Is the Nation's Marijuana Policy Misguided?

Since the Marijuana Tax Act — the first anti-marijuana federal law — was signed by President Roosevelt 70 years ago Thursday, the debate over the drug's effects, dangers and criminalization has raged unabated.

The Bush administration has made marijuana its prime target in the war on drugs, spending billions of dollars on education campaigns and law enforcement activities. Critics, however, contend that the war on pot has allowed for the proliferation of other more dangerous drugs like methamphetamine and crack cocaine.

Unsurprisingly, much of the criticism of federal law comes from pro-marijuana lobbying groups that believe the drug should, in some instances, be decriminalized.

More surprisingly, however, is criticism from politicians and law enforcement officers, in areas ravaged by meth use, who say the government's war on marijuana is being fought at the expense of the battle to rid the country of methamphetamine.

As security at the nation's borders tightens, more marijuana busts are related to domestic growing operations — illicit businesses that are increasingly hidden in suburban homes, called "grow houses."

A spate of large-scale busts in recent months from South Carolina to California has allowed John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to reiterate the government's position that marijuana is extremely dangerous and a gateway to more deadly drugs.

There were 322,438 kilos of marijuana seized in federal operations in 2006, up from 283,344 the previous year.

"Marijuana is the only illegal drug where we have to try and explain to people that what we've found, and what the statistics [show] and what the consequences are, are worse than they think," Walters told ABC News. "Nobody thinks [methamphetamine] is a soft drug. Nobody talks about heroin or cocaine as 'OK, we can just tolerate it.'"

"We understand the disease of addiction in a way nobody understood it in the 1970s, the 1960s, even the early 1980s," Walters said. "Science, investments in brain imaging, and millions and millions of dollars of study have helped us understand what happens here."

It is just those sorts of statements that rile marijuana advocates. The effects of marijuana pale in comparison to the dangers of other drugs and federal policy, they say, should reflect those dangers.

"The folks running drug policy in the Bush White House are pretty clearly obsessed with marijuana," Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, told ABC News. "Officials from ONDCP [Office of National Drug Control Policy] have more than once said it is the most dangerous substance. It is, however, vastly less dangerous than drugs like methamphetamine."

"Marijuana is mildly toxic compared to most recreational and pharmaceutical drugs, and yet there has been this all out demonization," Mirken said.

Senator and Police Want Action on Meth

Perhaps the most surprising critic of the Bush administration's marijuana policy is Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Grassley is chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. In 2005, he sent a letter to the White House, urging the Bush administration to spend resources to combat meth rather than marijuana.

"While we agree that any drug use is harmful to users and those around them, the problems associated with marijuana are not comparable to methamphetamine in terms of cost to society," Grassley wrote to Walters.

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