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The most fundamental disagreement between drug policy reformers and drug warriors such as Office of National Drug Control Policy chief Gail Kerlikowske – who is warning that the federal government may sue to overturn California’s Proposition 19 should the initiative to legalize adult possession of small quantities of marijuana pass on November 2 – is what constitutes the problem.” Reported the Associated Press on October 20

Kerlikowske was in Southern California on Wednesday for a visit to a Pasadena drug treatment center 

where he planned to discuss new government data on marijuana abuse in California with Celebrity

Rehab” host Drew Pinsky. The data show that California already has a much higher percentage of 

children in treatment for marijuana use than the rest of the country. In California, 47 percent of those 

undergoing drug treatment for marijuana in 2008, either voluntarily or after encounters with the criminal 

justice system, were under 18, compared to 28 percent for the country as a whole. Kerlikowske said 

liberal attitudes toward marijuana in the state, which has the nation’s most liberal medical marijuana law, 

are a factor. 

One could argue exactly the opposite from Kerlikowske’s own data. First, even accepting the dubious argument that treatment admissions, especially when ordered by courts, reflect real rates of drug abuse that can be compared straight across by age, race, and state, California’s excess of youths treated for marijuana occurred while marijuana was criminalized. How could one argue, then, that criminalization of marijuana protects young people? 

Further, a host of studies have indicated that admissions to treatment reflect a host of subjective factors, not the least of which are discriminatory arrest and sentencing practices. After all, the same figures Kerlikowske cites show that 70% of Californians admitted to treatment for marijuana in 2009 were black or Hispanic. The number and client mix of TEDS admissions does not represent the total national demand for substance abuse treatment, nor the prevalence of substance abuse in the general population,” the webpage of the federal Treatment Admissions Data Set (TEDS), from which Kerlikowske drew his figures, warns. According to the caution of his own agency, the drug czar is misusing its statistics. 

Second, the pattern of marijuana treatment admissions actually reflects how generally responsible California youths are with drugs. TEDS tabulations show that nearly 180,000 Californians were admitted to treatment for drug or alcohol abuse in 2009, around 35,000 of these for marijuana. True, around half those admitted for marijuana were under age 18, still a tiny proportion (less than 0.005) of the state’s 3.5 million youths age 12 – 17

But consider also TEDS figures showing Californians under age 18 comprised just 4% of the 36,000 Californians admitted to treatment for heroin or opiate abuse, less than 3% of the 49,000 admitted for amphetamine and other stimulant abuse, and less than 2% of the 15,000 admitted for cocaine abuse. Put another way, marijuana accounted for 88% of the 19,000 youth admissions to treatment for drugs in 2009, while 85% of the 116,000 adult admissions to treatment involved harder drugs, led by methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine. 

One could argue, then, that all the treatment admissions data show is that California youths who use drugs at all are responsibly choosing the milder drug, marijuana, rather than the harder drugs that plague their elders. Presumably, if lots of kids were using hard drugs, we’d see lots of youthful treatment admissions for harder drugs – like we do for grownups. If the state’s liberal attitudes” toward marijuana are a factor, they’ve brought a clear benefit: to steer those youths inclined to try drugs away from the harder stuff. 

Drug abuse death tolls also reflect that encouraging fact. Teenagers under age 20 comprised only 75 of the 4,200 Californians who died from abusing illicit drugs in 2008 – a drug death rate 30% below the national average. Just 7% of Californians who die from drug abuse are under age 25. Again, if lots of youths were abusing hard drugs – or if marijuana was a gateway” to hard-drug experimentation – the teenage and young-adult drug death toll would be much higher. Score another victory for those liberal attitudes.” 

Well, except for California’s high middle-aged drug treatment and death epidemics. But that’s a problem that plagues the more conservative” rest of the United States even more. Kerlikowske’s logic in raising treatment data to oppose Proposition 19 continues to reflect the Drug War’s bankrupt obsession with marijuana and youths, its dubious choice of statistical measures to assess problems, and its refusal to prioritize the vital imperative of confronting rising abuse of harder drugs.