By Dan Bernath

To understand drug warriors’ reluctance to face even the most blatant signs of marijuana prohibition’s folly, consider government officials’ reactions to two studies released last month – one eagerly anticipated, and one they’d rather everyone forgot.

First, the one they consider good news – the 2006 Monitoring the Future report. Sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and conducted by the University of Michigan, this annual survey has taken the pulse of teen drug use trends for 32 years.

It’s a comprehensive, nuanced study, but you wouldn’t get that from talking to Drug Czar John Walters. He hailed a 23% decline in overall teen drug use and a 25% drop in teen marijuana use since 2001 as a “substance abuse sea change among American teens.” Fewer kids using drugs is certainly good news, but these numbers represent a modest improvement compared with much lower rates just 15 years ago.

If you accept these fluctuations as a sea change, then you probably won’t blink when you hear Walters’ explanation for the improvements: increased drug education, including his Office of National Drug Control Policy’s widely discredited advertising campaign.

He makes the claim with such conviction that you might almost forget he’s touting the same campaign the Government Accountability Office criticized in August 2006 as ineffective and possibly even counterproductive. His assertion is even more incredible considering that the decreases in teen drug use cited in the Monitoring the Future report coincide with decreases in his ad budget – down from $185 million in 2001 to $100 million in 2006.

Walters must hope nobody actually reads the Monitoring the Future report, because it makes the real consequences of government drug education efforts very clear: a distorted, overblown understanding among young teens of the risks of marijuana.

According to the report, 73.2% of eighth-graders see “great risk” in using marijuana regularly, compared with just 40% who consider regular LSD use risky and 59.4% who consider smoking a pack of cigarettes a day or more a great risk. Even presumably more savvy 12th-graders see greater risk in regular marijuana use (77.8% of those surveyed) than regular barbiturate use (70.2%) or consuming four to five drinks nearly every day (70.9%).

Marijuana isn’t for kids, and any evidence indicating that children understand that is encouraging. But perhaps exaggerating the risks of using marijuana isn’t the best way to teach children how to make wise decisions about drugs that can actually kill them.

Not surprisingly, the drug warriors are quick to disparage any assessment of teen marijuana use that runs counter to their own self-congratulatory interpretations. Early in December, for example, MPP released a report analyzing government and academic studies disproving the government’s assertion that prohibition is necessary to prevent teen marijuana use.

In a perfect world, the report would have sparked a reasoned policy debate. Rather than dispute any of the report’s data or conclusions, however, ONDCP spokesman Tom Riley simply dismissed it as “silly.”

In contrast to their spinning of the Monitoring the Future report, prohibitionists seemed caught off guard by another study released last month, Jon Gettman’s "Marijuana Production in the United States." The report used government data to identify marijuana as America’s largest cash crop – a blow to the government’s costly, well-publicized marijuana eradication campaign.

Despite attempts by government officials to spin Gettman’s findings and their implications, the report received a great deal of national attention. Drug warriors fell back on their same old straw man arguments when questioned about it, not noticing – or perhaps hoping no one else would notice – that they were often confirming prohibition’s role in encouraging violent criminal activity.

For example, here’s DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney in an ABC News report arguing in favor of marijuana eradication: “It’s not these cute mom-and-pop bong shops anymore. It’s violent drug-trafficking groups that are doing all these grows.” Apparently Courtney never considered the vital role prohibition plays in bringing violent drug-trafficking groups to the marijuana market.

In the past, marijuana prohibitionists have been successful at deflecting criticism and scaring Americans away from considering effective policy change. It’s our job to convince politicians and the public that prohibition has failed, and that it’s time for sensible, compassionate laws regulating marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol.

But don’t count on the drug warriors to lead the way. Long after the rest of us have rejected their dishonest, self-serving rhetoric, zealots like Walters will still be spinning in their graves.

Dan Bernath is the Marijuana Policy Project’s assistant director of communications, www.mpp.org. Email him at dbernath@mpp.org.