Friday, July 24, 2009

Liar, Liar...

Joseph Califano's lies in this video are so horrendous that, for a moment, I thought he was trying to self-immolate:

The fact that Atlantic put this interview on their "Ideas" blog is an insult to anyone who has ever had a cogent thought.

I'll break down the things that made my head hurt the most so I can go about the business of enjoying my weekend without wanting to scream:

First, Califano begins by conflating causation and correlation--perhaps the laziest of all argumentative fallacies. Because a criminal uses drugs does not mean he is a criminal because of drugs, nor is his criminal behavior necessarily influenced by whatever drug he's on. Furthermore, teen pregnancy comes from teen sex. They don't have sex because they are high, they have sex because they are teenagers. And the homeless bit is so farcical it barely merits address, but the pervasive problem with the homeless--and if you've spent any time in DC, you'd notice this--is mental health issues. (If I was crazy and homeless, I'd get high too.)

Second, we can't legalize "for the kids" cliché is not only tired, it's a lie. In high school, it was easier for me to get the prohibited substance--marijuana--than it was for me to get the legal but age-restricted regulated drugs--cigarettes and alcohol. It was for several reasons I chose pot over alcohol at the time, and the ready availability of pot was chief among them. If you really care about the kids, (assuming that any 16 year old getting high is a terrible thing) legalize it and regulate it.

Third, the title of the video, "Not your father's marijuana," and Califano's argument about potency is misleading and much ado about nothing. As my former colleague Jacob Sullum wrote in his (very good) book, "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use":

[C]ommonly heard assertions that marijuana is ten to forty times as powerful as it used to be are based on spurious comparisons with small samples of low-grade Mexican marijuana seized in the early seventies. These samples were not representative of the marijuana available at the time, and it appears that they decayed before they were tested.* Since 1980 or so, when the federal government began testing broader samples and using better storage methods, the average THC content of confiscated marijuana has gone up and down within a range from around 2 percent to 4 percent.*
[*citations in original, omitted here]

As Jacob notes also: even if it is stronger, who cares? It's no more dangerous to be stoned on better weed than it is on shitty weed--and the danger of occasional marijuana use in and of itself is non-existent.

Fourth, marijuana is not physically addictive--despite what NIDA says.** Developing a marijuana habit--even an unhealthy one--is not addiction. It's just a bad habit and, ultimately, a poor lifestyle choice. I've known hundreds of pot smokers in my life--and still do--and only a few have ever developed what I would consider to be a bad marijuana habit. Two in particular come to mind: one is one of my closest friends who lost a lot of memories of our childhood; the other is a former girlfriend with other chemical dependence issues. Their drug use took a toll on our respective relationships and it pained me greatly to see them retreat into their green baggies all the time, with at least one of them high nearly every moment they were conscious. Califano's point about memory loss and the oft-run ads about lethargy and low motivation are, indeed, true--among problem users. The vast majority of marijuana users, however, never have nor ever will fall into this category. Because of these experiences, I know better than to say that marijuana is harmless. But Califano's (et al.) use of worst-case scenarios to demonize a comparatively safe drug is infuriating self-serving propaganda.

I'm not going to directly address his economics numbers, but given the abuses already listed, I find many of them very suspect--to be polite.

My anger is not about Califano's position, per se. I believe strongly in debate and wouldn't reflexively stifle the pro-drug war message from a forum such as this. But this was not a debate, and outside of the fact that the interview took place at the Ideas Festival, there was nothing resembling an new or even rational "idea." It was, frankly, a bunch of lies. You can be pro-drug war without resorting to lies, and if you're going to give the interview, then at least challenge the subject or delve into the issue. Not every interview given deserves to be shown, and softballing questioners letting some political hack spew such patently false garbage to hock his book is not journalism. The blog editors at the Atlantic should be ashamed of themselves for even hinting this nonsense as an "idea" worth merit by giving it space on their site. I was shocked to watch something so out-of-touch with reality and so blatantly awful from one of my favorite publications.

On a personal note: if thinking as sloppy as Califano's is your brain on sobriety, I'll take the drugs, thanks.

**UPDATE: NIDA says "In 2004, more than 298,317 people entering drug treatment programs reported marijuana as their primary drug of abuse, showing they needed help to stop using." No, it shows that almost 300,000 people went to a program, it doesn't say if they went there voluntarily or asking for help. I couldn't imagine that a kid put there by his freaked out parents, or convict, or someone trying not to get fired for a positive drug test would possibly go to treatment center. What could make NIDA exaggerate a problem? What would make Califano exaggerate drug problems?(Hint: scroll down to where it says "government funding.")

For what it's worth, Bob Saget doesn't seem to think it's addictive either. (Link NSFW)


Jen said...

Jon - Where did your information come from that disputes the physical addiction of marijuana? While I'm not a big fan of the NIDA website, I am curious in research that disputes physical addiction. I've seen (and have if you would like to see it) research that says otherwise. -- Jen

JPB said...

While they are hardly neutral either, this is what NORML has to say, citing the US Institute of Medicine.

I tried to make clear in my post that while it can be habitually used, it doesn't rise to the point of addiction in any substantive sense, given that so very few people use it with enough frequency to even bring up "addiction" as a serious consequence. Like the (albeit very unserious)video at the end of the post, the idea of marijuana addiction is laughable to a large number of people. Of course, everyone knows "pot heads," but whether their habitual use could be qualified as "addiction" is debatable--at best. That they find a need to escape sobriety may point to other psychological issues that may need to be addressed--such as self-medicating depression sufferers--but that would point to an underlying cause of the escapism, not the drug itself.

Moreover, that there is no concrete/widely accepted data after so many longitudinal studies and untold billions of government and private dollars spent that indicates a high or even moderate probability of addiction to marijuana leads me to believe there isn't one. The data I have seen usually skirt the addiction question and say "more testing needs to be done."

Sullum also broaches the subject--unfortunately, that book is at my office and I am at home at the moment--but I almost included the passage. He acknowledges, as I did, that it can be habit forming, but even chronic users whose use rises to the level that could be loosely classified as "dependent," is less than half of the percentage of alcohol users who could be similarly classified. Thus, wherever you draw the distinction of addiction--and it may be that I and you/NIDA can disagree where the definitive line of addiction should be drawn--it is very much less so than the legal drug of alcohol (and it should be noted, the former is substantially less dangerous) and, as such, shouldn't be used to dismiss legalization out-of-hand, especially to the degree of certainty and seriousness he implied.

Jen said...

Okay. You threw many things at me here that I will have to address in a systematic manner. Let me first mention that I have yet to give you my stance on whether marijuana should be legalized. With that in mind, you are right – the NORML site is hardly neutral. I also noticed flaw in their argumentation, and am disappointed to see you followed suit. I find it a fundamental error to make an argument against the addictive power of a substance by comparing it to other substances. NORML states, “the majority of epidemiological and animal data demonstrate that the reinforcing properties of marijuana in humans is low in comparison to other drugs of abuse, including alcohol and nicotine.” Stating that it is “low in comparison to other drugs of abuse” is a faulty argument. They are minimizing the addiction. It is like saying, “the reinforcing properties of ecstasy are low in comparison to other drugs of abuse, including cocaine and amphetamines.” All are stimulants, but ecstasy is the least harmful of the three. Nevertheless, NORML is right and it is true. Marijuana has the longest half-life of the majority of mood altering chemicals. Therefore, the withdrawal symptoms are more subtle (but they are there). Therefore, “Compared with the profound physical syndrome of alcohol or heroin withdrawal, marijuana-related withdrawal symptoms are mild and subtle. Symptoms may include restlessness, irritability, mild agitation and sleep disruption” is a good argument - if you can overcome the faulty comparison. NORML is comparing two depressants, one of which is not legal at all, to a hallucinogen. If marijuana is compared with anything, it should be compared to LSD, which is actually less dangerous than marijuana (believe it or not). The fact that there are physical (as well as psychological) withdrawal symptoms at all brings into the problem of classifying addiction. It cannot be ignored that there are physiological changes in the brain and changes in the patterns and amounts of neurotransmitter release that cause a small dependency from continued (not necessarily chronic) use. Unfortunately, cannabis dependency is a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – IV (APA, 2000), which means that enough people met the “dependency” criteria for it to be considered a diagnosis. “Dependency” (or “addiction”) may be laughable to a large number of people, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Jen said...

Unfortunately, NORML also minimizes another important aspect of marijuana addiction when stating, “observable cannabis withdrawal symptoms are rare and have only been identified under unique patient settings. These remain limited to adolescents in treatment facilities for substance abuse problems, and in a research setting where subjects were given marijuana or THC daily.” I checked the update date on the bottom of the page and was disappointed to see it was four months ago, when research clearly shows this statement is inaccurate. Observable physical withdrawal symptoms from marijuana have been identified in various populations other than what NORML is stating (for one interesting study, see Kouri & Pope, Jr., 2000). Additionally, they minimize the importance of the adolescent piece. Marijuana is the illegal drug most widely used by adolescents. The US Department of Health and Human Services states, “In 1998, the rate of marijuana use during the month preceding the survey was more than twice that of all other drugs combined (8.3 percent vs. 4.0 percent) and higher than the rate of getting drunk (7.7 percent). Moreover, the rates of marijuana use for 8th graders are twice as high as the rates in 1992. The rate of daily use of marijuana is higher than the rate of daily use of alcohol, and that rate has not gone down.” That is pretty significant and important to pay attention to (rather than minimize), particularly when talks of legalization are at hand.
Every research article I have ever read always ends with a version of “more testing needs to be done.” I would be worried if an article failed to include this statement. This leaves the door open for more research, more insight on subject matter that is as unclear as this issue. Both sides of the fence (legalization vs. non-legalization) have good arguments, but to ignore the physiological addictive power of marijuana, or simply deny that it is addictive, is not a good argument to legalize. Rather, the focus should be on how to safely legalize the substance, and consider the youth, as that population seems to show the highest risk of negative effects.

JPB said...

Of all the problems I have heard, and I have heard of many, NEVER have I had a friend or associate complain of "pot addiction." Sex. porn. Masturbation--all of these things I have heard people complain about. Weed? Sorry. hasn't happened.

As far as those symptoms you talk about, without being too flippant--and in no way want to be confused with the people who disregard the sleep deprivation that has been associated with American torture programs--but those symptoms in and of themselves can also be said of falling in love.

And as flip as that seems, I don't really mean it to be. People don't take well to changing something they've gotten very used to/grown attached to.

I understand that a lot of conditions may not get their fair due in public opinion, but most people don't deal with schizophrenic tendencies or depression. However, more people that I know have smoked weed one way or another and these are among the very people who would scoff at whatever data you throw at them regarding pot addictiveness.

There have been studies that back up a lot of things that may or may not be true. But even if I grant your point, there is NO CONCEIVABLE way that whatever addiction danger that exists with pot is anywhere as likely or dangerous as it is with alcohol, which is legal and manages to maintain a market not surrounded by criminality. So far as Califano was using this to his own ends was unscientific and not reflective of the reality on the ground, whatever the data may say about a few cases of "dependence" or "addiction" that aren't remotely reflective of what actually is problematic about drug use in America.

Jen said...

I think you failed to notice that the symptoms I listed were the ones NORML listed. In fact, there are more physical effects that NORML failed to list. “The physical effects of marijuana use include fluctuations in blood pressure, decreased salivation, mild unsteadiness, impaired coordination, hunger, drowsiness, slowed speech, and respiratory difficulties (Cohen, 1979; Hall, 1995; National Institute on Drug Abuse, August 1986), a decrease in the immune response, suppression of testosterone production in males (Cohen, 1979), and a decrease in respiratory vital capacity.” Additionally, the concern with marijuana is that it is rarely used by itself. I will grant you that research supports the idea that when used by itself, marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. However, research also supports that marijuana is rarely used by itself, and most commonly used in conjunction with alcohol.
The defect, once again, in your argument is that you are relying on personal experience, as far as I can tell, rather than the data. You may not have heard of “pot addiction,” but once again, that does not make it fictitious. Perhaps it is your setting or your employment. Or perhaps you just don’t want to see it. I’m not quite sure. If we go by personal experience (which I hate to do), then I would have to say that I hear of it often. I have seen lives devastated by it, children die because someone hit them with a car when they were “just high” not drunk. I have heard individuals tell me they cannot find employment because they just cannot seem to stop smoking marijuana. Adolescents flunking out of high school, young adults flunking out of college due to “just using marijuana.” You listen to politicians; I listen to people’s problems. A difference in professions brings a difference in population and a difference in what is “heard.”
But let’s not focus on personal experience. Again, I bring you back to the data. If data were contingent on “just a few cases”, it would be easy to run a research study and be published. Unfortunately, the research world does not work that way and there must be a substantial subject pool for the data even to have validity. Again, the people you know who have used (as you do) may scoff, but it doesn’t make it less valid. Data is data, research is research. If individuals don’t like the results, there is enough freedom to challenge and dispute the research with more research that says otherwise.

JPB said...

As I said, I don't have the Sullum book with me, but will get back to you Monday or Tuesday. He addresses the addiction issue better than I can.

That said, I noticed where you got your information. That still doesn't address my final point, which is, whatever addiction problem that may exist, it doesn't rise to the level that justifies prohibition.

And it wasn't among my profession about the hearing--I'm talking about years of growing up around pot smokers. Anecdotal it may be, but a small sample it isn't.

JPB said...

PS--I don't know many politicians playing down pot. quite the opposite.

(see drug czar's latest)