When The New York Times on July 27 announced that its editorial board endorsed marijuana legalization, the pro-marijuana lobby immediately responded with glee. Although Andrew Rosenthal of the Times wrote that the endorsement was based on meeting with medical experts and others, he did not respond to a request from ADAW about who those medical experts were. The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse are opposed to legalization, with recent surveys clearly suggesting that underage increases in daily marijuana use are connected to a perception that marijuana is not harmful, due in part to medical marijuana and, more recently, to legalization in Colorado.

The Times, like many other proponents of legalization, singles out the harms inflicted on blacks who are arrested and incarcerated due only to marijuana possession charges. The ONDCP had a response to this on July 28: “We agree that the criminal justice system is in need of reform and that disproportionality exists throughout the system. However, marijuana legalization is not the silver bullet solution to the issue.”

What the Times didn’t discuss was “a cascade of public health problems associated with the increased availability of marijuana,” according to the ONDCP. “While law enforcement will always play an important role in combating violent crime associated with the drug trade, the Obama Administration approaches substance use as a public health issue, not merely a criminal justice problem.” Among the health problems mentioned by the ONDCP are marijuana use impairs the development of the brain, resulting in cognitive problems; 25 to 50 percent of daily users of marijuana are addicted; and marijuana impairs coordination and is a threat to roadway safety.

The valid concerns about the racism in the criminal justice system do not mean that marijuana should be legal, the ONDCP wrote. Alcohol and tobacco, because they are legal, already cause “much higher social costs than the revenue they generate” from taxes.

Experts not consulted

ADAW has learned that the medical experts consulted by the Times did not include the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), the physicians who specialize in treating addiction. “I don’t know that they spoke to any medical experts at all,” Stuart Gitlow, M.D., ASAM president, told ADAW. “I had no inkling of the editorial until the day it ran.”

The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association also oppose legalization.

Project SAM, headed by Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., and Patrick Kennedy, the former congressman, asked to speak with the Times six months ago and was rejected, Sabet told ADAW, adding that he was “surprised” by the editorial board policy. “A paper like the Times that has expressed its support for greater health coverage, expanded education and raising awareness about the mental health crisis in this country should have been able to easily see how legalization runs counter to all of those things,” he continued. “We know this decision was made with very little research,” Sabet said, adding that “none of the major scientific groups were consulted.” Even a meeting with the White House drug policy people attracted only one editor, said Sabet. “These guys did not do their homework, and I think the overwhelming criticism they received from the scientific community already shows that,” he said.

But Sabet said the medical field needs to be more vocal. “If anything, this is a wake-up call to our field,” states a July 27 response from Project SAM to the Times announcement. “We need to be able to discuss opposition to legalization with the science. But we cannot stay silent any longer.”

Gitlow, an advisor to SAM, said in that statement: “Contrary to positions taken by the American Medical Association, American Society of Addiction Medicine, and the American Psychiatric Association, the public is getting the message — from the media and our lawmakers — that marijuana use comes with few negative consequences. It is time we all set the record straight.”

Also see “Marijuana: The new alcohol? Voices from the legalization debate” in ADAW, January 13.

To read the ONDCP’s entire response to the Times editorial, go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/07/28/response-new-york-times-editorial-marijuana-legalization.