Marijuana legalization? A White House rebuttal, finally

White House 'drug czar' Gil Kerlikowske lays out his most thorough arguments yet against marijuana legalization. They help clear up confusion over White House drug policy, and can serve as talking points for parents and officials.

John Vizcaino/REUTERS/File
In a meeting with police chiefs in California, US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske called marijuana legalization 'a nonstarter in the Obama administration.'

The Obama White House has finally laid out its most thorough, reasoned rebuttal to arguments for marijuana legalization – countering a campaign that is gaining alarming momentum at the state level.

The president’s tough position was delivered in early March by his “drug czar,” Gil Kerlikowske, in a private talk before police chiefs in California – which is ground zero for this debate.

“Marijuana legalization – for any purpose – is a nonstarter in the Obama administration,” said Mr. Kerlikowske, a former police chief himself.

It’s almost certain that California voters will be asked in a November ballot initiative whether to allow local governments to regulate and tax marijuana (similar to taxes on sales of alcohol). Other states are considering similar proposals, which are really a backdoor way to legalize pot.

(For a Monitor news story on the California ballot initiative, click here)

Thirteen states have decriminalized the use or possession of small amounts of marijuana, which is not the same as legalizing it. Selling it is still illegal except in states where it is used for medical purposes. And under federal law, any sort of marijuana use or sale is a criminal offense.

The drug czar’s remarks are worth notice for two reasons. First, they provide needed talking points for those who oppose legalization but who can’t seem to make their message resonate in the face of a well-financed, well-organized pro-marijuana effort. Second, they help clear up confusion about the White House policy on legalization.

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year that US law enforcement officials would neither raid nor prosecute medical marijuana dispensaries or those using them, states got mixed signals. Mr. Holder explained it as a matter of the best use of scarce federal law enforcement resources, which he didn’t want to expend in the now 14 states that have approved some use of medical marijuana.

But “a lot of people believe the administration is somewhat in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana,” says Scott Kirkland, police chief for El Cerrito, in the San Francisco Bay area. In California, the public, city council members, city managers, even police chiefs have “misinterpreted” the administration’s position, says Mr. Kirkland, the spokesman for marijuana issues for the California Police Chiefs Association.

The drug czar couldn’t have been more plain. On medical marijuana, which has strong public backing in opinion polls, the former Seattle police chief said that “science should determine what a medicine is, not popular vote.” As Kerlikowske pointed out, marijuana is harmful – and he has the studies to back it up. Read the footnotes in his speech; they’re sobering, especially No. 8.

(For a previous Monitor editorial on the perils of legalizing pot, click here)

Legalization supporters argue that no one has ever died from an overdose of this “soft” drug. But here’s what “science” has found so far: Smoking marijuana can result in dependence on the drug.

More than 30 percent of people who are 18 and over and who used marijuana in the past year are either dependent on the drug or abuse it – that is, they use it repeatedly under hazardous conditions or are imparied when they’re supposed to be interacting with others, such as at work. This is according to a 2004 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Pot is also associated with poor motor skills, cognitive impairment (i.e., affecting the ability to think, reason, and process information), and respiratory and mental illness.

The recent “Pentagon shooter,” John Patrick Bedell, was a heavy marijuana user. The disturbed young man’s psychiatrist told the Associated Press that marijuana made the symptoms of his mental illness more pronounced. Mr. Bedell’s brother, Jeffrey, told The Washington Post that marijuana made his brother’s thinking “more disordered” and that he had implored him to stop smoking pot, to no avail.

Kerlikowske also effectively knocked down the argument that regulating and taxing marijuana is a great way for states to make money in these deficit-dreary times. Indeed, NORML, the lead group in the legalization movement, is set to launch a digital ad campaign in Manhattan’s Times Square next week: “Money CAN grow on trees!”

It’s a claim that’s too good to be true, just as the exclamation point implies. Look at the nation’s experience with regulated alcohol. America collects nearly $15 billion a year in federal and state taxes from alcohol. But Kerlikowske says that covers less than 10 percent of the “social costs” related to healthcare, lost productivity, and law enforcement. And what about lost lives? Let’s not add marijuana to the mix of regulated substances.

“The costs of legalizing marijuana would outweigh any possible tax that could be levied,” Kerlikowske explains. In the United States, illegal drugs already cost an estimated $180 billion annually in social costs, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. That number would increase as marijuana became more widely and easily available.

The Dutch – so often praised by marijuana advocates – have had to greatly ratchet back the number of legal marijuana outlets because of crime, nuisance, and increased pot usage among youth. Los Angeles, too, now sees the need to scale back the number of private dispensaries of medical marijuana. Many California towns have looked at L.A. and are saying “no” to dispensaries.

The California Board of Equalization, which administers the state’s sales tax, estimates $1.4 billion of potential revenue from a marijuana tax. Found money? Its reasoning is based on either “a series of assumptions that are in some instances subject to tremendous uncertainty or in other cases not valid,” according to an independent study by the RAND Corporation.

What’s too bad about the drug czar’s speech is that it was made behind closed doors at a venue not accessible to the press, then quietly put on the administration’s website. Given the confusion over the message, the White House needs to be far more outspoken about this.

President Obama himself needs to get more involved than simply letting his drug czar reveal this critical stance below the radar. As a high-profile parent, he can help other parents who are struggling to prevent their children from going down the rabbit hole of drug use. If one message can resonate in this debate, it’s that America’s young people are most vulnerable to the threat of legalization.

They are particularly sensitive to the price of pot (and prices will come down if pot is legalized). They’re the most influenced by societal norms (and public approval is growing). And they’re the ones most heavily engaged in studying and learning – a process that pot smoking can impair.

Individuals who reach age 21 without using drugs are almost certain to never use them. But according to a study by a leading source on young people and drugs, Monitoring the Future, marijuana use among teens has increased in recent years, after a decade of decline. Teens perceive less risk in use – not surprising when states approve of it as medicine. Risk perception greatly influences drug use among young people.

The risks of marijuana – and the wisdom of knowing that joy and satisfaction are not found in a drug – are lessons that Mr. Obama could effectively teach the nation. But even so, it can’t stop there.

The momentum, for now, is with those who want to legalize marijuana. They have been generously financed by a few billionaires, including George Soros, and make strategic use of the Internet and media.

It will take clear-thinking parents, teachers, local officials, faith leaders, and law enforcement officers to convincingly articulate why the march to legalization must be stopped. They can, if they use the kinds of reasonable and fact-based arguments that the nation’s drug czar has just laid out.

(To read Gil Kerlikowske’s speech, click here.)

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