Drug and Culture Wars

While the administration continues internal debates about whether to invade Iraq, it intensifies another war -- the "war" on marijuana. Fearing that the behavioral and cultural battle has been lost, the office of the Drug Czar has written a letter to prosecutors asking them to redouble their efforts to enforce state laws on marijuana. And the administration reboubled its own anti-marijuana efforts with an ad during the Super Bowl suggesting marijuana impaired teenagers' ability to resist pre-marital sex. With our nation facing the possibility of a shooting war, oil shortages and anthrax and/or small pox attacks, the intensification of the war on marijuana invites a question: Does this war reflect a real public health crisis or is this the continuation of '60s culture wars by other means, an attack on those whose values and life styles lie outside of the currently sanctioned mainstream?

The recent epistle to the prosecutors warns that the US has a serious national drug problem and that no drug matches the threat posed by marijuana. These two statements clearly depend on each other. Far fewer Americans are seriously impaired by so-called hard drugs than are regular or even occasional smokers of pot. To establish a serious national problem, the government must convince us that even occasional pot use is a substantial health threat.

If the administration believes the latter argument, it has a serious problem. That problem lies in a range of scientific studies, often financed by the federal government and published in highly-regarded peer-reviewed publications, that flatly contradict this message. The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws points out: "after an exhaustive, federally financed study by the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine examining all of marijuana's health risks, authors concluded that except for the health risks associated with smoking, the adverse effects of marijuana are within the range tolerated for other medications." A range of other federally-sanctioned studies also fail to confirm other standard claims the office of the Drug Czar has trotted out, including marijuana's addictive powers and its role as "starter drug."

No one can claim that even peer-reviewed studies are never wrong. The history of medicine, even so-called scientific medicine, is full of widely-sanctioned medical advice that did immense damage. Yet if the administration believes that marijuana is inordinately harmful, it has a more serious obligation than a letter to prosecutors. It needs to document the biases, corruption or methodological limits of the myriad federal studies that largely exonerate pot. It also needs to explain just how and why the government can rely upon the same funding authorities, peer review systems, and research networks to carry on its current high-profile battles against such potential risks as anthrax and small pox. If our public health community lacks either the integrity or sophistication to assess the risks of marijuana, can it be trusted properly to inform us about small pox or anthrax?

The office of the Drug Czar is not alone in the curious double-speak about drugs. As the Drug Enforcement Administration redoubles the attack on marijuana, the Defense Department bends over backwards to defend amphetamines. Two US Air National Guard pilots are undergoing court martial for mistakenly bombing and killing Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. A major part of the pilots' defense is their contention that amphetamines they were supplied by the Air Force impaired their judgment. Though the tribunal will sort out the facts here, the military's stance is startling. The Pentagon staunchly defends the practice of wiring its pilots on amphetamines. Writing recently in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Susan Lefensky points out: "anyone who ever spent a tooth-grinding night in college cramming for an exam while on 'Dex' knows that the resulting high-wire jitters are a lousy substitute for clarity and sound judgment. … Civilian pilots are prohibited from using them, as are train engineers, freighter captains and just about anyone driving anything bigger than a skateboard. Any employers who were found … dispensing speed to their overtired drivers would be prosecuted. Yet the Air Force encourages its pilots to 'Just Say Yes'."

It is hard to take a government at its word on the subject of drugs when it can speak in such selective and contradictory valences. Dependency on some drugs is a serious public health problem. Nonetheless, if the US wishes to address this public health problem, honest drug education would be a good place to start. Few will take seriously strictures about heroin or cocaine when both their own eyes, and the government's own sanctioned research, tells them pot is hardly a new killer bee.

Unfortunately, however, the highest levels of government probably have other concerns than public health. It is not accidental that drugs that pump up already-stretched military pilots are force fed, while the drugs that once allowed and symbolized youthful minorities' resistance to the treadmill are demonized and harshly sanctioned.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

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