Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Response to Gil Kerlikowske's Defense of the Obama Administration's Drug Policies

Below is an analysis of the claims given by Gil Kerlikowske (the current “Drug Czar” of the Obama administration) in response to the highest charting petition on the new White House “We The People” petition website. The original response can be found here
When the President took office, he directed all of his policymakers to develop policies based on science and research, not ideology or politics. So our concern about marijuana is based on what the science tells us about the drug's effects.
No it isn’t. Your concern is more geared towards winning the votes of people who think that drugs are boogeymen that will lead to the end of society as we know it. Of course this isn’t true, as we have recently learned from Portugal which had no spike in usage rates after decriminalization and no catastrophic social events to date. In fact, Portugal has Europe’s lowest lifetime usage rate for cannabis. Oh, and usage among vulnerable groups (like kids/teens) has dropped.

So science says that socially, it has an ambiguous effect at best (even for hard drugs like heroin, I might add). What does science say about this:
According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health- the world's largest source of drug abuse research - marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment. We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms
Of course anything we smoke has respiratory effects, but that is not the only method that people ingest the drug so this a moot point. Further, there is no causal link to cancer like there is with tobacco, even when smoked, let alone ingested. A large dose of marijuana can’t even kill you like a large dose of nicotine, alcohol, or even Tylenol could. And unlike long term tobacco or alcohol use, marijuana users aren’t even more likely to die earlier than their non-smoking counterparts! 
Further, according to an article published in prominent medical journal The Lancet, substances like cannabis and even LSD pose a much less significant public health risk than alcohol, tobacco, benzodiazepines, and a number of other legal substances.

As for your listed claims of health effects, lets examine the list for alcohol (and this is from the same website that was used for the White House’s statements, mind you):

  • Alcohol has major effects on every organ and can result in cancer, stroke, and liver disease as well as dependence.
It also creates cognitive impairment, and at a staggeringly higher level than marijuana I might add. 

How about nicotine?

  • Lung cancer, emphysema, bronchial disorders, cardiovascular disease, higher chance of miscarriage, and higher chance of low birthweight. It is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the nation.

That sounds a bit worse than the ones listed for marijuana, so clearly it cannot be the basis for its illegality alone. It seems that the “science” claim has gone relatively out the window at this point. Lets move on:

As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem. 
What you meant to say was that, as a former police chief, you did exactly that. In fact in 2007 you opposed a ballot measure that would have made marijuana the lowest police priority. And that is the current strategy nation wide. The most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics verifies that well over 18% of our current prison population is there because of drug related offenses ONLY. These are not people that were violent on drugs or anything else. Just drugs. That equates to over a quarter of a million Americans in jail. “But Keenan,” you will say to yourselves, “that is clearly for more harmful drugs and mainly aimed at sale and distribution.” Not so. In the same year, over 50% of drug related arrests were for marijuana. As for distributors, about 300,000 of them were arrested. Possession alone accounted for 1.3 million arrests. Appalling.

We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.
Portugal. The Czech Republic. The Netherlands. Moving on.

That is why the President's National Drug Control Strategy is balanced and comprehensive, emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of drugs entering our communities. [...] Our commitment to a balanced approach to drug control is real. This last fiscal year alone, the Federal Government spent over $10 billion on drug education and treatment programs compared to just over $9 billion on drug related law enforcement in the U.S.
Okay, so you’ve stepped up in treatment. We’re still spending 9 billion dollars towards something that is largely ineffective towards the supply side which has been your stated goal. Plus this is not even counting the astronomical cost of housing the quarter of a million prisoners every year. In 2005 it cost an average of $23,876 per prisoner per year. Multiply that by the number of prisoners in 2008 and you have over $6 billion that you aren’t counting into your statistic and that’s conservative at best. Balanced? Hardly. 
Thank you for making your voice heard. I encourage you to take a moment to read about the President's approach to drug control to learn more.
Is that a joke? Please tell me that was a joke and that your real response is coming soon. Rhetoric like this cannot and should not be acceptable in the information age. 

NORML has an excellent blog post on this issue as well, which can be found here.