The Drug Czar Just Says No to Marijuana Legalization


As Mike Riggs noted this morning, the Obama administration last Friday night finally got around to addressing the "We the People" online petitions urging repeal of marijuana prohibition. First it had to deal with the clamor for excising "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance (a cause that attracted 20,328 signatures) and removing the slogan "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency (12,273). By comparison, the eight petitions recommending some form of marijuana legalization totaled more than 150,000 (possibly overlapping) signatures; the most popular one, "Legalize and Regulate Marijuana in a Manner Similar to Alcohol," by itself attracted more than 74,000. If you bother to read drug czar Gil Kerlikowske's embarrassingly weak response, you can see why the White House buried it in the weekend news graveyard:

Our concern about marijuana is based on what the science tells us about the drug's effects.

According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health—the world's largest source of drug abuse research—marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment. We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms. Studies also reveal that marijuana potency has almost tripled over the past 20 years…It is not a benign drug. 

That's pretty much it for Kerlikowske's argument against legalization. Since people can become addicted to anything that gives them pleasure, that risk hardly makes the case for prohibition. If Kerlikowske truly were concerned about the respiratory effects of marijuana combustion products (a negligible risk for all but the heaviest pot smokers), he would recommend vaporizers, which release marijuana's active ingredients without burning it. And he would not go on to bemoan rising marijuana potency, since that trend makes pot safer by delivering more bang per puff, meaning smokers are exposed to fewer toxins. As for "cognitive impairment," Kerlikowske presumably is referring to marijuana's acute psychoactive effects, which most pot smokers consider a feature, not a bug. In any event, the fact that an activity is risky does not mean banning it is just, wise, or cost-effective. Notably missing from Kerlikowske's argument is any accounting of prohibition's costs and any suggestion of benefits that might outweigh them.

Kerlikowske does deviate from prohibitionist orthodoxy in one respect, acknowledging that marijuana has medical potential—something he himself was denying not too long ago. The administration's position, which Kerlikowske does not always state accurately, is that cannabinoids should be approved as medicine (as synthetic THC, in form of Marinol capsules, was back in 1985) if they are proven safe and effective through the usual (expensive and time-consuming) process but that smoking pot is not an appropriate way to treat any medical condition. That is pretty much par for the course at the FDA, which likes its drugs isolated and frowns on anything involving whole plant matter. But this attitude leaves no room for people to use marijuana as a self-help folk remedy, as they do with many other herbs that do not appear on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The justification for putting marijuana in that category—supposedly reserved for substances with "a high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use" that cannot be used safely even under medical supervision—is precisely what the marijuana petitioners are challenging.

Noting rising public support for lifting pot prohibition, which hit 50 percent in a recent Gallup poll, Andrew Sullivan regrets the administration's failure to "actually engage the salient arguments of legalizers." In an email message, Tom Angell of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition suggests the administration "dumped the response late on a Friday night hoping no one would notice" because "the White House is aware that their anti-legalization position is a political loser with the president's base (and beyond)." In the October issue of Reason, I analyze the ways Obama has disappointed supporters who hoped he would dial back the war in drugs. Among other things, I note that Obama's avowed commitment to sound science, which Kerlikowske parrots in his petition response, does not jibe with the administration's obstruction of cannabis research and its insistence, despite much evidence to the contrary, that the plant meets all the criteria for Schedule I.