Outside view: Putting pot in perspective

By PAUL ARMENTANO, A UPI Outside view commentary   |   Feb. 6, 2003 at 12:08 AM

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5 (UPI) -- Discourse about marijuana policy far too often relies on rhetoric rather than science. Recently, much of the hyperbole has focused on the premise that marijuana is far more addictive and therefore more dangerous than previously believed.

The Bush administration now claims that marijuana poses a greater risk to health than any other drug.

"No drug matches the threat posed by marijuana," officials from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy warned in a recent letter to America's prosecutors, adding "The addiction rate to marijuana by our youth exceeds their addiction rates for alcohol, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ecstasy and all other illegal drugs combined."

At first glance, the administration's concerns regarding marijuana and dependence appear to have merit.

According to recently compiled federal data, admissions to drug rehab among adolescent marijuana users have increased dramatically since the mid-1990s. Therefore, today's marijuana must be addictive, right?

Wrong! According to the federal Drug and Alcohol Services Information System the rise in marijuana admissions is due exclusively to a proportional increase in teens referred to drug treatment by the criminal justice system.

Primarily, these are teens arrested for pot possession, brought before a criminal judge -- or drug court -- and ordered to rehab in lieu of jail or juvenile detention.

These data are in no way indicative of whether the person referred to treatment is suffering from any symptoms of dependence associated with marijuana use; most individuals admitted to treatment do so simply to avoid jail time.

Since 1995 the proportion of admissions from all sources other than the criminal justice system has actually declined. Consequently, DASIS reports that today, "over half (54 percent) of all adolescent marijuana admissions (are) through the criminal justice system," with an additional 25 percent coming from referrals from schools and substance abuse providers.

The DASIS numbers should not surprise to anyone who has studied marijuana pharmacology -- or the tendency of pot prohibitionists to play quick and loose with the facts. Marijuana lacks the so-called "dependence liability" of other drugs, and as a result, few marijuana users ever voluntarily seek treatment to kick their habits.

According to the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, which completed an exhaustive study of marijuana and health in 1999 at the request of the federal Drug Czar, fewer than 1 in 10 marijuana smokers ever become regular pot users.

By comparison 15 percent of alcohol users, 17 percent of cocaine users and a whopping 32 percent of cigarette smokers statistically exhibit symptoms of drug dependence as defined by the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-III-R criteria.

Population studies on drug use further reinforce marijuana's relative non-addictiveness. While federal surveys indicate that marijuana use is most prevalent among 18-to-25 year olds, most of these users do not continue to do so later in life.

The IOM says the overwhelming majority of marijuana users quit voluntarily in their early 30s -- often citing health or professional concerns or the decision to start a family. Contrast this pattern with that of the typical tobacco smoker -- many of whom begin as teens and end up smoking daily the rest of their lives.

That's not to say that some marijuana smokers do not become psychologically dependent on marijuana or find quitting difficult. But a comprehensive study released this fall by the Canadian Senate concluded that this dependence "is less severe and less frequent than dependence on other psychotropic substances, including alcohol and tobacco."

Observable withdrawal symptoms attributable to marijuana are also exceedingly rare. According to the IOM, these symptoms are "mild and short lived" compared to the profound physical withdrawal symptoms of other drugs, such as alcohol or heroin, and unlikely to persuade former smokers to re-initiate their pot use.

None of this means that marijuana is harmless, though its potential health risks hardly justify criminally outlawing it entirely. The science does demonstrate marijuana to be less harmful than many legal drugs, and that its greatest harm stems from the consequence of a criminal arrest.

The bottom line? When it comes to the subject of marijuana and addiction, it appears that the only legitimate association between the two can be linked back to the Bush administration itself.


(Paul Armentano is a senior policy analyst for The NORML Foundation, a group that supports liberalization of America's marijuana laws, in Washington.)


("Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.)

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