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)