Drug Czar to Rep. Cohen on marijuana rescheduling: La La La, I Can’t Hear You!

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." – Upton Sinclair

On September 12, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) authored a letter to “Gateway” Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While Rep. Cohen opens with his shared concern about the scourge of “[h]eroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, crack, and other similar drugs [that] are highly addictive, cause physical damage, and often lead addicts to criminal activity to fulfill their habit”, the focus of his letter to the Drug Czar was that prohibition of marijuana is a futile and harmful failure. Yesterday, Kerlikowske responded with a letter to Rep. Cohen filled with half-truths, diversions, and outright lies.

Rep. Cohen plainly stated one of the conclusions of the recent Global Commission on Drug Policy report:

The continued focus of federal and state governments on the criminalization of simple possession of marijuana has resulted in increased prison populations, devastating racial disparities and a lost generation of people with no education and no job prospects because of an arrest that haunts them for the rest of their lives.

To which Drug Czar Kerlikowske replies:

This administration agrees that we should expand alternatives to incarceration for those whose criminal offense is related to an underlying substance abuse problem. We are also working to remove barriers for those who are in recovery or have fulfilled sentences related to drug offenses.

As marijuana arrests climb, so do the number of drug courts. Coincidence?

The problem, of course, is that use of marijuana is the criminal offense.  In most cases, the use of marijuana does not indicate an underlying substance abuse problem.  What Kerlikowske is pointing to is more use of drug courts which sentence users of cannabis to a rehab they don’t need.  Then he’ll point to all the admissions for cannabis rehab to demonstrate what a serious health issue cannabis abuse is.  And the solution, of course, is more marijuana arrests that sentence abusers to drug courts.


 Marijuana does not belong on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) alongside such hard drugs as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. There is no evidence that marijuana has the same addictive qualities or damaging consequences as these harder drugs and it should not be treated as such. Similarly, the so-called “Gateway Drug” theory has been thoroughly discredited with respect to marijuana. Marijuana ought to be placed at the lowest end of the CSA in accordance with its true risks.

You said marijuana was harmless and non-addictive! Liar!


In your letter, you raise several important issues which I would like to address. First, you state that marijuana is harmless, non-addictive, and should be decriminalized….

Huh?!?  Rep. Cohen, watch out, there’s a straw man behind you!  I thought you said marijuana (Schedule I) wasn’t as addictive or harmful as heroin (Schedule I), coke and meth (Schedule II), and that it ought to be at the lowest end of the CSA (Schedule V) that recognizes a drug that “has a low potential for abuse… has a currently accepted medical use… [and] may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence…”  That doesn’t sound like “harmless” or “non-addictive” to me.


Scientists at The National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Federal Government’s leading researchers on the science of drug abuse, confirm that marijuana is not a benign substance and that it is addictive.

About as addictive as coffee, slightly more buzz than cigarettes

Addictive?  Do you mean “hallucinating, crawling on the floor, writhing in agony, vomiting, shaking, cold sweat, potential death”-addictive, like kicking heroin or alcohol “cold turkey”?  Or do you mean “really grumpy in the morning if I can’t get my Starbucks”-addictive?  Because scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) rating five qualities of addictive effects among nicotine, heroin, cocaine, alcohol, caffeine, and cannabis found cannabis to be the least addictive in three categories: dependence (how much you “gotta have it”), withdrawal (how bad does it hurt to quit), and tolerance (gotta have more and more to get high).  It’s second-lowest to caffeine in reinforcement (taking it makes you want more) and third-lowest to caffeine and nicotine in intoxication (how much buzz does it pack).


In fact, the lifetime risk of drug dependence in cannabis users has been estimated at about 9 percent, rising to one-in-six in those who initiate use in adolescence. The rate of dependence on marijuana is nearly twice as prevalent when compared to any other illicit psychoactive substance.

Dependence?  Yes, NIDA does put the lifetime dependence rate on cannabis at 9%, which, again, puts it down in the Starbucks coffee range.  Also, consider that this “dependence” is partially categorized in the DSM-IV (the psychological diagnoses manual) as people who “use very potent cannabis over a period of months and sometimes years, and may spend significant time acquiring and using the substance”.  Yes, because that substance is illegal, expensive, and hard to find.  The diagnosis also includes people whose cannabis use “interferes with family, work, school, or recreational activities”, which is also hard to separate from the illegality of cannabis that frightens family, gets tested for at work and school, and frowned upon at recreational activities.  How many beer drinkers would be “alcohol dependent” if getting a twelve-pack of potent microbrews cost $300 and two-hours of cross-town trips and phone calls, failing an alcohol test would cost their job or scholarship, and family reunions, pool halls, bowling alleys, and public parks only allowed pot smoking, not beer drinking?

The “rate of dependence for cannabis is twice as prevalent as illegal drugs” is a pure lie.  Cocaine gets a 17% and heroin gets a 23% from NIDA.  Unless Kerlikowske really means use rates of cannabis, which are well over twice as great as use of other drugs… which tells you something, doesn’t it?  Heroin’s not as popular because people know it’s dangerous and are generally not inclined to want to use it.  People love cannabis because they know it to be the safest recreational substance and herbal medication.


Further, marijuana is the most prevalent drug used by young people and is associated with lowered academic performance, fatal drugged driving accidents, and visits to emergency rooms across the country. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, marijuana was involved in 376,000 emergency room visits in 2009.

We've dramatically lowered alcohol and tobacco use among teens without locking up a single adult for possession of those substances

No.  Alcohol and tobacco are the most prevalent drugs used by young people.  And remarkably, alcohol use among 12th graders has dropped from a lifetime prevalence of 92% to 71% in the past 35 years.  Tobacco use among seniors has fallen from 75% to 43% in the same span.  Yet we haven’t arrested a single adult for possession of those substances.  Instead we instituted strict ID carding procedures, began public education campaigns, restricted advertising, and in the case of booze, raised the legal age*.

Even marijuana use is lower now, at 42%, than its modern peak of 60% in 1979 and the medical marijuana-era peak of almost 50%.  If regulation proved successful with two addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco, why would it not succeed for cannabis?

As for “lowered academic performance”, well, for one, it’s tough to maintain good grade when you get suspended for smoking pot.  Kerlikowske also omits the fact that conditions that lead to adolescent substance use (abuse or neglect at home, poverty, quality of schools, etc.) also tend to lead to lowered academic performance regardless of marijuana use.  Recent studies show moderate use doesn’t affect cognitive abilities at all.

Kerlikowske’s emergency room visits scare is also specious.  Marijuana “involved” in an ER visit means it was either tested for or mentioned by a patient in an ER.  If tested, that can be metabolites from days or weeks ago and it counts as “involved” in the visit.  If mentioned, that can be “I smoked a joint at a party then fell and broke my ankle on the icy sidewalk outside” and now marijuana is “involved” in the visit.  Nothing measures marijuana causing an emergency room visit, because there are so very few of those, since marijuana is non-toxic and only mildly mood-altering.  The same concepts apply to the “fatal drugged-driving accidents”; presence of marijuana metabolites in a crash victim do not implicate the marijuana as causing the crash – even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says so!


This is an issue of compassion, as medical marijuana provides a little relief and dignity to people who are dying. I have personally witnessed a close friend who was suffering in the last days of pancreatic cancer benefit tremendously from smoking marijuana. It increased his appetite, eased his pain, and allowed him to smile. It allowed him to deal with death with a little more dignity.


We share your concerns about the importance of providing relief and dignity to individuals at the last stages of their life. To that end, we ardently support research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine.

LIAR.  As our Paul Armentano so ably points out: “the Drug Czar is claiming that the federal government ‘ardently supports’ medical marijuana research just days after the US government formally denied a request for an FDA-approved clinical trial to assess cannabis’ therapeutic safety and efficacy” for treating post traumatic stress disorder among our returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Well, maybe not “LIAR” so much as “equivocator”.  Kerlikowske supports “components of the marijuana plant” that can be synthesized, bottled, bar-coded, and marked-up for the profit of a pharmaceutical company.  He praises the Marinol 100% synthetic THC pill you’re supposed to swallow and keep down for 45 minutes to treat your viole

Why are the least toxic drugs considered most dangerous and the most toxic drugs the least dangerous?

nt heaving nausea (good luck with that).  It’s that whole-plant, 15% natural THC you can grow yourself without enriching a corporation he’s got a problem with, even if it helped your friend dying of cancer.


[No] major medical association [has] come out in favor of smoked marijuana for widespread medical use.

Really?  Is the American Medical Association not “major” enough for you when they said:

Conclusions. Results of short term controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis. However, the patchwork of state-based systems that have been established for “medical marijuana” is woefully inadequate in establishing even rudimentary safeguards that normally would be applied to the appropriate clinical use of psychoactive substances. The future of cannabinoid-based medicine lies in the rapidly evolving field of botanical drug substance development, as well as the design of molecules that target various aspects of the endocannabinoid system. To the extent that rescheduling marijuana out of Schedule I will benefit this effort, such a move can be supported.

So the AMA even admits that smoked cannabis is medically beneficial.  The AMA wants “botanical drug substance development” – those “components of the marijuana plant” Kerlikowske mentions – and in order to facilitate that they support removing marijuana from Schedule I… just like Rep. Cohen is demanding you do!  I guess his weasel word here is “widespread”, since the AMA listed only a few limited uses of cannabis.

Finally, this Administration stresses the importance of not approaching our Nation’s drug problem as a “war on drugs.” As someone who has spent his entire career in law enforcement, I recognize that we will never be able to arrest our way out of our drug problem. Drug addiction is a disease of the brain. Like any other chronic disease, it can be successfùlly prevented and treated. That is why our policies support preventing drug use and reforming the criminal justice system. Our drug control budget reflects this reality. Last year, the President’s Budget devoted $10.4 billion to drug education and treatment programs. compared to $4.3 billion for incarceration programs.


Meet the new boss, same as the old boss (graphic by Pete Guither, DrugWarRant.com)

Once again, some fuzzy math from the drug czar.  Obama’s drug war budget is still tilted 2:1 in favor of law enforcement.  If you only count “incarceration programs” you might get $4.3 billion, but add in those helicopters flying eradication missions, parole and probation officer costs, and other costs of trying to bust cannabis and drug users, and that cost climbs.  Then realize that the $10.4 billion he’s counting for drug treatment includes the drug courts that still equate to marijuana arrests and law enforcement and soon you realize the shell game he’s playing.  In reality, drug war budgets for treatment and prevention have risen slightly and domestic law enforcement, interdiction, and international efforts have risen less slightly over the past three fiscal years.

Finally, may I mention that the “entire career in law enforcement” spent by Gil Kerlikowske included being Chief of Police from 2001 – 2009 in Seattle, a city that voted marijuana enforcement its lowest police priority, whose city attorney won’t even prosecute minor marijuana offenses, whose mayor smoke in favor of legalization at this year’s Seattle Hempfest, and whose city council just stood up to the governor’s veto of medical marijuana dispensaries by instituting regulations for city dispensaries.  Gil, you know damn well from experience that what you are spreading are lies, half-truths, and mis-directions about marijuana!

Rep Cohen to Drug Czar Letter

Drug Czar to Rep Cohen letter

* I often wonder why we never hear “What About The Children?!?” and a cry for raising the legal age for tobacco to 21?

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