Who's Smoking What?
by Brian C. Bennett

According to the latest government figures, during 2002 there were an estimated 25.7 million Americans aged 12 or older who smoked marijuana during the past year. According to the US Drug Czar, people who smoke marijuana are engaging in an extremely dangerous pursuit ("Russian Roulette" actually, according to a recent study commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy) and should be dealt with as a grave menace to society. Being the good citizen that I am, I undertook to find out about the dangers that users of marijuana pose to our society.

To measure some of the damage marijuana smokers are imposing upon themselves and society, the US government tracks various statistics about such things as how many people use drugs, how many hospital emergency room visits are drug-related, how many people go to drug rehab, and of course, how many are arrested for various offenses.

I decided that a worst case scenario would be the best bet -- after all, if marijuana can be blamed for any of these problems, what would happen if we just assumed that every single measure of mayhem could be directly blamed on a different marijuana user? According to the data from the various responsible government agencies, in the year 2002 (the last year for which a complete set of data is available) there were 1,209,938 drug "mentions" in hospital emergency departments, 1,739,796 drug rehab admissions, 1,538,813 drug law violation arrests, 1,613,954 property crime arrests, and 620,510 violent crime arrests. The grand total of all this adds up to 6,723,011 distinct events

If every single event tallied above were due to a different one of the 25.7 million past year pot smokers, that would mean that at most 26 percent of them were wreaking havoc upon the rest of us, while the other three quarters of them carried on with their lives and business as usual. Of course, not every crime, hospital visit or rehab admission can really be blamed on a pot smoker, so I also tracked down the actual data about marijuana-related mayhem specifically.

It isn't possible to logically deduce how many of the people arrested for property crimes are stealing to buy pot, but even if all of them were, it would mean that nearly 94 percent of marijuana users managed to find money to buy marijuana using other means. Similarly, there is no way to measure which violent crimes were committed by pot smokers, but again -- even if every single one of them was committed by a different pot smoker, it would mean that nearly 98 percent of the users manage to avoid being arrested for committing violent acts. Even if we total up every single property and violent crime and blame it on a different marijuana user, over 90 percent of them would still escape unscathed.

When it comes to drug mentions at the hospital, marijuana was 'mentioned' 119,472 times in 2002, out of the approximately 102.8 million total hospital visits that year. If every one of them involved a different person, it would mean that 99.5 percent of past year marijuana users did not seek medical treatment related to their use of marijuana. Likewise, when it comes to drug rehab admissions -- 255,394 people or some 1.2 percent of past year marijuana users entered a drug treatment program for marijuana (2001), while 98.8 percent of them did not.

In 2002, some 697,000 people or about 2.7 percent of past year users were arrested for a marijuana law violation -- 88 percent of which were for simple possession. It would appear that being caught with marijuana is actually the most dangerous aspect of its use, given that twice as many users are arrested than in rehab, and five times as many are arrested than seek medical treatment over a marijuana related issue.

Lest we forget "the children," the numbers for youthful past year marijuana users mirror those of the overall user population in general. Some 2.5 percent of them ended up in drug rehab (more than half of which were due to legal system referrals), while less than one-half of one percent of them went to the emergency room for a marijuana-related problem. If 97 percent of the past year users are not experiencing difficulties as a result of their marijuana use, then why in the world are we holding them at gunpoint (in our schools no less) to search them for it?

As of 2002, an estimated 95 million Americans have smoked marijuana at least once. Even among those who continue to use it, the most serious consequence remains that their life can be ruined because they got caught in possession of marijuana. It may not be your father's pot, but it is definitely your great-grandfather's drug war.

Originally written Jun 1, 2004

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