The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has once again released their annual survey on “drug use and health” — you know, the one where representatives of the federal government go door-to-door and ask Americans if they are presently breaking state and federal law by using illicit drugs. The same survey where respondents have historically under reported their usage of alcohol and tobacco — these two legal substances — by as much as 30 to 50 percent, and arguably under report their use of illicit substances by an even greater margin. The same survey that — despite these inherent limitations — “is the primary source of statistical information on the use of illegal drugs by the U.S. population.” Yeah, that one.
So what does the government’s latest round of ’statistical (though highly questionable) information’ tell us? Nothing we didn’t already know.
Despite 70+ years of criminal prohibition, marijuana still remains widely popular among Americans, with over 102 million Americans (41 percent of the U.S. population) having used it during their lifetimes, 26 million (10 percent) having used it in the past year, and over 15 million (6 percent) admitting that they use it regularly. (By contrast, fewer than 15 percent of adults have ever tried cocaine, the second most ‘popular’ illicit drug, and fewer than 2 percent have ever tried heroin — so much for that supposed ‘gateway effect.’) Predictably, all of the 2008 marijuana use figures are higher than those that were reported for the previous year — great work John Walters!
Equally predictably, the government’s long-standing prohibition and anti-pot ’scare’ campaigns have done little, if anything, to dissuade young people from trying it. According to the survey, 15 percent of those age 14 to 15 have tried pot (including 12 percent in the past year), as have 31 percent of those age 16 to 17 (a quarter of which have done so in the past year) — percentages that make marijuana virtually as popular as alcohol among these age groups. By age 20, 45 percent of adolescents have tried pot, and nearly a third of those age 18 to 20 have done so in the past year. And by age 25, 54 percent of the population has admittedly used marijuana.
Question: Does anyone still believe that marijuana prohibition is working — or that all of these people deserve to be behind bars?
For too long, advocates of prohibition have framed their arguments on the false assumption that the continued enforcement of said laws “protects our children.” As the numbers above illustrate, this premise is nonsense. In fact, just the opposite is true.
The government’s war on cannabis and cannabis consumers endangers the health and safety of our children. It enables young people to have unregulated access to marijuana — easier access than they presently have to alcohol. It enables young people to interact and befriend pushers of other illegal, more dangerous drugs. It compels young people to dismiss the educational messages they receive pertaining to the potential health risks posed by the use of “hard drugs” and prescription pharmaceuticals, because kids say, “If they lied to me about pot, why wouldn’t they be lying to me about everything else, too?”
Most importantly, the criminal laws are far more likely to result in having our children arrested, placed behind bars, and stigmatized with a lifelong criminal record than they are likely to in any way discourage them to try pot.
In short, what the results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health is simple and consistent; in fact, we say it all the time: Remember prohibition? It still doesn’t work!
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink (2009, Chelsea Green).