The DEA leads the charge against cannabis legalization. It defines marijuana as a Schedule I banned substance, a category reserved for the most dangerous drugs including things heroin. And just last year, the agency doubled down on its stance when it refused to reclassify cannabis. But the DEA may have just argued against itself without even realizing it. In a tweet Tuesday, the agency shared a graph that shows how a drug’s perceived risk affects how much it’s used. The DEA thought the chart would demonstrate why keeping cannabis illegal is the right thing to do. But when you dig a little deeper, the graph makes a better case for marijuana legalization.
CHALLENGE: Over the long term its proven that the perception of drug harm is correlated w/use, a trend that’s going in the wrong direction pic.twitter.com/2IJJHS5rCR
— DEA HQ (@DEAHQ) January 9, 2017
The graph highlights the correlation between how dangerous a drug is perceived to be and how much it’s used. In the DEA’s tweet, there’s one graph for tobacco and one for cannabis. The graph for tobacco clearly shows that when people perceive it to be more dangerous, fewer people use it. But the cannabis one is a bit different.
It shows that over time, people perceive marijuana to be less dangerous. Meanwhile, actual marijuana use has fluctuated a little bit but has leveled off in recent years.
Here’s how the DEA wants us to interpret the data—and keep in mind that for the DEA the goal is to eliminate cannabis use. The DEA used the graph to suggest that people need to start perceiving marijuana as more dangerous so that they’ll stop using it. And to accomplish that, the DEA wants to keep it illegal. The DEA is arguing that cannabis is dangerous and the only way to convince people to stop using it is to keep it illegal and punish people for using it.
But the DEA may be misinterpreting its data. In fact, according to these charts, if the DEA wants to stop cannabis use, they should treat it the same as tobacco.
And that would mean making it legal, regulating it, and approaching it from a public health perspective rather than a law enforcement perspective. That’s what happened with tobacco. And according to those graphs, that’s exactly what led to decreased tobacco use.
So, when you start breaking it down, the DEA’s charts actually make a pretty strong case against keeping it illegal. These graphs suggest that the best way to control cannabis use is to legalize it.
But there’s still more. The DEA’s entire understanding of cannabis may be fundamentally flawed. No matter how the DEA wants to interpret these graphs, they’re always assuming that somehow they can convince the public that cannabis is dangerous.
But what if the fall in cannabis’s perception of harm is related to the fact that there’s more scientific evidence than ever before that cannabis really, truly might not be all that dangerous? In fact, researchers have found that cannabis may have tons of health benefits. It may be helpful in treating a range of health conditions including epilepsy, PTSD, a variety of mood disorders, and even some forms of cancer.
And many people see it as a much safer drug than some of the most heavily prescribed pharmaceutical drugs. That’s especially true when it comes to opioids.
A 2016 study found that opioids were among the most heavily prescribed drugs in the country. It also concluded that there are dangerously high levels of opioid addiction, abuse, and deadly overdoses. But in states where medical marijuana is available, all those numbers are lower.
So, maybe the real problem is the DEA’s position that cannabis is as dangerous as heroin. It’s a position that many people see as outdated. And it’s not backed up by what researchers are discovering.
Instead of trying to come up with new ways to convince the public to be afraid of cannabis, maybe we need to start figuring out how to make it as accessible and useful as possible.