Drug War Update II


            It is that time of year again.  We just passed the half-way point of 2004 and it is time for an update on the “war on drugs.”  Sad to say that it is still going strong, for according to the web site www.drugsense.org we have spent just over $20 billion for this “war” so that we are on a pace to surpass last’s year’s expenditures of $39 billion.

            More than 800,000 have been arrested for drug offenses so far (377,780 for marijuana) and if this pace continues more than 1.5 million will have been arrested by the end of the year.  Thus far over 120,000 people have been sent to prison for drug law violations and if the trend continues we will have sent 236,800 to prison for this “crime” by the end of the year.

            The Drug Czar’s “anti-drug” media campaign continues, especially with regard to marijuana.  Apparently John Walters and Company still adheres to the “reefer madness” nonsense first started by Harry Anslinger back in the 1930s.  In 2003, Walters’ office wrote that: “Marijuana is not a benign drug.  Use impairs learning and judgement, and may lead to the development of mental health problems.  Smoking marijuana can injure or destroy lung tissue.  In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70 percent more of some cancer causing chemicals than does tobacco smoke.” 

            Both of these statements are either outright lies or gross distortions.  There is no scientific evidence that marijuana leads to serious mental health problems, although there are people with mental health problems who may use drugs (and drug use is merely a symptom rather than a cause).  Besides, alcohol is far worse and there is no prohibition against that.  As to injuring lung tissue, to begin with “moderate use” is defined as between 15 and 24 grams of tobacco per day and very few pot smokers use more than a gram or two; hence smoking cigarettes is far more damaging.  In fact, while no one has recently died from too much pot smoking, around 450,000 die each year from illnesses caused by tobacco.  Too bad marijuana growers don’t have a lobby to give money to politicians, like the tobacco and liquor industry does. (For the latest research on the subject of causes of death see the following source: Mokdad et al. "Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000," Journal of the American Medical Association, March 10, 2004, Vol. 291, No. 10, pp. 1238, 1241.)

            The most absurd claim from Walters is that “for some people there is a correlation between frequent marijuana use and aggressive or violent behavior.”  Although this statement clearly says “correlation” rather than “cause” the implications are clear that pot smoking leads to violence.  Nothing can be further from the truth, for most of those who use pot are non-violent people.  True, people who are career criminals and who engage in a lot of violent behavior tend to use pot and other drugs, especially alcohol.  However, this is like putting the proverbial cart before the horse, like is done with the so-called “gateway” theory.  Thus, probably most violent career criminals have smoked pot at one time or another (or more likely, pot smoking is one among many aspects of their life styles), but this is quite a bit different than saying those who smoke pot go on to become violent people.

            Walters and company also claim that marijuana can be addictive, citing as evidence the fact that “more teens are in treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than for all other illicit drugs combined.”  This is extremely misleading, for most kids ordered into treatment by juvenile court judges have accepted this as a plea bargain to avoid harsher punishments.  Few if any are “addicted” to pot.  If anything, they are more likely to have problems with alcohol dependence.

            A study at Johns Hopkins University found that of 1,318 subjects covering a 15 year period, there were "no significant differences in cognitive decline between heavy users, light users, and nonusers of cannabis." They also found "no male-female differences in cognitive decline in relation to cannabis use." The report concludes that: "These results ... seem to provide strong evidence of the absence of a long-term residual effect of cannabis use on cognition" (Lyketsos et al., 1999, "Cannabis Use and Cognitive Decline in Persons under 65 Years of Age," American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 149, No. 9).

            The problems associated with illegal drug use stems more from the fact that they are illegal than the harmful properties of the drugs themselves.  Take police corruption for instance.  A GAO report in 1998 concluded that "...several studies and investigations of drug-related police corruption found on-duty police officers engaged in serious criminal activities, such as (1) conducting unconstitutional searches and seizures; (2) stealing money and/or drugs from drug dealers; (3) selling stolen drugs; (4) protecting drug operations; (5) providing false testimony; and (6) submitting false crime reports." This same report also cited examples of drug-related police corruption cases in such cities as Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.  It is not just a few “bad apples” but it is rather systemic.  This report noted that: “The most commonly identified pattern of drug-related police corruption involved small groups of officers who protected and assisted each other in criminal activities, rather than the traditional patterns of non-drug-related police corruption that involved just a few isolated individuals or systemic corruption pervading an entire police department or precinct.” (General Accounting Office, Report to the Honorable Charles B. Rangel, House of Representatives. Law Enforcement: Information on Drug-Related Police Corruption.  Washington, DC: USGPO, May 1998). 

            The federal government continues to spend the bulk of drug war money on supply reduction. Out of about $18.8 billion spent in 2002, two-thirds was directed to supply reduction (law enforcement), with the remainder going toward treatment, prevention and education (Office of National Drug Control Policy, "National Drug Control Strategy: FY 2003 Budget Summary." Washington, DC: Office of the President, February 2002).   

The trade in illegal drugs continues to be one of the most profitable ventures in the world – an estimated $400 billion industry, according to a UN report (United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, “Economic and Social Consequences of Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking,” New York, NY: UNODCCP, 1998).  A study by Abt Associates in 2001 found that the cost of heroin at the retail level has been declining, going from about $3,295 per gram in 1981 to $2,088 per gram in 2000; at the wholesale level, these figures went from $865 to $112 (Abt Associates, "The Price of Illicit Drugs: 1981 through the Second Quarter of 2000." Washington, DC: ONDCP, Oct. 2001). A UN report noted that during the past decade inflation-adjusted prices for cocaine in Western Europe fell by 45% and 60% for heroin; in the U.S. there was a 50% drop in cocaine prices and a 70% drop in heroin prices (United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, Global Illicit Drug Trends 1999. New York, NY: UNODCCP, 1999).  So much for law enforcement efforts to curb the supply!


© 2004 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.