Cover Story: Crazy Conflict

The war on drugs combats science and economics

Jan 15, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Doug Trapp

E.R. Beach, owner of Hemptations, says one of his goals is to overcome misconceptions about hemp.

A national religious organization calls the drug war "cruel and counterproductive." A new study suggests marijuana might not be the gateway to harder drugs it's been labeled.

Several states are studying the return of industrial hemp — marijuana's cousin — as an agricultural crop, a role it played in the United States until the 1930s.

Despite all this, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is holding a hard line on marijuana — or more specifically, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the natural chemical that gets people high. It won't allow industrial hemp, which contains trace amounts of THC, to be commercially grown. Europe and Canada, meanwhile, are headed in the other direction.

Church wants cease-fire
Marijuana is the country's No. 1 illicit drug of choice. More than 80 million Americans have tried it. About 5.4 million used it in 2000, according to the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, probably the best available data on U.S. drug use.

After a decline in the 1980s, the 1990s saw a steady increase in the number of new marijuana users, according to the survey. In 2000, 2.4 million Americans used marijuana for the first time, compared to 1.4 million in 1990.

The average new user in 2000 was 17.5 years old, the survey found.

Meanwhile, the DEA's 2003 budget is expected to be $1.9 billion — more than 25 times what it was in 1973.

Conservatives like to talk about the benefits of the free market, the logic of supply and demand. The same forces apply to marijuana.

But somehow conservatives believe law enforcement agencies can keep a plant that grows naturally and rapidly in the United States and elsewhere away from nearly 300 million Americans in an era of global trade. The result is a black market and wealthy criminals, just as with alcohol during Prohibition.

That's one of the reasons the Unitarian Universalist Association issued a statement of conscience last year, calling for the government to treat marijuana as it does alcohol, to make all drugs legal with a doctor's prescription and to allow addicts to be treated with drug maintenance.

The nationwide organization of 1,000 congregations developed the statement through a two-year process.

"As Unitarian Universalists, we are called by our religious values to speak out against misguided policies," says the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. "The so called 'war on drugs' is creating violence, endangering children, clogging the criminal justice system, eroding civil liberties and disproportionately punishing people of color. It's time for a cease-fire."

But laws against marijuana keep it from people who would otherwise use it and might become addicted, according to DEA spokesman Will Glaspy.

Marijuana use declined in the 1980s, when Nancy Reagan was in the middle of her Just Say No campaign, Glaspy says. In the 1990s, when marijuana use increased, there wasn't a similarly strong anti-drug message from the federal government, he says.

Asked about the Prohibition-style effect of outlawing marijuana, Glaspy says, "The majority of the people do not want drugs legalized."

The question is this: Would more people be harmed by drug addiction if marijuana were legal, or are more people hurt by the criminalization of marijuana and the drug empires that result?

Does Pot make you stupid?
What does marijuana do to people in the short term and long term? In August 2001, researchers from across the country gathered for a workshop to share their work on the clinical effects of marijuana use, organized with the help of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Studies rarely provide clear answers; instead they often use words such as "suggests," "may" and "probability." The research from the 2001 conference:

· Downplays the risk of reduced learning ability as a result of long-term pot smoking;

· Suggests marijuana dependence is more like other drug addiction than not;

· Finds marijuana use poses cardiovascular risks to older smokers; and

· Concludes that smoking three or four joints can damage airways in a way similar to smoking 20 cigarettes, possibly setting the stage for cancer.

Dr. Glen Hanson, acting NIDA director, compares marijuana to using both cigarettes and alcohol at the same time, except that it exchanges a hallucinogenic effect for alcohol's aggressive tendencies.

"It's kind of like the two negative effects of alcohol and tobacco together," Hanson says.

For decades the DEA and anti-drug advocates have justified their stance with the "gateway theory": marijuana leads people to abuse harder drugs. At least 75 percent of hard drug users have smoked marijuana, the DEA says.

But marijuana advocates say most marijuana users never use harder drugs. RAND, a 57-year-old think tank, examined the theory critically in 2002 and found the DEA might be blowing a little smoke.

"An alternative, simpler and more compelling explanation accounts for the pattern of drug use you see in this country, without resort to any gateway effects," says Andrew Morral, associate director of RAND's Public Safety and Justice Unit. "The people who are predisposed to use drugs and have the opportunity to use drugs are more likely than others to use both marijuana and harder drugs. Marijuana typically comes first because it is more available."

However, the study doesn't favor decriminalization.

Hanson isn't an apologist for marijuana users. But he's uncomfortable with the DEA's gateway theory because many marijuana users go no further with drugs or quit using marijuana entirely after a few years.

"I have a difficult time with the (gateway) concept," he says.

Illegal ice cream
For now, industrial hemp and marijuana find themselves politically joined at the hip. Both are varieties of the same plant, cannabis sativa. The difference is hemp contains less than 1 percent THC and marijuana has a THC content of 5-20 percent.

Environmentalists promote hemp as a renewable resource with a multitude of uses, such as oils, body lotions, industrial lubricants, animal bedding and paper. It doesn't require pesticides and farmers can grow two or three hemp crops a year.

Wild hemp or "ditch weed" still grows in Kentucky, decades after the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 began the road toward the drug war.

The European Union, curious about the potential of hemp, began to allow its growth in the 1970s. Today hemp is used for interior car parts, insulation and other building materials. European nations grew at least 44.8 million pounds of hemp in 2001, according to the European Industrial Hemp Association. U.S. imports of raw hemp fiber increased from 500 pounds in 1994 to 1.5 million pounds in the first nine months of 1999.

The hemp clothing at Hemptations in O'Bryonville is about as expensive as clothes in an upscale shop. Hemp pocket T-shirts in muted colors go for $14.95, hemp long-sleeved Oxford shirts sell for $49.95 and a hemp hooded sweatshirt is $44.95.

Hemptations owner E.R. Beach says hemp clothes might be relatively expensive, but they're worth it because hemp is four to six times as strong as cotton.

Hemptations, which also sells bongs and rolling papers, began seven years ago in an attempt to clear up misinformation about industrial hemp.

"When people come through the door, I want to end all the ignorance," Beach says.

The DEA, citing the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, doesn't allow any version of industrial hemp to be grown without difficult-to-obtain permits and expensive security. THC at any level is illegal, according to the DEA.

"We enforce the law as it's written," Glaspy says. "That one's pretty cut and dried."

Last year the DEA announced that all hemp food products with even a trace of THC — including candy bars, beer and bread — had to be destroyed. Non-consumable hemp products are still legal. Wild Oats, the natural food store, stopped selling hemp ice cream but continues to stock about 30 other hemp food products that have no traces of THC, according to a company spokesman.

Despite the DEA's hard-line stance, at least 14 states, including Kentucky, have passed legislation in support of studying or growing industrial hemp in recent years, according to the Hemp Industry Association.

At Kentucky's request, the University of Kentucky (UK) has invested a lot of time and money lately into studying what type of hemp might grow best there. But so far UK hasn't located a site secure enough to satisfy the DEA.

"Having a secure site is probably the number one obstacle," says Nancy Mary Cox, associate dean for research at UK's College of Agriculture.

If industrial hemp could compete fairly with other plants, it would do well, according to Beach.

"The U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn't grow hemp," he says. "If it was legal in the U.S., it would be as cheap as cotton." ©