The Drug Enforcement Administration heads the nationís drug war. As part of that, itís done a lot to push messaging that marijuana is dangerous ó at times struggling to admit that pot isnít as dangerous as heroin.
On Tuesday, the DEAís Twitter account put out a chart making the case for why this kind of messaging is, in its view, necessary:
In the DEAís interpretation, this chart shows there a correlation between perceptions of risk and a drugís use. Sure enough, the chart largely exemplifies that: As the perceived risk of tobacco
rose, its use among 12th graders declined. And thereís a similar, although not quite as clean, story with pot, with marijuana use among 12th graders going up and remaining relatively flat as risk perceptions have dropped.
But thereís another reading of this chart that the DEA in particular wonít like ó one that argues against the DEAís work in prohibiting marijuana and cracking down on its use. Tobacco, after all, has been legal for the entirety of the DEAís chart. Yet all this time, the perception of how risky it is has gone up and its use has declined. Thatís because of various policies
, including education campaigns, mandatory warning labels, public and workplace smoking bans, and higher taxes on tobacco products.
Marijuana, meanwhile, has remained illegal on the federal level. Yet, as the DEAís chart shows, its use has continued fluctuating and perceived risk has continued dropping despite the hundreds of thousands of arrests
each year for pot possession.
While some states have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, so far there doesnít seem to be a clean connection between legalization and use
by teens: Surveys in Colorado, one of the two states to first legalize, found that reported teen pot use hasnít gone up, while a recent study in Washington state, the other state to first legalize, found teen pot use did go up.
(Some drug policy experts say, however, that itís simply too early to gauge the effects of legalization on levels of pot use, and we should wait until a big marijuana market that widely commercializes and advertises the drug forms.)
So based on the DEAís chart, the legal model sure seems to be working better: The legal drug (tobacco) has seen reduced use and the illegal one (marijuana) has not.
For legalization advocates, this has led to several questions: Why are hundreds of thousands arrested, gaining a potentially life- and job-ruining mark on their criminal record, in this grand effort? Why not borrow a page from the tobacco model, which uses solely public health tools to depress the use of an addictive, dangerous drug, instead of wasting money and lives on prisons and police?
President Barack Obama, for his part, has embraced the tobacco approach. He recently told Rolling Stone
, ďI do believe that treating [substance abuse] as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it.Ē
Legalization can go wrong if itís not done in a strictly regulated way. Just look at how alcohol-induced deaths have steadily increased
for years ó or how the worst US drug epidemic ever is rooted
in a drug legally prescribed by doctors.
But the DEAís chart, at least, suggests the president and drug policy reformers may be on to something.
By German Lopez - Vox/Jan. 10, 2017
Photo: Montage-True Democratic Party; Healthtap