The drug czar's Office of National Drug Control Policy (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov) has teamed up with the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) as part of its escalating war on marijuana. In letters sent to every prosecutor in the country on November 1, NDAA president Dan Alsobrooks and the drug czar's Deputy Director for State and Local Affairs, Scott Burns, hoisted the battle flag against pot, signaling prosecutors that they should make the prosecution of marijuana crimes a high priority and urging them to fight efforts to reform the drug laws.
But for a group representing prosecutors, who have long fended off criticisms of drug prosecutions on the grounds that "we don't make the laws, we merely enforce them," the push against marijuana brushes right up against the line separating law enforcement from lobbying. While Alsobrooks, in his cover letter, attempted to portray the push as a matter of public safety, he also made it clear that the effort was inspired by attempts to reform the marijuana laws. "Attempts to legalize or criminalize controlled substances, and particularly marijuana, are springing up around the country," Alsobrooks warned. "Those who support drug legalization are well funded and highly adept at manipulating the media. And they do not mind deceiving the American public as well... Those who want to legalize drugs advance their position issue-by-issue, winning incremental victories. We can, and have stopped their efforts at the national level, but will lose all if the states yield individually." Writing that the drug czar's office had asked NDAA to aid in its battle against marijuana, Alsobrooks urged prosecutors to read Burns' letter containing "important information about marijuana" and to "consider ways that you can bring this message to your communities."
But if prosecutors have any interest in accurate information about marijuana, they will shy away from Burns' rhetoric. The tenor of Burns' letter is evident early on, when he tells prosecutors that "nationwide, no drug matches the threat posed by marijuana." He then listed a bunch of "truths" for prosecutors to tell the American people about cannabis, but those "truths" are, at best, highly controversial and, at worst, mendacious and tendentious.
"The truth is that marijuana is not harmless," Burns wrote, citing DAWN data showing marijuana mentions in hospital emergency rooms. Marijuana "now surpasses heroin" as a factor in emergency room visits, he claimed. Burns did not explain that an emergency room "mention" of marijuana does not signify a marijuana-related medical emergency, or that marijuana overdoses are a practical impossibility.
"The truth is that marijuana is addictive," Burns wrote, claiming that 62% of all dependent drug users are hooked on pot. But experts disagree. In his new overview of marijuana research, "Understanding Marijuana," Dr. Mitchell Earlywine writes: "Despite its popularity, few people smoke marijuana regularly... diagnoses [of addiction or dependence] may say more about the culture and values of a given clinician than the actual negative consequences that cannabis creates."
"The truth is that marijuana and violence are linked," Burns claimed, citing two studies that fly in the face of both decades of folk wisdom and the rest of the scientific literature. On this topic, Earlywine writes: "Direct links between cannabis intoxication and violence do not appear in the general population. A few studies show correlations between marijuana consumption and violent acts, but these links frequently stem from personality characteristics or the influence of other drugs. People who are violent or who use drugs that lead to violence often also smoke marijuana, but the marijuana does not appear to cause the violence."
"The truth is that we aren't imprisoning individuals for just 'smoking a joint,'" Burns wrote, noting that only half of one percent of prisoners are doing time for marijuana possession. While few responsible critics of drug policy make that argument, that is still roughly 10,000 people doing hard time. Burns also ignores the serious consequences awaiting the 700,000 people arrested each year on marijuana charges, from jail time to lost benefits to lost licenses to financial hardship.
"The truth is that marijuana is a gateway drug," Burns wrote, ignoring study after study that debunks this prohibitionist tenet. Two of the most recent studies to debunk the gateway theory are a February 2001 study by Dr. Andrew Golub published in the American Journal of Public Health that called it a "historical artifact" with no explanatory value for current drug use trends (http://www.apha.org/news/press/2001_journal/feb01.htm), and a study released last month by the RAND Corporation that found that "the gateway theory is not the best explanation of the link between marijuana use and hard drug use" (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/266.html#randreport).
"The truth is that marijuana legalization would be a nightmare for America," Burns warned, using suspect numbers to suggest that Dutch coffee shop policies led to a huge increase in teen marijuana use. But as Dr. Peter Reuter has shown in his book, "Drug War Heresies," the increase in Dutch teen marijuana use occurred only a decade after the Dutch began tolerating marijuana sales, when a wave of commercialization swept the coffeehouse industry. And as Reuters pointed out, Dutch teenage use levels remain lower than in the US.
"The truth is that marijuana is not a medicine and no credible research suggests it is," Burns wrote, closing his eyes to the 1999 Institute of Medicine study commissioned (and then promptly ignored) by his boss's predecessor, then drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, as well as more recent research (http://www.nap.edu/html/marimed/).
"The role you play as prosecutors is indispensable to our success in fighting the normalization of marijuana," he wrote. "You can target and aggressively prosecute traffickers and dealers. You can help those who need treatment -- a first offense for marijuana possession, for example -- get treatment. You can intensify the detection and removal of marijuana growing operations. You can work with your legislators to update local laws impeding marijuana prosecutions and treatment."
Burns then thoughtfully included a seven page "Changing the Way Americans Think About Marijuana Talking Points" paper, full of the same claims that filled his letter. It's all part and parcel of drug czar John Walters' "Marijuana Initiative," the federal government's multi-million dollar anti-marijuana propaganda effort (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/drugfact/marijuanainitiative/).
The drug czar and his boss, President George W. Bush, are deadly serious as they fight what they fear is a losing battle against reform. They are seeking allies in powerful positions. And they are willing to resort to lies, misinformation, disinformation and distortion to do so. This isn't your father's drug war.
Read Alsobrooks' and Burns' letters at http://www.ndaa-apri.org/alsobrooks_letter_nov_1_2002.pdf.