Drug Czar Responds to NY Times Legalization Editorial
It must be tough working in the Office of National Drug Control Policy these days. Once, every pronouncement from the Drug Czar about marijuana, brains, eggs, and frying pans was met with respectful nods about the dangerous herbal menace. Now, it is tough to go an entire week without another state legalizing CBD oil, another study showing reefer madness claims to be lies, another pro-marijuana vote in the US House, and yet another poll showing majority support for legalization and supermajority support for medical marijuana even among Republicans and seniors.
But even in the downfall of the Drug War there are ONDCP staffers who must ignore the rapidly changing national mood on marijuana, for there are still laws on the books that require the ONDCP to oppose any attempts to legalize Schedule I drugs, particularly marijuana. So when the New York Times editorial board not only called for the legalization of marijuana at the federal level, but also dedicated an entire week of editorials about various failed aspects of the War on Drugs, it fell to ONDCP Staff to pen a rebuttal.
It’s always difficult when you have to start your rebuttal by agreeing with your opponent’s strongest points. “The New York Times editorial board compares Federal marijuana policy to the failure of alcohol prohibition,” the Drug Czar’s office writes, “and advocates for legalization based on the harm inflicted on young African American men who become involved in the criminal justice system as a result of marijuana possession charges.” The only possible response is to deflect the racism of the Drug War by claiming “that disproportionality exists throughout the system.” See, it won’t matter if we legalize marijuana because our racist justice system will target minorities anyway. What a defense!
ONDCP wants you to fear the public health problems of marijuana legalization, reminding you that “the Obama Administration approaches substance use as a public health issue, not merely a criminal justice problem.” Right, but why is it impossible to think of another public health issue that involves arresting sick people? In fact, while federal drug war budgets have increased for treatment and prevention, they’ve also increased for law enforcement and interdiction at roughly the same rate. During the last four years of George W. Bush’s Administration, the “war” side made up about 59% of the overall Drug War budget. That same 3:2 “cops vs. treatment” ratio exists under Obama’s Drug War budgets today.
ONDCP claims that the Times ignored crucial public health problems due to increased marijuana use, such as the impact on adolescent cognition, academic achievement, and claims early pot use will stunt IQ. Yet the Times addressed that succinctly: “There are legitimate concerns about marijuana on the development of adolescent brains. For that reason, we advocate the prohibition of sales to people under 21.”
ONDCP warns us that “marijuana is addictive”. They throw out the standard “9 percent of users become addicted to marijuana” stat, with a side of “17 percent among those who start young and to 25-50 percent among people who use marijuana daily.” As I’ve shown before, this junk stat just tells us the percentages of marijuana users who become regular weekly users. The criteria for “addiction” in these stats refer to an adult who uses marijuana more than four times a month. That’s right; if you smoke a single bowl or joint on Sunday, your government considers you a “marijuana addict”. If you used marijuana as a teen, there’s a 1 in 6 chance you’ll use it once a week as an adult. Ooh. Scary.
ONDCP warns us about the threat of drugged driving – because after all, legalization invents cars and weed. Nobody has ever driven high before and cops are powerless to stop them from doing so. Once we legalize, everybody will want to drive high, especially those people who were diligently following the prohibition law but now are toking legally. (Sarcasm intended – for the record, your risk of fatal crash if you have marijuana in your system is about the same as antihistamines and penicillin.)
ONDCP even throws out a bit of The Sabet Conjecture – the idea that making no tax money on a costly substance is preferably to making some. “Addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco, which are legal and taxed, already result in much higher social costs than the revenue they generate,” which is true, since those drugs are toxic and highly addictive. Marijuana is neither, but even if it was generating social costs, we’re paying those now and taking in zero tax revenue. Instead, Colorado’s pulled in roughly $30 million in six months and you’d be pressed to identify even one-twentieth that figure in social costs.
ONDCP is concerned that advocates are over-selling legalization, somehow pulling a Jedi Mind Trick on the American people. “Marijuana legalization would not eliminate the black market for marijuana.” Sure enough; after all, there is still a black market in cigarettes and moonshine. But quick, name a cigarette or moonshine kingpin. Recall the last street gunfire over cigarettes or moonshine? I’ll never understand the mentality that says “if we can’t eliminate it all, we should eliminate none of it.” (Sadly, that mentality exists on our side among some who favor “true legalization”, too.)
ONDCP also warns that with legalization comes lower prices, as if that was a bad thing. “Dramatically lowered prices could mean substantially lower potential tax revenue for states.” True, if states tax marijuana by price. That’s why Oregon has chosen to tax marijuana by weight. Let’s see if other states figure that out, too.
In closing, ONDCP explains, “The Obama Administration continues to oppose legalization of marijuana and other illegal drugs because it flies in the face of a public health approach to reducing drug use and its consequences.” That’s odd, I don’t recall the big Obama Administration effort to reduce the use of ethanol, America’s most popular drug of abuse, one that outranks marijuana in all the public health concerns listed above. In fact, I seem to recall that President Obama is fond of bringing together parties in disagreement over a few tall cold doses of ethanol – “beer summits”, I think he calls them. Does he know that about one in four adolescents that use ethanol go on to become alcoholics? Why won’t he think of the children?
Every argument ONDCP offers for marijuana prohibition is a greater argument for alcohol prohibition. That they don’t advocate repeal of the 21st Amendment shows you what this has always been about: culture war. You see it in their view of “addiction as a disease that can be successfully prevented and treated, and from which people can recover,” the tacit assumption being that any use of marijuana or illicit drugs is addiction per se. Presidents and college professors and cops sitting down to drink beer is something to brag about on the news. You and me sitting down to smoke a joint is an addiction they’ll help us recover from through arrests, drug courts, and piss testing.