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July 6, 1995

10 Million Arrests And NIDA; Bad Science Used To Justify Bad Policies

by Richard Cowan
National Director of NORML

On July 20th, NORML will mark the 10 millionth marijuana arrest since 1965. While there is no way to be certain on what date the actual 10 millionth arrest will take place, Justice Department records indicate that it will occur around this time. Our choice of this particular date was spurred by the fact that it will be the last day of a two day conference on marijuana sponsored by NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

NIDA is supposed to be a scientific organization dedicated to finding the truth about "drug abuse" and effective ways to deal with it. Unfortunately, NIDA long ago became a politicized propaganda mill dedicated to justifying the continued arrest of marijuana users. This problem is well illustrated by an article by former NIDA head (and former Drug Czar) Robert DuPont being run on newspaper op-ed pages as "The Case Against Legalizing Drugs." In it, DuPont exploits two frightening sounding factoids about marijuana use in the Netherlands.

First, he says that from 1984 to 1992 adolescent marijuana use increased by 250% in the Netherlands while it decreased by two thirds in the US during that time. Even if one takes the dubious American numbers at face value (They have been criticized by the GAO and probably greatly understate real usage rates.), these numbers hide more than thay reveal. DuPont fails to say that -- even after 20 years of having marijuana readily available --the rate of "regular" use (one or more times in the last month) by Dutch adolescents in 1992 was still below the lowest use by American adolescents in the last 20 years. He also fails to say that regular use by American high school seniors soared 40% in two years to 19% in 1994. All this was while American marijuana users were being arrested at the rate of 1,000 per day. Moreover, from 1984 to 1992 there were almost 3 million Americans arrested on marijuana charges. This is hardly a minor cost or a sign of a successful policy.

Then he states that there has been a "30% increase in registered marijuana addicts" in Holland. This is also very misleading. The Dutch use the term "addicts" very broadly to include both compulsive gamblers as well as people who think that their marijuana use has become a problem. Such persons are not registered as "addicts" for any purpose other than being enrolled in an out-patient therapy program. This is not the equivalent of a methadone maintenance program.

In 1993, there were only 1,700 people enrolled in this program out of a regular Dutch cannabis user population of approximately 650,000. This enrollment represents roughly one regular marijuana user in 400. In the US we arrest the equivalent of one regular marijuana user in 40 every year. Is that somehow a better policy? Is being arrested harmless?

DuPont next uses these numbers out of context to project what he says would happen if the US followed the Dutch model. He claims that, "The evidence from the Netherlands suggest that if the United States were to legalize currently illicit drugs, the numbers would probably increase from the present 12 million to something like the 50 million who use tobacco or even the 103 million who use alcohol." DuPont had to dig through and ignore all of the facts that I have cited in order to support his predetermined conclusion. Why would someone do this? What a bizarre view of the American people this reflects.

However, even the carefully selected numbers that DuPont cites out of context do not support his conclusions. Indeed, why -- after 20 years of having marijuana readily available -- hasn't Dutch marijuana use increased to the level of tobacco or alcohol use there? In any case, whatever the level of marijuana use in the future, Dutch statistics on marijuana "addicts" do not indicate that it would be a major social or public health problem.

The Dutch consider their cannabis policies successful because they have effectively separated cannabis from hard drugs. Consequently, their hard drug addiction rate remained stable and they escaped the crack cocaine epidemic that began in America during the time of the decline in marijuana use that DuPont cites as a triumph of American policy over the Dutch. 'Twas a famous victory. I hope that America does not have to suffer through any more of them.

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