A day after Washington state joined Colorado in selling marijuana in retail outlets, the Obama administration on Wednesday criticized drug legalization and warned that a declining perception of risk is leading more U.S. teens to smoke pot.
In a report to Congress, the White House drug czar's office said it wants to spend $25 billion next year as part of a broad drug-fighting plan, including more on treatment for people addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers. It described the abuse of opioids as a national epidemic.
"We cannot leave people behind," said Michael Botticelli, the acting drug czar and Obama's new top drug adviser, who announced the administration's 2014 national drug control strategy during a visit to Roanoke, Va.
The report urged Americans not to stigmatize those who are addicted to drugs but to make sure they're informed of the risks of drug use.
"And we must seek to avoid oversimplified debates between the idea of a war on drugs and the notion of legalization as a panacea," the report said, calling it a "false choice."
Groups backing marijuana legalization criticized the plan.
"The drug czar's office is still tone deaf when it comes to marijuana policy. . . . Legalizing and regulating marijuana is not a panacea, but it is sound policy," said Mason Tvert, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Calling marijuana use among young people a "serious challenge," the federal report said the challenges have "gained prominence" with the decision by voters in Washington state and Colorado in 2012 to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults over 21.
Colorado began its pot sales on Jan. 1, while Washington state waited until Tuesday. The Obama administration gave the green light to the experiments last August, saying it would not interfere if the states do a good job policing themselves.
Opponents of legalization applauded the new report.
"I think it is very reassuring," said Kevin Sabet, who heads Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). "It shows that this White House is still very uncomfortable with the notion of legalization, and I think it signals that they aren't too thrilled with how things have panned out in Colorado. It would have been much easier for them to avoid the issue altogether in this year's strategy, but they chose to address it – that took guts."
In a letter to Congress, Obama said that millions of Americans will be able to get drug treatment paid by insurance companies as part of the health care law passed by Congress in 2010.
But he said that more must be done to fight illicit drug use, which he said is linked to disease, crime, highway accidents and lower academic performance.
With studies showing teens less concerned about possible risks linked to marijuana, the report warned that youths who use drugs often are at risk for truancy and delinquency. One study, by the National Academy of the Sciences, found an average drop of 8 points in IQ between childhood and adulthood due to heavy cannabis use during the teen years. And a second study, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that of those students who got mostly Ds and Fs, two-thirds had used marijuana.
The administration sounded similar alarms in December. At that time, a survey released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 60 percent of 12th-graders did not view regular marijuana use as harmful, and more than 12 percent of eighth-graders said they had used the drug in the past year. The survey also found teens were more likely to smoke marijuana than cigarettes.
Botticelli has taken the temporary lead for the administration on drug issues after the last drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, became chief of Customs and Border Protection. Obama has yet to name a successor.
At a news conference in Roanoke, Botticelli introduced himself as "a person in long-term recovery." He said he wanted to share his personal story because too many Americans still view addiction as a moral failing, not a disease.
"Treatment works," he said.
As part of its plan, the administration said it wanted to step up its efforts to eradicate marijuana grown illegally on public lands. That has been a growing issue on forest lands, particularly in California, in recent years. And the plan calls for increased targeting of indoor marijuana growing operations, which are easier to conceal.
The administration's $25 billion plan includes nearly $11 billion for treatment and prevention and $9 billion for law enforcement and incarceration. The White House said the portion of the drug budget spent on treatment and prevention is now 43 percent, the highest in 12 years.
Critics say taxpayers are still spending too much on enforcement.
Tvert noted that even Obama earlier this year declared that marijuana was less harmful than alcohol, adding: "Yet his administration is going to maintain a policy of punishing adults who make the safer choice."
And Tom Angell, chairman of a pro-legalization group called Marijuana Majority, said the Obama administration "talks a good game about the need for a balanced drug strategy" but is still content to spend money prosecuting people.
"They recognize the public doesn't support the drug war anymore, but it's time to bring the policy reality into line with the rhetoric," he said.
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