When it comes to marijuana policy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is basically a talking time capsule from the Reagan era. Instead of familiarizing himself with current research on the science of cannabis, Attorney General Sessions doggedly clings to outdated and ineffective marijuana policies.
Sessions went on an anti-marijuana tirade yesterday while delivering a speech on violent crime in Richmond, Virginia. His remarks stressed that he will remain opposed to cannabis legalization no matter how "unfashionable" his stance becomes.
I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use," Attorney General Sessions said. "But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.
Already there are two glaring problems with Sessions' remarks. First off, his claim that cannabis is "only slightly less awful" than heroin has no scientific basis. In 2015 alone, over 33,000 deaths were connected to the abuse of opioids such as heroin, according to the CDC. In contrast, no one has ever died of a cannabis overdose. Ever. In fact, cannabis use may have actually saved some people's lives from heroin overdose. And the government knows it.
Last May, the federal government's website DrugAbuse.gov published a study that found states with legal cannabis dispensaries saw "lower rates of dependence on prescription opioids, and deaths due to opioid overdose, than would have been expected based on prior trends." More research needs to be conducted before we can determine whether or not cannabis can combat the opioid epidemic, but what is clear from current research is that marijuana is much, much less harmful than heroin.
'Just Say No' Just Doesn't Work
It's also clear that Sessions bases his cannabis policy on 'Reefer Madness' rhetoric rather than science. Which leads us to the second issue with his remarks -- his "unfashionable" view of cannabis. Sessions is treating legalization as a fad -- a popular trend that will go away like powdered wigs or low-rise jeans. If legalization does fall out of fashion, Sessions hopes that law makers will rock retro Reagan-era policies like the 'Just Say No' approach to combating drug use.
"In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction," he said yesterday. "We can do this again. Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices. We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug abuse."
But research suggests that the 'Just Say No' approach is not only ineffective at curbing drug use, it could also increase the likelihood of substance abuse among America's youth.
A study released in 2009 suggests that "[m]erely telling participants to 'just say no' to drugs is unlikely to produce lasting effects" on people. And programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) have proven ineffective at preventing drug use among youths. "Despite this fanfare, data indicate that the program does little or nothing to combat substance use in youth," Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz of Scientific American noted in 2014. "[T]eens enrolled in the program were just as likely to use drugs as were those who received no intervention."
Worse yet, exaggerating the dangers of some drugs appears to make kids more susceptible to abusing other substances. Studies released in 2002 and 2009 found "a slight tendency for teens who went through D.A.R.E. to be more likely to drink and smoke than adolescents not exposed to the program," according to Lilienfeld and Arkowitz, who suggest that "D.A.R.E. may inadvertently convey the impression that alcohol and tobacco are innocuous by comparison."
So politicians like Attorney General Sessions may inadvertently make kids more susceptible to substance abuse by exaggerating the dangers of marijuana. In other words, parents should 'just say no' to the attorney general's marijuana rhetoric.