea of letting states set their own policies regarding medical use of the plant." While the Clinton administration's position on the latter question remains ambiguous, Kelikowske yesterday followed McCaffrey's example by declaring that "marijuana is dangerous and has no medicinal benefit."
The first part of that statement is merely misleading: Although no drug is 100 percent safe, the dangers associated with smoking pot (legal risks aside) pale beside the hazards of legal drugs such as alcohol. But the second part of the statement is flat-out false, just as it was when McCaffrey made the same assertion 13 years ago. It betrays either ignorance or dishonesty of such magnitude that it should disqualify Kerlikowske from his job (although in the real world it makes him ideally suited for it). As I said the last time I commented on an authoritative-sounding statement along these lines:
You could argue that smoking marijuana introduces hazards by exposing patients to combustion products, but epidemiological studies of pot smokers are mostly reassuring on that score. Furthermore, vaporization addresses this concern by releasing THC without burning the plant matter. You also could argue that smoked or vaporized marijuana has no meaningful advantages over Marinol, the synthetic THC capsule [approved by the FDA], although many patients would disagree, noting that marijuana takes effect right away, offers much easier dosage control, has less disturbing psychoactive effects, and does not require swallowing and keeping down a capsule (a challenge for people suffering from severe nausea). You could even say that raw plant matter is not an appropriate medication in this day and age, when every drug must be approved by the government in isolated form after rigorous testing.
But if instead you say something like "marijuana has no medicinal benefit," you are either a liar or an idiot. Given all of the research that has been done on the therapeutic properties of marijuana and its active ingredients (including double-blind clinical trials that satisfied the standards of drug regulators in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere), this is not a matter of opinion anymore. Continuing to deny the well-established but politically inconvenient medical utility of cannabis is a good indicator of whether a public official plans to take a more rational, open-minded approach to drug policy.
Here's another one: Kerlikowske keeps saying marijuana legalization "is not in the president's vocabulary, and it's not in mine." I don't expect anyone in the Obama administration to endorse legalization, or even "decriminalization," of pot (although the president himself used to support the latter). But when Kerlikowske says the word is not in his vocabulary, it marks him as a dogmatic drug warrior who has never given the idea serious consideration, which presumably is how he wants to come across. We can only hope that Kerlikowske's mindless anti-drug rhetoric is a cover for a more tolerant stance regarding the decisions of state policy makers with bigger vocabularies.