Gil Kerlikowske is worried about our nation's teenagers. Or so he claims. As the Obama administration's drug czar, he says he's concerned that kids today just aren't scared enough of marijuana. Last week, Kerlikowske spoke soberly to the media about the latest survey from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. He blamed softening attitudes (read: "loose morals") for the rise in marijuana use among teenagers. As a nation, he argued, we must stay the course in the failed War on Marijuana — for the sake of the children.
Journalist Jacob Sullum wrote on Forbes.com that the drug czar should be commended: "You have to give Kerlikowske credit (if that's the right word) for being completely undaunted by contrary evidence."
Turns out, the data doesn't really back up Kerly's dire warning. The NIDA survey in question looked at annual, past-month and "daily" use (meaning 20 or more of the previous 30 days) of a variety of substances among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders. The increase in marijuana use is negligible. Daily and monthly use changed less than a percentage point over last year at all three grade levels. The biggest jump in any category was annual use among sophomores, which crept from 28 percent to 29.8 percent. Use among seniors stayed flat at 36.4 percent. By comparison, 47 percent of sophomores and 62 percent of seniors reported drinking alcohol.
Kerlikowske apparently thinks drunken teens are better off than stoned ones. He was quoted in several news sources declaring, "For some to say that [marijuana] is less dangerous than other substances is a ridiculous statement."
Really? It's ridiculous to say marijuana is less dangerous than meth or heroin or the "flesh-eating" drug krokodil? What about, like, paint thinner, Gil? Or napalm?! Is weed less dangerous than napalm?
Kerlikowske seems to have deliberately bent the truth elsewhere when he chastised Washington and Colorado for their "large national experiment" — legalizing recreational weed. He chided regulators in those states for failing to keep pot out of teens' hands, citing audits that criticized regulation. But as the Denver Post pointed out, those audits focused on licensing and budget issues; they didn't even mention youth access. The Post's editorial board found that "statistics have shown no link between legalization and increased use."
Of course, laughable drug propaganda is an American tradition. In 1937, for example, Harry J. Anslinger, the country's first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, testified before Congress in favor of marijuana prohibition. Here's part of what he said:
"Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind. Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes."
Oh my! Kerlikowske's statements are tame in comparison, but they're still misleading, which is a shame given the need for honest debate and fact-based policy decisions on marijuana issues. As a Schedule 1 drug, marijuana is ineligible for federally funded scientific study, yet science, undaunted, keeps learning more about weed's effects — good and bad — all the time. The list of medicinal benefits keeps growing, but there are real risks, too. As we mentioned last week, recent evidence suggests that heavy pot smoking in teens can affect their memory and alter their brain structure.
Good parents will warn their teenagers about the dangers of marijuana, alcohol and other substances. No doubt some will exaggerate those dangers in hopes of scaring their kids straight. Fair enough. But public officials like Kerlikowske should be above such cheap tricks. As Dr. Sanjay Gupta pointed out in his weed-epiphany story "Why I changed my mind on weed" on CNN earlier this year, "We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States."
Looks like we're headed for 71 and counting.