Newsbrief: Study Says Few Medical Marijuana Users, Little Impact on Law Enforcement -- Feds, Some Cops Disagree 12/6/02

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A report released last week by the US General Accounting Office (GAO), an executive branch agency that acts as an investigative arm of Congress, found that registered medical marijuana users make up a tiny fraction of state populations and that state laws allowing for medical marijuana have had little impact on law enforcement. The study was conducted at the request of arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform's Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, but Souder is unlikely to be smiling at the results.

The GAO looked at four states -- Alaska, California, Hawaii and Oregon -- that have medical marijuana laws on the books. The study found that, on average, only about one-half of one percent of the population in each state were medical marijuana users. (In California, which has no statewide registry, the GAO looked only at four counties. According to California NORML, the state has an estimated 30,000 medical marijuana users, roughly one-tenth of one percent of that state's population.) Most medical marijuana users are males past age 40, and most are using the herb to control pain or muscle spasms, the study found.

Based on figures from Oregon, the only state to keep detailed records on physicians' participation, only a small fraction of doctors are recommending medical marijuana to their patients. In Oregon, some 435 physicians, only 3% of the state's doctors, had recommended marijuana.

When it comes to medical marijuana's impact on law enforcement, the GAO found little evidence that medical marijuana was affecting arrests or prosecutions, primarily because few medical marijuana users ever encounter a policeman to whom they must show a registration card. In the course of the study, GAO interviewed 37 law enforcement officials in the four states.

"Officials representing 21 of the organizations we contacted indicated the medical marijuana laws had had little impact on their law enforcement activities for a variety of reasons, including very few or no encounters involving medical marijuana registry cards or claims of a medical marijuana defense," the report said.

But more than a third of the law enforcement personnel interviewed expressed concerns that the medical marijuana laws could make it more difficult to prosecute some cases or that they would somehow send the wrong message. "For example, state troopers in Alaska said that they believe the law has desensitized the public to the issue of marijuana, reflected in fewer calls to report illegal marijuana activity than they once received," the GAO reported. "Hawaiian officers state that it is their view that Hawaii's law may send the wrong message because people may believe that the drug is safe or legal."

The Bush Justice Department was typically churlish in its response to the study. State medical marijuana laws have caused a "worsening of relations between federal, state and local law enforcement," Acting Assistant Attorney General Robert F. Diegelman wrote in a review of the study included in the GAO report. The laws create "legal loopholes for drug dealers and marijuana cultivators to avoid arrest and prosecution," he said.

Read the report, "Marijuana: Early Experiences with Four States' Laws That Allow Use for Medical Purposes," at http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-189 online.

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