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Weed Watch: Walters' propaganda won't hold water

By Jordan Smith, May 20, 2005, News

So far, May has not been a good month for federal drug czar John Walters. During a May 3 press conference, Walters, head of the White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy, once again trotted out his tired-ass lines about the scourge of marijuana, claiming that the July suicide of 15-year-old Christopher Skaggs in Colorado is an example of the "growing body of evidence" that "smoking marijuana can increase the risk of serious mental health problems," including depression, suicidal thoughts, and schizophrenia. Walters was backed up by Skaggs' mother, who told the Rocky Mountain News that her son's counselor said that marijuana use contributed to her son's depression. "This press conference," Walters told reporters, "is a public health warning." Marijuana, he repeated, is a "very dangerous drug."

Unfortunately for Walters, it isn't entirely clear that the Skaggs story backs up his claim. Later that week, during an interview on a Denver talk-radio program, Skaggs' parents said that Skaggs was drug tested regularly in the months leading up to his suicide, but did not test positive for pot, and that postmortem toxicology results found "nothing in his system but alcohol at that time." On May 12, the Marijuana Policy Project cried foul, lashing out at Walters for misleading the press about the circumstances of Skaggs' death. "Walters should be ashamed for exploiting this family's suffering to perpetrate a fraud on the media and the public," said MPP's Steve Fox in a press release. "The evidence connecting alcohol abuse to suicide and depression is overwhelming, but he simply ignored it in order to further his obsession with marijuana." Still, Skaggs' parents told the Rocky Mountain News that they stand by their conclusion that marijuana played a part in their son's death – a conclusion solidly, and not surprisingly, supported by Walters' office. "It truly is despicable to belittle [the Skaggs'] very courageous and important contribution to this public health effort," said an ONDCP spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, on May 11, Walters' office was dubbed a "federal wasteland" by the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. According to a new report by the group, the ONDCP has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars fighting the "war on drugs" – including about $2 billion per year since 1996 to thwart state efforts to regulate medical marijuana. In 2002 alone, Walters spent $96 million to place anti-marijuana ads in states with medi-pot initiatives on the ballot. While the so-called National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign (created in the wake of successful medi-pot ballot initiatives in Arizona and California) was supposedly created to educate youth about the dangers of drugs, the CAGW report charges that in reality it is nothing more than a "thinly-veiled propaganda scheme focused on curtailing further medicinal marijuana initiatives on state ballots." Indeed, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that since 1998, the media campaign has had no tangible effect on drug use. "It is irresponsible of the ONDCP to use taxpayer dollars to fly around the country pushing for states to vote no on marijuana initiatives," the CAGW concludes. "When the federal government infringes upon states' rights and influences ballot decisions, it undermines the 10th Amendment."

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