by William F. Buckley Jr., August 3, 1993

A few weeks ago in this space I argued that mounting evidence on the prosecution, indeed the persecution, of marijuana users increasingly substantiates a) that medical evidence doesn't justify treating marijuana as one would treat crack cocaine or prussic acid; b) that the time spent by law enforcement tracking down marijuana users is a waste of efforts that might have been used to keep Johnny from getting shot or Jane from getting raped; and c) the bloodlust by the Drug Enforcement Administration against marijuana users is being used to justify an abuse of civil rights and a penology that surely in decades and centuries ahead will bring to mind not civilized law enforcement but inquisitorial practices.

The column in question stirred the extensive objections of Wayne J. Roques of the DEA of the U.S. Department of Justice. He is listed as "demand reduction coordinator" in Miami, and he took the pains to address his letter of complaint to all of the sainted editors who sign on this column.

Roques deserves the courtesy of a public reply to his public remonstrance, here undertaken on the understanding that it is not possible to cope with all the questions raised about marijuana use in a single column.

But begin by acknowledging that the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has never claimed that marijuana use is harmless, rather that it is no more harmful than the use of alcohol or tobacco or other over-the-counter drugs available to any adult even in the presence of an FBI agent.

Roques stresses the addictive quality of marijuana and cites the work of "many scientists," but gives only one name, that of "Dr. Mendelson of Harvard University, " who has "reported physical addiction with withdrawal to ... potent marijuana." Inquiry in Harvard elicited the following from Dr. Lester Grinspoon (an enemy of the marijuana laws) : "When I read him [Dr. Mendelson] the sentence from" Roques' letter, "Jack laughed. I think he sees this report as somewhat aberrant, inasmuch as 1) this woman smoked an enormous amount of marijuana, and 2) one would suppose if there were an abstinent syndrome, that there would be far more in the literature than this report of one patient . published 10 years ago." Exaggerations are a severe addiction of the anti-marijuana cultists.

Roques gave the names of five medical authorities whom he considers expert on the toxicity of marijuana. But four of the five authorities cited are not associated with marijuana research. Roques writes: "There is little doubt among legitimate scientists that marijuana is a very harmful drug at relatively low potency and that with the new more powerful strains the health risks will be greatly exacerbated."

But the current edition of the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy tells us that "there is still little evidence of biologic damage, even among relatively heavy users. ... Marijuana used in the U.S. has a higher THC content than in the past. Many critics have incorporated this fact into warnings, but the chief opposition to the drug rests on a moral and political, and not a toxicological foundation."

DRA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young, having surveyed the evidence, reports that although "20 to 50 million Americans routinely . . . smoke marijuana . . . there are simply no credible medical reports to suggest that consuming marijuana has caused a single death."

On the civil liberties front, Roques challenges my assertion that sentences given out to marijuana delinquents are quite simply disproportionate to civilized assumptions having to do with condign punishment. But he confines himself to federal penalties, which are severe enough.

Here is a report published by NORML in its journal, The Leaflet (March 1993) : "Jimmy Montgomery was sentenced by an Oklahoma jury to life plus 16 years imprisonment for having two ounces of marijuana in his bedroom and two Colt revolvers under his pillow. The judge and D.A. thought better of it, and the sentence was reduced to 10 years. But the Beckham County prosecutor also filed papers to seize Jimmy's mother's house."

And apropos the question whether marijuana can be medically useful, the balance of the story: "The result of an accident 20 years ago, Jim Montgomery is paralyzed from the center of his chest to his feet and confined to a wheelchair. Thelma Montgomery, Jim's mother, testified that doctors at a spinal cord injury hospital recommended marijuana to her son for relief of muscle spasms. The spasms got so bad at times Jimmy couldn't sit in the wheelchair. `When Jim smoked marijuana, he didn't have to stay belted to his chair, " his mother reported.

The stories are endless, but the Merck people are right. My own judgment is that it is as stupid for the person who does not use marijuana to experiment with it as it is for the non-smoker to take up tobacco. But those who don't take my (extra-political) advice should not be sent to Sing Sing.

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Reproduced with permission