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

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

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