The Government Might Be Right About Marijuana

The federal government recently announced that the growing potency of America’s most popular illegal drug, marijuana, and the number of kids seeking help to get off the drug (one in five users) worried them so much that they were soliciting new marijuana-research proposals and urging local law enforcement to crack down on those who sell the drug.

The pro-marijuana lobby was furious and immediately charged the feds with fear-mongering and clamoring to protect their (not so glamorous, actually) jobs in Washington. Their cries rested on claims that more potent marijuana is not tantamount to more dangerous marijuana and that the rise in the number of treatment beds for marijuana users is due to criminal justice referrals, not the drug’s harmfulness.

But the evidence shows the government may indeed have it right. The pro-drug movement, fuelled with the motivation to legalize harmful substances and angry at the attack on its values of “drug use for all,” is putting kids at risk by downplaying the known dangers of marijuana.

Although not as destructive as shooting heroin or smoking crack, marijuana use is unquestionably damaging. Today’s more powerful marijuana probably leads to greater health consequences than the marijuana of the 1960s: Astonishingly, pot admissions to emergency rooms now exceed those of heroin. Visits to hospital emergency departments because of marijuana use have risen steadily, from an estimated 16,251 in 1991 to more than 119,472 in 2002. That has accompanied a rise in potency from 3.26 percent to 7.19 percent, according to the Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi.

More potent marijuana is also seen as more lucrative on the market. Customs reports claim that a dealer coming north with a pound of cocaine can make an even trade with a dealer traveling south with a pound of high-potency marijuana. It makes sense that people pay more for stronger pot because the high is better.

A flurry of very recent research studies – concerning withdrawal, schizophrenia and lung obstruction, for example – have also shown marijuana’s unfortunate consequences. These conclusions were not being reached in the ’70s and ’80s (legalizers often point to the Nixon-commissioned Shafer report, which said nice things about the drug as evidence of marijuana’s harmlessness), because marijuana from that era was weaker and less dangerous than today’s drug. The May 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that the number of marijuana users over the past 10 years stayed the same while the number dependent on the drug rose 20 percent – from 2.2 million to 3 million.

And although a majority of kids in treatment for marijuana are referred there by the criminal justice system, it still remains only a slight majority – about 54 percent. The rest is self-, school or doctor referral.To paint the picture that the reason marijuana dependence looks higher is because of the criminal justice system is disingenuous (especially because most people who use only marijuana never interact with law enforcement as a result of that use).

Some still argue that it’s wrong to arrest kids and force them into treatment. It seems like the government can never win: If it arrests and locks people up, legalizers kick and scream that we’re not giving users “alternatives to incarceration.” If it arrest kids as a way to get them help, and not as a punishment mechanism, all of a sudden the government is giving in to George Orwell.

It’s too bad that pot apologists don’t see what most parents do see: Marijuana is a harmful drug with serious consequences, and mechanisms – even a brush with the law to help a user realize that what he’s doing is harmful – to help stop the progression of use should be seen as a good thing. That’s not government propaganda. That’s common sense.And it may save a few lives.

Source: Kevin A. Sabet recently stepped down as senior speechwriter to America’s drug czar, John P. Walters. A Marshall Scholar, he is writing a book on drug policy and is also a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford University.

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