• by Allen St. Pierre, Former NORML Executive Director November 26, 2009

    While there is a constant buzz of cannabis law reform these days in America, largely at the local and state level, unfortunately these strong winds of change do not largely penetrate the Capital Beltway.med_mj_map_poster

    This is made clear in a candid interview with Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Deputy Director Tom McLellan in the November 15 edition of The New Republic’s webpage. In a blunt and critical tone, McLellan is interviewed by University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack for an informative TNR series entitled The Treatment.

    While reasonable people can reasonably differ, what personally vexes me is that Mr. McLellan, a longtime veteran of government-provided addiction treatment services (mainly at the Veterans Administration for an astounding 27 years), clearly has an immense compassion, sense of service and commitment to helping his fellow humans who’ve become addicted to drugs find a path back to sobriety and functionality, which is a professional field of public health that I respect immensely. However, I’m terribly disappointed by what appears to be Mr. McLellan’s political tin ear on the subject of cannabis law reform–notably his disdain for patients having legal access to medical cannabis.

    I commend NORML supporters to read the entire Treatment interview, below is the applicable excerpt where cannabis is discussed:

    Marijuana use, medical and otherwise

    Pollack: …. California does a medical marijuana ballot initiative, to take a random example. States do things that are contrary to the general tenure of the policy of this office and maybe to federal policy at large. Attorney General Holder has basically said: California has made a decision. We’ve got scarce resources, and we’re not going to get in the way of that.… How do you negotiate that federal/state set of issues?

    McLellan: A very tough question. I’m still very new at this. And I don’t speak entirely for the office, so I’ll give you my personal reactions. In the narrow scope of things, the idea of being judicious about the use of your federal prosecutorial resources is first of all the Attorney General’s call and second of all probably smart. You’ve got a rapist and a marijuana user. Who are you going to go after? OK.

    But, I’m disappointed that it was done with such drama, and that ONDCP and DoJ did not better-coordinate the policy’s release and answer questions about it side by side. For the first 3 or 4 days, the policy was spun in the media as a stalking horse for legalization and political activists claimed it meant all these things that it didn’t. That happened in part because we didn’t have a clear, coordinated message across the government. This  administration, certainly including ONDCP and the Department of Justice, opposes marijuana legalization and believes that it’s worth it to try to reduce availability of marijuana. Normally we work well together on that and a bunch of other issues. We just didn’t work very well together on this one, in my opinion.

    The issue of marijuana has been interestingly framed by legalization activists. It’s been framed as, “Marijuana’s not bad for you. In fact, it’s really medically good for certain people. That was extremely cleverly done, because we could debate that all day long with existing evidence. How bad is marijuana? Is it as bad as alcohol? Does it even have some medical benefits for people that have nausea or glaucoma and all that?

    Well, that’s not what’s at issue. What’s at issue is: there are efforts being made to increase the availability, and thus the use, the penetration if you will, of marijuana use. In order to show that availability expansion efforts are sensible and that we should reverse policies and laws and everything else, it seems to me the argument to be proven is, “It’s good for you. That should be the standard, rather than “Marijuana’s not that bad. Name for me another substance that you would say, “It’s not that bad, so let’s reverse state laws. Let’s increase availability to a product that really is targeted to young people. For that, you should have to prove that it’s genuinely good, not just “not that bad”.

    And our position is very simple on this, and I think, frankly, you can’t refute it. Marijuana is not good for you. You have to get that one exactly right. I didn’t say, “Marijuana’s not that bad.“ I said, “Marijuana’s not good for you. And more people using marijuana is not good for society. And I believe these to be facts, by the way….

    It is possible to reduce availability, not eliminate, but reduce availability. It’s already been done. It is possible to prevent abuse of marijuana, and it’s possible treat marijuana and other drug addictions. If you do those things, you have a better socially functioning society.

    The other artful thing that’s been done by advocates about marijuana is that it has been pitched on one side of the base, “You know, marijuana’s not that bad for you. OK? And by the way, the only alternative to legalization is mass incarceration, which is really bad and it’s really expensive and all that.

    It’s a beautifully crafted, misleading argument. Our argument’s entirely different. Nobody wants mass incarceration of marijuana users. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph–what a waste of money that is. But, marijuana’s not good for you. So we need policies that keep marijuana illegal, are sensible, and that reduce availability and use of marijuana. And those policies–unlike the current legalize and tax proposals being floated –could generate revenue for the public. A city or state could generate a lot of revenue through fines for marijuana users.

    Pollack: In my own public health work, I don’t really do that much with marijuana. It’s striking to me that marijuana is such a touchstone of drug policy debate.

    McLellan: It’s the center of the universe. Yeah (laughs). With all the really serious problems that we’ve got facing us–prescription drug use probably among the top, and you know, name the other drugs, why we’re spending this time on this nonsense about medical marijuana and legalization. It’s the damnest thing to me. I can’t get over it. It’s almost as though there were a contingent of people out there really eager to keep it at the front of the newspapers. Well, it isn’t us. We don’t want it there.

    Pollack: There’s a culture war in which marijuana is one of the key fronts.

    McLellan: People make a living debating this on stage. You know? That’s hard for me to believe, that there’s a living to be made going around debating about marijuana’s benefits and why you ought to legalize drugs and crap like that. It’s just like a silly discussion to me.

    Well….A few personal observations:

    -Mr. McLellan certainly is ‘old school’ when it comes to endorsing the existing drug war dynamic that when his fellow citizens use illegal drugs to ‘save’ them they are best arrested and drawn into the criminal justice system;

    -Like his predecessors at ONDCP, notably former drug czars McCaffrey and Walters, McLellan mocks medical cannabis and the public’s mass acceptance of it as one of the choices that a physician and patient can employ as a safe, non-toxic medicine;

    -Mr. McLellan claims that the current administration does not want to necessarily incarcerate cannabis consumers en mass (how charitable!);

    -Mr. McLellan appears genuinely amazed if not chagrined that there are citizens who exist that disagree with the prohibition of cannabis; that there are actual organizations of citizen-stakeholders advocating for alternatives to the self-evidently failed status quo of cannabis prohibition, complaining that some ‘make a career’ of advocating for obviously needed policy changes.

    I suggest Mr. McLellan pause for a moment, look around his ONDCP office, and fully realize that he, and tens or thousands of anti-drug bureaucrats and law enforcement personnel employed by the federal government (ie, ONDCP, DEA, NIDA, Customs, TSA, Border Patrols, VA, SAMSHA, NDIC, EPIC; and hundreds of government organs funded by the taxpayers, like CADCA, NFIA and Partnership for a Drug-Free America) are careerists as well….However, unlike reformers, who employ privately donated dollars (maybe $15-$20 million donated in total to all drug policy reform groups annually), Mr. McLellan and his other career prohibitionists employ tens of billions annually of taxpayer’s money.

    Calling the kettle black does not get one far in Washington, DC.

    -Maybe most disturbing, and a notion I’ve never heard advanced before by any drug policy official or law enforcement representative, Mr. McLellan believes that there is to be more revenue collected by arresting nearly a million cannabis consumers a year than by actually taxing the commercial cultivation, sales and consumption of cannabis (and of course the windfall enjoyed by society when billions of taxpayer dollars are no longer wasted annually trying to enforce a clearly unenforceable prohibition via mass arrests, prosecutions, incarcerations and probation services).

    NORML supporters and cannabis law reform advocates in general need to realize that while there is a discernible cannabis law reform zeitgeist these days to be sure, unfortunately, existing at the top of government management charts, are government employees who are still very resistant to any real degree of cannabis law reform, and who favor arresting cannabis consumers en mass rather than taxing them like the consumers of alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical products.


  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director May 14, 2009

    UPDATE!!! You can also read and leave feedback on this post at The Hill’s influential Congress blog here or on Huffington Post here.

    “This ain’t your grandfather’s or your father’s marijuana. This will hurt you. This will addict you. This will kill you.”– Mark R. Trouville, DEA Miami, speaking to the Associated Press (June 22, 2007)

    Government claims that today’s pot is more potent, and thus more dangerous to health, than ever before must be taken with a grain of salt.

    Federal officials have made similarly dire assertions before. In a 2004 Reuters News Wire story, government officials alleged, “Pot is no longer the gentle weed of the 1960s and may pose a greater threat than cocaine or even heroin.” (Anti-drug officials failed to explain why, if previous decades’ pot was so “gentle” and innocuous, police still arrested you for it.)

    In 2007, Reuters again highlighted the alleged record rise in cannabis potency, proclaiming, “U.S. marijuana grows stronger than before: report.” Quoted in the news story was ex-Drug Czar John Walters, who warned, “This report underscores that we are no longer talking about the drug of the 1960s and 1970s — this is Pot 2.0.”


  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director June 12, 2008

    Study: Marijuana potency increases in 2007
    via Associated Press

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Marijuana potency increased last year to the highest level in more than 30 years, posing greater health risks to people who may view the drug as harmless, according to a report released Thursday by the White House.

    The latest analysis from the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project tracked the average amount of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, in samples seized by law enforcement agencies from 1975 through 2007. It found that the average amount of THC reached 9.6 percent in 2007, compared with 8.75 percent the previous year.

    The 9.6 percent level represents more than a doubling of marijuana potency since 1983, when it averaged just under 4 percent.

    “Today’s report makes it more important than ever that we get past outdated, anachronistic views of marijuana,” said John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He cited baby boomer parents who might have misguided notions that the drug contains the weaker potency levels of the 1970s.

    “Marijuana potency has grown steeply over the past decade, with serious implications in particular for young people,” Walters said. He cited the risk of psychological, cognitive and respiratory problems, and the potential for users to become dependent on drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

    While the drug’s potency may be rising, marijuana users generally adjust to the level of potency and smoke it accordingly, said Dr. Mitch Earleywine, who teaches psychology at the State University of New York in Albany and serves as an adviser for marijuana advocacy groups. “Stronger cannabis leads to less inhaled smoke,” he said.

    The White House office attributed the increases in marijuana potency to sophisticated growing techniques that drug traffickers are using at sites in the United States and Canada.

    “The increases in marijuana potency are of concern since they increase the likelihood of acute toxicity, including mental impairment,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funded the University of Mississippi study.

    When I was in journalism school, the rule of thumb was that you needed to have your facts confirmed by three separate sources before a news story was ‘fit to print.’ By that standard, the ‘three sources’ cited in the story above — White House Drug Czar (and chronic liar) John Walters, NIDA’s (US National Institute on Drug Abuse) Potency Monitoring Project, and Nora Volkow, who heads the rabidly anti-drug propaganda agency that paid for the Monitoring Project study — don’t even add up to one.

    Fortunately, the AP did at least demonstrate the good sense to speak with SUNY Albany Professor (and NORML Advisory Board member) Mitch Earleywine, who stated the obvious factoid overlooked by the White House: As the potency of pot rises, people simply smoke less of it. Mitch could have also noted that most cannabis consumers actually prefer less potent pot, just as the majority of those who drink alcohol prefer beer or wine over hard liquor. Or he could have mentioned how doctors may legally prescribe a FDA-approved non-toxic pill that contains 100 percent THC, and curiously, nobody at NIDA or at the Drug Czar’s office seems particularly concerned about it. Strangely, AP writer Hope Yen felt the need to identify Dr. Earleywine, who has authored numerous peer-reviewed studies and books on various aspects of cannabis, as “an adviser for marijuana advocacy groups,” but felt no such need to identify Mr. Walters or Ms. Volkow as “those who favor arresting and jailing adults who use marijuana, even when their use is for medical purposes.”

    Of course, in an effort to get to the bottom of the so-called “potent pot” story, Ms. Yen might have thought to inquire why the US National Drug Intelligence Center’s 2007 National Drug Threat Assessment states, “Most of the marijuana available in the domestic drug markets is lower potency commercial-grade marijuana.” Geez, you’d think that the various prohibitionist branches of the US government would at least get their stories straight!

    Oh well, since lying about the alleged dangers of allegedly more potent pot is now an annual tradition (Remember “Pot 2.0” anybody?), there’s always next year.

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director May 20, 2008

    What do you know?  Drug Czar John Walters has been outed as a liar — again. I mean, seriously, let’s hope this guy is more honest when he’s filing his taxes than he is when he’s talking about pot. 

    The Czar’s latest reefer faux pas? According to a previous, widely distributed ONDCP press release: “Marijuana affects … many of the skills required for safe driving. … These effects can last up to 24 hours after smoking marijuana.” 

    Twenty-four hours, huh?  Well, an Israeli investigative team recently tested Walters’ claim — giving subjects high and low doses of THC and then measuring their driving performance.  Their conclusion, “No THC effects were observed after 24 hours on any of the measures.” 

    This finding is not to say that concerns regarding motorists — especially teens — driving after smoking marijuana are not without merit. For example, the study’s authors found that pot, even at low doses, impaired drivers’ ability to maintain lane position and significantly increased subjects’ reaction time.

    Intriguingly, however, the investigators reported that marijuana’s most prominent impact on driving differed dramatically from that of alcohol.

    “Average speed was the most sensitive driving performance variable affected by both THC and alcohol but with an opposite effect,” authors concluded. “In particular, subjects seemed to be aware of their impairment after THC intake and tried to compensate by driving slower; alcohol seemed to make them overly confident and caused them to drive faster than in control sessions.”

    To hear my expanded thoughts on this study, check out NORML’s 5/19/08 podcast here, or download a copy of NORML’s report, “Cannabis and Driving: A Scientific and Rational Review,” available here.