President Obama's latest claims about marijuana are contradicted by research and official positions of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which is part of the White House. And Mr. Obama's words have anti-drug leaders worried about negative repercussions among youth.
Mr. Obama claimed to The New Yorker magazine that marijuana is no worse than cigarettes or alcohol and he promoted state efforts by Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law.
The National Drug Control Policy's official stance, posted on the whitehouse.gov website, says the opposite of Mr. Obama on all counts.
For example, as documented in agency reports, marijuana smoke has significantly more carcinogens than tobacco smoke.
And as reported by the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, adolescent use of marijuana does something that alcohol does not; it causes permanent brain damage, including lowering of I.Q.
Taxpayers have spent billions of dollars warning about drugs, often about marijuana, but these efforts were dramatically undercut by the president's comments.
Mr. Obama might as well have rolled that money into a joint and smoked it on national television.
He told the interviewer, David Remnick, that his earlier years of prodigious puffery were "a bad habit and a vice." Yet he doesn't warn others not to follow in his footsteps.
The Drug-Free America Foundation responded on its blog: "His laissez-faire attitude about legalization has drug policy and prevention experts scratching their heads in confusion as to why the president will not give clear guidance...either he is seriously ill-informed about the issue or is completely ignoring warnings from his highly-esteemed advisors."
The foundation called it an "irresponsible move for such a person in the most highly-regarded position in this country."
The official National Drug Control Strategy from drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske lists marijuana as one of the "four major drugs (cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine)."
Don't expect him to resign in anger about how Obama is undercutting his work, however. He's a short-timer because Mr. Obama nominated him last fall to become the new Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
So for now, perhaps until Kerlikowske is at his new job, anti-marijuana messages remain on the White House Website. As one page describes things, "confusing messages being presented by popular culture, media, proponents of 'medical' marijuana, and political campaigns to legalize all marijuana perpetuate the false notion that marijuana is harmless."
They should add Mr. Obama's name to the list of confusing messengers who perpetuate false notions. Except confusing messenger is too polite a term. Outright hypocrite fits better.
Be on the lookout for the White House to remove warnings of marijuana use from its Website, such as this gem: "The Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people."
It is impossible to reconcile that post with Mr. Obama's failure to enforce federal drug laws against marijuana, and with his statement to The New Yorker about Colorado's and Washington's open violation of those laws, namely, "it's important for it to go forward."
Why go forward? The president's explanation is indeed a head-scratcher: "Because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished."
Everyone in Colorado and Washington who puffs up is breaking the law — federal law. And no law has a perfect rate of arrest and prosecution.
Mr. Obama, however, tried to attribute it to class warfare and racial bias — and in so doing voiced a myth that his own anti-drug people are shooting down.
As Mr. Obama stated: "Middle-class kids don't get locked up for smoking pot and poor kids do. 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. We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing."
But Mr. Obama's claim was shot down by an earlier federal publication, "Marijuana Myths & Facts: The Truth Behind 10 Popular Misconceptions".
Myth #10 is "The government sends otherwise innocent people to prison for casual marijuana use."
In fact, less than 1% of all drug incarcerations are for simple possession or use of marijuana. And those few tend to be plea-bargains for people who actually were dealers.
Mr. Obama's own White House website contradicts his light-hearted claims about marijuana in other ways as well. Multiple pages are devoted to describing clear dangers of marijuana, including these excerpts:
- Marijuana use is associated with dependence, respiratory and mental illness, poor motor performance, and impaired cognitive and immune system functioning, among other negative effects.
- Marijuana intoxication can cause distorted perceptions, difficulty in thinking and problem solving, and problems with learning and memory.
- Studies have shown an association between chronic marijuana use and increased rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and schizophrenia.
- Other research has shown marijuana smoke to contain carcinogens and to be an irritant to the lungs. Marijuana smoke, in fact, contains 50‐70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke.
But what about alcohol? Mr. Obama stated he doesn't think marijuana is more dangerous that alcohol.
One trick used by pro-pot proponents seems to have worked with Obama. They adopt an extremely-narrow definition of marijuana's dangers by discussing solely on whether it is "toxic," meaning that high dosages become poisonous.
They choose that measure because alcohol poisoning causes tens of thousands of deaths each year but marijuana is not poisonous even in large doses.
Toxicity, however, has never been the sole measure of whether a substance is dangerous. Things need not be fatal to be harmful. Plus, things that are intoxicating and hallucinogenic can lead to fatal behavior without being poisonous.
Furthermore, the studies cited by the National Institute for Drug Abuse, regarding brain damage among regular adolescent pot smokers, has no parallel from alcohol. And making one dangerous drug legal is, of course, never a good reason to add another, or a third, or more.
Mr. Obama's ramblings in The New Yorker show an effort to project an intellectual approach to the marijuana issue when in fact his was pseudo-intellectualism.
He offers up loose arguments, even discredited arguments, because he doesn't expect serious follow-up from the media. Even if he gets it, Mr. Obama simply talks in circles, ends the questioning, and shuts that reporter out in the future.
Anyone who believes otherwise must be smoking something.
Ernest Istook is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oklahoma.