Drug Warriors Are Harmful: Debunking 7 Myths of Their Own Creation

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My unusual title is because I am replying to an article posted at the Heritage Foundation’s blog, The Foundry, titled: “Marijuana Is Harmful: Debunking 7 Myths Arguing It’s Fine,” by Kevin A. Sabet.

The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. I have criticized the organization and its president, former Republican senator Jim DeMint, for their hypocrisy and support of the welfare/war state. But this does not mean that Heritage does not produce some valuable studies on things like harmful Democratic policies, Obamacare, the Obama administration, welfare, the federal budget, the minimum wage, tax policy, government regulations, free trade, and the free market.

The mission of the Heritage Foundation is to “formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”

I think we can take “individual freedom” off the list. And we might as well remove “free enterprise” and “limited government” as well, since the Heritage Foundation doesn’t believe in them either. And it’s a good thing that the Heritage mission statement doesn’t also mention the reverence for the Constitution that the organization has or that part of the statement would have to be removed as well.

Kevin A. Sabet is the author of the new book Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana (Beaufort Books, 2013) and the director of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), which ought to be called Statist Approaches to Marijuana.

According to a website devoted to the book, Sabet

has over 18 years of experience working on drug policy. Dr. Sabet is the Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and an Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. With Patrick J. Kennedy, he is the co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). He is also a policy consultant to numerous domestic and international organizations through his company, the Policy Solutions Lab.

From 2009-2011, he served in the Obama Administration as the Senior Advisor to Director Kerlikowske at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Representing his non-partisan commitment to drug policy, he previously worked on research, policy and speech writing at ONDCP in 2000 and from 2003-2004 in the Clinton and Bush Administrations, respectively. He remains the only staff member at ONDCP to hold a political appointment in both the Bush and Obama Administrations.

Sabet recently appeared at the Heritage Foundation to discuss his new book, hence his post, “Marijuana Is Harmful: Debunking 7 Myths Arguing It’s Fine,” on the Heritage blog. An Obama political appointee speaking at the Heritage Foundation? The drug war makes strange bedfellows.

The seven myths addressed in Sabet’s book, which he also discusses in his blog post, are as follows:

(1) Marijuana Is Harmless and Non-addictive

(2) Smoked or Eaten Marijuana Is Medicine

(3) Countless People Are Behind Bars Simply for Smoking Marijuana

(4) The Legality of Alcohol and Tobacco Strengthen the Case for Legal Marijuana

(5) Legal Marijuana Will Solve the Government’s Budgetary Problems

(6) Portugal and Holland Provide Successful Models for Legalization

(7) Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment Are Doomed to Fail—So Why Try?

These seven myths are of Sabet’s creation. I have probably written as much on the evils of the drug war as anyone Sabet could name. But aside from a variation of his fourth myth, I have never, and would never, make arguments such as these.

What follows are Sabet’s seven myths with some or all of his comments followed by my comments, each supplemented by a statement about the drug war that is no myth.

Myth No. 1: “Marijuana is harmless and non-addictive.”

Sabet begins: “No, marijuana is not as dangerous as cocaine or heroin, but calling it harmless or non-addictive denies very clear science embraced by every major medical association that has studied the issue.” He goes on to say that marijuana is much more potent now than it used to be, and how marijuana use is associated with schizophrenia, acute psychotic episodes, panic attacks, reduced IQ, changed brain structure, and diminished capacity to learn. Being high on pot also “doubles your risk of a car crash.”

Okay, we get the point: smoking marijuana is dangerous. First of all, for every scientist, mental health researcher, physician, and educator that Sabet can cite on the negative effects of marijuana, contrary opinions can be provided by appealing to other scientists, mental health researchers, physicians, and educators. Second, plenty of things that people do are dangerous. Skydiving is dangerous. Bungee jumping is dangerous. MMA fighting is dangerous. Going up in a hot-air balloon is dangerous. Using a chainsaw is dangerous. Sabet would appear much more credible if he were likewise seeking the heavy hand of government to ban doing these things. And three, does not being high on alcohol likewise double your risk of a car crash? Is Sabet in favor of banning alcohol or is he merely in favor of drunk-driving laws and holding impaired drivers responsible for their actions? I think we already know the answer. I will refrain from elaborating on Sabet’s hypocrisy concerning alcohol until commenting on his fourth myth.

The war on drugs is harmful to liberty and addictive to law enforcement.

Myth No. 2: “Smoked or eaten marijuana is medicine.”

Sabet comments: “Just like we don’t smoke opium or inject heroin to get the benefits of morphine, we do not have to smoke marijuana to receive its medical effects.” He mentions a pill based on marijuana’s active ingredient and a mouth spray based on a marijuana extract. Sabet admits that “the marijuana plant has known medical value,” he just doesn’t want people to get high from smoking marijuana.

Sabet is not very clear here. He initially implies that smoking marijuana can impart medical benefits, but then concludes that “that does not mean smoked or ingested whole marijuana is medicine.” There are doctors, scientists, and researchers who would maintain that marijuana’s full medical benefits can only be received by smoking it. Are they all just stoners and potheads who want to further an agenda? Sabet is the quintessential puritan who, as H. L. Mencken remarked, has the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. What business is it of the government if the sick want to get high while they are being medicated or the healthy want to get high just for the thrill of it?

It is not the business of government to tell Americans what is and isn’t medicine.

Myth No. 3: “Countless people are behind bars simply for smoking marijuana.”

Sabet comments: “I wholeheartedly support reducing America’s incarceration rate. But legalizing marijuana will not make a significant dent in our imprisonment rates. That is because less than 0.3 percent of all state prison inmates are there for smoking marijuana. Moreover, most people arrested for marijuana use are cited with a ticket—very few serve time behind bars unless it is in the context of a probation or parole violation.”

Countless people may not be imprisoned for smoking marijuana, but countless people have been arrested for the non-crime of selling marijuana, possessing marijuana, growing marijuana, or “trafficking” in marijuana. This means that countless people have lost employment, had their property seized, damaged their standing in the community, destroyed their reputation, embarrassed their family, and wasted countless dollars in the legal system.

Here are some facts about arrest, incarceration, and sentencing rates that Sabet fails to mention. According to the latest FBI crime and arrest statistics for 2012, 48.3 percent of all drug arrests were arrests for marijuana, there were 749,825 total marijuana arrests, 87 percent of marijuana arrests were for possession only, and a marijuana arrest occurs in the United States every 48 seconds. And then, of course, there are the other drugs. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there are currently 98,538 inmates, or 49.9 percent, in federal prison for drug offenses. And according to “Prisoners in 2012: Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991-2012,” published by the U.S. Department of Justice, 16.6 percent of the state prison population in 2011 was made up drug offenders and 25.4 percent of the people sentenced to state prison in 2011 were drug offenders.

If only one person were incarcerated for smoking marijuana, then that would be one person too many.

Myth No. 4: “The legality of alcohol and tobacco strengthen the case for legal marijuana.”

Sabet comments: “Marijuana is safer than alcohol, so marijuana should be treated like alcohol” is a catchy, often-used mantra in the legalization debate. But this assumes that our alcohol policy is something worth modeling. In fact, because they are used at such high rate due to their wide availability, our two legal intoxicants cause more harm, are the cause of more arrests, and kill more people than all illegal drugs combined. Why add a third drug to our list of legal killers?

No, our alcohol policy is not worth modeling at all. And although marijuana is indeed safer than alcohol, it should not be treated like alcohol. There should be a free market in marijuana and alcohol and tobacco. And if “our two legal intoxicants cause more harm, are the cause of more arrests, and kill more people than all illegal drugs combined,” why is Sabet crusading against marijuana and not alcohol and tobacco?

It is freedom that strengthens the case for legal marijuana.

Myth No. 5: “Legal marijuana will solve the government’s budgetary problems.”

Sabet comments: “Unfortunately, we can’t expect  societal financial gain from marijuana legalization. For every $1 in revenue the U.S. receives in alcohol and tobacco taxes, we spend more than $10 in social costs. Additionally, two major business lobbies—Big Tobacco and the Liquor Lobby—have emerged to keep taxes on these drugs low and promote use.”

Legalizing marijuana has nothing to do with solving the government’s budgetary problems. Just like increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco wouldn’t make a dent in the government’s budgetary problems. Gee, if social costs of alcohol and tobacco are so much more than the revenue the government derives from their sale, then why isn’t Sabet screaming at the top of his lungs that these “drugs” should be banned like marijuana? And does Sabet really think that taxes on tobacco and alcohol are “low”? They certainly aren’t.

The government shouldn’t tax marijuana anymore than it should tax bananas.

Myth No. 6:  “Portugal and Holland provide successful models of legalization.”

Sabet comments about Portugal: “Someone caught with a small amount of drugs is sent to a three-person panel and given treatment, a fine, or a warning and release. The result of this policy is less clear. Treatment services were ramped up at the same time the new policy was implemented, and a decade later there are more young people using marijuana, but fewer people dying of opiate and cocaine overdoses.” And he says regarding Holland: “In the Netherlands, officials seem to be scaling back their marijuana non-enforcement policy (lived out in ‘coffee shops’ across that country) after witnessing higher rates of marijuana use and treatment admissions there.”

This argument is a gross misrepresentation. No one who knew anything about the drug laws in Portugal and Holland would say that those countries legalized drugs. What those countries did do was get rid of draconian marijuana laws like those that exist in the United States.

The United States should provide the world with a successful model of marijuana legalization.

Myth No. 7: “Prevention, intervention, and treatment are doomed to fail—So why try?”

Sabet comments: “Less than 8 percent of Americans smoke marijuana versus 52 percent who drink and 27 percent of people that smoke tobacco cigarettes. Coupled with its legal status, efforts to reduce demand for marijuana can work.”

But if less than 8 percent of Americans smoke marijuana, shouldn’t the government try to reduce the demand for alcohol and tobacco instead of for marijuana? Did not Sabet just say in his comments on myth 4 that “our two legal intoxicants cause more harm, are the cause of more arrests, and kill more people than all illegal drugs combined.”

Since prevention, intervention, and treatment are not the proper response of government to marijuana use, they should not be tried.

Sabet also addressed one myth not found in his book: “Colorado and Washington are examples to follow.”

He writes: “Experience from Colorado’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana is not promising.” He says that more workers are failing drug tests, more deaths are being linked to marijuana use, more kids are consuming marijuana products, more parents are calling the poison control hotline, the black market for marijuana continues to thrive, and tax revenues have fallen short.

He forgot to mention several things. The number of people arrested and locked in cages for the non crime of marijuana possession has decreased. The power of the police to violate civil liberties has decreased. Personal freedom and property rights have increased. I will take these things any day. And furthermore, I note the following. Ridiculous workplace drug testing should be eliminated. As more people use chainsaws, more deaths will be linked to their use. Kids anywhere in Colorado could easily find and consume any number of marijuana products before Colorado legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Marijuana is not poison. Black markets are always good things. And it is always good when tax revenues fall.

With their tremendous state and local regulation of marijuana production, sale, distribution, and consumption, Colorado and Washington are not examples to follow.

Sabet concludes that “there is a better way to address the marijuana question—one that emphasizes brief interventions, prevention, and treatment, and would prove a far less costly alternative to either the status quo or legalization. That is the path America should be pursuing—call it ‘Reefer Sanity.’”

But since it is not the job of the government, and especially the federal government, to ask the marijuana question, address the marijuana question, undertake brief interventions, prevention, or treatment, choose between marijuana alternatives, or incur any cost whatsoever related to preventing anyone from growing, using, or selling marijuana, the path that Sabet and other drug warriors are pursuing we can call “reefer insanity.”

It is drug warriors who are harmful. They are harmful to individual liberty, the free market, private property, personal responsibility, a free society—and the American taxpayer who is forced to foot the bill for the drug war.

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