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Discourse about marijuana policy far too often relies on rhetoric rather
than science. Recently, much of the hyperbole has focused on the premise
that marijuana is far more addictive and therefore more dangerous than
previously believed.

The Bush administration now claims that marijuana poses a greater risk to
health than any other drug.

"No drug matches the threat posed by marijuana," officials from the White
House Office of National Drug Control Policy warned in a recent letter to
America's prosecutors, adding "The addiction rate to marijuana by our youth
exceeds their addiction rates for alcohol, cocaine, heroin,
methamphetamine, ecstasy and all other illegal drugs combined."

At first glance, the administration's concerns regarding marijuana and
dependence appear to have merit.

According to recently compiled federal data, admissions to drug rehab among
adolescent marijuana users have increased dramatically since the mid-1990s.
Therefore, today's marijuana must be addictive, right?

Wrong! According to the federal Drug and Alcohol Services Information
System the rise in marijuana admissions is due exclusively to a
proportional increase in teens referred to drug treatment by the criminal
justice system.

Primarily, these are teens arrested for pot possession, brought bef! ore a
criminal judge -- or drug court -- and ordered to rehab in lieu of jail or
juvenile detention.

These data are in no way indicative of whether the person referred to
treatment is suffering from any symptoms of dependence associated with
marijuana use; most individuals admitted to treatment do so simply to avoid
jail time.

Since 1995 the proportion of admissions from all sources other than the
criminal justice system has actually declined. Consequently, DASIS reports
that today, "over half (54 percent) of all adolescent marijuana admissions
(are) through the criminal justice system," with an additional 25 percent
coming from referrals from schools and substance abuse providers.

The DASIS numbers should not surprise to anyone who has studied marijuana
pharmacology -- or the tendency of pot prohibitionists to play quick and
loose with the facts. Marijuana lacks the so-called "dependence liability"
of other drugs, and as a result, few marijuana users ever voluntaril! y
seek treatment to kick their habits.

According to the Na! tional Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine,
which completed an exhaustive study of marijuana and health in 1999 at the
request of the federal Drug Czar, fewer than 1 in 10 marijuana smokers ever
become regular pot users.

By comparison 15 percent of alcohol users, 17 percent of cocaine users and
a whopping 32 percent of cigarette smokers statistically exhibit symptoms
of drug dependence as defined by the American Psychiatric Association's
DSM-III-R criteria.

Population studies on drug use further reinforce marijuana's relative
non-addictiveness. While federal surveys indicate that marijuana use is
most prevalent among 18-to-25 year olds, most of these users do not
continue to do so later in life.

The IOM says the overwhelming majority of marijuana users quit voluntarily
in their early 30s -- often citing health or professional concerns or the
decision to start a family. Contrast this pattern with that of the typical
tobacco smoker -- many of whom begin as teens ! and end up smoking daily
the rest of their lives.

That's not to say that some marijuana smokers do not become psychologically
dependent on marijuana or find quitting difficult. But a comprehensive
study released this fall by the Canadian Senate concluded that this
dependence "is less severe and less frequent than dependence on other
psychotropic substances, including alcohol and tobacco."

Observable withdrawal symptoms attributable to marijuana are also
exceedingly rare. According to the IOM, these symptoms are "mild and short
lived" compared to the profound physical withdrawal symptoms of other
drugs, such as alcohol or heroin, and unlikely to persuade former smokers
to re-initiate their pot use.

None of this means that marijuana is harmless, though its potential health
risks hardly justify criminally outlawing it entirely. The science does
demonstrate marijuana to be less harmful than many legal drugs, and that
its greatest harm stems from the consequence of a crimi! nal arrest.

The bottom line? When it comes to the subject ! of marijuana and addiction,
it appears that the only legitimate association between the two can be
linked back to the Bush administration itself.

Paul Armentano is a senior policy analyst for The NORML Foundation, a group
that supports liberalization of America's marijuana laws, in Washington.

"Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who
specialize in a variety of important global issues.

From the Washington Politics & Policy Desk

Published: February 06, 2003
Source: United Press International
Author: Paul Armentano
Copyright 2003 United Press International
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