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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

John Walters
John Walters
Director of National Drug Control Policy

December 12, 2008

John Walters
Yesterday, I joined President Bush in hosting a roundtable meeting with prevention, treatment, and enforcement leaders from around the country who have been instrumental in pushing back against the drug problem. Due in large measure to their work, and the implementation of a balanced National Drug Control Strategy, the Nation has made significant progress reducing drug availability and use. New data from the Monitoring the Future Study show a 25 percent reduction in overall youth drug use over the past seven years, translating into 900,000 fewer teen using drugs today than in 2001. For cocaine specifically, new workplace drug testing data from Quest Diagnostics show a 38 percent decrease in adults testing positive from June 2006 - June 2008. Further, new law enforcement data show a significant decrease in cocaine availability, with an 89 percent increase in average street price and a 32 percent reduction in average street purity, and 14 cities nationwide reporting cocaine shortages. I look forward to your questions, and thank you for your interest in sustaining and extending our shared achievements against the stubborn problem of drug use and addiction.

Devon, from Richmond, Virginia writes:
Right now and in the past, our government and your administration have trillions to fight the war on drugs on both the state and national level. How do you feel about the fact that despite the money spent, the lives lost, and the countless criminals incarcerated; drugs are purer, cheaper and easier to find than ever before?

John Walters
Thanks for your question. First, I think it is important that we put this in context: addiction is a public health issue that affects millions of Americans who either suffer with the disease, have a loved one who is addicted, are the victims of crimes perpetrated by addicted individuals. The total amount spent directly by the Federal government on substance abuse treatment, prevention and intervention, and law enforcement is not a small amount of money, but it is not in the trillions of dollars. Furthermore, the funds spent on this effort are paying off. We know from long experience that when we implement a balanced approach of prevention, treatment and enforcement we make the problems of drug use smaller in every dimension. Data just released shows that the number of young people using drugs regularly has declined for the eighth straight year. Also, because of our efforts and those of our allies in Colombia and Mexico, the supply of drugs is down. This means the price is higher and the purity is lower than it has been in many years. If we continue to press on this problem in a concerted way this progress will be sustained.

Chris, from Kent, OH writes:
Mr. Walters,Thank you for reading my question. I just thought I might ask why marijuana is still being treated as a much more harmful drug than alcohol, even though there is no possibility for overdose or chemical addiction. Many drug users admit to using alcohol before marijuana or any other drug, making alcohol more of a "gateway" drug. Also, the consequences of irresponsible alcohol use are much more detrimental to the individual, and often times fatal, than marijuana use. Isn't it time we treat these drugs based on scientific data? Thanks again.

John Walters
Thank you for your question comparing alcohol abuse with marijuana abuse. There are a number of things wrong with the way you’ve framed this question and interpreted the actual facts about marijuana abuse. First, we know better than to look at diseases in a simple comparison. It makes little sense to wonder whether a case of heart disease is worse than a case of breast cancer, for instance, if you have the public policy responsibility to ease the impact of all diseases. Both alcohol and marijuana abuse are types of the disease of addiction, and both require public health as well as legal interventions and regulations. Further, the burden of any particular disease must be calculated as the impact of a particular case multiplied by sheer number of cases in a population – that is, the disease prevalence. Public health data show that alcohol use is approximately 6 times as prevalent as current marijuana use. We believe that much of that differential is due to the fact of the illegal status of marijuana. Were marijuana not subject to such legal strictures, we believe that the prevalence rates would dramatically increase. The existing harms associated with marijuana abuse would be greatly amplified were there to be prevalence rates comparable to alcohol. Second, you are mistaken in thinking that marijuana does not produce “chemical addiction.” That marijuana creates dependency is well-established. I recommend that you research the subject through NIDA, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, where you will also find that marijuana produces withdrawal symptoms as well as tolerance to dosage. Third, you are also mistaken in thinking that there can be no “overdose” with marijuana. Data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), a system of hospital emergency rooms that record adverse drug-use events, show that marijuana is now the second leading drug cause (behind only cocaine) for an emergency room visit, surpassing even heroin. Moreover, the rate of marijuana mentions has been steeply rising over the past decade as marijuana potency has increased. Finally, marijuana use itself, quite apart from any “gateway” dimension, is sufficiently harmful that it bears legal strictures. In fact, for some vulnerable populations, the risk of depression, schizophrenia, or other serious psychosis associated with marijuana use is striking. Your interpretation of the “gateway” issue as a simple chronology is too simplistic. The core of the “gateway” realization is that early exposure to marijuana is statistically associated with later exposure to, and dependency on, cocaine and heroin. Surprisingly, early marijuana exposure is also statistically associated with developing subsequent dependency on alcohol.

Frank, from Juneau, AK writes:
How do you collect data for your reports on drug use?

John Walters
Here at the White House we operate a remarkable library of drug data reports and analyses. They are drawn from both domestic law enforcement and health agencies nationwide (local, city, and state data) and from international partners including the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. The reports and data sets include results of surveys, sentinel monitoring of public health institutions, laboratory analyses, academic research reports, medical literature, and information from the Departments of State, Justice, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, the military and intelligence agencies. These reports are analyzed and compared on a nearly daily basis.

Roderick, from Olathe, Kansas writes:
Are tax dollars best spent on treatment or enforcement of drug laws in America? I'm not suggesting that it is a "one or the other" choice, but if Congress were to apporpreate more money relating to drugs in America would it best be spend on treatment or enforement.

John Walters
Your question wisely contained the best answer; it is essential that available revenue be apportioned to both functions. The reason is that the effects of both supply reduction and demand reduction (treatment, prevention, enforcement) interact and make each of the others stronger in their impact. When treatment is successful, the demand for drugs goes down. When demand declines, fewer drugs are sold, revenues decline, and enforcement can more effectively target drug criminals. Our dual task is to keep young people away from drugs through prevention and treatment, and to keep drugs away from kids by enforcement of the law. When tax dollars are able to support both functions, drug use gets smaller, as the results of the last seven years strikingly show.

Connie, from Sarnia, Ontario, Canada writes:
Is "medical marijuana" safe or permissible?

John Walters
No. Advocates of so-called “medical” marijuana make many claims for it, but there is little science to support their conclusions. In addition, smoked marijuana remains illegal under Federal law. People who live in States where the substance has been legalized might mistakenly assume they are immune from Federal prosecution, but this is not the case. Think of it in these terms—our Food and Drug Administration regulates the safety and efficacy of medicine consumed in the United States. The FDA has not approved marijuana for medical use, because no compelling scientific case has been made for it. Instead, those who want to legalize all drugs have paid for ballot initiatives in several states, hoping that “medical” marijuana will introduce confusion to and serve as a de facto first step toward drug legalization. Doctors and medical experts should decide what constitutes medicine, not voter referenda. Those individuals who produce the drug where it is legal under State law operate under the guise of providing aid and comfort to the sick. But the reality is far different—drug cartels grow “medical” marijuana in vast quantities for significant profit. They ruin our nation’s forests by setting up large grow sites in remote areas, and protect their gardens with automatic weapons. Many of these individuals care little for the actual suffering and pain of others, but are instead using it to advance their own pro-drug agenda.

Brian, from Doylestown, PA writes:
Dear Mr. Walters,I am actually doing an assessment in school now about drugs in the U.S. and I wanted to know the statistics of how much drugs sold and used around the U.S. is grown in the U.S. and how much of it is grown in Mexico and out of the U.S. borders. Thank you for everything you are doing for America

John Walters
That is an excellent question. With some exceptions, the majority of the illegal drugs consumed by Americans are cultivated and processed overseas, including all of the heroin and cocaine we consume, and the majority of the marijuana, methamphetamine, and MDMA (also known as Ecstasy). Illegal drugs that are cultivated or produced domestically in significant quantities include marijuana, methamphetamine, PCP, and LSD.

Michael, from Powell, TN writes:
Has there been any decrease in illegal drugs under the Bush Administration? Merry CHristmas

John Walters
Michael, thank you for asking. There have been significant reductions in youth drug use since 2001. I encourage you to visit our web site to learn about them in greater detail, but overall teen drug use is down by 25 percent. That means about 900,000 fewer teens are using drugs now than in 2001. The declines for some drugs have been even steeper: 50 percent in meth use, 50 percent in Ecstasy use, and 33 percent in steroid use. Unfortunately, adult drug use rates have not fallen as sharply. This shows the stubborn nature of addiction, and emphasizes again why prevention is so important.

Connie, from Nebraska writes:
What has the President done to combat illegal drugs?

John Walters
President Bush has championed many initiatives to fight illegal drug use, but it is important to remember that the most effective ones prevent people from ever starting to use drugs. If we can teach kids to lead lifestyles free drugs, they are far more likely to carry on this behavior into adulthood. Examples from my own generation are particularly telling—as a Baby Boomer, I grew up in a generation that held a very permissive attitude about casual drug use. Now when I look at data of abuse rates of adults, I see my age group has the highest use rates among all adults. We should all be pleased with the data released yesterday by the President that showed a reduction in youth drug use of 25 percent from 2001 to 2008, because I know that these positive results indicate that far fewer young people will face the ravages of drug use and abuse now and in the future. President Bush has also supported treatment for those addicted to drugs, and during his tenure, the number of drug courts in the U.S. has grown exponentially. Law enforcement, both domestic and international, has also been key to the successes we have seen. Various Federal, State, local and tribal entities have fought back against drug trafficking and abuse. My own office oversees the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which pools all of these resources, manpower and expertise to target drug trafficking organizations around the country. These coordinated efforts are essential to reducing both the supply and demand for illegal drugs.

John, from Texas writes:
How's the war with the drug lords going at the border with Mexico? Is it safe for tourists now? Is the violence worse than Iraq now? I heard that the drug lords get most of their military style weapons because of the Arizona gun show loophole. Does the 2nd Amendment allow Americans to sell weapons to our enemies? What's being done in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban from financing their operations using the opium trade? Does drug use get worse in poor economies? Is putting small-scale drug users in prison more cost-effective than rehabilitating them?

John Walters
The Government of Mexico and its people have stood up to the drug cartels in Mexico. Though the violence in Mexico continues, with help from the United States, we can improve the lives of Mexican citizens. Drug cartels are feeling the pressure by both the U.S. and Mexico. The Government of Mexico is cracking down on corruption and an increased law enforcement presence along the U.S.’s southwest border has helped choke drug trafficking there. And yes, gun sales in the U.S. have been linked to the violence in Mexico—that is why cooperation between our two governments is so essential. We can work together to add to the successes that have already been achieved, though there is still much work to be done. Border towns along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border see cartel violence, but you should not be dissuaded from travel to Mexico. We are expanding our efforts with Mexican officials to reduce the trafficking in guns to the cartels. These investigation and interdiction efforts are growing stronger, but we still have much work to do. It is important to remember that millions of Americans travel safely to Mexico every year, but if you are concerned, check out the Department of State’s travel alert on Mexico at: Drug traffickers smuggle their product into the U.S. because they make a profit in our drug market. In the U.S., we have tried to eliminate both the profit (by cracking down on trafficking along the border and on our highways, making it more difficult to get their products to the market) and to eliminate the market for drugs, by increasing treatment capacity and other efforts to help those who use drugs to stop. A similar calculation is useful in Afghanistan, a number of U.S.-led programs are teaching and supporting legal crops and other legal economic activity in Afghanistan. Last year roughly half of the 34 provinces in Afganistan were poppy-free, cultivation of poppy dropped 20 percent and production dropped 30 percent. Here too we have much more to do, but more and more the security and counternarcotics efforts are joining and reinforcing progress.

Bill, from Atlanta, Georgia writes:
What single piece of advice would you offer your successor?

John Walters
Twenty five years ago, drug use among youth was at unacceptably high levels. Through focused and determined work in the 1980s and early 90s, it was reduced to record lows. But after reaching those lows, we as a society became complacent and didn’t continue the difficult work necessary to keep drug use down. The result was a widespread spike in drug use during the 1990s that affected millions of young people. Through a coordinated and balanced effort of reducing demand and controlling supply over the last 8 years, drug use has again declined among young people by 25 percent. Not only are 900,000 fewer young people using drugs, but through our interdiction and enforcement efforts we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented cocaine shortage. Despite the cynical conventional wisdom of some in the media and thought, we know what works in the area of drug control. For my successor, I would say this: Keep your foot on the gas. In Colombia, Mexico, and the United States, we are breaking the backs of drug trafficking organizations, making it more difficult for them to sell their illicit product, and drying up the pool of people who want to use their drugs. This is a critical juncture. Letting up now will allow these organizations to stabilize again, hurt our allies in Mexico and Colombia, and threaten the future of these democratic regimes in our hemisphere.

Tim, from Arcadia, California writes:
I don't often see in the news evidence of seizures of drugs and things of that sort. I read the Los Angeles Times and the Pasadena Star-News, and I find that there does not appear to be vigorous enforcement of drug laws. Is there more going on than can be reported in the news? Are there "bigger fish to fry" in the war against drugs? I believe it would be helpful if you addressed this issue to put minds who are concerned about such things at ease.

John Walters
If you remember the media of the 1980’s, you’ll recall that drug stories were a daily occurrence on the front page of the newspaper. All Americans, from First Lady Nancy Reagan down to individual members of communities across the country were bringing much-needed media focus on the nationwide drug problem. All Americans, especially those with children, were concerned about drugs, and the media was feeding their appetite for stories on the subject. Despite the fact that parents are still greatly concerned about the danger of drugs in their children’s lives, the media will tend to focus on new threats and spend little time telling us about the threats that are getting smaller. That does not mean, however, that we are doing less as a government. In fact, it’s quite the opposite--we have had more progress, despite less coverage on page one. This year alone, the Coast Guard has seized more than 370,000 pounds of cocaine seeking to make its way to the United States. As I mentioned, we are in the midst of a cocaine shortage in the U.S., and it is work like this being done by our Coast Guard that’s causing it. Another example: On September 16th, federal authorities arrested 175 individuals that were part of, or involved with one of Mexico’s largest drug trafficking cartels. The lack of drug stories in the press belies the fact that we are working harder than ever to take drugs off the street.

Bill, from Atlanta writes:
Why, when mentioning the claim that marijuana treatment is the fastest growing area of substance abuse treatment in the US, do you neglect to mention that most "treatment" is mandated for simple users, not abusers, by the courts and criminal justice system? Isn't this a drain upon resources that could be better used to assist those unfortunate enough to have actual addictions to the more dangerous drugs like methamphetamine and heroin?

John Walters
Bill, thanks for that question. According to criteria devloped by the American Psychiatric Association in their DSM-IV manual, the consumption of marijuana can lead to abuse of and dependence on that drug, triggering problems with work, interpersonal relationships. This is the judgment of respected mental health practitioners, not law enforcement professionals. National surveys of drug using behavior, applying these same DSM-IV criteria, confirm that for millions of Americans, their marijuana consumption has reached a level requiring treatment. These individuals need our help. Remember two things: first, those sent to treatment by the criminal justice system are evaluated and found to need treatment, and second, their lives are already sufficiently out of control to get them into the criminal justice system. Moreover, the rate of referral to treatment by the criminal justice system for marijuana abuse and dependency is very similar to the rate of referal for methaphetamine and alcohol. Finally, referral to treatment is good news and precisely what we are trying to do to break the cycle of addiction and self-destruction. The best posible outcome for all these individual is to be directed to help whether by a family member, a friend, or the criminal justice system.

John Walters
This Administration has made great progress against teen drug use, but these gains are very fragile. We need to keep educating each rising generation of teens on the harms of drug use and addiction. Thanks for your questions, and for all the efforts you undertake to make this serious problem smaller.