In a recent 60 Minutes segment, Michael Botticelli, America’s new drug czar, stated, “I think we have to base our policy on scientific understanding.” Yet, while discussing marijuana legalization later in the segment, he failed to disclose research findings that show, despite rhetoric warning of a decline in the perception of harm by teens, marijuana use has remained constant since 2010.
Yes, according to this year’s annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey on licit and illicit drug use by American teenagers, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), our teenagers are using less alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, while marijuana use has either declined or remained relatively flat.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals opposed to the drug war, of which I am a member, has asserted for years that the control and regulation of illicit drugs would reduce access for our children. Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham interviewed the lead MTF researcher, Lloyd Johnston, who believes the study supports that conclusion, saying “students’ conception of how easy it is to get marijuana has actually been in decline the past few years.” Ingraham contends, and I agree, that even though teenagers perceive less risk, they are “less able to get weed when they want it.”
We often do more damage to kids under the guise of protecting them than we would by applying public health strategies that would help to ameliorate substance abuse in our communities. The failure of our drug war policies is now front and center. Another recent 60 Minutes segment on college undercover operations reflects the aggressive enforcement of marijuana laws that endanger and kill our children. Law enforcement’s continuing emphasis on marijuana does little to reduce either use or availability.
Let’s be clear: I am not advocating that our teenagers use alcohol, marijuana, or others drugs. But I do question the effectiveness of a policy that continues to emphasize interdiction and criminalization rather than public health. Our new drug czar, despite his “new direction on drugs,” is merely indicating a kinder, gentler drug war message that still retains the harms associated with prohibition. I applaud his support of harm reduction, naloxone access, and Good Samaritan laws, yet his budget still reflects a prioritization of enforcement over treatment.
And though I realize Botticelli is not a fan of marijuana legalization, he should at least not be disingenuous and actually share the results of government sponsored research that is based on “scientific understanding.” So today I woke up, looked outside, and saw that when it comes to our children’s drug use, the sky isn’t falling. Rather than continuing to hold prohibition up through political ideology and rhetoric, the drug czar should really emphasize a public health approach that achieves the same reductions as we did with teen pregnancy, alcohol, and tobacco use by using: harm reduction, scientific research, education, and respect for human rights.