House Crime Subcommittee Holds Hearings on Marijuana Use
On March 6, the House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime, held hearings on trends in marijuana use. Members of the Subcommittee heard from seven witnesses who testified about marijuana use by youth and adults, the medical uses for marijuana, prevention of marijuana use by children, and sentencing of drug offenders.
Subcommittee Chairman Bill McCollum (R-FL) opened the hearing by calling attention to recent increases in use of marijuana by teenagers. "These statistics, on just a moments reflection, shock the conscience," he said. "They are simply overwhelming."
"I see evidence here of the same crisis of character -- resulting from the demise of families -- which is bringing us soaring crime rates," McCollum said.
The first witness was Dr. Eric Voth, chairman of the International Drug Strategy Institute. He attributed the rise in marijuana use by teens in part to rising legitimacy of drug policy reform groups such as the Drug Policy Foundation and The Lindesmith Center. "Steadily, the message got out to young people that marijuana was not such a bad thing and thus you now see 4.6% of high school seniors using it daily with drastic increases every year," he said. [Voth mischaracterized Drug Strategies, Inc. as a drug legalization organization because it has obtained some funding from George Soros. Soros has also provided funds to the Drug Policy Foundation and The Lindesmith Center, which provide forums at which legalization is sometimes advocated. Drug Strategies, chaired by former Oregon Governor Neil Goldschmidt, is avowedly anti-legalization.--EES]
"For leaders of the pro-marijuana movement, some of whom are physicians, to state that marijuana is virtually harmless is irresponsible and destructive," Voth testified. "It is that misrepresentation of scientific findings which has further led to the increased acceptance of drug use." Voth asked the Committee to make a commitment to preventing marijuana use in teens, before "another generation [is] lost to drug use."
Stephanie Haynes of Drug Watch International testified that the War on Drugs has been "highly successful." Like Voth, she said that a major factor in the rise of marijuana use by youth is a public relations campaign financed by advocates of drug legalization. "Their goal is the creation of a climate tolerant of drug use, and laws making drugs legal and available," she said.
Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Officer Donald Hayes of the Alexandria, Virginia Police Department said children have greater exposure to drugs at younger ages now than ever before. Parents need to be more involved in the lives of their children to offset pro-drug or ambiguous messages from media. DARE is a program that offers children the tools to make decisions about their own drug use in a supportive environment, he testified. "The DARE classroom provides a non-threatening environment where kids can ask questions and see their DARE officer not just as a police officer, but someone who really cares about them," Officer Hayes said.
Thomas A. Hedrick, vice chairman of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, ended the first panel by calling for a clear message from media, parents, and teachers that marijuana is a dangerous drug. Drug use is a preventable behavior, and children should be reminded that they can make responsible choices about drug use.
Hedrick emphasized that changing attitudes about the dangerousness and social unacceptability of marijuana use is the best way to prevent drug use. "When we as a society can persuade our kids that marijuana use is harmful and socially unacceptable -- that no use is the expected behavior -- then marijuana and other drug use goes down," he said.
The second panel of the day consisted of testimony about the medical uses of marijuana and pending Congressional proposals to change marijuana sentencing rules.
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Interim Executive Director R. Keith Stroup told the Subcommittee that more harm is now done by the laws restricting marijuana than the harm that comes from the use of marijuana. "Arresting and jailing otherwise law-abiding citizens who happen to be marijuana smokers serves no legitimate societal purpose," Stroup testified. "Rather it is an enormous waste of valuable law enforcement resources that should be focused on truly serious crime."
Stroup said the issue of the criminal sanctions for recreational use of marijuana should have no connection to the drug's availability for medical uses. He said marijuana should be rescheduled to make it available for doctors to prescribe.
Jeralyn E. Merritt, a lawyer in private practice in Denver, Colorado, testified on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers against a bill that would undo a U.S. Sentencing Commission amendment on marijuana sentencing.
The Commission amended the Guidelines, effective November 1, 1995, to make one marijuana plant equivalent to 100 grams of marijuana for any number of plants. The bill, H.R. 2507, introduced by Rep. Jim Bunn (R-OR), would return a sentencing "cliff" to the Guidelines system: for offenses of 50 or more plants, one plant would be considered equal to one kilogram of marijuana and for offenses of less than 50 plants, one plant would be considered equal to 100 grams.
There are already provisions in the Guidelines to increase sentences for defendants who play a major role in drug operations and who have a prior history of drug offenses, Merritt testified. Fair sentencing can be accomplished without having irrational drug equivalency ratios.
The final witness was Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of the National Review. He spoke about his use of marijuana to treat the nausea of chemotherapy as he was fighting testicular cancer. He testified that antinausea drugs were useful to some degree, but smoked marijuana was much more effective. He said his doctors did not discourage him from using marijuana, and even told him that other patients had used it in the past with great effect. Criminalization of marijuana for AIDS, cancer, and glaucoma patients means they have to break the law to obtain a drug that is useful in treating their symptoms, Brookhiser testified.
[To obtain copies of the testimony given before the Subcommittee and supporting materials, contact the NewsBriefs office. The 172 pages of testimony are available for $18.]