There's a conference under way in West Palm Beach called "Rx for Change: Targeting Prescription Drug Abuse." One of the major talking points is the staggering number of accidental deaths related to prescription drug abuse: seven every day in Florida. That's more than the number of car-crash deaths per year in 17 states.
Gary Martin of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office told a crowd of assembled addiction prevention and treatment professionals that "the misuse of prescription drugs is second only to marijuana abuse as a drug problem."
But would it be better for pain pill consumers to be smoking pot instead? While the benefits are up for debate, marijuana certainly doesn't kill seven people a day. New Times caught up with U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske and asked him what's so bad about medical marijuana anyway.
Kerlikowske, who attended the University of South Florida and served as chief of police in Fort Pierce, wrapped up his keynote speech on U.S. drug control policy by calling for an end to the "War on Drugs." "The public gets fed up when everything becomes a crisis, everything becomes a war," he said. "This can't be dealt with in easy and simplistic terms." If the Obama administration doesn't agree, Kerlikowske joked, "next year I'll be out in the audience; I'll probably be a consultant somewhere."
But despite his appreciation for nuance, Kerlikowske thinks the blanket pot-legalization effort in California is misguided. He mocked the claim from proponents of Proposition 19 that legalization "solves every problem... It's touted as some type of answer. Legalizing drugs is not the answer to this nation's problems."
But what about medical marijuana, especially as a treatment for chronic pain that harsh narcotics like Oxycodone are used to treat? Sorry, Cheech:
"Marijuana is not medicine," Kerlikowske told New Times. "We have a process in this country for developing medicines that's world-renowned. The popular vote has never been a part of it. Treatments should be determined by scientists and not by voters."
In his speech, Gary Martin called America a "prescription drug nation," where too many people try to solve their problems by popping a pill in their mouths. But compared to smoking or other "natural cures," pill-popping still holds the most medical legitimacy with the Obama administration.
"We have 35 ongoing federal grants for research projects [on cannabis]," said Kerlikowske. "I don't know any physician that after 40 years of lung cancer research would advocate smoking." Instead, he pointed to the use of synthetic cannabinoid treatments like Marinol.
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Finally, we asked Kerlikowske the question that nobody seems to be able to answer definitively: Why is Broward County the nation's capital of pain-pill dispensaries and pill mills? He ducked the question, referring it to erstwhile BSO Sgt. Rich Pisanti, who is working up in Washington as a Law Enforcement Fellow in Kerlikowske's office.
"It was fueled by people around the country getting word that Broward was the best place to get drugs, and places started popping up. People talk about how it's the best place to come... that's a myth," said Pisanti.
Four years ago, there were a handful of pain clinics in Broward and Palm Beach. Now it's what Karl Durr of the PBSO narcotics division called an "open-air drug market" as he flipped through slides showing advertisements for 99 cent Roxies. Durr placed some of the blame on a "lack of regulatory issues."
But don't expect the White House to let you light up the reefer any time soon.