Terminology Matters

June 27th, 2008 No Comments Kate Zawidzki

Below is a letter I just sent to the producers of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, as well as to NPR’s ombudsman. I think we all need to start insisting that news organizations use accurate terminology, rather than the language used by drug warriors to deliberately cloud the picture.


Listening to Morning Edition today, I was surprised to hear a story about violence related to ongoing battles between law enforcement and Mexican drug trafficking organizations refer to this as “drug violence.” The reference was clearly inaccurate and misleading.

What is occurring is not “drug violence” — that is, violence related to the actions or effects of drugs. Rather, it is violence caused by drug prohibition, the criminalization of popular products that relegates their production and distribution to an unregulated underground that exists in a constant state of battle with the police. That some of this violence is connected to the marijuana market is the clearest evidence that it is in fact prohibition violence, not drug violence.

Marijuana, after all, reduces violent or aggressive tendencies in users. Only breathtakingly stupid public policies can take a product that suppresses violence and turn its production and sale into a source of violence. 

Even alcohol — a drug that irrefutably is a cause of violence and aggression — is generally produced and sold without significant violence or disorder. The only time that changed was the 1920s, during America’s disastrous experiment with Prohibition.

Accurate terminology matters. Please refer to prohibition-related violence by its proper name. Thanks for listening.


Bruce Mirken

Director of Communications

Marijuana Policy Project

Read more


ONDCP Admits Alcohol is “Gateway Drug”

June 26th, 2008 No Comments Kate Zawidzki

In a refreshing, though no doubt unintended, bit of honesty, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy seems to be acknowledging that alcohol is the true “gateway drug.” In a June 26 post on ONDCP’s blog, the federal drug warriors proclaim, “More than 67 percent of young people who start drinking before the age of 15 will try an illicit drug. Children who drink are over 7 times more likely to use any illicit drug, are over 22 times more likely to use marijuana, and 50 times more likely to use cocaine than children who never drink.”

ONDCP regularly uses similar correlations between marijuana and use of other drugs to argue that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that must be kept illegal for adults, but they make no such argument for banning booze. The truth — which the folks at ONDCP know  but will never say — is that neither alcohol nor marijuana causes people to try other drugs. People inclined to try mood-altering substances simply start with what’s most easily available.

Read more

Medical Marijuana

Why I Do What I Do

June 26th, 2008 No Comments Kate Zawidzki

Whenever people find out that I work for the Marijuana Policy Project the first question I’m asked is…well, forget the first question, it’s usually pretty inane.  The second question I’m generally asked is, “How did you get into that?” or “Why’d you decide to work there?”

I have a few reasons.  One of them is social justice.  Rarely do I find myself getting fired up so much as when I talk about the outrages suffered by people of color in the name of the War on Drugs.  Though most of us will never experience it, systematic racism is alive and well throughout America.

But, there is another reason–one that’s only gotten my attention in the last year or so.  Basically, it boils down to the lack of compassion and understanding for medical marijuana patients.  The recent case of Tim Garon, a Seattle patient who was denied a liver transplant for having used doctor-recommended medical marijuana is just one example of a number of similar situations. Brilliant, now we’re turning patients back into victims.

Check out the news clip from his story below, but be advised, it can be hard to watch:

Read more

Tax and Regulate

New European Report: Regulated Marijuana Sales in the Netherlands Have Little Effect on Use Rates

June 26th, 2008 1 Comment Kate Zawidzki

A new report from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction has a fascinating chapter on regulated marijuana sales through “coffee shops” in the Netherlands. The bottom line: Despite tall tales spun by U.S. drug warriors, the Dutch system appears to have had little effect on rates of marijuana use. Dutch use rates have shown the same “wave-like” up-and-down trends as in other European countries and the U.S., which pursue prohibitionist policies. “This leads to the conclusion” the report argues, “that regulating the cannabis market through law enforcement has only a marginal, if any, effect on the level of cannabis consumption.”

Read more


Prohibition Claims Another Victim

June 25th, 2008 No Comments Kate Zawidzki

Can cops be victims in the war on marijuana users?

Consider the story of Det. Jarrod Shivers, a Chesapeake, Va., police officer who was allegedly shot and killed by Ryan Frederick – a young man with no history of violence or any real criminal tendencies save a fondness for marijuana.

Radley Balko of Reason magazine has done an excellent job investigating the story – which is predictably complicated and full of conflicting accounts and sordid details – so I’ll just give a quick recap:

Ryan allegedly shot Det. Shivers through the front door of his house, apparently mistaking him for a burglar, as the cops tried to break it down during a raid.

His home had been broken into just days before – according to Balko’s reporting, it seems likely it was done by the same informants who tipped the police off to Ryan in the first place, possibly at the request of the cops themselves. I told you this was sordid.

Ryan was no drug kingpin. The officers found nothing but a very small amount of marijuana and a modest grow setup in his house.

We may never know the full story, but the facts assembled by Balko suggest a situation fraught with human error: sketchy informants, a sloppy and unnecessary raid, a likely attempt at a cover-up: This particular tragedy was certainly avoidable had cooler heads prevailed at any point.

Incidents like these are inevitable, however, as long as we treat marijuana as a criminal matter and chase adult marijuana users around with assault rifles.

Det. Shivers should never have been at Ryan’s house that day; his death was a needless waste.

But that’s just what happens under marijuana prohibition.

Read more

Medical Marijuana

Adjournment Brings No Relief

June 25th, 2008 No Comments Kate Zawidzki

The New York Senate adjourned yesterday, effectively ending this year’s legislative session, but that will come as no relief to seriously ill New Yorkers who rely on medical marijuana to ease their suffering.

The senators went home without considering a bill that would have allowed people like Burton Aldrich, a Kingston quadriplegic who needs medical marijuana to control his spasms and constant pain, to use the drug with a doctor’s recommendation without fear of arrest.

It’s difficult to explain the lack of enthusiasm in the Senate for protecting patients who wish to use a proven safe, effective medicine to ease their suffering after other options had failed.

It shouldn’t have been fear that voters would disapprove of their compassion and common sense: 76% of New Yorkers said they supported a medical marijuana bill in a poll conducted in 2005. The Senate’s counterparts in the Assembly didn’t appear to suffer any political catastrophes after passing a similar bill last week, 89-52, or last year, 92-52.

The press, with several notable exceptions, often appeared more interested in the horserace aspects of the bill’s chances rather than its merits. Paradoxically, members of the press often saw the Senate’s reluctance to take the bill seriously as a reason not to take it seriously themselves. I was told more than once by reporters that as long as it appeared unlikely that the Senate would take up the medical marijuana bill, their editors weren’t inclined to give it much coverage.

The real story was the patients who were counting on the Senate to protect them. Many of them risked their health to advocate for the bill, going to Albany to talk to their senators, writing letters to their local papers, and granting interviews to the media.

I don’t know if their efforts ever got the attention they deserved, so I’d like to thank some of them here: Bruce Dunn of Otsego County, who suffers chronic pain from a vehicle accident in 1988; Barbara Jackson, a cancer survivor from the Bronx who was arrested for using marijuana to treat dangerous appetite loss; Richard Williams of Richmondville who has battled HIV for 20 years and also has hepatitis C; Joel Peacock of Buffalo, a Conservative Party member who suffers chronic pain from a 2001 car accident; Glenn Amandola, a medically retired New York City police officer who suffers from chronic pain and a seizure disorder after being injured on the job; Jeannine Zagiel of Oneonta, who was disabled in a work injury in 2001; Dr. Kevin Smith, a Saugerties psychiatrist who suffers from a painful genetic defect that causes his immune system to attack his spine and hips as though they were foreign bodies; and Sherry Greene of Cedarhurst, who suffers from fibromyalgia.

There are many, many more.

They will spend this next year as they spent the last: in pain, frustrated by a ridiculous law that makes them criminals if they try to get better. Even so, many will be back next year to fight for their right to make their own health care decisions with their doctors.

Some, however, won’t be around to fight next year. For them, the Senate’s lack of urgency will mean spending their last days in avoidable pain.

Then again, many of New York’s senators may not be back next year either. Like the suffering patients they ignored, they too may find themselves on Election Day wishing they’d had the courage and good sense to pass this bill when they had the chance.

Read more

Prohibition, Research

Marijuana Lounges in Airports?

June 25th, 2008 No Comments Kate Zawidzki

In the wake of repeated reports of alcohol-fueled cases of “air rage,” the Denver-based Safer Alternatives For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) has a novel solution: Allow marijuana use in airport smoking lounges.

It may seem like a silly idea, but SAFER is making a serious point. Alcohol is a proven cause of reckless and violent behavior, while marijuana tends to have the precise opposite effect. If air travelers substituted marijuana for booze, it’s entirely plausible that air rage incidents would decrease. As a review in the December 2003 issue of the journal Addictive Behaviors noted, “Alcohol is clearly the drug with the most evidence to support a direct intoxication–violence relationship,” while those under the influence of marijuana generally become less aggressive.

Read more

Medical Marijuana

Side Effects of Cannabinoid Medicines & Deliberate Effects of Government Obstructionism

June 24th, 2008 No Comments Kate Zawidzki

A systematic review and accompanying commentary in the June 17 issue of CMAJ, the medical journal published by the Canadian Medical Association, look at the side effects of cannabinoid medications. The results are generally reassuring.

Researchers reviewed published studies of various cannabinoid preparations, including Marinol, the THC pill, and Sativex, a marijuana-based oral spray (but not, unfortunately, smoked or vaporized whole marijuana). They found no increase in serious or life-threatening reactions to the drugs as compared to placebo. The less serious side effects that did occur were just what you’d expect — dizziness, for example. But the commentators expressed concern over the relative lack of data on smoked marijuana and on long-term use of other cannabinoids.

We could have such data if the U.S. government wanted us to. The Feds have been giving medical marijuana to a small number of patients for over 30 years in a program closed to new enrollment in 1992, but have never published any data on these patients, of whom only four now survive. And back in 1999 the Institute of Medicine raised the possibility of doing “n-of-1 studies” (for example, by reopening that closed federal program) in order to collect data while allowing access to medical marijuana for patients in great need. The suggestion was ignored.

Once again, our government is doing everything it can to avoid knowing that medical marijuana is safe and effective.

Read more


Reliable Sources?

June 23rd, 2008 No Comments Kate Zawidzki

The other day I had a lengthy discussion with two producers at a national TV network. It was an unnerving lesson in what we’re up against as we try to educate the mainstream media.

The network had just broadcast a completely uncritical story on a report from a private think tank that serves as a drug war cheerleader. It had reported completely preposterous claims about supposed dangers of increased marijuana potency causing lung cancer or sending thousands to emergency rooms as if they were undisputed fact. I’d called to complain, and to their credit the producers called back.

Also to their credit, they asked tough questions about the points I was making. I want reporters to do that, as I never make statements to journalists that I can’t back up with published scientific evidence. And I do think the discussion made some progress (which is why I’m not naming names). But it also became clear that they never applied the same level of skepticism to claims made by prohibitionists. 

As we discussed the evidence that marijuana smokers don’t have higher lung cancer rates and that THC and other cannabinoids have documented anti-cancer activity, I mentioned that the 1999 Institute of Medicine report stated that marijuana has not been proven to cause any type of cancer. “But that was 1999,” one of the producers said. “With the increased potency now, it’s a whole different drug!” 

She had no idea she’d just repeated a completely fictional White House talking point as if it were revealed truth. 

I patiently explained that the notion that the claimed doubling of THC levels makes today’s marijuana “a whole different drug” makes no more sense than to claim that wine is a different drug than beer because it contains about three times the alcohol — a notion no one would take seriously. I also noted that higher potency would decrease any lung cancer risk, because users would get more THC (which fights cancer) with less smoke, and it’s the smoke that contains any potentially carcinogenic compounds. 

The producers believed they had done due diligence in researching the think tank’s claims: “We checked them with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.” The idea that a government agency that has long been an integral part of the drug war might not be a completely impartial source regarding marijuana had not occurred to them.

They listened to me. I think they heard. I hope they understood.


Read more


New York City Medical Marijuana Benefit

May 27th, 2008 No Comments Kate Zawidzki

Check out some of the highlights from the Marijuana Policy Project’s medical marijuana benefit event in New York City. The event was a great success with celebrities Montel Williams, Kurt Loder, and John Stossel speaking to the crowd. The evening’s illustrious musical guest was Nicole Atkins & the Sea.

Read more