Targeting Marijuana Saps Anti-Drug Effort, Critics Say
by Stevenson Swanson, Tribune national correspondent, (05 Jun 2005)
Chicago Tribune United States
NEW YORK -- A new government anti-marijuana campaign has reignited a
long-smoldering debate over how dangerous the most widely used illegal
drug in America really is and whether it should be the central focus of
the nation's war on drugs.
Headlined "Marijuana and your teen's mental health," an advertisement
appearing in newspapers and magazines nationwide cites scientific
studies in the last seven years that have found that regular use of
marijuana in the teenage years can put users at risk of depression,
suicidal impulses and schizophrenia later in life.
"Still think marijuana's no big deal?" the ad asks parents.
Yes, responds one leading advocate of decriminalizing marijuana.
"If you want to focus on problem drugs in the U.S., marijuana is the
last drug you would focus on," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director
of the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors treating marijuana like
alcohol: a legal product that is regulated, taxed and illegal for
minors to use.
"We have methamphetamine out there, we have heroin, we have OxyContin,
we have booze, we have cigarettes. To make statements that
marijuana in the hands of teenagers is this dangerous threat, it's
And last week, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and more
than 500 other economists endorsed a report that said state and federal
coffers could reap a net gain of $13.9 billion if marijuana were
The study by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that
law enforcement would save $7.7 billion, while taxes on the drug could
amount to $6.2 billion. Miron's study was largely funded by the
Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group that
supports liberalizing marijuana laws.
The renewed war of words regarding a drug that has been prevalent in
American society for some 40 years erupted in early May when John
Walters, the Bush administration's drug czar, launched the government's
latest print and broadcast ad campaign.
Mental Health Alert
"A growing body of evidence now demonstrates that smoking marijuana can
increase the risk of serious mental health problems," said Walters,
whose official title is director of the Office of National Drug Control
One recent report, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration, found that adults who had used marijuana before age 12
were twice as likely to have experienced a serious mental illness in
the past year as those who began smoking it after 18.
Among early users, 21 percent reported suffering a serious mental
health problem, compared with 10.5 percent among those who started
smoking marijuana later. The study was based on interviews with
almost 90,000 adults.
Other studies cited by the drug control office, which will spend $120
million on public-education advertising this year, have found that
teenagers who smoke marijuana weekly are three times more likely than
non-users to have suicidal thoughts and that some teenage users have a
higher risk of developing schizophrenia as adults.
"We are very concerned about marijuana for a very good reason," said
David Murray, a policy analyst for the drug control office. "It's
so prevalent, so widespread in the population. There's a
public-health responsibility here. This is not an innocuous drug."
A University of Michigan study found last year that 34.3 percent of
high school seniors and 11.8 percent of 8th graders had smoked
marijuana in the previous 12 months. Drug use among teenagers has
been falling since 1996, the study noted.
Teenagers are the targets of the government anti-marijuana campaign
because officials believe that use of marijuana early in life can lead
to harder drugs such as cocaine or heroin later. And adolescents
may feel they are fully grown, but they aren't.
"The evidence is now pretty significant that central nervous system
development is not complete in adolescents, and the use of this drug
may have effects on the maturation of their central nervous systems,"
said Dr. Richard Suchinsky, a psychiatrist who oversees the
Department of Veterans Affairs' addiction programs.
"It inhibits certain functions, such as cognition, judgment and the ability to postpone gratification," Suchinsky said.
But critics of the government's war on drugs say the latest studies do
little to advance what is already known about marijuana and do not
prove that the drug is responsible for mental illness. Children
and teenagers who are predisposed to have mental health problems may be
more likely to try marijuana, they say.
"There's a question about whether there's a causality," said the Drug
Policy Alliance's Nadelmann. "What's interesting about marijuana,
you can't even find a presidential candidate now who will say he has
never used it. We all know people who have smoked marijuana for
periods of time, and they're all doing fine."
Ten states have approved marijuana for medical use by cancer patients
and others who appear to benefit from its relief of severe nausea.
D.C. vs. California
That has set up a classic states' rights confrontation between the
federal government and one such state, California. In a case
pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, federal authorities argue
that they can override state medical marijuana laws.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case that
federal officials had overstepped their constitutional boundaries when
they raided the homes of patients who were growing marijuana for their
own use. The Supreme Court is expected to issue its opinion
before the current session ends later this month.
The war on drugs, whose law enforcement, public education and other
components cost an estimated $35 billion a year, has come under fire
lately not only from groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, which
favors a heavier emphasis on treatment and prevention, but also from
some conservative organizations such as the American Enterprise
Institute, a Washington think tank.
In a March assessment of the war on drugs, the institute reported that
the number of drug offenders in jail has ballooned tenfold since 1980
with little evidence that the tactic has led to markedly less drug use
in the general population.
"Despite this massive investment of tax dollars and government
authority, the United States still has the worst drug problem among
Western nations," the study concludes.
The study also questioned the efficacy of pursuing marijuana users, a
pursuit that has grown dramatically as a proportion of the war on drugs
in the last decade.
Between 1990 and 2002, the number of drug arrests rose from about 1.1
million to more than 1.5 million, with 80 percent of that increase
coming from marijuana arrests, according to a recent report by The
Sentencing Project, which examined FBI data to draw its conclusion that
the war on drugs has increasingly turned into a campaign against just
Murray, of the anti-drug office, criticized the report for
"data-slicing" by choosing as its starting point a period when the
nation was battling an epidemic of crack cocaine and when cocaine
arrests were abnormally high.
"What appears to be a policy choice is in fact a natural response by law enforcement to a change in use patterns," he said.
Extent of Use Cited
Despite longstanding concerns about the addictive power of heroin and
cocaine and growing worries about methamphetamine, which is often
manufactured in household labs, a spokesman for the drug policy office
said the government's emphasis on marijuana is justified by its status
as the most widely used drug among minors.
"If you are trying to get useful information into parents' hands, this
is the more educative way to go," said spokesman Tom Riley.
But Mitch Earleywine, a psychology professor at the University of
Southern California, believes that the campaign overstates the dangers
of marijuana and runs the risk of backfiring among teenagers, who are
already skeptical of adults.
"My big worry is that if you tell a 14-year-old that if you smoke pot,
you're going to become psychotic, and then he tries it and nothing
happens, you lose credibility," said Earleywine, author of
"Understanding Marijuana." "So when you tell him that using meth will
make your brain smaller, which it absolutely will, he'll think, 'You
lied to me about the marijuana, so I think I'm going to smoke this
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