Is the Nation's Marijuana Policy Misguided?

Critics contend the government should use funds to battle meth, not pot.


Aug. 1, 2007 — -- 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.

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.

"We know that different drugs have different rates of use. Marijuana is a much more popular drug in terms of the number of people who use it," Grassley wrote. "However, methamphetamine causes much more destruction in a much shorter period of time than marijuana."

"We believe that reducing drug use is not just about reducing the number of users of a drug, but reducing the overall harm to society caused by the drug."

Iowa has been one of the states hardest hit by methamphetamine. Local police say more money and manpower is needed to fight meth and not marijuana. "Marijuana is old news," said Bob Doran, a spokesman for the Iowa Association of Chiefs of Police and Peace Officers.

Doran dismissed the ONDCP claim that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads people to harder, more deadly drugs.

"The longtime argument has been that marijuana is the first step into drug use, but I think that argument has gone by the wayside," Doran said. "We're finding many kids skipping the pot and going straight to meth."

Doran added that meth was particularly dangerous, not only because of the effects on the user, but from the dangers created in its production. "With marijuana, we're concerned with sale and use, not the manufacture. The toxic effects are nowhere near those of meth production."

The federal government, for its part, maintains that fighting meth and fighting marijuana are two separate battles. The money and resources used to combat marijuana is different from those used to fight meth.

"All the criticism of policy winds up being a grab bag of ideas and conspiracies," said Tom Riley, an ONDCP spokesman.

"It is an interesting public policy discussion, but what does that discussion have to do with local law enforcement?" asked Riley. "The money used to go after heroin in Afghanistan isn't the same money used to go after marijuana, and the money for marijuana isn't the same money needed to go after meth."

The ONDCP, which sets the nation's drug policies, is literally an office in the White House. Some experts have raised questions about the impartiality of an office so linked to the politics of the executive branch.

"The ONDCP is not a neutral office that rationally evaluates the drug war," said Matthew Robinson, a criminal justice professor at Appalachian State University, and co-author of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy."

After examining the office's annual national drug control policy report for seven years, Robinson said he "found a consistent effort to manipulate data to make marijuana seem more dangerous than it really is."

Robinson added that when crunching ONDCP's numbers, he found inconsistencies, claims that did not jibe with the office's data, manipulation of statistics, reliance on anecdotal evidence and a failure to recognize other independent research.

"What they say simply doesn't match reality," Robinson said. "They claim it's a gateway drug. — They say we have to stop people from using marijuana. — But the vast majority of marijuana users don't go on to use harder drugs. The typical drug user uses marijuana for a few months and then gets over it."

"People who go on to other drugs start with alcohol and tobacco, not marijuana. They can't say that, because then people would question why they're going after marijuana."

The ONDCP says it expects people to come after it, challenge its research and accuse it of playing politics for one simple reason: People like to get high.

"There are lots of people who are not enthusiastic about drug policy," said Riley. "There are 15 [million] to 20 million marijuana users in the U.S., and they don't like the idea that their drug is illegal."

"Everyone knows meth is really bad and coke is really bad," said Riley, "but marijuana is a more serious drug than most people realize. But, there isn't an activist group that is pro meth or pro heroine."

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