"Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life," Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared last week. The main problem with that message: It isn't true.
Yes, using drugs, both legal and illegal ones, can destroy your life, but typically it doesn't. By arguing that drug education should proceed from a false premise, Sessions reminds us what was wrong with the Just Say No propaganda he would like to revive.
Sessions, a former senator who was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama in the 1980s, looks back proudly at his efforts, alongside Nancy Reagan, to "create a hostility to drug use." For Sessions, as for Reagan, tolerance is a dirty word.
"We must create an atmosphere of intolerance for drug use in this country," the first lady wrote in a 1986 Washington Post op-ed piece. "Each of us has a responsibility to be intolerant of drug use anywhere, anytime, by anybody."
Sessions likewise emphasizes the importance of "preventing people from ever taking drugs in the first place," even if "this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use." The "prevention" Sessions favors is not simply unfashionable; it is fundamentally dishonest.
Among other things, Sessions said at a Senate hearing last April, prevention aims to teach teenagers that "good people don't smoke marijuana." According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, something like 118 million Americans have used marijuana, 36 million of them in the last year. Does Sessions honestly think all those people are bad, or that anyone would believe they are?
"Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices," Sessions says. But his terrible truth sounds a lot like a lie.
Sessions claims marijuana is "only slightly less awful" than heroin, and in 2014 he strenuously objected after President Obama conceded that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. "I'm heartbroken," Sessions said. "It's stunning to me. I find it beyond comprehension."
Judging from his response, Sessions literally did not comprehend Obama's point. Sessions tried to rebut Obama's statement about the relative hazards of marijuana and alcohol by declaring that "Lady Gaga says she's addicted to [marijuana] and it is not harmless."
Let's put aside the merits of treating Lady Gaga as an expert on the effects of marijuana, or of extrapolating from this sample of one to the experiences of cannabis consumers generally. The most disturbing aspect of Sessions' argument was his failure to grasp that one substance can be less dangerous than another without being harmless.
Saying marijuana is less hazardous than alcohol by several important measures — including impairment of driving ability, the risk of a fatal overdose, and the long-term damage caused by heavy use — is not the same as saying marijuana is 100 percent safe. Sessions not only has no patience for such nuance; he considers it a menace to the youth of America.
Sessions is especially offended by the suggestion that marijuana legalization could reduce opioid-related harm by providing a safer alternative. "Give me a break," he said in a recent speech to the National Association of Attorneys General. "It's just almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits."
Uncharacteristically, Sessions conceded that "maybe science will prove I'm wrong." If he bothered to research the subject, he would discover that several studies have found an association between medical marijuana laws and reductions in opioid prescriptions, opioid-related deaths, and fatally injured drivers testing positive for opioids.
Sessions plainly is not interested in what the evidence shows. Although he says law enforcement officials have a duty to "speak truth as best we can," he seems to view truth as the enemy in the war on drugs. Nancy Reagan, who said drug use "isn't fun" and insisted "you cannot separate drug use that 'doesn't hurt anybody' from drug use that kills," would have been proud.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.