Government endorsed misinformation is a failed drug policy

One of the most damaging aspects of the war on drugs is the spread of government endorsed misinformation about drugs.

The debate about medical marijuana is ongoing in the United States. Currently 13 states have legalized medicinal use of marijuana while federal law still makes no distinction between medical and recreational use of the plant.

On November 10 the American Medical Association changed their opinion on medical marijuana. A report released by the AMA on that date stated that there were certain medical benefits associated with THC, the main active component of the cannabis plant. The AMA report also urged the government to change the current federal classification of marijuana of category I, reserved for highly addictive substances with no medicinal value, alongside heroin and ecstasy. Ironically some potentially more harmful drugs such as cocaine are currently in category II which is reserved for substances with a recognised medicinal value. Even though this federal law is not always enforced, there are over 100 US citizens who are either in prison or facing ongoing criminal or civil investigations for medical marijuana cultivation or distribution.

Despite the AMA changing their view, the original anti-medical marijuana statement was still on the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) website a week after the November 10 report. This prompted the drug policy reform advocacy group LEAP to start an action alert asking people to email the US Attorney General Eric Holder to update the DEA website. The alert worked and after a large amount of US citizens sent emails to complain about public funds being used to promote misinformation, the DEA had to remove the out of date information. However other government documents still have not been updated such as information from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and other websites affiliated to the DEA.

A major criticism of government endorsement of misinformation about drug use is that the impact it can have may be the opposite of its intent. Even the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse acknowledges that “studies testing the effectiveness of information dissemination or fear-arousal approaches have consistently shown that they do not work”. The ambiguous nature of the US laws on marijuana also sends out mixed messages which can also have a negative effect on society as a whole.

Organisations such as the Americans for Safe Access (ASA) have previously challenged the federal government and the Department for Human Services (HHS) to correct previously published misinformation to comply with the Data Quality Act (DQA). The DQA is legislation to ensure government-wide guidelines that "provide policy and procedural guidance to Federal agencies for ensuring and maximizing the quality, objectivity, utility, and integrity of information (including statistical information) disseminated by Federal agencies". However the lawsuit is now being appealed after being dismissed because the district court found that the DQA is not open to judicial review.

This controversy is only part of a wider campaign for a non-biased drug policy based on scientific evidence and not myths and suspicions. This forms part of an even wider debate, the fact that our complex societies are constantly developing in science and technology and that these advances should be used to understand some of the problems our societies face. Without following scientific advice, drug policy has the potential to damage public health. The California Medical Association has gone as far to state that the prohibition of marijuana even for recreational use is a “failed public health policy”.

Drug reform advocacy organisations play an important role in challenging a lot of the misinformation and myth that exists around the issues of illicit drugs. If one looks at the history of US drug policy and public opinion of drugs the progression that has been made is evident. At the turn of the century fear-mongering racist propaganda stated that "most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the 'cocaine-crazed' Negro brain." Marijuana prohibition was also reinforced by such propaganda and in 1931 officials in New Orleans attributed many of the regions crimes to cannabis claiming that it was a dangerous sexual stimulant. However despite this there is still much to be done, to send an email to the US Attorney General Eric Holder about the use of public funds to spread misinformation please click here.

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