Marijuana, Prescription Drug Abuse, and Misplaced Priorities

Sep 15, 2008

drug war, ONDCP

Today's Los Angeles Times has a story on the rise of prescription drug abuse based on stats from the just-released National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The Times story expresses alarm at the rise in recreational use of prescription drugs, and understandably so, but misses a key point:

In recent years, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has spent well over a billion dollars on broadcast and print ads which have overwhelmingly emphasized the dangers of marijuana as compared with prescription drugs (or other substances) that are far more addictive and toxic than marijuana. This disproportion has somewhat lessened in the last year or so, but during Walters' first five or six years as drug czar the skewing of priorities was truly remarkable. Ads specifically targeting prescription drug abuse from ONDCP were nearly unknown until about a year ago.

Indeed, the ad featured on ONDCP's home page this morning is an anti-marijuana ad, albeit a strangely cryptic one.

Does this not send an unspoken message to both kids and parents? After all, if the ads are all demonizing marijuana and say nothing about those pills in the medicine cabinet, then those pills -- which, after all, are legal -- must be safe, right? Kids aren't stupid. They pick up on what we don't say as much as what we do.

Prescription drug abuse is not a new problem, and if one looks at the NSDUH stats going back to 2002, the increase has been fairly small (see table G.4 in the link above) -- real, yes, but it's not like this was an unknown problem that suddenly exploded. ONDCP chose to ignore it in favor of Walters' marijuana obsession, and we are now seeing the results. 

Because the "expert" sources cited by the Times were all either from government or government-allied think tanks, that perspective was missing from the story.