Bill Bennett's Pot Prevarications
A former drug czar's dazed and confused defense of marijuana prohibition
Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America, by William J. Bennett and Robert A. White, Center Street, 240 pages, $26
"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 ("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 risks. 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. "It is simply untrue that tobacco is more harmful than marijuana."
They never 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 Barack Obama but by his drug czar and even by Patrick Kennedy, co-founder of the anti-pot group Project SAM. 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) in January, 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," Vallieres writes. "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 be 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 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 tend to involve large quantities but account for a tiny fraction of total marijuana arrests (around 1 percent).
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 when they are busted, 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 is hardly surprising they are not up to the task.
Senior Editor Jacob Sullum (firstname.lastname@example.org) blogs about drug policy at Forbes.com, where a version of this article first appeared.