Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) tore into deputy drug czar Michael Botticelli on Tuesday, highlighting federal drug policy's failure to address the substances "ravaging our country" while still considering marijuana to be as dangerous as heroin.
Speaking during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform focused on the Obama administration's marijuana policy, Cohen urged drug policy officials to rethink marijuana's classification as a Schedule 1 substance, which the Drug Enforcement Administration considers "the most dangerous class of drugs." Other Schedule 1 substances include heroin, LSD and ecstasy, while methamphetamine and cocaine fall under the Schedule II definition.
"It is ludicrous, absurd, crazy to have marijuana in the same level as heroin," Cohen said. "Ask the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, if you could. Nobody dies from marijuana. People die from heroin."
Hoffman, the Academy Award-winning actor, died Sunday after an apparent heroin overdose. Police officials said he was found with a syringe still in his arm.
"Every second that we spend in this country trying to enforce marijuana laws is a second that we're not enforcing heroin laws. And heroin and meth are the two drugs that are ravaging our country," Cohen continued. "And every death, including Mr. Hoffman's, is partly the responsibility of the federal government's drug priorities for not putting total emphasis on the drugs that kill, that cause people to be addicted and have to steal to support their habit."
Cohen warned that by not acknowledging that marijuana is less dangerous than heroin and other substances, as DEA Chief Michele Leonhart has refused to do, the administration is undermining its own efforts to prevent drug abuse.
"Heroin is getting into the arms of young people," Cohen said. "When we put marijuana on the same level as heroin and crack and LSD and meth and crack and cocaine, we are telling young people not to listen to adults about the ravages and problems, and they don't listen because they know you're wrong."
Later in the hearing, Cohen grilled Botticelli over the dangers of heroin use versus that of smoking pot.
"You can't name one person who's died from a overdose of marijuana can you?"
"Not to my knowledge," Botticelli replied.
"Do you know people, possibly, heard of people who smoke marijuana, who are corporate giants? Who run banks? Run major corporations?" Cohen asked.
"Yes sir, but I also know.. a substantial number of people who also have gone one to develop significant disorders who have smoked marijuana. Again 1 in 9 people who try marijuana develop a dependency and we know that particularly those kids who use it early.."
"Kids shouldn't use it," Cohen said, cutting off Botticelli. "Kids shouldn't use it ever. And at age 18 people shouldn't be arrested for it. Maybe it should be 21.. but the fact is, we need to put our priorities toward heroin and meth."
Hoffman's death has put the spotlight back on heroin use, an epidemic that's been overlooked in recent years. As AFP reported Monday, overdose deaths rose 45 percent from 2006 to 2010. Meanwhile, an often lethal combination of heroin and Fentanyl has made its way through the mid-Atlantic, leaving a string of overdose deaths in its wake.
When asked by Cohen how much of the Office of National Drug Control Policy's budget goes toward treating heroin addiction, Botticelli said the administration doesn't divide the budget based on specific drugs, but focuses on preventing overall drug use.
"Isn't that a mistake when people die form heroin in great numbers, that the Vermont governor spends his entire State of the State on heroin use? And we don't distinguish and try to save people's lives?" Cohen said. "That's when you knock people over at the corner store. It's not to get money to buy a donut 'cause you're high, it's to buy heroin because you're hooked."
Dan Riffle, the Marijuana Policy Project's director of federal policies, criticized Botticelli's responses to Cohen's questioning.
"It was made abundantly clear that the drug czar's office either does not have its facts straight on marijuana or is unwilling to acknowledge them," Riffle said in a statement. "If someone cannot simply agree that marijuana is less harmful than drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, they are not fit to be overseeing our nation's drug policy."