Reefer Madness: Drug Czar or Drugged Czar?

Walters appears to be winning the war on fantasy

Reefer Madness: Drug Czar or Drugged Czar?

In Washington, at least in drug warrior circles, it seems the left hand has no clue what the right hand is doing – or, more to the point, the left has no idea what statistics the right is juggling.

Case in point: Earlier this month, federal drug czar John P. Walters held a press conference to tout the results of the latest annual drug-use survey, released by the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Admin­istration. Predictably, Walters spent most of his time lauding the work of federal narcos – particularly those in his White House Office of National Drug Control Policy who are tasked with carrying out the nation's drug "strategy" – for keeping the scourge of drugs at bay (more on the specifics of that study in a minute). In sum, he told reporters that the continued anti-drug message works. And how!

Walters turned downright smug when the presser turned to Q&A time and he was put on the spot (twice) by folks from the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. First, Aaron Hous­ton, MPP's director of government relations, took the mic to ask Walters whether he thought GOP veep candidate Sarah Palin should be disqualified from holding that job because she's admitted to smoking pot – legal under Alaska state law but clearly in violation of federal law, which Walters believes (adamantly) should be enforced. Not surprisingly, Walters did not answer the question. ("Let me actually answer the underlying question," he began, "and not the distractions.") But what he did say was still pretty shocking. Marijuana use, Walters posited, is a "blind spot" for people who, for whatever reason, just don't see it as the evil weed it really, really, really is. And "the fact is," he said, "today, people don't go to jail for possession of marijuana." That just doesn't happen, he said: "I know you [that is, those crazy MPPers] like to pretend it does," and there is a "lot of misinformation about that." Finding somebody in jail for first-time pot possession is "like finding a unicorn," he said. "If you find one, you'll find a big story, because it doesn't exist."

Apparently Walters hasn't been getting his information from the FBI, which annually releases a report on crime stats from across the nation. In fact, on Sept. 15, the agency released its latest report of such numbers, including news that, for at least the fifth year in a row, arrests for simple marijuana possession far outpace arrests for all violent crimes combined. In 2007, police made a total of 597,447 arrests for all violent offenses – including murder, rape, and robbery. In contrast, last year alone, law enforcement agencies arrested a total of 775,137 pot smokers on possession charges.

Look! A Herd of Unicorns!

The new FBI numbers are, indeed, news but not exactly surprising. Across the country, all drug arrests combined consistently account for about 13% of the total arrests per year, making drug arrests the single largest category of apprehensions. And in the universe of drug offenses, arrests for simple possession of any drug make up more than 80% of all arrests. The single largest subcategory of possession arrests is for possession of marijuana. What "misinformation" Walters is talking about is unclear, unless he questions the number-crunching ability of his federal cohorts at the FBI or the integrity of the stats provided to the government by the more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies whose numbers are the core of information contained in the FBI's annual "Uniform Crime Report." In any case, Walters is just flat-out wrong.

This is not the first time Walters has claimed that arrests don't occur for simple possession; it seems that each year, conveniently, right around the time the FBI releases its numbers, Walters renews his assertion that there is no first-time offender, popped with a Baggie of dope, sitting in some jail somewhere. Make a liar outta him, he challenged Dan Bernath, MPP's assistant director of communications, during the same press conference, and he'd buy the pot-law reformer a steak dinner. (Looks like Dan's gettin' steak!) Walters' assertion relies on the notion that all those thousands of people are actually in jail on other charges – often for violent offenses – and that they just happened to have dope on 'em when they got busted. Oh, and by the way, it's usually the dope that caused their lives to start down the crap-lined path, he says. The truth of the matter is that people's "lives get out of control with marijuana use," he says, "and that spreads to other self-destructive behavior including drug use as well as crime."

The problem with his theory is that according to the FBI, far fewer violent offenders were arrested in all of last year than were arrested for drug possession. Indeed, if you were to take together all arrests for drug possession of any kind, you'd come up with a whopping 1.52 million arrests – just shy of last year's 1.6 million arrests for property crimes. While there certainly may be some overlap in offenses for each person arrested – that is, one person popped on multiple offenses – it's hard to imagine, for example, that every toker popped by the fuzz was also tagged for boosting a TV from a local Best Buy. In the end, Walters' logic is a tad ... dare we say, smoke-filled?

Ironically, Walters concluded his jab at MPP's Houston by claiming that the work of his office is so effective that Hous­ton will "be a dinosaur" in another five years because the nation by then will surely be drug free, thanks to Walters and his drug warriors. Walters' supporting evidence here is pretty weak. He presumably is referring to the results of the latest Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration's national drug-use survey, the reason for Walters' C-SPAN-aired chest-puffing presser. "Our message about marijuana and other street drugs is getting through to teens, who are pushing back against drug use," Walters said in a Sept. 4 press release announcing the latest survey. Although Walters insists the anti-drug message is working, it's really hard to see where he's getting his optimism. According to the new survey, nearly 20 million Americans (12 and older) are "current" drug users (that is, have used within the last month), with marijuana still way out ahead as the most popular drug, with 14.4 million current users in 2007. And interestingly, those numbers have not dropped appreciably as Walters seems to believe – 5.8% of the population was smoking pot in 2007, compared to 6% in 2006. And among the most important adolescent age group, 12-17, illicit drug use remained stable last year, at 9.5% of the population vs. 9.8% in 2006. Walters likes to say that drug use, especially among youth, has declined appreciably since 2002. But overall, in fact, drug use has increased since 2002: Five years ago – the first full year that Walters served as czar – 108 million Americans acknowledged trying drugs; in 2007, the number stood at 114 million. "What this tells us is that John Walters' claims of great progress during his tenure are a fraud," MPP Communications Director Bruce Mirken said in an e-mail. "The most intensive anti-marijuana propaganda blitz since [the 1936 film] Reefer Madness turns out to have produced results that are marginal at best." The real problem, he added, is that "Walters and his ilk are addicted to prohibition. Perhaps an intervention is in order."

Indeed, with reality as our guide and with the Bush administration on its way out, it seems far more likely that appointee Walters, and not marijuana use, is closer to extinction.


Pot Arrests: The Real Numbers

Reefer Madness: Drug Czar or Drugged Czar?

The FBI's national numbers on arrests for marijuana possession contradict the claims of the nation's drug czar, who believes you'll have better luck finding a unicorn than finding someone in jail for marijuana possession.

  • More of the Story

  • Walters' War

    A press conference video of Drug Czar John Walters extolling the results of his anti-marijuana campaign.

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