Targeting marijuana saps anti-drug effort, critics say
NEW YORK - A new government anti-marijuana campaign has reignited a long-smoldering debate over how dangerous the most widely used illegal drug in America really is and whether it should be the central focus of the nation's war on drugs.
Headlined "Marijuana and your teen's mental health," an advertisement appearing in newspapers and magazines nationwide cites scientific studies in the last seven years that have found that regular use of marijuana in the teenage years can put users at risk of depression, suicidal impulses and schizophrenia later in life.
"Still think marijuana's no big deal?" the ad asks parents.
Yes, responds one leading advocate of decriminalizing marijuana.
"If you want to focus on problem drugs in the U.S., marijuana is the last drug you would focus on," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors treating marijuana like alcohol: a legal product that is regulated, taxed and illegal for minors to use.
"We have methamphetamine out there, we have heroin, we have OxyContin, we have booze, we have cigarettes. To make statements that marijuana in the hands of teenagers is this dangerous threat, it's ludicrous."
And last week, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and more than 500 other economists endorsed a report that said state and federal coffers could reap a net gain of $13.9 billion if marijuana were legalized.
The study by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that law enforcement would save $7.7 billion, while taxes on the drug could amount to $6.2 billion. Miron's study was largely funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group that supports liberalizing marijuana laws.
The renewed war of words regarding a drug that has been prevalent in American society for some 40 years erupted in early May when John Walters, the Bush administration's drug czar, launched the government's latest print and broadcast ad campaign.
"A growing body of evidence now demonstrates that smoking marijuana can increase the risk of serious mental health problems," said Walters, whose official title is director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
One recent report, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, found that adults who had used marijuana before age 12 were twice as likely to have experienced a serious mental illness in the past year as those who began smoking it after 18.
Among early users, 21 percent reported suffering a serious mental health problem, compared with 10.5 percent among those who started smoking marijuana later. The study was based on interviews with almost 90,000 adults.
Other studies cited by the drug control office, which will spend $120 million on public-education advertising this year, have found that teenagers who smoke marijuana weekly are three times more likely than non-users to have suicidal thoughts and that some teenage users have a higher risk of developing schizophrenia as adults.
"We are very concerned about marijuana for a very good reason," said David Murray, a policy analyst for the drug control office. "It's so prevalent, so widespread in the population. There's a public-health responsibility here. This is not an innocuous drug."
A University of Michigan study found last year that 34.3 percent of high school seniors and 11.8 percent of 8th graders had smoked marijuana in the previous 12 months. Drug use among teenagers has been falling since 1996, the study noted.
Teenagers are the targets of the government anti-marijuana campaign because officials believe that use of marijuana early in life can lead to harder drugs such as cocaine or heroin later. And adolescents may feel they are fully grown, but they aren't.
"The evidence is now pretty significant that central nervous system development is not complete in adolescents, and the use of this drug may have effects on the maturation of their central nervous systems," said Dr. Richard Suchinsky, a psychiatrist who oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs' addiction programs.
"It inhibits certain functions, such as cognition, judgment and the ability to postpone gratification," Suchinsky said.
But critics of the government's war on drugs say the latest studies do little to advance what is already known about marijuana and do not prove that the drug is responsible for mental illness. Children and teenagers who are predisposed to have mental health problems may be more likely to try marijuana, they say.
"There's a question about whether there's a causality," said the Drug Policy Alliance's Nadelmann. "What's interesting about marijuana, you can't even find a presidential candidate now who will say he has never used it. We all know people who have smoked marijuana for periods of time, and they're all doing fine."
Ten states have approved marijuana for medical use by cancer patients and others who appear to benefit from its relief of severe nausea.
That has set up a classic states' rights confrontation between the federal government and one such state, California. In a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, federal authorities argue that they can override state medical marijuana laws.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case that federal officials had overstepped their constitutional boundaries when they raided the homes of patients who were growing marijuana for their own use. The Supreme Court is expected to issue its opinion before the current session ends later this month.
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The war on drugs, whose law enforcement, public education and other components cost an estimated $35 billion a year, has come under fire lately not only from groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors a heavier emphasis on treatment and prevention, but also from some conservative organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.
In a March assessment of the war on drugs, the institute reported that the number of drug offenders in jail has ballooned tenfold since 1980 with little evidence that the tactic has led to markedly less drug use in the general population.
"Despite this massive investment of tax dollars and government authority, the United States still has the worst drug problem among Western nations," the study concludes.
The study also questioned the efficacy of pursuing marijuana users, a pursuit that has grown dramatically as a proportion of the war on drugs in the last decade.
Between 1990 and 2002, the number of drug arrests rose from about 1.1 million to more than 1.5 million, with 80 percent of that increase coming from marijuana arrests, according to a recent report by The Sentencing Project, which examined FBI data to draw its conclusion that the war on drugs has increasingly turned into a campaign against just one drug - marijuana.
Murray, of the anti-drug office, criticized the report for "data-slicing" by choosing as its starting point a period when the nation was battling an epidemic of crack cocaine and when cocaine arrests were abnormally high.
"What appears to be a policy choice is in fact a natural response by law enforcement to a change in use patterns," he said.
Despite longstanding concerns about the addictive power of heroin and cocaine and growing worries about methamphetamine, which is often manufactured in household labs, a spokesman for the drug policy office said the government's emphasis on marijuana is justified by its status as the most widely used drug among minors.
"If you are trying to get useful information into parents' hands, this is the more educative way to go," said spokesman Tom Riley.
But Mitch Earleywine, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, believes that the campaign overstates the dangers of marijuana and runs the risk of backfiring among teenagers, who are already skeptical of adults.
"My big worry is that if you tell a 14-year-old that if you smoke pot, you're going to become psychotic, and then he tries it and nothing happens, you lose credibility," said Earleywine, author of "Understanding Marijuana." "So when you tell him that using meth will make your brain smaller, which it absolutely will, he'll think, 'You lied to me about the marijuana, so I think I'm going to smoke this meth.' "
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