Reefer Madness

Big time drug policy pusher swoops in on Austin

Reefer Madness
Illustration By Doug Potter

According to federal Drug War czarina Bertha Madras, deputy director for demand reduction at the White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy, there's both good and bad news about teen drug use. First, the good news: For the fourth year in a row, the government's annual teen drug-use survey reveals that drug use among adolescents is, overall, on the decline. Now, the bad news: While drug use may be on the decline, statistics also show that "everyday in our nation, 3,000 young people start using marijuana," Madras told a smattering of people at a press conference at Austin's Phoenix House rehab center last month.

Finally, the real news: Madras is full of shit.

She may come across full of grandmotherly good intentions, but she is, nonetheless, a federal propaganda pusher – no more, no less. Indeed, after a brief feel-good session with two just-say-no Austin teens who've never tried drugs – and vow they won't – two recovering drug-addict teens (one of whom told reporters that "smoking one joint can mess up your whole life"), and a San Antonio pediatrician, Madras trained her czarina guns on pot as the "gateway" to a life of hard-drug use. Teens who use marijuana, she said, are more likely to "proceed onto cocaine and other drugs," she said. "That's what research tells us."

Fortunately, that's not what research tells us, though Madras unflappingly adhered to the party line when Reefer Madness questioned her about the so-called gateway theory. While she agreed that alcohol and tobacco are illegal for kids to possess or use, she insisted that it is marijuana that acts as a junkie tipping point. To wit: she said a recent study by Mount Sinai School of Medicine professor Yasmin Hurd, published in July in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, proves her point; according to Madras, Hurd's study involving two groups of adolescent rats, where one group was exposed to tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, shows that exposure to THC makes an adolescent rat more likely to use heroin, when "exposed [to a] self-administering paradigm." To translate: According to Madras, Hurd found that the juvenile rats exposed to THC were twice as likely to use heroin as adults.

If true, that might lend some support to the theory; unfortunately, as with most quantifiable "facts" Madras offered on her recent trip to town, her characterization of Hurd's study was, simply, wrong. In fact, if anything, Hurd's study seems to send another nail into the coffin of the government's beloved gateway theory. While Hurd did find that rats given THC as adolescents (she began exposing them at just 28 days old) did self-administer a larger quantity of heroin than did the control rats, the control rats became addicted to heroin at exactly the same rate as the pot-exposed group. In other words, both groups of rats were flying high on smack, regardless of whether they'd ingested THC. To NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre, Madras' characterization of the Hurd study proves one thing only: "the remarkable things researchers have to do to torture these mammalians to get them to use more drugs," and thus "prove" the government's beloved gateway theory. Indeed, while Madras says the Hurd study is significant because it removes "socio-economic factors" and other mutable qualities – like, say, a family history of addiction – that might skew the theory, and focuses simply on neurological factors, NORML policy analyst Paul Armentano notes that it's impossible to extrapolate the results to humans because Hurd exposed the rats to THC as infants. "This could not, and should not, be replicated in humans," he said, "to give infants THC to see if their brains can be manipulated in that way."

Of course, that doesn't stop the ONDCP from trying to shove this junk down the throats of the public – the office may be against drugs, but it's still a propaganda-pusher, and apparently it doesn't have much trouble finding users. Indeed, when told about the rat study, one local television reporter thanked Madras for the information: "[We've got] quite a few pot believers in our newsroom," the reporter told Madras, "so I'm glad you gave us that information."

Fortunately, others are more skeptical: Take, for example, Mayor Will Wynn's Chief of Staff Rich Bailey, who looked stunningly uncomfortable at the press conference. The problem, Bailey told Reefer Madness, is that he was under the mistaken impression that the event was to be a "roundtable discussion" among teens, parents, and media. When he walked into the Phoenix House, and found out the event wasn't organized as a discussion, he didn't know what to say to introduce the event, he said, so Madras' handlers helped him out, providing talking points. The result? Bailey introduced the day with this: "Austin mirrors the national trend [of a] reduction in drug use; however, the mayor is very concerned about the increase of teen marijuana and alcohol use." Does that make sense? And, is Wynn really worried? No, said Bailey, "but that's what they told me to say."

(Get Reefer Online: In order to keep you up-to-date on the insanity of the war on drugs, "Weed Watch" – your source for drug war and drug policy news – has a new name, "Reefer Madness," and an expanded online presence. Be sure to check out the Reefer blog on the Chronicle Web site at austinchronicle.com/reefer.)

READ MORE
More marijuana
Reefer Madness Revisited
Reefer Madness Revisited
The Marijuana Policy Project's Rob Kampia on the recent victories for legal marijuana

Jordan Smith, Dec. 21, 2012

Life in Prison for Hemp
Life in Prison for Hemp
José Peña brought some roadside weeds home from Kansas. Cops decided it was reefer, and a Texas court sentenced him to life in prison – without the evidence. It took a decade for Peña to get back some of the pieces of his life.

Jordan Smith, March 16, 2012

More Reefer Madness
Reefer Madness: Teens Still Smoke Pot
Reefer Madness: Teens Still Smoke Pot
Would legalization lead to a decline?

Jordan Smith, Dec. 27, 2013

Reefer Madness: Drug Court: No Silver Bullet
Reefer Madness: Drug Court: No Silver Bullet
If drug court isn't the answer, what is?

Jordan Smith, April 29, 2011

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

marijuana, Reefer Madness, Bertha Madras, White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy, Allen St. Pierre, gateway theory

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)