Sunday, October 10, 2004

Heresy in the War on Drugs

by Josh Marquis
printed Sunday, October 10, 2004, in the Oregonian


In the War on Drugs, as in most wars, there's a little truth on each side of the battle.

Oregonians will vote Nov. 2 on what's being called "Medical Marijuana 2." It's the Measure 33 sequel, if you will, to an existing law that, sort of, allows the use of marijuana if someone can get a doctor to write a note saying the drug would help the patient's condition. Contrary to popular belief, the law did not legalize marijuana -- and the law is now being abused by recreational dopers.

At the same time the Bush administration furiously denies marijuana has any medical value whatsoever. Amid this chatter there's been a deafening silence from the administration -- until last week, that is -- when it comes to a drug that's destroying families, lives and communities: methamphetamine.

We need to reprioritize our fight against dangerous drugs and raise the bar on methamphetamine while reducing the legal stigma of marijuana, recognizing it has limited medical use.

The Oregonian's devastating expose of the federal government's failures to limit the spread of methamphetamine ("Unnecessary Epidemic," Oct. 3-7) shows how we failed to slow what is clearly the most dangerous drug on the street.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has proposed a bold, if controversial, rule change making it harder to access the base component of meth, pseudoephedrine, by putting cold medications behind the counter. And President Bush's drug czar endorsed the idea during a visit to Oregon last week.

It's a program that's worked in Oklahoma, and Kulongoski gets credit for doing something concrete and right now.

It's time we start thinking outside the box on drug control. There's something in my proposal -- let doctors prescribe marijuana but lock up meth -- to make both sides in the drug war hopping mad.

Oregon has been sensible


In an effort to meet the president's goal of reducing illegal drug consumption by 10 percent during his first term, the administration has gone for volume. Since marijuana is used by a far greater number of people than the so-called "hard drugs" (methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine), it's much easier to reduce overall statistical drug use by achieving even a small decrease in marijuana users.

But opponents of the Drug War are even better funded, albeit privately, than the government. Billionaire financier George Soros, through a vast interconnecting network of foundations, has undertaken a systematic campaign to eliminate drug laws or, failing that, prevent their enforcement.

Not content with the amount the law currently specifies, the pro-marijuana lobby wants to increase the amount to 6 pounds a year for patients. This isn't the marijuana most baby boomers smoked in high school or college at $10 a "lid." Through generations of genetic breeding, today's marijuana is often 10 times as potent, determined by measuring the amount of THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, in a plant.

In the '70s most marijuana contained about a 2 percent THC content. Now it can test at more than 25 percent.

Oregon has maintained a sensible approach toward marijuana use since 1973, when it became the first state to remove criminal penalties for possessing less than an ounce. Possession became a violation similar to a speeding ticket, punishable by a fine. Many states followed suit.

A more rational approach

Equating marijuana with methamphetamine is folly. By lumping all drugs into the same category we risk losing our credibility with young people. Teens will likely experiment with marijuana and, when they don't become dope fiends out of "Reefer Madness," assume there's no harm in "chasing the dragon" every once in a while by smoking heroin.

In 1970 the federal government adopted the Controlled Substances Act, which put all potentially addictive drugs in a range of schedules. Schedule 1 drugs with no legitimate medical use and very high risk of abuse include LSD -- and marijuana.

Schedule 2 drugs with some medical use but also with a high risk of abuse include OxyContin, and, currently, methamphetamine. Other schedules list drugs like Vicodin, Valium and, at the bottom, cough syrup, with its small amounts of codeine.

Licensed doctors can prescribe drugs in categories 2 through 5, with much stricter regulations attached to schedule 2 drugs, such as cocaine, which is a valuable anesthetic in certain kinds of surgeries. Methamphetamine gets the same listing only because it can help treat narcolepsy, a relatively rare disorder.

It's time we rescheduled marijuana from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2, acknowledging the limited but very real medical value of the drug. Methamphetamine -- also known as "crank" -- should be bumped up to Schedule 1, no legitimate use. Other drugs like amphetamine and Ritalin can be used to treat narcolepsy. Methamphetamine is easy to manufacture, lasts up to 12 hours and can provoke psychotic episodes.

By requiring a written prescription, rather than a doctor's note suggesting that marijuana might be useful, the number of real marijuana patients would plummet. Doctors would be much more careful about who they gave a marijuana prescription to.

Those two controlled substances changes wouldn't win the War on Drugs, but they'd signal a more rational approach, recognizing the real risks posed by marijuana and methamphetamine. Most criminal justice professionals would agree that 75 percent of all the serious crimes they handle involve substance abuse.

That doesn't mean drugs are the only cause. But just as alcoholism is devastating physically, emotionally and financially, so is illegal drug abuse. What's wrong with including a little common sense in this debate?

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