Last year President Clinton kicked off a five year, $2 billion campaign to dissuade young people from using drugs, primarily through television advertising. The ads focus on marijuana and heroin use, with half targeting youths between ages nine and eighteen and half aimed at parents and other adult role models. Using the power of a drug over which the government has significant control, television, to deter the use of drugs over which it has little control, our government expects to reach 90 percent of the target audience four times a week.

Some readers may have noticed that the ACLU, too, has addressed marijuana policy through advertising. On May 12, 1998 the ACLU placed an ad in the New York Times Op-Ed section headlined, “Let me ask you something....If you had a choice, what would it be, Marijuana or Martinis?” This ad was one of four in a year-long series of ads in the op-ed section of the New York Times. Of course, the ACLU's public education budget cannot compete with the government's; our ad represents only a small step in the effort to disseminate the truth about drugs and drug policy.

There is no issue more bipartisan than the war on drugs. We have seen, again and again, that preaching the evils of drugs brings about political glory and high levels of funding for law makers and law enforcement alike. Drug hysteria has also created ample opportunity to chip away at our due process and privacy rights. And, the drug most often singled out as a threat to American society, marijuana, is the least deserving of public fear.

The ACLU has opposed marijuana prohibition since 1968. Since then, some things have changed, but too much has remained the same. In the past 30 years, 10 million people have been arrested for marijuana offenses in the U.S., the vast majority of them for possession and use. Indeed, in 1996, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were 641,600 marijuana arrests in this country, 85% of them for possession — more than in any previous year!

The criminal prohibition of marijuana represents an extraordinary degree of government intrusion into the private, personal lives of those adults who choose to use it. Moreover, marijuana users are not the only victims of such a policy because a government that crosses easily over into this zone of personal behavior will cross over into others. The right to personal autonomy in matte religions="articleCopy"> Now here we are in 1999 and the government, along with anti-marijuana organizations like the Partnership for a Drug Free America, still persist in distorting the evidence. They claim, for example, that marijuana “kills brain cells” (remember the government-sponsored film “Reefer Madness”?) and that it is a “gateway” to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. These fear tactics are a linchpin in the government's effort to maintain prohibition and the civil liberties violations that flow from it.

The gateway theory, which is central to NDCA chief counsel Charles Blanchard's advoadse.

Ever since 1937, when it adopted the “Marihuana Tax Act,” the government has justified the criminalization of marijuana use on the grounds that it is a dangerous drug. The government has carried out a propaganda campaign about the drug's supposed destructive properties. But the government's claims seem more and more ludicrous with each passing year. Every independent commission appointed to look into this claim has found that marijuana is relatively benign. For example, President Nixon's National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse concluded in 1972 that, “There is little proven danger of physical or psychological harm from the experimental or intermittent use of natural preparations of cannibis,” and recommended that marijuana for personal use be decriminalized. Ten years later, the National Academy of Sciences issued its finding that, “Over the past forty years, marijuana has been accused of causing an array of anti-social effects including ... provoking crime and violence ... leading to heroin addiction ... and destroying the American work ethic in young people. [These] beliefs... have not been substantiated by scientific evidence.”

Now here we are in 1999 and the government, along with anti-marijuana organizations like the Partnership for a Drug Free America, still persist in distorting the evidence. They claim, for example, that marijuana “kills brain cells” (remember the government-sponsored film “Reefer Madness”?) and that it is a “gateway” to hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. These fear tactics are a linchpin in the government's effort to maintain prohibition and the civil liberties violations that flow from it.

The gateway theory, which is central to NDCA chief counsel Charles Blanchard's advocacy of criminalizing marijuana, is a prime example of the false information disseminated to the people of America as part of drug “education.” In fact, the vast majority of marijuana users do not become users of heroin, cocaine or LSD. According to the government's own statistics, for every 100 people who have tried marijuana, only one currently uses cocaine once a week or more.

Lying to children never works and disinformation in the service of politics is not education. Our government would do the nation a great service if it stopped hiding behind the myths of marijuana's dangers and instead filled the leadership role it is supposed to play in developing a humane marijuana policy, grounded on valid scientific analysis.

The American public, especially our children, deserves nothing less.

-By Deborah Jacobs ACLU-NJ Executive Director

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Anyone interested in learning the scientific truth about marijuana can do so by reading a concise 1997 book called Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts by Lynn Zimmer and John P. Morgan. The authors review all of the scientific literature about marijuana and show that the 20 most widespread, longstanding claims about the drug's dangers are myths, not facts.