Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) blasted President Obama Wednesday morning for “waltz[ing] into the New Yorker” to say that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and calling states’ legalization measures an “important move.” Sessions also cited Lady Gaga’s confession that she was addicted to marijuana as evidence that the substance is “not harmless.” Probing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder during a Department of Justice oversight hearing, he questioned whether Holder had talked to Obama about this, and whether he could change his mind:
SESSIONS: Did the President make, conduct, any scientific survey before he waltzed into the New Yorker and opined contrary to the position of attorney generals [sic] and presidents universally prior to that that marijuana is not, as I’ve quoted him, did he study any of this data before he made that statement?
HOLDER: I don’t know, but I think …
SESSIONS [interrupts]: Did he consult with you before we made that statement?
HOLDER: No, we didn’t talk about that.
SESSIONS: Well, what about this study from the American Medical Association …. heavy cannabis use in adolescents causes persistent impairments in neurocognitive performance and IQ … Or this report from Northwestern University in December … found that marijuana users have abnormal brain structure and poor memory and that chronic marijuana use may lead to brain changes resembling schizophrenia. […]
HOLDER: I’ve not read the reports, but if they are in fact from the AMA I’m sure they are good reports. But that is exactly why one of our eight enforcement priorities is the prevention of marijuana to minors.
SESSIONS: Well, Lady Gaga said she is addicted to it and it is not harmless. She’s been been addicted to it. Patrick Kennedy, former Congressman Kennedy, said the president is wrong on this subject. I just think it’s a huge issue. I hope that you will talk with the president, you’re close with him, and begin to push back, or pull back, on this position that I think is going to be adverse to the health of America.
If Sessions wants to know whether Obama conducted any studies before he made his statements to the New Yorker, he should consult with provisions of the Controlled Substances Act passed by Congress that designate marijuana as a Schedule I substance and severely limit access to resources for research. In fact, after doing his own year-long investigation, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta concluded, “we have been terribly and systematically misled” on the relative harms and benefits of marijuana.
Lack of research notwithstanding, the studies Sessions does cite focused specifically on marijuana use in adolescence confirm that marijuana, like all controlled substances, is a drug that is not without potential for harm and abuse. While Sessions blasts Obama for suggesting that marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol, none of the studies he cites suggest the contrary. In fact, negative effects aside, there doesn’t seem to be a dispute that no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, while alcohol abuse kills an estimated 75,000 people annually.
What Obama actually told the New Yorker was that marijuana is “not very different than cigarettes,” which, we know from extensive research, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths annually and are nonetheless legal and regulated. And what Sessions doesn’t say is that the same American Medical Association report he points to also concludes that the war on drugs isn’t working, and urges the federal government to “acknowledge that federal efforts to address illicit drug use via supply reduction and enforcement have been ineffective.” In fact, while the AMA declined to take a position on decriminalization, it calls for a public health approach that addresses drug abuse for those like Lady Gaga facing addiction, and encourages public education of the sort Lady Gaga was aiming for when she said that marijuana can be addictive.
Sessions glosses over Obama’s main point on marijuana during his interview with the New Yorker, which was that the effects of criminalization far outweigh any the harms of individual use: “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” Obama said. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” As Holder points out, it remains a federal priority to crack down on marketing and distribution to minors, even in states where marijuana is legal.
He also glosses over the potential of marijuana, like many controlled substances that are harmful when abused, as a medicine. In fact, some of the most beneficial uses of marijuana — isolating non-psychoactive components to treat children’s seizures, for example — are most obstructed by marijuana prohibition. A family would be hard-pressed to find a drug cartel that will sell them the special strain known as “Charlotte’s Web” that has driven more than 100 families to Colorado to treat their children.
Reducing the harms of marijuana to a soundbite without acknowledging the relative harms of criminal punishment or the relative benefits of medical marijuana is an increasingly common tactic that reached its peak in when New York Times columnist David Brooks likened marijuana prohibition to “subtly tip[ing] the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship.” To the contrary, marijuana criminalization can have lifelong consequences that include jail, loss of employment, and disenfranchisement.