Friday, May 2, 2014

DEA Head Michele Leonhart’s Dubious Statistics



DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart, speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed fears that legalization in Colorado has led to spikes in marijuana trafficking through nearby states. During her testimony, she once again played fast and loose with the truth about marijuana.

First, Leonhart claimed Kansas has experienced a 61 percent increase in seizures of marijuana from Colorado. We could find no Kansas police statistics to verify this claim, but we did find a report from February by KMBC News in Kansas City that quoted one small-town border cop explaining how his possession cases jumped from 12 in 2012 to 38 in 2013.

But any statistic about more seizures is questionable, because much of that data is generated by how invested police are in patrolling, profiling and making stops over marijuana. Now that marijuana is legal in Colorado and cops in nearby states are increasing patrols and targeting out-of-state drivers from legal states, of course they’re going to catch more marijuana possessors.  Even if their only probable cause is a license plate from Colorado or a driver’s license from Washington, as is alleged by a man suing the Idaho State Police for profiling and illegally detaining him.

Next, Leonhart described an increase by 28 percent in the number of marijuana-related emergency room visits between 2007 and 2011. This is another junk stat collected from the Drug Abuse Warning Network, or DAWN. It collects data on how many people visiting the ER have used marijuana. It’s not a collection of “oh, no, I overdosed on the reefers and gotta get to the ER!” stats, it’s a collection of “oh, no, I had an accident or got sick and had to go to the ER and through my blood tests or my admission they found out I smoke pot” stats. As pot becomes more legal and more people use it and are unafraid to admit they use it, your marijuana-related anything stats are going to go up.

Finally, Leonhart also explained how 1 in 15 high school seniors is a near daily marijuana user and since 2009, more youth smoke marijuana than cigarettes. One in 15 is 6.67 percent of high school seniors using marijuana near daily. According to the 2013 Monitoring the Future survey, 6.5 percent of high school seniors admit daily use of marijuana, so close enough, but left unsaid is that daily use figure hasn’t really changed in three years; in 2012 it was 6.5 percent and in 2011 it was 6.6 percent.

Those are still the greatest rates of daily high school senior pot smoking recorded in a data set that goes back to 1991. But when medical marijuana went into effect in California, 1997, the daily senior toking rate was 5.8 percent, so has it really increased that much? (It’s a 12 percent increase, if you’re interested.)  And does that increase reflect risk-taking seniors making a smarter choice? From 1997 to 2013, daily alcohol use has dropped from 3.9 percent to 2.2 percent, “been drunk daily” has dropped from 2.0 percent to 1.3 percent, and binge drinking in the last two weeks (five or more drinks in a row) has dropped from 31.3 percent to 22.1 percent.

Then there’s the cigarette smoking Leonhart mentioned. Again, from 1997 to 2013, any daily use among high school seniors dropped from 24.6 percent to 8.5 percent and half-pack-a-day or more use dropped from 14.3 percent to 3.4 percent. So when use of toxic and highly-addictive alcohol and tobacco are dropping by amounts ranging from 43.5 percent to 76 percent, is it fair to ask whether a 12 percent increase in pot smoking had anything to do with it? I know Michele Leonhart would say it’s an unfair correlation, but she makes unfair correlations between marijuana vs. alcohol and tobacco all the time.

"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of The Russ Belville Show.

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