Marijuana

Bill Bennett's Pot Prevarications

The former drug czar's defense of marijuana prohibition is about as strong as ditch weed.

|

"With marijuana," declare William J. Bennett and Robert A. White in Going to Pot, their new prohibitionist screed, "we have inexplicably suspended all the normal rules of reasoning and knowledge." You can't say they didn't warn us.

The challenge for Bennett, a former drug czar and secretary of education who makes his living nowadays as a conservative pundit and talk radio host, and White, a New Jersey lawyer, is that most Americans support marijuana legalization, having discovered through direct and indirect experience that cannabis is not the menace portrayed in decades of anti-pot propaganda. To make the familiar seem threatening again, Bennett and White argue that marijuana is both more dangerous than it used to be, because it is more potent, and more dangerous than we used to think, because recent research has revealed "long-lasting and permanent serious health effects." The result is a rambling, repetitive, self-contradicting hodgepodge of scare stories, misleading comparisons, unsupportable generalizations, and decontextualized research results.

Bennett and White exaggerate the increase in marijuana's potency, comparing THC levels in today's strongest strains with those in barely psychoactive samples from the 1970s that were not much stronger than ditch weed. "That is a growth of a psychoactive ingredient from 3 to 4 percent a few decades ago to close to 40 percent," they write, taking the most extreme outliers from both ends. Still, there is no question that average THC levels have increased substantially as Americans have gotten better at growing marijuana. Consumers generally view that as an improvement, and it arguably makes pot smoking safer, since users can achieve the same effect while inhaling less smoke.

But from Bennett and White's perspective, better pot is unambiguously worse. "You cannot consider it the same substance when you look at the dramatic increase in potency," they write. "It is like comparing a twelve-ounce glass of beer with a twelve-ounce glass of 80 proof vodka; both contain alcohol, but they have vastly different effects on the body when consumed." How many people do you know who treat 12 ounces of vodka as equivalent to 12 ounces of beer? Drinkers tend to consume less of stronger products, and the same is true of pot smokers—a crucial point that Bennett and White never consider.

When it comes to assessing the evidence concerning marijuana's hazards, Bennett and White's approach is not exactly rigorous. They criticize evidence of marijuana's benefits as merely "anecdotal" yet intersperse their text with personal testimonials about its harms (e.g., "My son is now 27 years old and a hopeless heroin addict living on the streets…"). They do Google searches on "marijuana" paired with various possible dangers, then present the alarming (and generally misleading) headlines that pop up as if they conclusively verify those dangers. They cite any study that reflects negatively on marijuana (often repeatedly) as if it were the final word on the subject. Occasionally they acknowledge that the studies they favor have been criticized on methodological grounds or that other studies have generated different results. But they argue that even the possibility of bad outcomes such as IQ loss, psychosis, or addiction to other drugs is enough to oppose legalization.

"Let us hypothesize severe skepticism and say, for argument's sake, all these studies have a 5 percent chance of being right," Bennett and White write. Even then, they say, the continued prohibition of marijuana would be justified, noting that the painkiller Vioxx was pulled from the market in 2004 "when it was discovered 3.5 percent of its users suffered heart attacks as opposed to 1.9 percent [of those] taking a placebo." Bennett and White thus conflate a 5 percent chance that a drug poses any danger at all with a 5 percent chance that a given user will suffer serious harm. They are not the same thing. Bennett and White also imply that if "all these studies have a 5 percent chance of being right," that is equivalent to something like an 84 percent increase in risk (as seen with Vioxx). That is not right either.

Just as puzzling, Bennett and White put a lot of effort into arguing, quite unconvincingly, that "marijuana is at least as harmful as tobacco and alcohol," even though they repeatedly say it does not matter whether that's true. "More than smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana can damage the heart, lungs, and brain," they write. "The argument that marijuana is not dangerous or deadly as alcohol is simply fallacious….It is simply untrue that tobacco is more harmful than marijuana."

They never actually substantiate these claims, because they can't. As measured by acute toxicity, impact on driving ability, frequency of addiction, and the long-term effects of heavy consumption, alcohol is clearly more dangerous than marijuana. That point has been acknowledged not only by President Obama but by his drug czar and even by the co-founder of a leading anti-pot group. The difference in risk is also recognized by a large majority of Americans, making Bennett and White's attempt to deny it even more quixotic.

The argument that marijuana is just as deadly as tobacco is equally bizarre, relying on the findings of a few scattered studies, without regard to their strength or reproducibility. Bennett and White say, for example, that marijuana, like tobacco, causes lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. But according to a review published by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) last month, there is "mixed evidence for whether or not marijuana smoking is associated with lung cancer." The CDPHE explains that "mixed evidence…indicates both supporting and opposing scientific findings for the outcome with neither direction dominating." The same report says there is only "limited evidence that marijuana use may increase risk for both heart attack and some forms of stroke." By "limited evidence," the CDPHE means there are "modest scientific findings that support the outcome, but these findings have significant limitations."

In other words, the hazards that Bennett and White cite, unlike the hazards of cigarette smoking, are unproven. Even if they were well established, there is no reason to think their magnitude would be similar, given the huge difference between the doses of toxins and carcinogens absorbed by a typical tobacco smoker and the doses absorbed by a typical pot smoker. Bennett and White quote Seattle thoracic surgeon Eric Vallieres on that very point:

Some argue that one or two joints per day of exposure to these carcinogens does not even come close to the 1-2 packs per day contact a cigarette smoker experiences. While this may mathematically make sense, the fact is that we do not know of a safe level for such exposures.

Vallieres thus concedes that any lung cancer risk from smoking marijuana, assuming one exists, would be much lower than the risk observed in tobacco smokers, even among daily users. Still, he says, that does not mean smoking marijuana is completely safe!

Bennett and White devote much of their book to that sort of bait and switch. Consider their slippery handling of the fact that alcohol and tobacco kill people much more often than marijuana does. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol plays a role in something like 88,000 deaths a year, while tobacco is associated with 480,000. Tellingly, there is no official death toll for marijuana, although it's reasonable to assume the number is greater than zero, if only because stoned drivers get into fatal crashes from time to time. "As for the higher death and damage rates attributed to alcohol and tobacco," Bennett and White write, "it is at present correct to say more deaths are caused by those two legal substances than by marijuana. It is also true that alcohol and tobacco are far more widely used because they are legal."

The implication is that if marijuana were as popular as alcohol or tobacco, the marijuana death toll would in the neighborhood of half a million a year. But as Bennett and White inadvertently concede, the number of marijuana-related deaths is much smaller not just in absolute terms but as a percentage of users. Bennett and White say there are seven times as many drinkers as pot smokers in this country. If marijuana were as dangerous as alcohol, we would already be seeing more than 12,000 marijuana-related deaths per year. Bennett and White say there are three times as many cigarette smokers as cannabis consumers. If marijuana were as dangerous as tobacco, we would already be seeing more than 150,000 marijuana-related deaths a year.

Obviously this is absurd, as Bennett and White eventually admit: "The point is this: There is no level of marijuana use that is actually completely safe." Wasn't the point supposed to be that "marijuana is at least as harmful as tobacco and alcohol"?

Never mind. Having abandoned that prominently placed claim, Bennett and White instead argue that "marijuana use is not safe or harmless." That point is important, they say, because marijuana is "propagated as harmless (at worst) and therapeutic (at best)," and "the culture has convinced itself that marijuana is harmless." Still, one might question the relevance of showing that marijuana is not harmless in light of the fact that "almost none of the supporters of legalization of marijuana claim that smoking marijuana is without risk." Maybe they realize something that Bennett and White do not.

Ultimately, the question is not whether marijuana use carries risks, or even whether its risks are smaller than those posed by alcohol and tobacco—although that point surely casts doubt on the rationality, consistency, and fairness of our drug laws, as Bennett and White hazily perceive. "While there are dangerous substances that are legal in America (like tobacco and alcohol), we would be very ill-advised to add one more dangerous product (marijuana) to the list of things Americans should freely be able to obtain and use," they write. "We can add to the menu of dangerous substances available to our citizens, or we can draw a line and admit we are surfeited with the problems that already exist."

That is the real crux of Bennett and White's argument, and it depends on accepting their premise that using force to stop people from hurting themselves is morally justified. In the case of marijuana prohibition, this use of force includes hundreds of thousands of arrests each year—nearly 700,000 in 2013, the vast majority (88 percent) for simple possession. "When there is an arrest for possession," Bennett and White claim, "it is usually of a large quantity—a lot of pounds." If that were true, there would be a lot more people accused of possession with intent to distribute and a lot fewer charged with simple possession. Bennett and White mention "one Department of Justice study" that "showed the median amount of marijuana seized in a possession arrest to be 115 pounds." That figure comes from a study of federal cases, which account for a tiny fraction of total marijuana arrests (around 1 percent) but tend to involve large quantities.

Even as they inaccurately claim that people caught with marijuana typically have "a lot of pounds," Bennett and White also say the arrests are no big deal because they generally do not result in jail or prison sentences. Around 40,000 marijuana offenders nevertheless are serving sentences as long as life for growing a plant or distributing its produce. And even if cannabis consumers do not spend much time behind bars , they still suffer the humiliation, cost, inconvenience, loss of liberty, stigma, and lasting ancillary penalties of a criminal arrest. That is no small thing, but Bennett and White shrug it off, likening marijuana possession to drunk driving, burglary, and theft. The fact that police arrest a lot of people for those offenses, they say, does not mean that drunk driving, burglary, and theft should be decriminalized. The crucial distinction, of course, is that marijuana in someone's pocket does not run over pedestrians, break into people's homes, or steal their wallets.

Bennett and White do not begin to grapple with the question of how it can be just to treat people as criminals when their actions violate no one's rights. They simply take it as a given that "the government not only has a right, but a duty to keep the public safe from harm, including dangerous substances." They maintain that an action is "worthy of being illegal" if it is "something that hurts individuals or society." Since Bennett has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, we can assume he understands the implications of his words, which make no distinction between self-regarding behavior and actions that harm others, or between the sort of injury that violates people's rights and the sort that does not. It would be hard to come up with a broader license for government intervention, and it is impossible to reconcile Bennett and White's free-ranging paternalism with their avowed support for "less government intrusion into the lives of all Americans."

Here is how Bennett and White sum up the moral objection to marijuana prohibition:

What is the ultimate right being argued for?…At the end of the day the right is, simply put, a right to get and be stoned. This, it seems to us, is a rather ridiculous right upon which to charge a hill.

This is like saying that freedom of speech is the right to tweet about the latest episode of American Idol, or that freedom of religion is the right to believe silly things and engage in pointless rituals. It is true as far as it goes, but it overlooks the broader principle. Drug prohibition dictates to people what substances they may ingest and what states of consciousness they may seek, thereby running roughshod over the principle that every man is sovereign over his own body and mind.

Even if marijuana is not as bad as they portray it, Bennett and White ask, "Do we need it?" They think cannabis consumers need to justify their freedom, when it is prohibitionists who need to justify forcibly imposing their pharmacological preferences on others. After so many years of taking that power for granted, it's hardly surprising they are not up to the task.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

NEXT: WATCH: How Germany Forgot the Horrors of Communism

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. The following text is taken directly from the US government’s National Cancer Institute website: http://www.cancer.gov/cancerto…..onal/page4

    * ANTI-TUMOR EFFECTS

    One study in mice and rats suggested that cannabinoids may have a protective effect against the development of certain types of tumors. During this 2-year study, groups of mice and rats were given various doses of THC by gavage. A dose-related decrease in the incidence of hepatic adenoma tumors and hepatocellular carcinoma was observed in the mice. Decreased incidences of benign tumors (polyps and adenomas) in other organs (mammary gland, uterus, pituitary, testis, and pancreas) were also noted in the rats. In another study, delta-9-THC, delta-8-THC, and cannabinol were found to inhibit the growth of Lewis lung adenocarcinoma cells in vitro and in vivo. In addition, other tumors have been shown to be sensitive to cannabinoid-induced growth inhibition.

    Cannabinoids may cause antitumor effects by various mechanisms, including induction of cell death, inhibition of cell growth, and inhibition of tumor angiogenesis and metastasis. Cannabinoids appear to kill tumor cells but do not affect their nontransformed counterparts and may even protect them from cell death.

    There is far more there on anti-tumor effects but I’m limited here due to commenting restrictions.

    1. You may as well claim GMOs aren’t the devil’s work while you’re at it.

      1. I always wonder how many anti GMOers enjoy a glass of French wine without ever realizing it is prolly only because of GMOs that they can do so ?

  2. You can’t say they didn’t warn us.

    Nice.

  3. “the government not only has a right, but a duty to keep the public safe from harm, including dangerous substances.”

    OK, Bill. Let’s start by eliminating gambling.

    (Yes, I know: AD HOMINEM!)

  4. Since Bennett has a Ph.D. in political philosophy, we can assume he understands the implications of his words

    Full stop!

    1. Yeah. Why would we assume that anyone who had a Ph.D. in political philosophy was able to tie his shoes outside of the sheltered groves of academy?

  5. “the government not only has a right, but a duty to keep the public safe from harm, including dangerous substances.”

    Poor feckless proles. You’d be nothing without the gentle beneficent guiding hand of government. Now, giddyup. It pulls the wagon or it gets the whip.

  6. Bill Bennett is a truly awful human being and certainly ranks up there as one of the worst humans on earth.

    1. Oh, now, wait a minute. Useless political drone, yes. Totally bought into the myth of the State as mother and father to the childlike people, yes. One of the worst humans on earth? That’s a bit of a reach. He isn’t an anti-semetic holocaust denying jihadi a$$hole. He isn’t a “woman’s heath clinic” butcher, preying on the inner city poor, while depending on “Women’s Reproductive Rights” twits to run cover for his murders like Kermit Gosnell. He isn’t a North Korean government thug, enforcing the insane edicts of a third rate Stalin clone.

      Get a freaking grip.

      1. He isn’t an anti-semetic holocaust denying jihadi a$$hole.

        Being an anti-semitic holocaust denier has no moral content. It’s stupid to be sure, but it’s not immoral to believe stupid things per se.

        1. Ah, but I specified a anti-semetic holocaust denying JIHADI. In short, an Islamic jew killer. THAT has “moral content”; all of it revolting.

          1. What does anti-semetic mean? Is it like anti-Semitic but nausea inducing?

      2. The list is fairly long.

    2. I will second that. A fucking drunk, gambling, gluttonous pig writing a book about virtures. Fuck him.

  7. The number of people influenced by Bennett would not show up on any radar screen of any importance.

    1. If he has a following it must be a well kept secret.

  8. The extremely profitable anti-alcohol campaign that made many billions for everyone from lawyers and the courts to treatment center industry is mostly petering out. People just do not drink the way they used to. And a lot of it has to do with people switching to the much safer weed. Used to be really tough to get DUI’d on weed. Well, I’ve never known government to back off on anything when it’s involves awarding itself more power and more of the citizenry’s money. Having already read numerous articles placing blame on grass for countless woes, I’d almost bet everything I own that marijuana is about to become the new alcohol; the new demon to take the once very profitable alcohol’s place.

    Silly ole Bennett just hasn’t read the memo.

    1. If the anti-alcohol campaign is petering out it is probably because those Baby Boomers prone to that brand of substance abuse have managed to kill themselves with it. The safety of Pot over drink is far from proven. I t be, but so much lying has been do on all sides of BOTH issues (pot AND drink) that reliable data are as hard to come by as pixie dust.

      1. Well, I’ve already read several articles claiming traffic fatalities involving marijuana are on the increase and have never been properly explored. The claims of course don’t stop with driving, but go on to damage to families, etc. The early signs of a trend are obvious.

        BTW, I’m not sure why you’d expect facts to get in the way of fear-mongering for profit and power. They never have up and until now.

        1. I just get weary of people I agree with making themselves indefensibly by spouting palpable crap.

    2. MADD needs to come up with more justification for its co tinted existence.

  9. I strongly suspect that one of the major underlying issues that conservatives have with legalizing weed is that they have lived for decades in a society where one could count on two of every three pro-legalization spokespersons to be annoying prats. Shouldn’t affect things, in an ideal world. And, ultimately, hasn’t been true for a while now. But I’m in my early 50’s. If I have such strong memories from the ’70’s and ’80’s, I suspect that other people do too.

    1. I believe it is religious, as well. Body is a Temple, and all that. It goes to the base puritanism of conservatives, which says, if your enjoying yourself, your doing it wrong.
      Which hasalways been a lie, IMO. For decades conservatives have won elections on “moral” and “family” values, and guess what, abortion? still legal, gay marriage? not only accepted, but now hip, as well. Prayer in school? nope.
      So basically, they are full of shit, and now the populace has seen this, and the same will happen with Cannabis.

      1. Didn’t Martin Luther hold to the notion that sex was still a sin even in marriage and it amounted to God’s only mistake?

        1. I don’t remember this about Martin Luther, though that Shakers believed something of the sort. Which tends to explain why there are no more Shakers.

          1. Probably too much Shakers were jackets and not bangers

  10. Nice piece. These men are full of hatred for people who prefer different drugs to them. And they make large sums shilling this anger to other hate-filled birds of a feather.

    Ultimately, when Bill Bennett and John White make these ridiculous arguments, they not really talking to the nation. Bennett is talking to his radio audience a la Calamity Hannity, Opioid Rush, and Biley O’Reilly. Ooh and I forgot Nancy Disgrace and White is Might. White is talking to LEOs and the sleazy addiction treatment industry.

    They know they make useless points. They know theirs is an indefensible stance. And the addiction treatment, LEO and religious communities also know they have caused great, irreversible harm to millions and millions of people.

    They just can’t get out of their own way, and don’t have the character to question their hypocrisy. It’s that simple and evidenced in that they don’t argue for the banning of all vice, only the ones they disagree with.

    In Bennett’s case, his cognitive dissonance exceeds that of even Michelle Leonhart’s, and hers is on the level of bizarre.

    Ultimately, the man has credibilty only with the contentedly ignorant and the obsessively angry.

  11. Why is anyone still listening to this stupid shit?

  12. Yawn. It is time for libertarians to get past marijuna as their only issue. This is getting borrrring.

    1. Marijuana is not the issue. The issue is self ownership.

    2. Marijuana criminalization has a lot of effects on other areas that libertarians care about, from the government’s invasion of our body to our out-of-control prison industry.

      The US government has never removed a substance from Schedule 1 as far as I’m aware (somebody correct me if I’m wrong as information on scheduling is difficult to come by); that in itself will be HUGE.

  13. When Bill dies, I am gonna smoke a hooter and relieve some…ahem…. processed Kentucky whiskey at his grave.

  14. That is why I enjoy vaping my CBD e-liquid! CBD is so much better than weed. You get all the benefits without the getting high feeling.

    1. I’m sorry, but that sounds like the nerdiest thing I ever heard. No offense.

      1. It’s like saying that you can have all the sex you want without those messy orgasms.

  15. my neighbor’s half-sister makes $65 /hour on the internet . She has been unemployed for 10 months but last month her payment was $17961 just working on the internet for a few hours. read more…………….
    ????? http://www.Workvalt.Com

  16. my buddy’s mom makes $86 an hour on the computer . She has been out of a job for 5 months but last month her check was $15207 just working on the computer for a few hours. site here…………….
    ????? http://www.netcash50.com

  17. “It is like comparing a twelve-ounce glass of beer with a twelve-ounce glass of 80 proof vodka; both contain alcohol, but they have vastly different effects on the body when consumed.”

    Bennett has stumbled on the direct effect of prohibition – granted you’d think someone with his “experience,” would know this.. During the Prohibition Era, bootleggers didn’t sell much beer because, given the risks, they would rather smuggle a barrel of gin and its increased “dosage,” than a barrel of beer. This has been well documented. Same thing for MJ. Given sentencing structures that are around quantity, it makes sense that growers and distributors would rather provide a smaller amount that has the same potency as a larger amount that might invoke some mandatory minimum.

    Regardless, the next sentences are correct. The great majority of people moderate their intake as potency increases. Yes, there are always some sloppy drunks, and stoners who can’t leave the basement, but that’ not really the issue. It’s a question of the inalienable right to control over one’s body and mind. At least his true colors as a statist shine through in this rambling missive.

    1. Growers and distributors only give a shit about what will move fast and make the most money.

    2. Growers and distributors only give a shit about what will move fast and make the most money.

  18. The rebuttals to Bennett set forth in both the article and comments are sound as far as they go. Add to them the social degradation that accompanies drug prohibition in both consuming and producing countries.

    Auto use leads to 30,000 or so deaths a year in the US. Does that fact alone determine the matter of whether cars should be banned? What is worse, Mr. Bennett, the pathologies that you catalogue (and let’s assume your take on them is sound), or the disintegration of families and of communities occasioned by enforcement of drug laws?

    Maybe Bennett is right (I doubt it), but his prescription is not worth a moment’s consideration without his first attempting an answer to the question: “compared to what?”

  19. People who advocate arresting people for victimless crimes are the real criminals in society.

  20. Marijuana is definitely less-dangerous than alcohol/tobacco in some ways and likely more-dangerous in others (it is, after all, a psychoactive substance).

    Which just means we should not demonize the stuff and make sure people who do end up getting harmed by using it have somewhere supportive to get help.

    In fact, that should be the rule for all drugs… and I highly doubt it will be in my lifetime.

    1. Alcohol is psychoactive and the only drug known to statistically provably cause violence.

  21. Unsurprisingly with the sky remaining intact above Colorado & Washington Bennett sees the Drug War gravy train loosing steam so this novel is just a cynical attempt to squeeze out the last dime.

    On a positive note the Bellagio will soon be visited by a whale.

  22. Who on earth would actually spend money to buy this book? What is anyone going to learn from reading it? I have no idea why any publisher would invest in a project like this. I’ll bet government agencies (DEA and others) buy tens of thousands of copies of this book to continue this costly bureaucratic corruption.

  23. I’m a Scientist with a strong interest in Cancer research. The evidence of the value of Marijuana as a life saving medicine is now so strong that the need to remove Marijuana from Schedule 1 has become a moral imperative.

    This weekend over 3,000 Americans died, in pain, of Cancer. Today, tomorrow and every day after that, 1,500 more Americans will die, after suffering horribly, from it. Every single minute another American dies of Cancer. Every American Cancer patient deserves the right to have safe, legal, and economical access to Medical Marijuana. Every single one.

    Americans who need Medical Marijuana shouldn’t be used as “Political Footballs” Please call the Whitehouse comment line at (202) 456-1111 and ask that the President take immediate action to remove Marijuana from Schedule 1 so American Physicians in all 50 states can prescribe it.

  24. If Bennett couldn’t lie or use propaganda, he’d be mute.
    He’s a tobacco addicted, hard drinking degenerate gambler.

    Mark Twain – “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits”

  25. If Bennett couldn’t lie or use propaganda, he’d be mute.
    He’s a tobacco addicted, hard drinking degenerate gambler.

    Mark Twain – “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits”

  26. You have to understand that for someone from Bennet’s age group and upbringing, that pot is bad. Period. No amount of data will ever change his point of view. Same with Bill O’Reilly.

  27. I don’t understand why they don’t legalize it, and make money off of it. I am sure they will be taxing e-liquid soon enough.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.