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Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Source: Progressives Today)

Last week the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, told The New York Times that she was against the legalization of marijuana, citing concerns about the growing heroin epidemic as her reasoning for not supporting the changes in marijuana laws that many in her party are in favor of. Pro-legalization groups have since called DNC chairwoman a hypocrite on this issue, as her re-election campaign received significant financial support from manufacturers of a notably more destructive substance: alcohol.

Schutlz’s comments arrive at a very awkward time in the battle over marijuana legalization — partly because her party’s two leading presidential candidates have called for the removal of marijuana as a schedule 1 substance. And her revival of the Nancy Reagan-era theory of marijuana as a gateway drug is less credible than it’s ever been.

“I just don’t think we should legalize more mind-altering substances if we want to make it less likely that people travel down the path toward using drugs,” Schultz told The New York Times. “We have had a resurgence of drug use instead of a decline. There is a huge heroin epidemic.”

When the interviewer noted that heroin addiction often begins with opiate pain-pill prescriptions (an enormous problem in Schutlz’s state of Florida), yet opiates have never been made illegal like marijuana is, she simply responded, “There is a difference between opiates and marijuana.”

It is unclear what Schultz was intending to say with this statement. It seems unlikely that she would imply that opiates are less harmful than marijuana, but we do not know. What we do know is that Schultz apparently has no qualms with the legal status of alcohol, an industry that was the fifth largest supporter to her re-election campaign.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, “One in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20–64 years are due to excessive alcohol use.”

Mason Tvert (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“The congresswoman’s hypocrisy is glaring,” Mason Tvert, Communications Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, tells MassRoots. “She wants adults to be punished for using marijuana, yet she is perfectly happy to accept donations from companies that produce and distribute a far more harmful drug. She should explain why she approaches the alcohol industry with open arms and the idea of a legal and regulated marijuana industry with such a closed mind.”

Pitting marijuana against alcohol has been a popular and effective campaign tool for Tvert and others, who feel that the discrepancy of harms between the two substances is so great there’s no reasonable defense to keep the healthier alternative illegal. For years, Tvert has been calling for marijuana to be regulated like alcohol, an idea that has been championed by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

“In my view, states should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern sales of alcohol and tobacco,” Sanders said during a campaign rally at George Mason University last October, where he called for marijuana to be removed from the federal government’s list of banned substances.

With marijuana looking to be an energizing topic for young voters in 2016, Hillary Clinton (who has been dodgy about marijuana reform in the past) was not about to be outdone by Sanders on the cannabis crusade. More than a week after Sanders called for an end to marijuana prohibition, Clinton said she would like the substance to be reclassified from a Schedule 1 substance (those with no medical value and a high rate of addiction, like heroin) to a Schedule 2 substance.

“I want to move from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2 so researchers can research what’s the best way to use it, dosage, how does it work with other medications,” Clinton said at a campaign stop in South Carolina.

Chairwoman Schultz has been accused of rigging the DNC presidential debates in Clinton’s favor, but there seems to be no alliance between the two when it comes to marijuana reform. In her New York Times interview, Schultz was asked about this apparent division between her and her party (whose voters support legalization by 64%).

“It’s perfectly O.K. to not be completely predictable,” Schultz said. “I am a person, and I have individual opinions that may not line up ideologically. They’re formed by my personal experience both as a mom and as someone who grew up really bothered by the drug culture that surrounded my childhood — not mine personally. I grew up in suburbia.”

Former drug policy advisor to the Obama administration and current anti-marijuana legalization advocate Kevin Sabet believes there is nothing surprising about Schultz’s comments.

“Debbie is one of many progressives, including the attorney general from Massachusetts Maura Healey, and others, who steadfastly oppose legalization,” Sabet tells MassRoots. “Legalization does not have mainstream support among Democrats in Congress, and that is why our federal law remains what it is. I mean, we have a Kennedy leading the charge against legalization this country. So I’m not sure why everyone is surprised that a Democrat from Florida joins his point of view.”

Whether or not her views are out of step with her party, Schultz’s comments connecting marijuana use and heroin addiction place her reveal that she is out of step with modern science. In the same week as her NYT interview, a study published in the Journal of School Health proposed that alcohol is the significantly more culpable “gateway drug” for teens than marijuana, revealing that of the 2,800 12th grade students interviewed “the vast majority of respondents reported using alcohol prior to either tobacco or marijuana initiation.”

In this study, the numbers were not even close, with 54% of teens admitting their first drug was alcohol, and 14% copping to marijuana.

Furthermore, a study published last summer from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that “states permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not.” If these two studies are to be given any merit, the logical conclusion would be that alcohol is a greater threat to teen health and addiction rates in America, and that allowing medical marijuana to flourish is a promising antidote to opiate and heroin addiction.

In years past, politicians on both sides of the isle could either laugh off suggestions of marijuana legalization, or flex their tough-on-crime muscles and claim pot prohibition protects children. Though in a time where our last three presidents have admitted to using cannabis (along with 49% of the American public), 23 states having legalized the substance in some form, and countless studies downplaying its harms and praising its potential benefits, any public leader still dragging out antiquated “gateway” theories as an argument for keeping it illegal must be approached with caution as either ignorant, or protecting those with a financial interest in keeping it out of the marketplace.

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