Hysterical pot shots discredit drug czar

May 24, 2002|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Our nation's drug czar is annoyed.

If proponents have their way, the District of Columbia will vote later this year to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes for the second time. John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, took some pot shots at the issue in a recent Washington Post piece that has been reprinted across the country.

Unfortunately, he brings more smoke than light.

"After years of giggling at quaintly outdated marijuana scare stories like the 1936 movie Reefer Madness," he writes, "we've become almost conditioned to think that any warning about the true dangers of marijuana are overblown."

He then proceeds with unintended irony to give an "overblown" warning of his own about "The Myth of `Harmless' Marijuana."

He warns baby boomer parents that "today's marijuana is different from that of a generation ago, with potency levels 10 to 20 times stronger than the marijuana with which they were familiar."

He doesn't say where he gets that whopper of a statistic, and that's too bad, since it conflicts with a federally funded investigation of marijuana samples confiscated by law enforcement over the past two decades.

Published in the January 2000 Journal of Forensic Sciences, that study found the THC content (that's the active ingredient that gets you high) had only doubled, from about 2 percent to 4.2 percent, from 1980 to 1997.

Those are not undesirable potency levels when you are using it to relieve illness. Thousands of patients suffering from HIV, glaucoma, chemotherapy, migraines, multiple sclerosis or other similarly painful or nauseating conditions could benefit from legalized marijuana use, according to the Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project.

Yes, marijuana is dangerous. So are cigarettes, liquor and prescription drugs. The question that Mr. Walters fails to address is why marijuana should be treated differently from those other drugs.

We allow adults to buy cigarettes and alcohol, even though both are highly addictive and kill thousands every year. Experts may disagree, depending on definitions, whether marijuana smoke is "addictive" or merely "habit-forming," but both sides are hard-pressed to find anyone who has died of a marijuana overdose.

Doctors treat the ill with numerous prescription drugs that are more dangerous and addictive than marijuana. But they are not allowed to treat the ill with marijuana, even though many wish they could.

Instead, thousands of Americans have become criminals by purchasing marijuana rather than seeing their loved ones suffer.

Yet, Mr. Walters lambastes what he calls the "cynical campaign underway" in the District of Columbia and elsewhere "to proclaim the virtues of `medical' marijuana."

In fact, those "cynical" campaigners include the American Public Health Association, The New England Journal of Medicine and almost 80 other state and national health-care organizations that support legal patient access to marijuana for medicinal treatment.

So far, eight states have legalized medical use of marijuana by ballot initiative or legislation. District of Columbia voters also passed a referendum in 1998, but it has been blocked by Congress. Where referendums have been held, they have passed. But, alas, Mr. Walters is following in the path of past drug czars who feel they know what's better for voters than the voters themselves do.

Mr. Walters dismisses those initiatives as "based on pseudo-science." Maybe he did not read the 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences. It confirmed the effectiveness of marijuana's active components in treating pain, nausea and the anorexic-wasting syndrome associated with AIDS.

Mr. Walters says we should wait for more information. He praises a study now underway at the University of California's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research. But if that study doesn't come out the way Mr. Walters would like, you have to wonder, will he ignore that one, too?

"By now most Americans realize that the push to `normalize' marijuana for medical use is part of the drug legalization agenda," he says, mentioning financier George Soros and others who have contributed to the legalization cause. Mr. Walters does not mention the billions of tax dollars that he, as drug czar, has at his disposal to push marijuana myths - with our tax money!

Instead, Mr. Walters arouses our passions by recounting the lawlessness of violent marijuana-dealing street gangs in the District. If anything, pot gangs offer us another good reason to legalize marijuana. After all, when a drug is outlawed, only outlaws will have the drug.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun.

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