Pubdate: Fri, 18 Aug 1995
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 1995 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Contact:  200 Liberty Street, New York, NY 10281
Fax: (212) 416-2658
Author: Donna Shalala, Dr.


Earlier this summer the Department of Health and Human Services held the 
first-ever national research conference on marijuana, at which scientists 
presented groundbreaking information about the danger of marijuana use. 
What was said has implications for every business, every citizen, and every 
parent, particularly as new calls are being heard to legalize marijuana.

Peter Fried, who is associated with Carleton University in Ottawa, 
discussed his preliminary findings that marijuana use during pregnancy has 
harmful effects on children's intellectual abilities a decade or more after 
they are born. Through the use of an animal model of addiction, Billy 
Martin of Virginia Commonwealth University showed that compulsive marijuana 
use may lead to an addiction similar to those produced by other illicit drugs.

These findings are particularly troubling because we have witnessed a 
three-year increase in marijuana use among American teenagers, at a time 
when more potent forms of marijuana are readily available: Thirteen percent 
of eighth graders reported having tried marijuana at least once in 1994-up 
from 9.2% in 1993, 7.2% in 1992, and 6.2% in 1991. Still, as we commit 
ourselves to countering this increase, we need to remember that there is 
also some important continuing good news. Adolescent marijuana use remains 
well below the levels of the late 1970's and early 1980's. This means that 
most young people do not use marijuana, and we need to remind them again 
and again of this crucial fact.

A Huge Mistake

Given the facts, it is surprising that some people in Washington and 
elsewhere continue to bring up the issue of legalizing marijuana and other 
illicit drugs. That would be a huge mistake.

First, marijuana is a problem in our country not because it is harmful-not 
because it is illicit. Research continues to show that it damages 
short-term memory, distorts perception, impairs judgment and complex motor 
skills, alters the heart rate, can lead to severe anxiety, and can cause 
paranoia and lethargy. Its use by young people is clearly associated with 
increased truancy, poor school performance and crime. And new research by 
Roger Roffman and Robert Stephens at the University of Washington shows 
that marijuana can put a serious chokehold on long-term users who try to quit.

Second, marijuana use has great costs and consequences to all of us in 
society-not just to users. Young marijuana users are more likely than 
nonusers to use other illicit drugs, to have automobile crashes, and to be 
arrested. They are less likely to achieve their academic potential, which 
detracts from national productivity in the long run. They are at greater 
risk of needing expensive emergency room treatment, which costs us money in 
the short run. Indeed, in 1993, twice as many teenagers ended up in 
emergency rooms for marijuana use as for heroin and cocaine combined.

And, more broadly, drug use, including marijuana use, causes considerable 
damage in our workplaces. Few Americans realize that three-fourths of 
regular drug users are employed. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 
employed drug users are 33% less effective than their nonabusing 
colleagues. They are likely to incur 300% higher medical costs and benefits.

Third, legalization of marijuana almost certainly would cause more young 
people to use-and become addicted to-marijuana, as well as other drugs.

In part, that's because legalizing drugs takes away a significant deterrent 
against drug use. Moreover, for as long as we have monitored drug use, we 
have seen that whenever there is a decrease in the percentage of young 
people who perceive marijuana use as harmful, the percentage of users 
increases. Inevitably, legalization would suggest to young people that 
marijuana is not harmful thereby knocking down a powerful barrier to use.

And even worse, because laws are rightly perceived by citizens in our 
democracy as the expression of national values, legalization would imply 
that marijuana use is an accepted-and acceptable-social practice. For many 
teenagers, that would intensify the already severe peer pressure they face 
to use drugs. Our daughters and sons would no longer have on their side the 
moral authority of our laws to bolster their antidrug attitudes and desire 
not to use drugs.

Indeed, reversing directions and legalizing marijuana could cause young 
people to dismiss warnings they have heard from government and the larger 
society about other illicit drugs like crack, cocaine and heroin-an erosion 
of trust that must never be allowed to happen.

What's behind the call for legalization of marijuana? Sometimes, it's a 
myth-like the false notion that marijuana is a "soft" drug. Sometimes it's 
the erroneous conclusion that legalization is the way to make drugs less 
prevalent in our country.

I believe there is a way to achieve a drug-free society-but there is no 
single, simple solution. The Clinton administration has embarked on a 
comprehensive drug strategy-a massive effort to reduce both the supply and 
the demand. In this effort, the role of the Department of Health and Human 
Services is critical: we are working with many partners to prevent drug 
use, provide effective treatment, conduct research of drug issues, and 
disseminate information to experts and the general public.

Specifically in relation to marijuana, we have taken a number of strong, 
targeted steps. We continue to fund major research on the effects of 
marijuana use on behavior. For example, within the next year, we expect 
publication of the results of a major government-funded study showing the 
extent to which acute marijuana smoking and the potency of smoked marijuana 
are related to motivation to perform work tasks.

Based on our growing body of knowledge about marijuana, we have developed 
an aggressive communications strategy. For example, we know that it is 
critical to reach young people early, before they have begun to use drugs, 
with clear information about marijuana and with positive alternatives for 
their time. Young children typically have very strong antidrug attitudes; 
it's essential to reinforce them.

We also know that in order to stop marijuana use we must send young people 
clear and consistent messages. As a result, we are working across many 
media, with many partners, to tell young people: Don't start using 
marijuana, and if you have, stop right away. Marijuana use is illegal, 
dangerous, and unhealthy. It is not cool. It is not respectful of one's 
body. And it is certainly not rampant among young people. This is a message 
we cannot emphasize enough.

Our research tells is something else as well. We know that young people 
need to hear antidrug messages where they live, where they study, where 
they work, where they play, and where they hang out. In other words, while 
the federal government must provide leadership, it cannot solve the drug 
problem alone-and it shouldn't try. We're recruiting parents and other 
family members to set drug-free examples for young people and talk with 
them about drugs. We're helping schools, community groups, religious 
organizations, the private sector, and state and local governments to join 
forces to give young people something to say "yes" to. We're meeting with 
the media and entertainment industries to promote programming that 
deglamorizes drug use and other risky behaviors. And we're challenging 
young people to work with us, knowing that teenagers have a unique gift for 
getting into each other's heads and influencing behavior.

A National Challenge

Make no mistake. We face a national challenge, and our young people are 
watching closely to see how we respond. We must not blink. It is 
unfortunate, however, that the Republican majority in Congress is 
attempting to cut back dramatically our commitment to stopping drug use. On 
Aug. 4, the House slashed $401 million in substance abuse and mental health 
prevention and treatment grants at HHS. It also cut $300 million from the 
Safe and Drug Free Schools program, depriving more than 23 million students 
of services in 1996 alone. A Senate Appropriations subcommittee proposed to 
eliminate the Office of the White House Drug Policy Coordinator.

This turnabout is remarkably shortsighted. At a time when marijuana use has 
climbed, the foundation of success is education, prevention, treatment, 
research, law enforcement, interdiction, and massive community 
involvement-not legalization or gutting our national commitment against 
drug use.

As we tighten our federal belts and rethink the scope and rule of the 
federal government, we must never forget that the drug issue is about our 
national future. It is about real human beings, young people who have 
within them both a galaxy of gifts and a fragility that leaves them 
vulnerable to foolish choices and risky behavior We must be there for them. 
We must do what is right for them and the nation.