A few weeks back I wrote a column in which I advocated the legalization and regulation of marijuana, much as the states do with alcohol.
At virtually the same time, an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal of Aug. 14 entitled “Legal Pot is a Public Health Menace” was authored by William Bennett and Robert White. They conclude their column by asserting that the legalization of marijuana would be “charting a dangerous future for too many Americans.”
Then, the Bonanza and the Sierra Sun printed a letter to the editor by Debbie Larson in which she accepted the assertions of the aforementioned WSJ piece as fact, thus concluding that my advocacy for marijuana legalization demonstrated a “lack of understanding of the real risks.”
Maybe so. Maybe not. Here’s the story as I see it.
William Bennett, lead author of the Journal article, was the first director of the National Drug Control Policy (1989-1990). This White House office was established as a result of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, an act whose stated goal is to “establish policies, priorities, and objectives to eradicate illicit drug use..”
By law this office must oppose any attempt to legalize illicit drugs. Moreover, no federal funding is permitted for any study related to legalization. William Bennett’s job as the “White House Drug Czar” was to oppose drug legalization.
Research questions that might provide conclusions supporting continued drug criminalization are supported and funded by the government and those conclusions, if consistent with government policy, widely circulated. Research questions that might question the wisdom of criminalization are not supported. And it’s been that way ever since in the Drug Czar’s office.
About that WSJ opinion piece and Ms. Larson’s belief in its conclusions, a critical reader of the actual “science” cited in the article will draw different conclusions than the Journals authors. The science cited actually says that “evidence is building” which “suggests” that regular marijuana use in youth can produce “cognitive deficits” and that “we need more research to understand its (marijuana’s) effect on the brain.” These findings are not even remotely consistent with Bennett and White’s dramatic and false assertion that marijuana use in youth produces “irreversible damage to their brains.”
But don’t believe me. Mark Kleiman, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, was prominently featured in the Journal piece as estimating that nationwide marijuana legalization will produce 16.2 million marijuana addicts. Truth or propaganda?
Here’s what Professor Kleiman said after reading the article: “Not only is the attribution false; the claim it purports to buttress is absurd. I made no such prediction, and the idea that legal cannabis could create more addicts than legal alcohol doesn’t pass the giggle test.” He adds, “Cannabis legalization in any form will create some harm; every drug policy has disadvantages. But against that must be set the enormous harms from cannabis prohibition: $40 billion a year in illicit revenue, some of it going to violent criminal organizations in Mexico; tens of thousands of people in prison; and more than half a million users arrested each year.”
Here are quotes from other letters in the Aug. 20 edition of the Journal. Wrote Leslie Rose, “Messrs. Bennett and White’s concern about legalizing marijuana is actually an argument in favor of legalizing and regulating pot under a system similar to alcohol regulation in which the amount of THC in the product would be limited, much as the percentage of alcohol in beer, wine, and whiskey is limited.”
Douglas Fechter wrote, “A better model can be found in Portugal where marijuana and other drugs were decriminalized more than a decade ago ... Portugal now has one of the lowest usage rates in Europe. One reason may be that users aren’t sent to prison but are offered treatment.”
Richard Hait asked, “How can Messrs. Bennett and White discuss pot without any mention of what’s going on illegally? Many living in Colorado regard legalization as a step toward more control over the reality of the world of pot usage, particularly with young people.”
Bill Conerly said, “Nowhere do the authors address the most fundamental question: Should people be free to do things that the government determines are unhealthy? Perhaps they would like federal agents to also monitor our body fat index, salt intake, and exercise regimens.”
So, I continue to believe that the available evidence shows that marijuana legalization is the right thing to do. Moreover, while Ms. Larson believes there is a “huge disconnect between science and public opinion,” the real disconnect is between science and our current laws criminalizing marijuana.
— Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.