Rep. John Fleming’s Marijuana and Libertarians Disinformation Campaign

by | May 18, 2014


Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) presented his absurd and deceptive campaign against all marijuana use in his opening statement for a hearing regarding marijuana laws held by a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the morning of May 9. In the process, Fleming also made a preposterous mischaracterization of libertarianism.

Fleming’s subcommittee statement followed his similarly misleading speech on the House floor in April in opposition to veterans using medical marijuana. And the statement occurred the same day Fleming said he may introduce legislation to block the implementation of a local Washington, DC law that decriminalizes the possession and transfer without payment of an ounce or less of marijuana on private property.

Fleming’s subcommittee statement, which may be watched here starting at time marker 14:58, presents a litany of misleading and half-truth assertions regarding marijuana use that needs to be heard to be believed.

We can consider a few of Fleming’s assertions at the beginning of his subcommittee presentation to gain an understanding of the abysmal nature of his marijuana disinformation campaign. But, first it is important to consider Fleming’s incredible misrepresentation of libertarian ideas also included in the presentation.

Not stopping at spreading disinformation about marijuana use, Fleming also made a flagrantly erroneous assertion regarding libertarians in his subcommittee remarks. Fleming asserted:

Now there’s also a libertarian argument on this, that “Why should government stand in the way of people utilizing a substance if they wish to do so?” And theoretically that makes plenty of sense, but the problem is you never hear libertarians make the claim that “when I’m unable to get or keep a job and I can no longer support my family that I will also tell the government not to take care of us through our growing entitlement system.” So, again, I would always challenge those who argue on a libertarian basis, “You can’t have it both ways; if you can do whatever you want with your body, that is, ride a motorcycle without a helmet or whatever, don’t expect society and taxpayers to take care of you when you’re suffering from those circumstances.”

At the subcommittee hearing, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) challenged Fleming on Fleming’s ludicrous twisting of libertarianism. The exchange between Massie and Fleming illustrates the nature of deception that also permeates Fleming’s comments regarding marijuana use:

Massie: With all due respect, I just want to clarify the libertarian position is not that the government take care of you if bad luck befalls you or you make poor decisions.

Fleming: Would the gentleman yield on that?

Massie: Absolutely.

Fleming: I would agree that should be the libertarian [sic], but I interact with people every day on this subject because of my stance on it, and I can tell you—and I would actually say there is a kind of faux libertarian group out there who make the claim on the basis you say, but they never come with the second part. So, I agree with you—if you were to take a libertarian stance on this, if I were to choose myself, for instance, to ride a motorcycle without a helmet or to use marijuana and tell the government to stay out of my life, then, like you, we should also demand that government not provide us benefits to the charge of taxpayers to take care of us when that happens. So, we agree philosophically. I’m just saying there are many who make a claim under the umbrella of libertarianism, and it’s not libertarianism at all as you well state.

Massie: Yea, I agree. Thank you.

Busted for outright misstating libertarian ideas, Fleming rambles about his idiosyncratic interaction with “faux libertarians” before essentially granting the fact that his comment regarding the libertarian position on marijuana use is an absolute fabrication.

Fleming’s disinformation campaign regarding libertarian ideas, however, was not deterred by his being corrected during the morning subcommittee hearing. That afternoon Fleming proceeded with a new laughable twisting of libertarianism, telling Roll Call in an interview how libertarians were starting to agree with his plan to have the US House of Representatives require the DC government to continue imposing incarceration and expensive fines on people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana on private property. In the audio of Fleming’s Roll Call interview you can amazingly hear Fleming both repeat his earlier mischaracterization of the libertarian view regarding marijuana use and twist Massie’s correction of Fleming into saying Massie agrees with Fleming. Here is Fleming in his own words:

So I think that people who want to relax laws on marijuana are actually people who simply want less law enforcement and are hiding under the umbrella of libertarian movement, but they are not libertarian at all. And, I had a brief conversation with Mr. Massie who, you know, is a libertarian, and he agrees with me on this. He says, “Your right, it makes no sense for us to say allow me to ride a motorcycle without a helmet or to smoke marijuana or use drugs without government interference, but at the same time I should be willing, as a citizen, not to require the taxpayers to take care of me or my family when bad things happen.” So, every time I hear the libertarian argument, I always see that they stop short. They demand freedom to do things, but they don’t demand that taxpayers be free from the responsibility of taking care of them when bad choices lead to bad results.

Of course, Massie did not express—despite Fleming’s claim to the contrary—agreement with Fleming that people should not be allowed to use marijuana. Massie instead starkly corrected Fleming’s misinterpretation of libertarianism by informing Fleming that libertarians believe the government should not take actions to correct problems people may somehow create for themselves by choosing to use marijuana. Further, Fleming, who had just had the libertarian view explained to him that morning by Massie, proceeds to say that “every time” Fleming hears the libertarian argument it claims exactly the opposite—that the government should require people to take care of individuals who are harmed by choosing to use marijuana.

Fleming’s assertion regarding libertarianism, like his series of absurd suggestions regarding marijuana—including that marijuana is very addictive and provides no medical benefits not provided by other medicines, is no more than paper-thin propaganda that can be blown over easily.

While the first inclination is to just chuckle at Fleming’s comments as quaint Reefer Madness hysteria, it is important to address a few of Fleming’s assertions even today when the move toward marijuana legalization throughout the United States almost appears unstoppable.

While absolute nonsense, arguments like Fleming’s still present dangers. First, to uncritical listeners, arguments like Fleming’s reinforce the status quo of marijuana prohibition, both the nearly complete prohibition on the US government level and the varying degrees of prohibition in the states, territories, and DC. This prohibition leads to arrests, imprisonments, property confiscations, gang violence, police corruption, adulterated drugs, higher drug prices, and other problems inherent to prohibition. Prohibition is also at its core a restraint on a person’s exercise of the right to make choices in the nonviolent direction of his own life.

Second, arguments like Fleming’s inhibit some medical professionals, especially in states without medical marijuana legal protections, from discussing medical marijuana with patients and inhibit people suffering from medical problems from exploring the benefits marijuana use may provide. A barrage of marijuana use disinformation, especially when coupled with legal prohibition, can be effective in preventing sick individuals from testing the potential benefits of marijuana use on their own or upon the suggestion of friends, family members, or medical aides.

Third, coming from a member of the House of Representatives, Fleming’s comments carry additional weight because, with other politicians, Fleming has the power to prolong the war on marijuana and the incredible suffering it creates for so many individuals and families.

Let us consider in turn some of Fleming’s initial comments in his subcommittee statement.

In the first two minutes of his statement, Fleming states:

You know, it was back about 20 years ago, I believe, that there was identified some theoretical value of the use of marijuana medicinally in the case of dying cancer patients, that it gave them some comfort. And of course no one has any problem with attending to the needs of a dying patient, someone with a terminal illness. Somehow this has morphed, though, into claims that marijuana actually cures cancer, that it’s necessary to treat nausea, and many other claims that have been completely disputed by the medical community. There is nothing that marijuana treats today that can’t be provided by other medications that are much safer.

The distortions in these few sentences alone are astounding. First off, medical benefits of marijuana have been understood and used for centuries—not just identified as having “some theoretical value” for dying cancer patients in the 1990s. In the United States, Irvin Rosenfeld is one of many individuals who demonstrates the very real benefits of medical marijuana dating back over 30 years. Rosenfeld has smoked over 130,000 US government provided marijuana joints that he says provide control of and relief from his congenital bone disorder. Rosenfeld is a participant in a small US government program called the Compassionate Investigational Drug program.

Maybe Fleming would say that Rosenfeld is a liar or mistaken. But how would Fleming explain the many doctors around the US who have recommended marijuana to their patients and the many people who report they use marijuana for medical purposes. Are they all liars or mistaken as well?

Granted some people have “gamed” medical marijuana systems to obtain marijuana for recreational purposes. If this keeps them out of prison for the crime of trying to get high, more power to them.

But, there are also many people who are using medical marijuana on their own initiative or on the recommendation of a doctor to help deal with medical problems. With people becoming more familiar with medical marijuana and states removing legal barriers to medical marijuana over the last few decades, medical use has expanded and come out of the closet. More and more people know one or more person who benefits medically from the plant.

Many people do not today need to see high-profile medical marijuana user-activists such as Rosenfeld, Montel Williams, Peter McWilliams, or Cheryl Miller to learn the benefits of medical marijuana. They can see the benefits firsthand from their friend undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer, their grandparent with glaucoma, or their nephew with seizures.

An April 2013 Pew poll found that over half of the 12% of American adults who reported using marijuana in the previous year said a medical problem was the whole or partial reason for the use.

Should we just discard as deceptive or delusional several million Americans’ claimed medial use of marijuana?

Should we just condemn them to lesser treatment for their medical problems because somewhere out there is a mix of pharmaceuticals and therapies that will help them as much as marijuana if they can just spend the time, money, and effort to discover it—as their medical problems continue to advance?

Should they just be fined and put in prison if caught with marijuana?

Yes, yes, and yes appear to be Fleming’s answers.

Switching to grammatical deception, Fleming also asserts in this brief passage that many claims regarding medical benefits of marijuana use have been “completely disputed by the medical community.” This assertion by Fleming is both true and very misleading. Many people would hear this comment and assume Fleming is saying that marijuana’s medical benefits have been considered in full and rejected by all doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. But, that is not what Fleming actually said. All he said is that the benefits of medical marijuana have been “completely disputed.”

For a dispute to occur there have to be differing opinions. Many doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals believe medical marijuana aids certain patients. Other medical professionals will disagree with some of these assessments. Because Fleming says medical marijuana should never be used and because Fleming is a doctor in addition to being a House member, his opinion alone is even enough to make any and all suggested medical benefits of marijuana use “completely disputed.”

Another distortion in these few sentences of Fleming’s subcommittee statement is the suggestion that other medications could provide every benefit marijuana can provide not just as well, but also more safely. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its “Prescription Drug Overdose in the United States” fact sheet notes that drug overdose is “the leading cause of injury death in the United States” with 60% of those overdose deaths related to pharmaceuticals. How many of the remaining 40% of overdose deaths were caused by marijuana? None.

Fleming continues with his misleading presentation, stating:

Now let’s talk about the safety of marijuana. Marijuana is an addicting substance. Again, there’s a myth out there that it’s not. The most common diagnosis for young people admitted to rehab centers today is for marijuana addiction—make no mistake about it.

Supposing we grant Fleming may be right that, technically speaking, marijuana can be addictive for some people, it is important to keep in mind that, even with some of the more addictive drugs like tobacco, some people find it very difficult to stop using a drug while other people can stop using with little effort. Marijuana, however, is not among the more addictive drugs. As Dr. Sunil Kumar Aggarwal explains in the Huffington Post, the often cited estimate from the US government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse that one in 11 people who have ever used marijuana become dependent on the plant “is based on bad science and is way over the mark.” The percentage of people who could be classified as addicted would necessarily be even much lower. NIDA itself explains there is a big difference between dependence, which is common and expected with even prescription drugs used as directed, and addiction.

Further, Fleming, by pointing to the percentage of people being in rehabilitation for “marijuana addiction,” is very deceptively stating something that does not prove what people would suppose it proves. Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws explains—in a short, informative article from 2008 exploring the idea of “marijuana addiction”—that marijuana rehab numbers are greatly inflated by courts sentencing people to rehabilitation instead of prison:

Not familiar with the notion of “marijuana addiction”? You’re not alone. In fact, aside from the handful of researchers who have discovered that there are gobs of federal grant money to be had hunting for the government’s latest pot boogeyman, there’s little consensus that such a syndrome is clinically relevant — if it even exists at all.

But don’t try telling that to the mainstream press — which recently published headlines worldwide alleging, “Marijuana withdrawal rivals that of nicotine.” The alleged “study” behind the headlines involved all of 12 participants, each of whom were longtime users of pot and tobacco, and assessed the self-reported moods of folks after they were randomly chosen to abstain from both substances. Big surprise: they weren’t happy.

And don’t try telling Big Pharma — which hopes to cash in on the much-hyped “pot and addiction” craze by touting psychoactive prescription drugs like Lithium to help hardcore smokers kick the marijuana habit.

And certainly don’t try telling the drug “treatment” industry, whose spokespeople are quick to warn that marijuana “treatment” admissions have risen dramatically in recent years, but neglect to explain that this increase is due entirely to the advent of drug courts sentencing minor pot offenders to rehab in lieu of jail. According to state and national statistics, up to 70 percent of all individuals in drug treatment for marijuana are placed there by the criminal justice system. Of those in treatment, some 36 percent had not even used marijuana in the 30 days prior to their admission. These are the “addicts”?

Additionally, Fleming’s focus on rehabilitation admissions of young people is revealing. Children, as well as young adults still dependent on their parents for support, do not have much choice if their parents tell them it is time to go to rehab for marijuana use. While parents making this choice for their children may do so with the best intentions, these parents’ choice does not establish the presence of marijuana addiction, much less serious life threatening problems related to marijuana use.

Fleming moves forward in the remainder of his presentation with a series of additional misleading and half-truth arguments regarding the use of marijuana. Yet, even if we were to assume that every argument Fleming presents regarding marijuana use—including that marijuana is a “gateway drug” and poses serious health risks for users—were absolutely true, these arguments would not justify Fleming’s policy goal of fining and locking up people who choose to use marijuana for medical or recreational reasons.

As any libertarian could tell Fleming, individuals have the right to choose to consume illegal drugs and, should that drug use create problems for an individual who makes this choice, the government does not have the right to require other people to take actions or pay money to fix those problems. Maybe if Fleming hears the message enough times he will stop distorting it. Maybe, he will even think things over, do some research, and change his mind.


  • Adam Dick

    Adam worked from 2003 through 2013 as a legislative aide for Rep. Ron Paul. Previously, he was a member of the Wisconsin State Board of Elections, a co-manager of Ed Thompson's 2002 Wisconsin governor campaign, and a lawyer in New York and Connecticut.

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