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My View: We're addicted to the wrong drug laws

The apparent heroin overdose death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman early last month has become a hockey puck in the war over the war on drugs.

During a House subcommittee hearing on federal marijuana policy just days after Hoffman’s death, critics of the war on drugs hammered a White House drug official for putting too much emphasis on marijuana when Washington instead should focus on dangerous drugs that actually kill users.

“What is more dangerous and addictive,” U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat representing the state’s 3rd Congressional District, asked the White House’s deputy director of drug control policy, Michael Botticelli, “methamphetamine and cocaine or marijuana?”

“I think that conversation minimizes the harm,” Botticelli sort of answered.

“How many people die from marijuana overdoses every year?” U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., inquired.

Botticelli said he didn’t know, that fatal marijuana overdoses are “very rare.”

Botticelli answered that people have to look at “the totality of harm that’s associated with a substance.” Even if “marijuana doesn’t have the lethality and the overdose potential that heroin or alcohol does,” there are “significant health consequences that are associated with the drug.”

Blumenauer put together a paper that examined deaths caused by alcohol abuse (80,000 a year) and tobacco use (400,000 annually). He observed that Washington has been able to wage successful campaigns to decrease smoking “without locking people up.”

Anti-smoking campaigns have worked because they are fact-based — unlike the Controlled Substances Act, which places marijuana in the same Schedule I category as heroin, a drug that can kill.

So why not change the law?

Botticelli argued that he has met with families devastated by addiction and parents whose children died from drug overdoses. They cannot understand why states have legalized medical and recreational marijuana. They believe, said Botticelli, that “legalizing marijuana sends the absolute worst message to our youth.”

Their children didn’t overdose on marijuana, countered U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. “It is ludicrous, absurd, crazy to have marijuana in the same level as heroin,” quoth Cohen. “Ask the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, if you could. Nobody dies from marijuana. People die from heroin. And every second we spend in this country trying to enforce marijuana laws is a second that we’re not enforcing heroin laws.”

I should note that committee Republicans hit President Barack Obama for not being tough enough on marijuana. The panel’s chairman, U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., groused about Obama’s “schizophrenic” approach.

On the one hand, the president recently told The New Yorker that he considers marijuana to be no more dangerous than alcohol and wants Washington and Colorado ballot measures that legalized recreational marijuana to proceed. On the other hand, the administration has continued to prosecute medical marijuana dispensers in the 21 states that have legalized medical marijuana.

The answer to the “schizophrenic” charge would be for Obama to direct Attorney General Eric Holder to remove marijuana from the list of Schedule I drugs. Congress also could change the law, but Blumenauer spokesman Patrick Malone noted that with the GOP in control of the House, that’s unlikely: “So that leaves us with the administrative route. The president has said that he’s going to use his executive powers to do what he can to effect change. Well, here is an opportunity.”

Debra J. Saunders is a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle and Creators Syndicate. Email: dsaunders @sfchronicle.com.