The Drug Czar's False Statement About Marijuana and Hemp Should Be a Bigger Scandal

In response to an online petition sponsored by the White House, which I signed seven months ago, I've finally received a response from Obama's Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, explaining why we can't let American farmers grow industrial hemp. It's written in rather plain language, but nonetheless betrays either appalling ignorance or rank dishonesty on the part of our nation's top drug policy official.

Unfortunately, while President Obama's misleading claims about medical marijuana policy have generated considerable attention, the drug czar's recent comments about hemp have gone almost entirely unnoticed and unreported. This is his entire response right here (which apparently took many months to prepare):

Allow Industrial Hemp to be Grown in the U.S. Once Again

What We Have to Say About Marijuana and Hemp Production
By Gil Kerlikowske

America's farmers deserve our Nation's help and support to ensure rural America's prosperity and vitality. Federal law prohibits human consumption, distribution, and possession of Schedule I controlled substances. Hemp and marijuana are part of the same species of cannabis plant. While most of the THC in cannabis plants is concentrated in the marijuana, all parts of the plant, including hemp, can contain THC, a Schedule I controlled substance. The Administration will continue looking for innovative ways to support farmers across the country while balancing the need to protect public health and safety. []

The drug czar oddly begins by declaring that, "federal law prohibits human consumption, distribution, and possession of Schedule I controlled substances," which is simply irrelevant in the context of hemp. Hemp isn't a Schedule I controlled substance and it can legally be consumed, distributed and possessed in a variety of forms. The soap I use every day is made of it, and you can buy hemp foods at any grocery store without fear of arrest. The drug czar's failure to even acknowledge this basic fact makes his statement terribly confusing in its entirety, but it actually gets worse.

The central issue here, and the whole point of the petition, is that the DEA won't let American farmers grow hemp for the purpose of manufacturing the various legal products that are made from it. As a result, all hemp products in the U.S. are made from imported hemp, eliminating a lucrative economic opportunity for American farmers. Instead of explaining why that is, the drug czar persists in blurring the distinction between hemp and pot, even implying that hemp can get you high:

While most of the THC in cannabis plants is concentrated in the marijuana, all parts of the plant, including hemp, can contain THC, a Schedule I controlled substance.

Here, the drug czar implies that hemp and marijuana are separate parts of the same individual plant, as if to suggest that allowing hemp cultivation would require that psychoactive marijuana be produced as a byproduct. This is false. Though both are types of cannabis, the hemp plant is genetically different from marijuana plants that produce the drug. In other words, the plant that's used to make soap won't get you high, and the plant that gets you high isn't used to make soap. This is basic stuff, but the drug czar's statement mischaracterizes it to the point of complete incoherence.

Thus, through this series of gratuitous mischaracterizations, we arrive at the drug czar's conclusion that there is a "need to protect public health and safety" from the hemp plant. But there just isn't. It's not even a drug in the first place, which may in fact help to explain why a professional anti-pot propagandist like the drug czar shows up for this debate armed with arguments even more impotent and embarrassing than we've come to expect from our nation's official drug war cheerleader.

But that's no excuse. Remember that this conversation started because a petition on the president's own website earned enough votes from the public to meet the threshold for an official response. The White House asked us to bring important topics to their attention. That's how this began, and the public was encouraged to participate with the expectation that their policy concerns would be taken seriously.

Instead, we've been handed a statement that is pitifully brief, shamefully dishonest, and plainly unresponsive to the actual issues and arguments we raised. That the drug czar or anyone at the White House would consider this answer sufficient is an insult to our intelligence and an affront to the spirit of democratic political participation underlying the petition process itself.

After all, it is the drug czar's job to communicate with the public about drug policy. He should be able to answer the questions people are asking, especially when it comes to seemingly insane policies like banning something just because it looks like something else. If the drug czar can't provide forthright responses to legitimate public policy concerns, then he might be accused of being a rather crappy public servant.

Still, the greatest shame in all of this remains the federal policy on hemp cultivation itself, an act of drug war idiocy so arbitrary and absurd that it took the drug czar seven months to draft five desperate sentences in defense of it. At its core, the domestic cultivation of industrial hemp is a simple matter of agriculture and economics that has nothing to do with drug policy at all, and shouldn't even be tied to the otherwise raging debate about marijuana laws in America.

The fact that our drug policy decision-makers insist on confusing hemp with marijuana may not be their worst mistake by any means, but it is certainly a vivid exhibit in the drug war idiocy that still grips our political leadership. If these are their best arguments against hemp, one shudders to think what manner of madness a longer response could have contained.

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