The Obama Admin’s Anti-Marijuana Manifesto

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In an attempt to clear up the Obama White House’s seemingly vague position on marijuana prohibition, US Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske has given a lengthy speech outlining why cannabis is Bad For America.

Though it is being billed as the government’s “most thorough, reasoned rebuttal to arguments for marijuana legalization” by boot-lickers in the US press, Kerlikowske’s screed sounds like more hot air – the same old stale arguments that have been refuted time and again by drug policy critics.

The Drug Czar’s speech contains some laughable lines decrying cannabis’ heinous effects on the “motor performance” of unsuspecting US citizens, and claims about pot users receiving “lower test scores and lower educational attainment”, along with the standard boilerplate propaganda about dependence and respiratory problems.

Some thought Obama’s team was lightening-up on the marijuana issue, with Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that raids on medical marijuana dispensaries would stop. Turns out, they weren’t. One look at Obama’s Drug War budget destroys any myth of “Change”.

The Obama administration obviously hasn’t been listening to his fellow Americans, who just pushed the marijuana issue to #1 on Change.org’s Idea’s For Change in America. Don’t hold your breath for a response from the Prez.

Below are the ONDCP director’s latest comments about marijuana from a speech he delivered at the California Police Chiefs Association Conference in San Jose, CA on March 4, 2010. Click here for his full speech with sources [PDF].

Why Marijuana Legalization Would Compromise Public Health and Public Saftey

by Gil Kerlikowske

I know it is impossible to talk about drug policy issues ranging from prevention to policing, from drugged driving to treatment, without mentioning the role of the most commonly used illicit drug today – marijuana.

You all know the impacts of marijuana in this state– from the proliferation of marijuana being grown on public lands and indoor grows, to the negative effects of marijuana use among youth, the increasing influence of violent gangs on the marijuana trade, and the problems associated with medical marijuana dispensaries.

As I’ve said from the day I was sworn in, marijuana legalization – for any purpose – is a non-starter in the Obama Administration. I’d like to explain why we take this position.

First, on the medical marijuana issue, I believe that the science should determine what a medicine is, not popular vote.

We’ve seen the problems of medical marijuana here in this state but also in places like Colorado, too, where kids are given the message that since marijuana is a medicine, it must be safe.

But we’ve also seen how localities are dealing with this, with success, through zoning, planning regulations, nuisance laws, and other mechanisms.

I recently met with officials from the Netherlands, they are closing down marijuana outlets – or “coffee shops” – because of the nuisance and crime risks associated with them. What used to be thousands of shops have now been reduced to a few hundred, and some cities are shutting them down completely.

This brings me to the issue of outright legalization.

The concern with marijuana is not born out of any culture-war mentality, but out of what the science tells us about the drug’s effects.

And the science, though still evolving, is clear: marijuana use is harmful. It is associated with dependence, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and cognitive impairment, among other negative effects.

We know that over 110,000 people who showed up voluntarily at treatment facilities in 2007 reported marijuana as their primary substance of abuse. Additionally, in 2008 marijuana was involved in 375,000 emergency visits nationwide.

Several studies have shown that marijuana dependence is real and causes harm. We know that more than 30 percent of past-year marijuana users age 18 and older are classified as dependent on the drug, and that the lifetime prevalence of marijuana dependence in the US population is higher than that for any other illicit drug. Those dependent on marijuana often show signs of withdrawal and compulsive behavior.

Traveling the country, I’ve often heard from local treatment specialists that marijuana dependence is as a major problem at call-in centers offering help for people using drugs.

Marijuana negatively affects users in other ways, too. For example, prolonged use is associated with lower test scores and lower educational attainment because during periods of intoxication the drug affects the ability to learn and process information, thus influencing attention, concentration, and short-term memory.

Advocates of legalization say the costs of prohibition – mainly through the criminal justice system – place a great burden on taxpayers and governments.

While there are certainly costs to current prohibitions, legalizing drugs would not cut the costs of the criminal justice system. Arrests for alcohol-related crimes such as violations of liquor laws and driving under the influence totaled nearly 2.7 million in 2008. Marijuana-related arrests totaled around 750,000 in 2008.

Our current experience with legal, regulated prescription drugs like Oxycontin shows that legalizing drugs is not a panacea. In fact, its legalization widens its availability and misuse, no matter what controls are in place. In 2006, drug-induced deaths reached a high of over 38,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control – an increase driven primarily by the non-medical use of pharmaceutical drugs.

Controls and prohibitions help to keep prices higher, and higher prices help keep use rates relatively low, since drug use, especially among young people, is known to be sensitive to price.

The relationship between pricing and rates of youth substance use is well-established with respect to alcohol and cigarette taxes.

There is literature showing that increases in the price of cigarettes triggers declines in use.

Marijuana has also been touted as a cure-all for disease and black market violence – and for California’s budget woes. Once again, however, there are important facts that are rarely discussed in the public square.

The tax revenue collected from alcohol pales in comparison to the costs associated with it. Federal excise taxes collected on alcohol in 2007 totaled around $9 billion; states collected around $5.5 billion.

Taken together, this is less than 10 percent of the over $185 billion in alcohol-related costs from health care, lost productivity, and criminal justice.

Alcohol use by underage drinkers results in $3.7 billion a year in medical costs due to traffic crashes, violent crime, suicide attempts, and other related consequences.

Tobacco also does not carry its economic weight when we tax it; each year we spend more than $200 billion and collect only about $25 billion in taxes.

Though I sympathize with the current budget predicament – and acknowledge that we must find innovative solutions to get us on a path to financial stability – it is clear that the social costs of legalizing marijuana would outweigh any possible tax that could be levied. In the United States, illegal drugs already cost $180 billion a year in health care, lost productivity, crime, and other expenditures. That number would only increase under legalization because of increased use.

Rosy evaluations of the potential economic savings from legalization have been criticized by many in the economic community. For example, the California Board of Equalization estimated that $1.4 billion of potential revenue could arise from legalization. This assessment, according to a researcher out of the independent RAND Corporation is, and I quote, “based on a series of assumptions that are in some instances subject to tremendous uncertainty and in other cases not valid.”

Recent testimony from a RAND researcher concluded that “There is a tremendous profit motive for the existing black market providers to stay in the market, as they can still cover their costs of production and make a nice profit.”

Canada’s experience with taxing cigarettes showed that a $2 tax differential per pack versus the United States created such a huge black market smuggling problem that Canada repealed its tax increases.

Legalizing marijuana would also saddle government with the dual burden of regulating a new legal market while continuing to pay for the negative side effects associated with an underground market whose providers have little economic incentive to disappear.

Now that I’ve told you what the research says, let me tell you what this means in practical terms. Legalization means the price comes down, the number of users goes up, the underground market adapts, and the revenue gained through a regulated market will never keep pace with the financial and social cost of making this drug more accessible.

Now let’s talk about what will work to reduce drug use.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy is pursuing a combined, coordinated public health and public safety strategy.

This strategy recognizes that the most promising drug policy is one that prevents drug use in the first place.
We have many proven methods for reducing the demand for drugs. The demand can be decreased with comprehensive, evidence-based prevention programs focused on adolescence, which science confirms is the peak period for drug-use initiation and the potential for addiction.

Our young people must be made aware of the risks of drug use – at home, in school, in sports leagues, in faith communities, in places of work, and in other settings and activities that attract youth.

This is vital because an individual who reaches age 21 without smoking, using drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so.

ONDCP’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign can reinforce these efforts by connecting with youth through popular television shows, Internet sites, magazines, and films. Community anti-drug coalitions can provide an environment conducive to remaining drug-free. Expanding early intervention services for drug users and treatment options for the addicted will also be major components of our effort to reduce demand for drugs in this country.

Surveys of prevalence show that these efforts work. Drug use today remains comparatively low. Annual marijuana prevalence peaked among 12th graders in 1979 at 51 percent. By 2009, annual prevalence had fallen by about one-third. Similar statistics can be found for other age groups. However, we are seeing some troubling signs that have bubbled up in the last year or two. The perception that drugs are dangerous is dropping, and that usually predicts imminent increases in use.

At the same time, we’ve learned that trying to manage drug-addicted criminal offenders entirely through the criminal justice system results in a costly, destructive cycle of arrest, incarceration, release, and re-arrest.

Together, we can transform this situation through new collaborations between the criminal justice system and the treatment system. Drug courts are just one example of how these systems can work together.

Re-entry programs that provide addiction treatment, combined with intensive monitoring and swift and certain sanctions for violations – as evidenced by Hawaii’s HOPE program – are another example of the kind of scientifically supported cross-system initiatives we seek to expand, especially in the probation system, which represents a highly important but often under-utilized and forgotten role in drug and crime control.

We advocate further research on pre-arrest diversion programs like the one piloted in High Point, North Carolina. These programs threaten dealers in a community with credible sanctions, but also offer them other resources to change their lives. Research on these kinds of pre-arrest diversion programs is just emerging, but preliminary results have been positive.

We are also firm believers in the law enforcement techniques you employ every day, based on local assessments of needs and available resources.

A balanced approach based on a combination of public health and public safety strategies is the surest route to reducing drug use and its consequences. This approach employs best practices in prevention, treatment, and law enforcement with community partners. We know that working together has resulted in lowering crime and drug use.
Thank you for being on the front line of these issues. I look forward to supporting you to reduce drug use and its consequences.

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