Is This Really the Best Prohibitionists Can Do?


Last month I marveled at the inability of six former drug czars to muster a cogent argument against marijuana legalization in an 800-word Los Angeles Times op-ed piece. The Heritage Foundation gave Charles "Cully" Stimson eight times as much space, and the resulting hash further illustrates the intellectual bankruptcy of drug prohibitionists. Stimson begins his case against Proposition 19, California's pot legalization initiative, by citing a three-decade-old paper written by Heritage policy analyst Stuart Butler that, in the style of that era's anti-pot propagandists, gathers every datum, anecdote, or rumor that reflects badly on marijuana into an undifferentiated heap:

It is all too common to hear of a marijuana user who appears to have lost all will to succeed….Marijuana use does appear to foster alientation, towards both the family and society in general. In school and college settings, the tendency of users to form subcultures hostile to prevailing social customs and activities is well known….After one to three years of continuous use the ability to think has become so impaired that a pathological form of thinking begins to take over the entire thought process.

And so on. Stimson apes Butler, hauling out pretty much every classic cannabis canard, including allegations about brain damage, memory loss, the lingering effects of THC, birth defects, immune system impairment, cancer, heart disease, violence, addiction, and escalation to cocaine and heroin. For a serious treatment of such issues, I'd recommend Mitch Earleywine's Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence or Lynn Zimmer and John P. Morgan's Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts.

Stimson's attempt to argue that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol is embarrassing. Although I have reservations about denigrating drinking in an attempt to legalize pot, there is no question that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol by several important measures, including the risk of acute poisoning, impairment of driving ability, and the health effects of long-term heavy use. Stimson asserts that alcohol is different from marijuana because "for most people, it is not addictive"; but according to the government's own survey data, that is also true of marijuana (and every other illegal drug). In fact, data from the National Cormorbidity Survey (PDF) indicate that drinkers are more likely than pot smokers to become addicts. Stimson also claims that alcohol, unlike marijuana, is "rarely consumed to the point of intoxication," which proves only that he does not know what intoxication means.

Cataloging every misleading, dubious, or flat-out wrong assertion that Stimson makes in the course of his excursion into marijuana policy is a daunting task. It would be easier to list all of the true things he says. Here is one that leaped out at me:

Charles D. "Cully" Stimson is a Senior Legal Fellow in the Center for Legal & Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

There may be a few more. Stimson is correct to note the tension between the tax windfall promised by Proposition 19's backers (an argument I have never found very appealing) and the goal of eliminating the black market. He is right that drug prohibition fosters violence (although he does not put it quite that way), and he's right that it's not clear exactly how a legal pot market will develop under the threat of federal prosecution (although it is clear that the feds do not have the resources to enforce marijuana prohibition throughout California on their own). But even in his ostensible area of expertise, Stimson helps perpetuate two constitutional myths: 1) that the Commerce Clause authorizes Congress to criminalize instrastate production and possession of marijuana (a theory he has told me he does not actually buy) and 2) that the Supremacy Clause requires states to impose their own criminal sanctions on people who violate the federal Controlled Substances Act. More on that fallacy here.

In an Alternet essay, Steve Fox, co-author of Marijuana Is Safer, refutes Stimson's claim that alcohol is. Fox calls Stimson's position paper "batshit crazy" and tells readers they'd better check it out for themselves while they can. "Because it is truly so absurd," he writes, "I believe it will be taken down from the site soon." For the sake of their cause, antiprohibitionists should hope Fox is wrong.

A couple of years ago, I debated drug policy with Stimson in the Los Angeles Times.

[Thanks to Bill Piper at the Drug Policy Alliance for the tip.]