The apparent heroin overdose death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman already has become a hockey puck in the war over the war on drugs. During a House subcommittee hearing on federal marijuana policy Tuesday, critics of the war on drugs hammered a White House drug official for putting too much emphasis on marijuana when Washington instead should focus on dangerous drugs that actually kill users.
"What is more dangerous and addictive," Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., asked the White House's deputy director of drug control policy, Michael Botticelli, methamphetamine and cocaine or marijuana?
"I think that conversation minimizes the harm," Botticelli sort of answered.
"How many people die from marijuana overdoses every year?" Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., inquired.
Botticelli said he didn't know, that fatal marijuana overdoses are "very rare."
Botticelli answered that people have to look at "the totality of harm that's associated with a substance." Even if "marijuana doesn't have the lethality and the overdose potential that heroin or alcohol does," there are "significant health consequences that are associated with the drug."
Blumenauer put together a paper that examined deaths caused by alcohol abuse (80,000 a year) and tobacco use (400,000 annually). He observed that Washington has been able to wage successful campaigns to decrease smoking "without locking people up."
Anti-smoking campaigns have worked because they are fact-based -- unlike the Controlled Substances Act, which places marijuana in the same Schedule I category as heroin, a drug that can kill.
So why not change the law?
Botticelli argued that he has met with families devastated by addiction and parents whose children died from drug overdoses. They cannot understand why states have legalized medical and recreational marijuana. They believe, said Botticelli, that "legalizing marijuana sends the absolute worst message to our youth."
Their children didn't overdose on marijuana, countered Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "It is ludicrous, absurd, crazy to have marijuana in the same level as heroin," quoth Cohen. "Ask the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, if you could. Nobody dies from marijuana. People die from heroin. And every second we spend in this country trying to enforce marijuana laws is a second that we're not enforcing heroin laws."
I should note that committee Republicans hit President Barack Obama for not being tough enough on marijuana. The panel's chairman, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., groused about Obama's "schizophrenic" approach.
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