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Marijuana Policy Just Right


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Source: USA Today (US)
Author: John Walters
Published: May 17, 2005
Copyright: 2005 USA Today, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
Contact: [email protected]

Washington, D.C. -- Assertions that our nation's drug policy minimizes cocaine and heroin while focusing on marijuana are misleading. The fallacy involves interpreting drug arrests as signals of changed drug policy, rather than as indicators of drug use.

As drug use went down during the 1980s, arrests fell accordingly. When drug use climbed between 1992 and 1997, arrests followed suit. And when the cocaine epidemic struck, cocaine arrests rose steeply, only to drop as the epidemic waned.

The common sense conclusion is that drug use rates and criminal justice responses are linked. Thus, the key to reducing drug arrests is reducing drug use. Important progress has already occurred youth drug use has declined 17% since 2001.

Our drug policy balances prevention, treatment and interdiction. Criminal justice sanctions are sometimes necessary, but we are not locking up low-level marijuana offenders. Rather, drug courts, which use supervised treatment to help users (rather than prison) are a critical component of our approach. President Bush has requested an extra $30 million to expand the program.

We are more concerned about marijuana today. Studies long ago established marijuana as a risky substance. For youth, it is the single largest source of abuse and dependency. But compelling new research shows an increased public health threat.

First, marijuana potency has more than doubled within the past 10 years. Second, kids are using marijuana at younger ages, during crucial periods in their development, and thereby increasing risks that extend into adult life. And third, research from many nations now implicates marijuana's role in mental illness.

Youth marijuana use elevates risks of depression, psychosis, even schizophrenia. For those with predispositions to mental disorders, the risk is compounded. Some studies show marijuana can trigger the onset or increase the severity of mental illness.

Coming to grips with new facts, we are focusing on marijuana. As we do so, we respond to a fundamental public health problem in a balanced and responsible manner.

John Walters is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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