The Russ Belville Show
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Have you seen the headlines?

Well, so has the Drug Czar, who is mandated by statute to oppose any legalization of marijuana. “Gateway” Gil Kerlikowske and his acolytes, Dr. Kevin A. Sabet, Dr. Paul Chabot, Patrick Kennedy, and “Kinder, Gentler Drug Warriors” nationwide, are forced into a strategic retreat by a new generation. Some of the 1st graders when California passed Proposition 215 in November 1996 will be getting their bachelor’s degrees this May. They don’t remember a time when marijuana wasn’t medicine, and now it’s recognized as medicine in eighteen states and the nation’s capital. Their parents have Facebook and Google to dispel reefer madness in a click. Even their grandparents are being enlightened to the remarkable benefits of cannabis for the health issues seniors face.

Lately, they’ve popped up like Punxsatawney Phil, frightened of their shadows and predicting six more decades of War on (Certain American Citizens Using Non-Pharmaceutical, Non-Alcoholics, Tobacco-Free) Drugs. But this time, they are armed with a whole new set of talking points designed to reboot marijuana prohibition with a veneer of concern for addicts and children.

Here they are, in no particular order of logical fallacy, half-truths, and misdirections:

Drug War Budget 20135) We don’t fight a “War on Drugs” anymore – we’re all about treatment and rehabilitation now.

“My colleagues—prosecutors, police chiefs, sheriffs, never really talked about it as a war on drugs—they would use the term “you can’t arrest your way out of this problem.” The “war on drugs” is a good bumper sticker, but we know that the drug problem is unbelievably complex. There is no bumper-sticker answer. We helped shift federal funding so that more money has flowed into drug treatment and prevention programs. We have tried using the bully pulpit of the White House to talk about the disease of addiction and to talk about it in a public health model.” — Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske to Maclean’s.

When only 7% of the public buys your slogan, it’s time to change slogans. But not necessarily tactics. The drug warriors will break down their budgets into categories “Treatment and Prevention”, “Law Enforcement”, “Interdiction”, and “International”.  When you see it like that on the bar chart, “Treatment and Prevention” and “Law Enforcment” look roughly equal. The problem is that “Interdiction” means “Law Enforcement pulling weeds and seizing drugs” and “International” means “money we give to Law Enforcement intermationally”.

When you pile all the “Law Enforcement” bars on top of each other, you’ll find throughout the Obama Administration’s Drug War Budgets a 3:2 ratio in favor of law enforcement spending over treatment and prevention spending. In another trick, sometimes they’ll say how much more they spend on treatment and prevention over the last admnistration. That’s true in overall dollars, but George W. Bush’s administrations had slightly more spending directed toward treatment and prevention as a share of the overall Drug War. If we can’t arrest our way out of the problem, why do we keep arresting people…?

Marijuana Arrests and Imprisonment4) We can’t legalize marijuana – look at how many arrests there are for legal alcohol!

“We arrest about 2.4 million people in this country a year for alcohol. We arrest less than 700,000 people for marijuana—and for all drugs, only 1.3 million. Alcohol is perfectly legal. So making drugs available without any sanction would only lead to more abuse.” — Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske to Maclean’s.

This misdirection amuses me the most – being arrested for a legal marijuana violation would somehow be worse than being arrested for an illegal marijuana crime? Yes, about three times more people are arrested for alcohol violations – DUIs, underaged drinking, public intoxication, etc. – than marijuana crimes. But 51% of Americans 12+ use alcohol monthly while only 7% use marijuana monthly[1]. So that’s over seven times more Americans drinking than smoking pot, but only three times more arrests? And how many more alcohol arrests would there be if the mere smell of beer or sight of a can enabled police to search and arrest you for possession of even a mere sip?

Remember when the Drug Czar says “abuse” with respect to marijuana, that includes “use”. Will marijuana use increase after legalization? Sure, as some who feared the law might now give it a try. But there would need to be one new monthly adult pot smoker for every two existing monthly pot smokers[2] to even approach the greatest rates of marijuana use this country has ever experienced back in 1979. Sure, inflation was high and disco sucked, but that wasn’t marijuana’s fault (cocaine’s, maybe…) And if these new legal marijuana users are using it instead of booze, prescriptions, or illegal drugs for the same purposes, won’t that be a net positive for public health? Especially if we’re raising some new tax revenue…?

Canada Costs Per User3) We won’t gain any benefit from taxing marijuana, because taxing alcohol and tobacco is a net loss.

“Many have already begun touting tax revenues from legal marijuana as a major plus of the recently passed state laws. Sadly, however, we know that vice taxes rarely pay for themselves. The $40 billion we collect annually from high levels of tobacco and alcohol use in the U.S. are about a tenth of what those use levels cost us in terms of lost productivity, premature illness, accidents and death.” — Kevin Sabet to CNN.

This is a fun little piece of algebra I call The Sabet Conjecture. Given that we take in roughly $20 billion in alcohol taxes and $20 billion in tobacco taxes, and we incur about $200 billion in costs from each of those legal substances, we should therefore continue to take in $0 in marijuana taxes, spend $7 billion futilely trying to eliminate it[3], and incur whatever never-mentioned costs of current marijuana use we already pay.

The problem with The Sabet Conjecture is that alcohol and tobacco, unlike marijuana, are toxic and addictive. If you could line up all the drugs, legal and illegal, that are used recreationally, in order of danger to user and society, alcohol and tobacco would be at the head of the line (well, maybe sharing spots with heroin and PCP). Of course they cost more in public health (cirrhosis, lung cancer), workplace productivity (hangovers, smoke breaks), and social costs (drunk drivers, litter). But according to a 2002 Canadian Study, the social costs of marijuana users is one-eighth that of alcohol drinkers and one-fortieth that of tobacco smokers[4]. Whatever the cost, we’re paying it now, taking in nothing in taxes, spending tax money to fight it, and enriching criminal gangs… which leads to…

Joe Camel Missing2) Legalizing marijuana won’t do a thing to the Mexican cartels / We must avoid a “Big Marijuana” at all costs.

“We also know that the promise of ending violent cartels is far from reality. A recent RAND report showed that Mexican drug trafficking groups only received a minority of their revenue from marijuana. So they are likely to stay around, legal marijuana or not.” — Kevin Sabet to CNN

“It is going even further, and before we know it, we’re going to wake up one day and have another tobacco industry. It is going to be called the marijuana industry. We already know what big tobacco did to our kids. Joe Camel targeted kids.” — Patrick Kennedy to MSNBC, reported in Raw Story (

Joe Camel, would that be the scrotal-visaged cartoon advertisement that we haven’t seen since 1998? Who went the way of the Winston Cup, smoking sections, and the Marlboro Man? Why is it when marijuana is legalized we’d have to repeat all the same mistakes we made with commercialization of tobacco? Why would we not learn our lessons from history and apply them to the newly-emerging legal mariju… oh, yeah, because supporters of prohibition never learn from history.

The tragic irony of Patrick Kennedy’s comments is “Big Marijuana” already exists. However, it is not a bunch of corporations that settle their business disputes with courts and lawsuits. Big Marijuana is a bunch of violent Mexican narcotraficantes that settle their business disputes with plata o plomo. A Big Marijuana that tortures and beheads and terrorizes our neighbor to the south and, according to that recent RAND report, generates 15%-26% of its revenue from marijuana. The question isn’t whether we wake up to Big Marijuana, it’s whether Big Marijuana is a taxpaying, job-creating American corporation that sells pot in adults-only stores that check ID, or is it benefiting criminals who use teens as their retailers and never check ID?

Speaking of the children…

Click for full size chart1) We can’t legalize marijuana because… well… what about the children!?!

“Marijuana remains a leading reason kids are in treatment today.” — Patrick Kennedy, letter to Attorney General Holder

“Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that in 1993 marijuana comprised approximately 8% of all treatment admissions, but by 2009 that number had increased to 18%.” — Project SAM

“According to data from the 2012 National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse, alcohol and cigarettes were the most readily accessible substances for youth 12 to 17 to obtain, with 50% and 44%, respectively, reporting they could obtain them within a day. Youth were least likely to report they could get marijuana within a day (31%); 45% report that they would be unable to get marijuana at all.” — Project SAM

Nobody wants kids using marijuana, unless it is for medical purposes with a doctor’s supervision. But these statistics distort reasonable concern over teen use into full-blown alarm that diverts resources to real teen drug problems.

Over 17,500 kids were admitted to rehab with marijuana as their first or second substance of abuse, compared to around 9,500 admitted for alcohol[5]. However, 28% of kids 12-17 drank last year and half as many smoked pot[6]. So almost twice as many kids go to rehab for pot than booze when twice as many drink than toke? A large part of the reason for that increase from 8% to 18% of treatment admissions over thirty years can be traced to a doubling in annual marijuana arrests[7] and an increase from 19 “drug courts” in 1993 to over 2,700 today[8].

As for that “access” to substances? That survey is from CASA and it used to ask, until 2009, whether kids 12-17 could “buy” substances. But teens always reported that it was far easier to buy marijuana than beer and about the same as cigarettes, and we marijuana reformers pounced on that. Now they ask about “access” which includes their ability to sneak it from parents. However, also buried in the latest CASA report is the shocking statistic that 91% of all kids 12-17 know someone at school who sells weed, compared to 24% for prescription drugs, 9% for cocaine, 6% for cigarettes, and 1% for alcohol[9].


[1] National Survey of Drug Use & Health, 2011, use within past thirty days. Annual use of alcohol is 66% and marijuana is 11.5%, so perhaps “six times more Americans drinking than smoking pot” is more fair.

[2] National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 1979, use within past thirty days is 12.8%, use within past year is 18.1%.

[3] The Budgetary Implications of Marijuana Prohibition, 2005, Jeffrey A. Miron, Department of Economics, Harvard University, signed on by 500+ economists

[4] Rehm, J. Baliunas, S., Brochu, B. et al. (2006). The costs of substance abuse in Canada 2002. Ottawa: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.

[5] Treatment Episode Data Set – Admissions, 2010

[6] National Survey on Drug Use & Health, 2011

[7] FBI Uniform Crime Reports, 1993-2011

[8] Painting the Current Picture: A National Report on Drug Courts and Other Problem-Solving Court Programs in the United States, West Huddleston, Douglas B. Marlowe, J.D., Ph.D, July 2011

[9] National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens, 2012, page 2, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

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