DEA Chief’s Congressional Testimony About Legal Marijuana Angered Some, Baffled Many

Photo Credit: Aaron P. Bernstein

It’s hard to know what to make of the testimony on legalized marijuana from Robert Patterson, chief of the Drug Enforcement Agency, before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month.

He attributed deaths to marijuana use but offered no information to back that up. He said he didn’t see “mass incarcerations” of marijuana users, even though FBI numbers show they increased in 2016 (the last year numbers are available). He said he was unaware of the many studies showing that opioid use has dropped in places where marijuana is legal.

For example, in Canada, where medical marijuana is legal at the federal level, a recent study showed a “significant reduction” in opioid use in just six months.

The House Judiciary Committee held the meeting to discuss the opioid crisis. Both prescription opioids and street drugs account for about 115 overdose deaths each day in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those deaths, about 40 percent involve prescription drugs.

While opioids were the topic, marijuana repeatedly came up during Patterson’s testimony (available here online in its entirety). Here are some of the highlights on marijuana that many have taken issue with or at least found very curious.

Unaware of Studies

The DEA currently lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no medicinal value. In his testimony, Patterson said that marijuana remains a Schedule I drug “because of the science.”

However, when asked by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, Patterson said he was unaware of the often-referenced 2017 study by the National Academy of Sciences that found “conclusive or substantive evidence” that marijuana effectively deals with chronic pain issues.

Patterson also did not know about state studies from Minnesota and New Mexico about decreased use of opioids where marijuana is legal, or the similar findings of a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association. Gaetz appeared baffled that the head of the DEA would be unaware of such studies. However, Patterson did eventually say he is in favor of more study, although he also said he believes legalized marijuana is contributing to the country’s substance abuse problem.

Not Seeing Arrest Issue

Patterson also noted that he hears repeated references to arrests of marijuana users. “I don’t see a huge enforcement presence but I hear this statistic all the time about this mass incarceration of users…and I don’t see it,” he said.

Those numbers come from the federal government itself. The FBI released data last year showing that the number of people arrested for marijuana increased in 2016, and accounted for more arrests than murder, rape, aggravated battery and robbery combined.

Overall, the number of arrests for marijuana increased 12 percent to about 653,000 arrests nationwide. While the FBI numbers did not break out possession vs. other charges, historically possession of small amounts  makes up the majority of marijuana arrests. A detailed study of marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 88 percent of all arrests were for simple possession of marijuana.

Patterson also said he knew of marijuana-related deaths, but when pressed on the issue he had no information on-hand to back that up.

“Dangerous Environment”

Patterson did say he supports more research into marijuana. However, research is stymied because the federal government currently only allows marijuana grown at one location at the University of Mississippi for use in study.

However, Patterson said personally he thinks the country is in a “dangerous environment” when it comes to legalizing marijuana given what he now knows about what fuels addiction issues in the United States. He did not elaborate.

He also said, under questioning from Gaetz, that he believes legalized marijuana adds to the substance abuse problem in the country. When asked what studies show that medical marijuana would increase the use of opioids, Patterson said, “I don’t know.”

In an opinion piece for The Hill, Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, wrote that when thousands of Americans are dying from opioid overdose “it is almost inconceivable that the DEA would willfully and publicly maintain such a Flat Earth position with regard to the use of medical cannabis as a potential alternative.”