Conversation with a DEA Agent

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Conversation with a DEA Agent

by Ari Armstrong, July 13, 2004

See Medical Marijuana in Colorado for links to more articles about this issue.

Last Thursday I called the local DEA office in an attempt to learn information about an Aurora case involving medical marijuana. That proved futile: "We don't talk about ongoing cases," I was told. However, the Public Information Officer, Daniel Reuter, and I held a conversation about marijuana enforcement that's interesting in its own right.

Unlike his counterpart at the U.S. Attorney's office, Jeff Dorschner, whose measured professionalism constrains him to offer only limited, carefully worded, and strictly relevant answers, Reuter seemed eager to pursue a rambling debate, which suited me fine. My general impression of Reuter is that he's a passionate true believer who has absorbed the party line, but who is not always interested in subtle argument. While he disputed my points, he did not always respond to them.

Reuter doesn't think marijuana is useful for medical purposes. He went on for some time about the "unsung heroes" who work at hospices and care for very ill people. Indeed, his own father was ill. Even though employees hand out all sorts of drugs in such places, they do not distribute marijuana. In addition, the AMA has been critical of marijuana for medical purposes. Therefore, Reuter suggested, marijuana is useless as medicine. QED. "My opinion is that marijuana is not a bridge to a better place. If you're going to call it medical marijuana, you might as well call it medical alcohol," Reuter said. (Of course, the drug alcohol has been used historically for medical purposes, today some people consume it for health benefits, and, most importantly, today alcohol is legal for whatever purposes, medical, recreational, spiritual, or whatever, the user decides are important.)

I replied that much of the medical community originally opposed banning marijuana, other medical groups have found marijuana to be medically useful (as Paul Armentano and Keith Stroup review in The New Prohibition), and Colorado's medical marijuana program requires a doctor's sign-off. In addition, I've talked with people who use marijuana for medical purposes, and the direct reports of such people provide good evidence that marijuana works well for some people. Also, patients in hospices are not representative of all ill people, and anyway hospices can't distribute marijuana for political reasons. Indeed, the DEA has been quite effective in California and elsewhere at persecuting those who distribute marijuana to the sick and the dying. For the DEA to stop doctors from issuing marijuana, then use the fact that few doctors issue marijuana as evidence that it's medically worthless, is ridiculous.

Do doctors argue about the medical uses of marijuana? Of course they do. Just as they argue about the prudent use of alcohol, steak, carbohydrates, aspirin, chiropractic, herbal remedies, and hundreds of other things. That a great many doctors (and ill people) believe marijuana has medical value is indisputable. That some doctors (I haven't seen a poll to determine precise numbers) doubt the medical value of marijuana is not a justification for the national prohibition of the drug for medical use.

Interestingly, Reuter explicitly mentioned Marinol, a synthetic substitute for marijuana available by prescription. This is an odd tension. On one hand, the prohibitionists argue, marijuana is useless for medical purposes, but, on the other hand, Marinol provides a legal, medically useful alternative to marijuana. But if marijuana isn't useful for medical purposes, how can a synthetic substitute for it be useful for medical purposes? (Reuter and I didn't get into a discussion of the federal government's old "compassionate use" program, in which federal agents distributed marijuana to sick people.)

Of course, as Reuter explained, smoked marijuana also contains carcinogenic elements. I didn't ask him if he thinks tobacco cigarettes should also be banned based on that fact. He asked me if I doubted smoking is harmful, and I granted that of course putting smoke of any kind into your lungs is damaging. But most drugs, including aspirin, damage your body in some way. Alcohol is a poison. (I again neglected to ask Reuter if he favors returning to alcohol prohibition.) The relevant medical question is, does the drug in question do more good than harm? The fact that smoked marijuana contains carcinogens does not prove that marijuana is medically inappropriate or that it should be banned.

I did mention to Reuter that marijuana can be consumed without being smoked. Yet, to the DEA and its Congressional masters, eating marijuana in brownies just as illegal as smoking it is. If the carcinogens of marijuana smoke were really the motivating factor for Reuter, he would advocate the consumption of marijuana that doesn't involve smoking, such as via food, teas, and vaporization. (Also, as Armentano and Stroup explain, while general potency of marijuana has increased slightly over the years, a fact attributable to prohibition laws, uncommon but more potent forms of the drug can be smoked in lower quantities for the same effect.) But to Reuter, the carcinogens of smoke are a pretext for prohibition, not a reason for it.

Finally, Reuter said marijuana is addictive. Just as alcohol and tobacco and many prescribed drugs are. Just like sugar and processed carbohydrates are. Reuter urged me to call an addiction counselor who treats people addicted to marijuana. I responded, again following Armentano and Stroup, that most marijuana users are referred to "treatment" by the courts, so the number of people in treatment for marijuana says little about the addictive properties of marijuana.

I told Reuter I would call the counselor, if he would agree to read Addiction is a Choice by Dr. Jeffrey Schaler. (I left a message with the counselor, and we have not yet had a chance to chat, though I will pursue that.) I explained to Reuter that, as Jacob Sullum also argues in Saying Yes, our addictions are subject to our choices. Sullum points out that looking only at drug users who are sent to jail or treatment results in a totally skewed sense of the addictive dangers of drugs, because the overwhelming majority of drug users never end up in the system, and they use drugs moderately or for a short period of time. Again, Reuter's arguments in no way justified the prohibition of marijuana for medical purposes or generally.

Reuter came up with another interesting argument to support his claim that marijuana is medically useless. He said that, if it were really valuable, drug companies would fight to make it legal because it would be a money maker. Of course his point is obviously false: a plant that anybody can grow at home isn't going to make big drug companies much money. Instead, if we're going to look at economic incentives, drug companies have every incentive to keep marijuana illegal.

Reuter was less that pleased when I pointed out that, if we're going to look to economic interests, we should also consider how drug warriors earn their living. He said I was wrongly accusing him of acting from a "hidden agenda." I wasn't doing that: just because an economic incentive exists doesn't mean a person has to act on that incentive. For example, just because Reuter has an economic incentive to propagandize in favor of prohibitionist laws, doesn't mean that's what's motivating him. I take his sincerity at face value, even though I think he's terribly wrong in his views.

Yet Reuter overtly accused the supporters of medical marijuana of acting from a hidden agenda. "My experience with marijuana is it's almost a religion," he said. He added about the alleged medical use of marijuana, "I don't think it's for pain. I think it's to legitimize a lifestyle and [because of] a mistrust of government." So Reuter was insulted when I pointed out the economic incentives behind prohibition, yet he would entertain only the possibility that his critiques are dishonest and motivated by things other than what they claim.

The best policy is to take the claims of prohibitionists and reformers at face value. Most prohibitionists sincerely believe those laws are good for people, while most reformers sincerely believe they are bad. Clearly, the billions of dollars redistributed annually create strong economic incentives behind prohibition, whereas much weaker economic incentives exist on the other side. A handful of people make a full-time living advocating for reform, and most reformers work for free. At the same time, most prohibitionists do not earn any money from prohibition, and many also work for free. More importantly, the professional drug warriors generally were prohibitionists before they got a job in the field.

I think it's actually fairly rare for people to intentionally lie for economic interests (excluding common criminals). Instead, generally people find work doing things they believe in. A problem that's probably a lot more common is to allow economic interests to discourage a person from speaking up and pointing out a problem. I suspect this applies to a minority of drug warriors -- they keep doing it because it's their job, even though they've grown cynical -- though I have no idea what the size of this group might be.

I've heard the claim that some drug-policy reformers use medical marijuana as a pretext to further their real agenda: to legalize marijuana. Perhaps such people exist, but I don't know any. Instead, all the reformers I've heard from believe legalizing marijuana for medical purposes is an end in itself. I'm sure a lot of people want to legalize marijuana only for medical purposes, though the reformers I know want to legalize marijuana across the board (with the common exceptions including sales to minors, as for alcohol). From my perspective, it's great if marijuana is legalized for medical purposes, and it's even better if we eventually achieve full legalization. There's nothing underhanded about this perspective; indeed, that sort of position is typical of groups that advocate any sort of political reform.

But let me address Reuter's comments directly. Do some people have a quasi-religious attachment to marijuana? Of course. Just as some people have a quasi-religious attachment to prohibitionist laws. If marijuana is a religion, then that only further demonstrates it should be legalized, for the First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

Similarly, where do federal politicians and agents get the notion their duty is to stop peaceable people from leading alternative "lifestyles?" I think chronic use of marijuana, other than for specific medical purposes, is pretty dumb. On the other hand, I think most religious doctrines are pretty dumb, too, and far more destructive than marijuana is. I could say the same about any number of practices that are, in our sometimes free society, legal.

The entire point of a free society, of liberty, is that people are permitted to live the lifestyle of their choosing, so long as they do not violate the equal rights of others. "But marijuana is not a victimless crime." Horsefeathers. Almost everyone who has ever smoked marijuana has done so without harming others. If someone smokes marijuana and then drives dangerously, abuses a child, or commits some other actual crime against a person or property, then go after the person for that crime, not the drug use. If the harm we're talking about is something like being lazy or being a jerk, then that's not something a free society properly outlaws. (Professor Michael Huemer contributed an excellent discussion of this issue to The New Prohibition.)

Addiction is a choice. Drugs don't commit crimes, people do. Hold people accountable for their criminal actions, not for their "lifestyle" choices. As Sullum suggests, the "voodoo pharmacology" that is the basis of prohibitionist propaganda creates a strange codependency between drug warriors and drug addicts. Both groups blame the drug and pretend the drug has some sort of supernatural energy over the user. I've also called this the "demonic possession" theory of drug use. Yes, some people, a small minority of users, form an incredibly damaging attachment to drugs (the same can be said about religion, sex, the legal drug alcohol, or any number of things), but the proper approach, especially in a free society, is to offer assistance to addicts, condemn drug abuse through persuasion, punish real crimes, and otherwise respect people's right to make their own decisions.

In reply to Reuter's claim that drug-policy reformers have a "mistrust of government," I point out that a citizenry that blindly trusts everything government officials do is destined for totalitarianism. Perhaps Reuter should review the Declaration of Independence: our nation was founded on "mistrust of government" -- not a blind, reactionary mistrust, but a reasoned level of trust based on the facts. Government officials who wish to be trusted by the citizenry must earn that trust. The DEA's history of abusive tactics, along with Congress's history of passing foolish prohibitionist laws, inspires neither trust nor confidence.

* * *

In the course of our discussion about marijuana, Reuter asked me if I smoke it. I got the impression he asked this just to further the discussion at hand, but of course I was immediately aware that a DEA agent was asking me if I commit a crime over which the DEA happens to have jurisdiction.

To my embarrassment, I answered his question. (No, I don't smoke marijuana. I told him I don't even take aspirin because of its adverse health effects.) What was going through my mind as I answered his query? I thought I might help break up his stereotypes about drug-policy reformers. More importantly, I was afraid. Not seriously afraid, but mildly fearful. I thought that, if I declined to answer his question, he might take that as a "yes." My decision to answer his question, then, was foolish and even cowardly. Contemplating such matters ahead of time fosters better split-second decisions.

I think the best response to an inappropriate question by law enforcement is to ignore the question or even state explicitly, "I don't reply to questions without the presence of my lawyer." (I encourage readers to obtain professional legal advice on these matters.) The more of us who do so, the more protection we all have.

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