Commentary Magazine

False Choices and the War on Drugs

To the Editor:

David Frum’s case against the legalization of marijuana [“Don’t Go to Pot,” April] boils down to one argument: If marijuana is legalized, it will fall into the hands of children. To which my response is: So what?

Mr. Frum claims that persistent marijuana use by adolescents lowers their IQs by eight points, but he does not give a citation for that claim. It seems unlikely to me.

He says “marijuana use is associated with worse outcomes at school, social life, and work.” Pot is illegal. Any crime is “associated with worse outcomes at school, social life, and work.” So is obesity. So is alcoholism. High achievers don’t need drugs, crime, or other escapes. Losers do. Keeping marijuana illegal will not eliminate losers.

Mr. Frum also worries about marijuana-related car accidents. This is a real problem. But you don’t ban painkillers or antihistamines or other drugs that impair driving. Legalizing pot will make it easier to develop standardized tests for impairment, since it will become easier to apply for grants and recruit subjects.

Barry Nester
Jerusalem, Israel

To the Editor:

As usual, articles criticizing marijuana legalization depend more on hysteria than facts. To wit, David Frum writes: “Legal marijuana use means more marijuana use, and more marijuana use means above all more teen marijuana use.” Nice sound bite, but it’s not backed by any data. Quite the contrary: In several peer-reviewed studies, researchers have found that the passage of medical-marijuana laws in various states has had no “statistically significant…effect on the prevalence of either lifetime or 30-day marijuana use” by adolescents residing in those states. A 2012 study, moreover, by researchers at McGill University in Montreal reported: “Passing MMLs (medical-marijuana laws) decreased past-month use among adolescents…and had no discernible effect on the perceived riskiness of monthly use.”

There was a study published in the April Journal of Adolescent Health assessing “the impact of medical-marijuana legalization across the United States by comparing trends in adolescent marijuana use between states with and without legalization of medical marijuana.” Their conclusion? “This study did not find increases in adolescent marijuana use related to legalization of medical marijuana.” And the study covered a population of 11,703,100 students.

I could go on citing other studies that directly contradict most of Mr. Frum’s statements, but I think it’s clear from the above that he didn’t check his facts.

Zam Kam
Chicago, Illinois

To the Editor:

David Frum’s article on keeping marijuana illegal makes some good points but is overall off the mark. More than 20 years ago, Milton Friedman made the case for legalization in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Friedman noted the following: Legalization would take money out of the hands of the criminal dope pipeline, which corrupts governments in other countries as well as in our own. It would keep users who do not otherwise engage in criminal behavior out of the cogs of the criminal-justice system, which, one might argue, acts as a higher educational system for criminal behavior. It would save billions of taxpayer dollars from being spent on housing and feeding nonviolent and otherwise noncriminal prisoners. It can provide billions in tax revenue on legal sales of marijuana. And the restoration of hemp as a farm crop would provide farmers a valuable source of income from growing fiber hemp, hemp for paper, and edible hemp seed.

Additionally, the right to peaceably pursue life, liberty, and happiness is enshrined in our country’s founding documents. Following these precepts, a person’s choice to use substances for recreational use should be theirs to make, not the government’s.

The war on drugs was already ongoing before I was a teenager, and I am now past retirement age. Those who argue that drug use increases criminality fail to see that it does so by definition. Drug users are no more inherently criminal than alcoholics.

Tore Fossum
Huntsville, Texas

To the Editor:

I Respectfully disagree with David Frum’s argument against medical marijuana. First, it’s dismissive and condescending to call it “medical marijuana” with quotation marks. Apparently Mr. Frum knows better than the thousands of respected doctors and medical researchers who have found medicinal uses for pot. The main problem with Mr. Frum’s assertion is that the potential for abuse is too high. He notes the dispensaries that have proliferated throughout California where marijuana is sold mostly to healthy men who got bogus letters from their doctors. It’s true that the murky laws adopted by some states have led to thousands of people using phony maladies to avail themselves of legal pot.

Mr. Frum’s argument, however, never mentions the type of marijuana that is low in THC and thus of little use to recreational users. There are many different strains of marijuana, and the types that most medical-marijuana advocates want legalized are those strains that are high in a chemical called CBD (cannabidiol), which contains many of the medicinal properties that have sparked interest from the medical field, and low in THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the ingredient that makes users high.

Yet because Mr. Frum, legislators, and others seem incapable of distinguishing between different strains, we are denied drugs that can not only provide pain relief but can also save lives. Yes, medical marijuana is being used not just to alleviate the pain of chronic sufferers and terminal-disease patients, as worthy a goal as that is. Medical marijuana is also one of the most promising developments in the fight against epilepsy to come along in years. Because the U.S. government lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug (no medical benefit), American studies to prove its efficacy have been hard to come by. International trials, however, especially in Israel, the world capital of medical-marijuana research, have begun to demonstrate just how effective marijuana could be for a variety of illnesses, epilepsy included.

Even in the United States, neurologists in medical-marijuana states have noted substantial anecdotal evidence of marijuana’s significantly reducing seizures. Children with severe seizure disorders can, over time, experience so much shock to the brain that vital bodily functions begin to wear down and eventually cease. There have been hundreds of reported cases of children’s seizures being reduced, even stopped, by marijuana.

My own daughter has between three and 10 seizures daily, and that’s after she’s already been treated with phenobarbital, Depakote, Topomax, Onfi, Klonopin, ACTH, and the ketogenic diet. Ironically, phenobarbital is a barbiturate, while Klonopin and Onfi are benzodiazepines—drugs with a huge potential for abuse. Barbiturates are suppressants of the central nervous system, known recreationally as “downers.” Benzodiazepines are psychoactive drugs that people frequently take illegally for anxiety. In both, the risk of overdose is high. My daughter, however, had no problem getting some for medical purposes. She even got a six-week treatment of ACTH, a hormone that acts very much like a steroid and often provokes rage. She blew up like a balloon during that time, clocking in at 24 pounds before she was six months old.

David Frum and our lawmakers would never think about taking away these medications from patients who need them, nor should they. Yet, for low-THC/high-CBD medical marijuana, they can’t seem to let go of the image of stoners abusing a well-meaning law. Stoners will achieve no mischief with low-THC medical marijuana. But it may very well be the best weapon against seizures that we haven’t yet tried. I don’t know if it will work for my daughter, but I’m willing to try, just as we tried a boatload of barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and other drugs to stop her seizures. So: What is Mr. Frum waiting for?

Josh Fyman
West Hempstead, New York

To the Editor:

David Frum’s article on marijuana missed the mark. His use of scare tactics and sweeping generalizations call his “statistics” and arguments into question. For example, Mr. Frum writes, “Why do people quit using marijuana as they mature? Your guess is as good as anybody else’s.” The answer is quite simple: It is both illegal and non-habit forming. Alcohol, on the other hand, is both legal and habit-forming.

According to the 2014 CDC Fact Sheet on Underage Drinking, in 2010, there were approximately 189,000 emergency-room visits by persons younger than 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol. While cannabis is not completely harmless, neither is ibuprofen, which is a legal, over-the-counter drug that can be habit-forming and, to a select minority of the population, deadly. Treating marijuana regulation like the regulation of alcohol and tobacco will only serve to generate revenue and reduce arrests. Mr. Frum touches vaguely on marijuana’s medicinal benefits—without mentioning any of them—and he again misses an opportunity to discuss the ways in which marijuana can provide relief other therapies cannot. Additionally, implying that today’s youth could be swayed by “pot, video games, and online porn” is insulting not only to the youth, but to the generation that begat it.

Abby Lerner
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

To the Editor:

While the conservative David Frum delivers a solid argument against marijuana legalization, we need subtlety and solution, not modern-day Reefer Madness.

The late U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, a liberal Democrat whose guiding political vision couldn’t be further from Mr. Frum’s, was ironically responsible for raising the national drinking age to 21 and banning tobacco-smoking on airplanes, both cited by the author.

Let’s agree that smoking dope does not engender a better world and that the real social malevolence is this: millions of North Americans with criminal records and jail terms they don’t deserve. After 2,500 words, on this Mr. Frum is silent.

Michael Jordan Halbert
Toronto, Ontario

To the Editor:

David Fum is a smart guy who should know better. Most of the arguments recycled in his Commentary piece are essentially a lament on why policymakers didn’t address the cannabis issue decades ago when the evidence became clear that criminalizing cannabis use was more harmful than use of the drug itself. Had policymakers in the 1940s and ’50s not succumbed to the temptation to demonize and scapegoat, they might have paused long enough to take a close look at the already substantial evidence around them and concluded that, on balance, criminal prohibition would produce greater harms—social and individual—than the drug itself.

These policymakers could have, if intelligent and well intentioned, gotten ahead of the issue and mitigated many of the concerns Mr. Frum worries about. Many problems get worse the longer we put off dealing with them; cannabis is one of them. It was inevitable that the longer policymakers lied and fear-mongered, the more intractable the problems would become. Then the Internet happened.

Mr. Frum says public policy is about tradeoffs. If we’re smart and lucky, it’s about trading big problems for smaller problems. The experience of cannabis shows that policymakers can be extremely stupid for a long time. Legal cannabis may indeed mean more teen cannabis use—but if it means fewer youth with criminal records, most people who have studied this issue would regard that as a win for individuals and society.

Craig Jones
Kingston, Ontario

To the Editor:

I’m sad to see Commentary taking the wrong stance on pot. Though I don’t intend to offer a full-throated defense of marijuana legalization, I would like to point out some flaws in David Frum’s recent piece.

First, Mr. Frum summarily dismisses the potential of the concept of “laboratories of democracy,” based on his own perception of the developments of only two states, over a period of about a year. Not only should the “laboratories” of Colorado and Washington have more time to work out their experiments, they should be able to do so without federal law simultaneously considering their experiments illegal. The “laboratories of democracy” concept could be a wonderful thing for the United States and its 50 highly diverse states. Why not let the states compete in the market for people through a diversity of legal attitudes to marijuana? If Mr. Frum is right and marijuana is bad for society, such a system would most emphatically demonstrate that. Or different systems might work for different sorts of people. I imagine most Commentary readers would appreciate such a system for abortion and same-sex rights.

Second, Mr. Frum’s attempted distinction between alcohol and tobacco, on the basis that those substances are on the wane, is a trivial one. Alcohol and tobacco were given free rein in society to attract users (alcohol still is), and the deleterious effects of rampant use of these substances were brought to public attention precisely because of their wide availability. Pot is up against a different context. Its society-wide effects cannot be as closely examined as those of tobacco and alcohol precisely because it is illegal.

Third, Mr. Frum’s comparison to opium is unhelpful. Not only is opium inherently much more dangerous than marijuana, but it is actually legally obtainable in every state via FDA-approved (and FDA-complicated) products such as Percocet and Vicodin. These products are much easier to obtain than even medical marijuana in states where that is legal.

It is worth noting the following simple fact about overdose: It is essentially impossible to overdose on marijuana (defining overdose as an emergency medical situation that immediately threatens one’s life). Alcohol and opium kill easily and often through one-time consumption. Tobacco almost never does, but the film Thank You for Smoking nicely highlights that such an overdose can result by, for example, covering someone’s body with nicotine patches. Pot isn’t perfect, but smoking five joints in a night won’t do much more than put you to sleep.

Finally, Mr. Frum is correct to write that “our brains are wired for addictions.” But this is no argument in itself for outright prohibition of pot. Let’s move past alcohol and tobacco; people can be “addicted” to virtually anything. Food, television, sex, exercise, romantic love. Almost any particular thing or experience can result in addiction as long as someone’s combination of genetics and upbringing results in sending pleasure to their brain because of that thing or experience.

I agree with Mr. Frum that the state (i.e., the people) should not pay for the treatment of marijuana addiction. But I don’t want the state to pay for the treatment of any addiction. That includes subsidized health care for those whose health problems are caused by food addiction—by far the greatest addiction problem facing the nation. If Mr. Frum and marijuana opponents are truly concerned with addiction and human health, they should ignore the trivial problem of marijuana and focus on the significant problem of food and obesity, and the legal structure that attends and supports bad actors in the food industry.

Jacob Benson
New York City

To the Editor:

In his cogent argument against legalizing marijuana, David Frum refers to its deleterious effects on cognitive ability. Of equal importance is its stunting effect on emotional development. Recently I heard from a young man who had smoked marijuana heavily from age 16 to 27. After quitting, he found great difficulty in dating. Women in their twenties do not enjoy dating emotional 16-year-olds. And what kind of citizens do such people make?

Although data conflict, recent studies show an increase in lung cancer in heavy marijuana smokers. This is hardly a surprise-—marijuana smoke contains the carcinogens of tobacco smoke, often in higher quantities. It seems paradoxical that just as the anti-tobacco movement is reaching fanatical proportions, the movement to legalize marijuana is gaining strength. As tobacco shops are disappearing, pot dispensaries are springing up. So, too, are hookah establishments. The thread that ties these disparate movements together is a perverted multiculturalism: Whatever is accepted by our culture must be rejected, even banned; whatever is accepted by other cultures must be permitted, even encouraged. Cultural suicide is slower than physical suicide, but it can be just as lethal.

David C. Stolinsky, M.D.
Los Angeles, California

To the Editor:

David Frum’s excellent article arguing against the legalization of marijuana for “medical” and recreational use has very effectively debunked the claims that legalization would be good for America. The article is also very timely in view of President Obama’s recent statement about marijuana: “Pot [is] not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” This statement, widely publicized by pro-legalization groups, is certain to lower the already declining perception of risk of pot among young people. Mr. Frum’s citation of rigorous scientific studies showing that marijuana is both addictive and extremely dangerous to physical and mental health offers a strong rebuttal to Obama’s uninformed comment.

Unfortunately, as much as I admire David Frum’s work, I don’t think it will carry as much weight as a sitting president’s. This administration has from the beginning aimed to remove the stigma from illegal drugs, presumably on the illusory basis that this will reduce crime and narrow the gap between the number of white and African-American prisoners in our jails. Keep in mind that legalization of marijuana will not destroy a lucrative illegal market aimed at those younger than 21. Attorney General Eric Holder’s statement that the federal government will not prosecute anyone who is in conformity with state law essentially nullifies the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which makes federal law—in this case the Controlled Substances Act—supreme throughout the territory of the United States.

There is another aspect of the Obama administration’s cherry-picking in the enforcement of federal laws: treaty obligations. I was assistant secretary of state for international narcotic matters from 1989 to ’94 and elected by the UN Economic and Social Council as a member of the International Narcotics Control Board in my personal capacity for two five-year terms. I must point out that the United States is not only a signatory but was also the prime mover of the three drug-control conventions (1961, 1971, and 1988). These conventions, adhered to by virtually every government in the world, make it crystal clear that raw marijuana is to be designated as an illegal drug by signatories. As non-self-executing treaties, they obligated governments to pass legislation to put these treaty obligations into effect. The Controlled Substances Act and other drug-control laws were passed to carry out these obligations. The treaty-based International Narcotics Control Board, of which I was a member from 2003 to 2012, has stated that the United States is in violation of the conventions’ provisions and has urged us to take action to bring us back in line with our legal obligations. The administration’s decision to pick and choose what international and domestic legal obligations to respect cannot but damage our image as a nation of laws.

Melvyn Levitsky
Ann Arbor, Michigan

David Frum writes:

A number of the letter writers question the fact-claims in my article against marijuana legalization. The online version of the article links to the source for every one of those claims. I invite all interested persons to follow these links and decide for themselves whether the facts support the argument. (Spoiler alert: They do.)

But for those who prefer the executive summary, I’ll recapitulate the main things I hope fair-minded people would keep in mind when they read letters like those above.

1. Legal marijuana means underage marijuana. In this regard, marijuana is like tobacco. If the user does not start early, he or she will never start at all. The emerging marijuana industry understands that fundamental economic imperative very, very, very well. That’s why the industry’s newest products are all designed to appeal to the young: cannabis-infused candy and soda.

2. Regular use of marijuana by young people—for males, up to age 25—is associated with all kinds of harms, and most notably with reduced IQ. Tobacco and alcohol are also harmful, of course. But the law dealing with those two drugs is increasingly restrictive, and the use of both drugs in the United States is declining. The law on marijuana is becoming increasingly lax, and use is rising. The issue is not whether marijuana is “better” or “worse” than tobacco or alcohol. The issue is that marijuana is a growing problem, while tobacco and alcohol are shrinking problems.

3. Yes, there are medical uses for the chemical ingredients in marijuana, just as there are for medical opiates. But we don’t allow highly potent strains of raw opium to be sold in opium stores. We don’t allow it to be dispensed by doctors who earn their living by selling prescriptions at $65 per person, without even any pretense of an examination. We’d be scandalized if we learned that 97 percent of the people receiving the prescriptions had none of the medical conditions for which opiates are indicated.

4. Legalizing marijuana will not put cartels out of business. Drug cartels make most of their money from even more dangerous drugs. Anyway, the most lucrative part of the marijuana business will remain the under-21 market, which will continue to be supplied by criminals of one kind or another even if marijuana is legalized for those older than 21.

5. It’s not true that we face a choice between legalization, on the one hand, and draconian punishment, on the other. U.S. public policy has begun—and will continue—to find ways to divert drug users from both unnecessary incarceration and drug dependency. False choices are devised to push us to false solutions.

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