Okay, I’m suddenly convinced the skeptics’ movement should get involved on recreational drugs

Greta and Natalie have written arguing that the skeptics’ movement should get involved on the issue of recreational drugs. I’ve been sort of ambivalent about that, but no longer:

During a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday, Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart repeatedly refused to admit that anything was more addictive or harmful than marijuana.

Democratic Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado pressed Leonhart on whether illegal drugs like methamphetamine and crack, as well as legal prescription drugs, caused greater harm to public health compared to marijuana. But within a three minute time-span, Leonhart dodged his questions eleven times.

“Is crack worse for a person than marijuana?” Polis, who has called for an end the prohibition on marijuana, asked.

“I believe all illegal drugs are bad,” Leonhart responded.

“Is methamphetamine worse for somebody’s health than marijuana?” Polis continued. “Is heroin worse for somebody’s health than marijuana?”

“Again, all drugs,” Leonhart began to say, only to be cut off by Polis.

“Yes, no, or I don’t know?” Polis said. “If you don’t know this, you can look this up. As the chief administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency, I’m asking a very straightforward question.”

Leonhart said that heroin was highly addictive, but accused Polis of asking a “subjective” question. After being pressed further, she conceded that heroin was more addictive than marijuana, but added “some people become addicted marijuana and some people become addicted to methamphetamine.”

There’s more at the video, which the article doesn’t quote. I couldn’t watch anymore after Leonhart twice dodged the question, “is methamphetamine more addictive than marijuana?”

So I’m in favor of marijuana legalization. I’ve been cautious about saying skeptics groups should get behind that position, because policy questions are hard to settle scientifically. There are tricky questions of values involved, and even given a particular values framework, a government policy can have many different effects, all of which need to be taken into account to judge it.

But a top government official refusing to answer a straightforward question? A question where science knows the answer (that no, marijuana is not as addictive as methamphetamine)? Yeah, the skeptics’ movement should be all over that kind of nonsense.

By the way, notice how I’ve been careful to say, “recreational drugs”? That’s because my biochemist mother, while fairly straight-laced, hammered into my head as a kid that phrases like “drug free” are silly because medicines are drugs. Thanks, mom!

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  • Suido

    Goes hand in hand with the British government’s handling of their Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. I’m paraphrasing, but I think it went something like this…

    Don’t tell us that alcohol and nicotine cause more harm than illegal drugs! La-la-la-la-la can’t hear you and you’re fired anyway. Phew, I think we got away with that.

  • ttch

    According to U.S. law the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is legally required to oppose drug legalization and is authorized to lie in support of that position:


    I wouldn’t be surprised if the DEA had a similar requirement.

    • August Pamplona

      ttch said:

      According to U.S. law the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy is legally required to oppose drug legalization and is authorized to lie in support of that position:


      That’s an interesting link. It would seem like one cannot make any attempts to downgrade a drug from schedule I as long as there’s no recognized medical application (by definition of schedule I) and that, if it were only up to the ONDCP, you would not be able to investigate medical applications of a schedule I substance which could lead to being downgraded (or legalized) because it is schedule I.

      For instance, heroin has recognized medical applications in the UK but it is a schedule I substance here, in the US. The ONDCP would, according to the above link, be unable to consider any information regarding medical uses or be associated with any studies which explored the potential for medical use. Kind of a Catch 22.

  • machintelligence

    It seems at least possible that Colorado will legalize the possession of small (less than an ounce) of marijuana by a ballot initiative this fall. Medical marijuana has now been around for over a year with no obvious ill effects, and some positive ones: beer consumption is down about 8% and teen traffic fatalities are down 5%.

  • http://florilegia.wordpress.com Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    Canada was this close >< to decriminalisation before Harper's Reformatories got elected. The Liberals have recently officially adopted that position as part of their party platform.

    Prohibition of marijuana is not a rational position.

    • http://florilegia.wordpress.com Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

      Oh and Chris, you might want to take a look at studies of Insite and other progressive drug policies (in which abuse of drugs is treated as an issue of health rather than criminal justice). Start here, at Natalie Reed’s blog.

      • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

        Yeah, I saw that post. I’m not sure those and other studies Natalie has discussed quite settle the policy questions, but skeptics’ groups should at least push for opponents of legalization to be honest about what those studies show.

  • http://cheapsignals.blogspot.com/ Gretchen

    If drug war proponents told the empirical truth about recreational drugs, they would be forced to admit that the greatest harm by far that comes from consumption of these drugs lies in their illegality. Yes, it’s possible to get addicted to a number of substances, to spend all of your money on them and feel the need to steal to buy more, to ruin your health and your appearance, to overdose and die…but none of these problems is helped by their illegality, and all of them are worsened by it. And of course a person could consume recreational drugs without encountering any of these problems, and still face the problem of having his or her life ruined anyway by criminal sanctions. I do not think it’s possible for a person to approach the topic of the drug war with a skeptical mindset and no firm commitment to a naive conservative/religious ideology and not conclude that it (the drug war) is a net detriment to society.

    You might check out Jacob Sullum’s book Saying Yes and try his arguments on for size. He goes past arguing that recreational drugs should be legal and to the point of asserting that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to take them, up to and including heroin. I find that useful because even if I don’t necessarily agree, it’s a good reminder to not cede any ground that you don’t necessarily have to.

  • Katkinkate

    There’s a lot of vested interests in keeping it illegal though. Both financial, emotional, philosophical and political interests will continue to ignore the evidence in order to continue prohibition and their agendas. While people are ready to remain willfully blind to reality stupid policy will always be with us.

  • violet

    One reason that I support the legalization of marijuana as opposed to medical marijuana is the effect I have seen from having marijuana legalized only for medical purposes in CA. At first, medical marijuana “pharmacies” were pretty clearly just places to go get weed, but as time has gone by I have seen more and more advertise themselves and present themselves as “health clinics” even though they don’t make real diagnoses and only ever prescribe one drug. They are particularly prevalent in low-income and minority areas where people already don’t have good access to healthcare. They will prescribe marijuana for conditions such as bipolar disorder without providing other recommendations or making referrals to specialists.

    I would prefer that marijuana just be legal rather than having pot dispensaries mascarading as primary care facilities when they don’t fully function as such.

  • Bill Yeager

    So I’m in favor of marijuana legalization.

    Well that’s cos you’re one of the clever kids.

    High Childhood IQ Linked to Subsequent Illicit Drug Use, Research Suggests

  • Erasmus

    Curious to what peoples position is on where it should be legal to smoke marijuana. I am for legalisation, but really dislike the stuff (as in do not wish to use it myself).

    It has just got to the point in this country (UK) where I only have to stand in clouds of cigarette smoke I can’t escape 3-4 times a week instead of every day.

    Smoking in public (tobacco or marijuana) forces others to put up with second hand smoke and its just wrong.

  • http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com/ Jon Jermey

    There are so many issues like this where there’s absolutely nothing to be said on one side and reams of evidence on the other, and the only argument that makes any sense is to grab people by the shoulders and shake them vigorously, while repeating in a loud, calm, voice: “Stop. Being. Stupid. Stop. Being. Stupid.”

    Rationalism will win in the end: but there are lots of battles like this one to be fought along the way.

  • brucegee1962

    See, this is exactly why marijuana really is a “gateway” drug.

    Kids must figure, if the government is lying so transparently about marijuana, maybe they’re lying about heroin too. By the time they figure out that, no, that one really IS dangerous, they’re addicted for real.

    • pipenta

      My exact thought, after trying weed back in about 1972, and not having the faintest impulse to jump out a window, or knock over a 7-11, was THEY LIED, followed shortly by I WONDER WHAT ELSE THEY LIED ABOUT?

  • mmmmm

    “marijuana is not as addictive as methamphetamine”

    But that isn’t the question to ask and it’s not surprising that she’d try and dodge it, you cannot assess it simply relative to another thing. For a starter, heroin accesibility/usage is vastly different to that of cannabis so you couldn’t just say one is worse or better as a yes or no thing. A more widely available/accessible drug with less risk may in the end be assessed “worse” regarding drug harms than some with more overt risks, just because it’s used more. Not from the US, and we have a harm minimisation approach, but I see a similar argument here and clearly these people arguing it think that going “alcohol is legal and worse” or “this other drug is worse” is any sort of argument for something else, let alone cannabis. It’s not, it’s more like alties trashing “big pharma” and medicine when challenged to produce some evidence for the product they are pushing. I also see them pointing to medical benefits, but that also tells us nothing of what happens when used as a social drug instead.

    What needs to be done is look at possible benefits and risks, enforcement issues and social effects as well as regulatory issues i.e. presumably you wouldn’t be wanting 12 year olds accessing the stuff, any health issues, you’d be wanting to address issues like potential for drug driving or use in pregnancy, how to deal with the inevitable risk that some may become dependent and use may be problematic and so on. Some of that may be values related, but generally you could come up with a good evidence based argument for much of it as whether some approach such as decriminalisation for adults in possession of small amounts for personal use. The government would likely listen an argument that addressed those sorts of issues rather than a “gotcha” game because officials refused to be put on the spot with a question that doesn’t even touch on the real issues about the substance in question and how, if legalising or decriminalising, it could be regulated to minimise any harms and address such issues as under-age use.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      I don’t understand your first sentence? What can’t you assess? Addictiveness? Or general badness?

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      And if you think we shouldn’t be asking about relative addictiveness, I don’t understand how you could possibly think that. Why shouldn’t we have basic facts like that on the table?

  • jamessweet

    Love this post. Yes, absolutely skeptics ought to have a dog in this fight. Especially since there is misinformation on both sides, e.g. absurdly optimistic claims about the benefits of medical marijuana. Recreational drugs are an area where this is a tremendous amount of mythology and psuedoscience, and some of it is being used to determine public policy. That’s like Ground Zero for skepticism.

  • plutosdad

    Wow I totally misread the title.

    My own journey from “recreational drugs are bad and should be illegal” to “recreational drugs should all be legal, addiction is a medical issue, and help made available if you want it” came when my own sister ended up an hiv-positive heroin addict living on the streets (the hiv was not from needles but from the guy she was with).

    After seeing how the law ruined her life even more than the drugs already did, I realized how evil it was to treat addicts like criminals. And how the fact that recreational drugs are illegal forces people like her to deal with violent criminals in order to get her supply. And how the addicts in need of the most help get kicked out of hospitals and thrown back into prison because they keep failing at staying clean.

    Of course, it also made me realize how many of our laws are just moralizing, how weakness is considered immoral, and pain is somehow good, and a whole host of other issues where people who either have had good lives, or have the ability to cope with problems, look down on people without those skills, and then make laws to punish people for weakness. Which is not “good” or moral, it’s evil.

  • josh

    I don’t think the skeptics movement as a whole needs a position on drug legalization, but yeah, we should call out misinformation and obfuscation when we see it. On the pro side, duh, marijuana is not as addictive per person as coke or meth. (On the con side, alcohol prohibition worked at reducing the consumption of alcohol, the number of alcohol related deaths, and changed consumption habits even long after its repeal.)

    • plutosdad

      josh you are wrong. Alcohol prohibition INCREASED the number of alcohol related deaths. It also increased drunk driving, and increased the amount of hard liquor that is now consumed.

      Before people drank more beer, afterwards, during prohibition people drank more hard liquor to get drunk faster. hard liquor continued to remain popular long after prohibition ended.

      Here is one out of many fascinating books on the subject (the book is not about how bad prohibition was, but is instead about the first true medical examiners in the US, which was around the same time)

      • http://www.facebook.com/cosmicaug augustpamplona

        I’ve seen both things claimed.

      • josh

        The sources I’m going by are based on, e.g., reported deaths by cyrhossis of the liver as a proxy for alcoholism. Notice that cars didn’t really exist in large numbers until the decade preceding prohibition and continued to increase in numbers and speeds throughout that era, so I wouldn’t rely on car-related deaths to make your case.

        My point is, it’s complicated and a lot of people buy into glib assertions that ‘prohibition didn’t work’. It was prompted by a real problem in society and I’m pretty convinced it actually reduced overall consumption. Obviously, there are other problems that came with it, especially infusing cash into organized crime. On the other hand, organized crime did not go away with prohibition.

  • loreo


    It’s less addictive than caffeine and less toxic than aspirin.

    Why are we spending millions and locking people up to regulate it?

    The government response in my country, the USA, is massively out of proportion.

  • http://iacb.blogspot.com/ Iamcuriousblue

    While I don’t think there necessarily needs to be an “official” skeptical position on recreational drug policy, I would think it would be absolutely clear that skeptics would support an evidence-based drug policy, something we do not have, nor have never had in the US. And that goes for both Republican and Democratic administrations. It has always intrigued me that the sheer number of Americans who since the 1960s have used illicit drugs at some point, including probably most of our politicians and corporate leaders, yet a simplistic “drugs are bad and wrong” (except for alcohol) remains some kind of third rail of national politics.

    I think the evidence is such that legalization and rational regulation of “soft drugs” is absolutely called for. And even in the case of highly addictive hard drugs, prohibition for sale but decriminalization of simple possession, accompanied by a strong harm-reduction approach to the problem is what would work best to keep non-violent users out of the criminal justice system, while at the same time, keeping highly addictive drugs off of the open market to the greatest degree possible.

    I would also point to policies around prostitution, pornography, and commercial sex as areas where skeptics should absolutely be involved. Again, not as taking an “official” line, but absolutely demanding evidence-based policy and question purveyors of moral panics and dodgy science (hello, Gail Dines). One notable example – the idea that major sports events drive huge numbers of enslaved, trafficked sex workers into the area where the event is taking place to meet “demand”. This has been thoroughly debunked for years now, yet it’s something the anti-prostitution movement continues to bring up to grab headlines (the London Olympics being the most recent claim), and something that law enforcement takes seriously and wastes resources on as a result.