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DEA chief says smoking marijuana as medicine "is a joke"

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DEA chief Chuck Rosenberg on Wednesday rejected the notion that smoking marijuana is "medicine," calling the premise a "joke."

"What really bothers me is the notion that marijuana is also medicinal -- because it's not," Rosenberg said in a briefing to reporters. "We can have an intellectually honest debate about whether we should legalize something that is bad and dangerous, but don't call it medicine -- that is a joke."

As more and more states experiment with loosening marijuana laws, Rosenberg said that people shouldn't conflate the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana with medicinal marijuana.

"There are pieces of marijuana -- extracts or constituents or component parts -- that have great promise" medicinally, he said. "But if you talk about smoking the leaf of marijuana -- which is what people are talking about when they talk about medicinal marijuana -- it has never been shown to be safe or effective as a medicine."

Rosenberg's remarks coincide with the release of the DEA's 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary, which shows that drug use is up among most types of illicit drugs, except for cocaine. Each day in the United States, over 120 people die as a result of a drug overdose, the report says.

The report notes that marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even as states continue to pass laws approving of its use within their state borders. "Marijuana concentrates, with potency levels far exceeding those of leaf marijuana, pose an issue of growing concern," it says.

Currently, 23 states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana legislation. In addition to the 23 states with medical marijuana laws, 17 more have approved legislation regarding "CBD-only" marijuana. CBD is a cannabinoid/chemical compound of marijuana. That means 80 percent of states have approved some form of medical marijuana.

Meanwhile, Washington state, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. have all passed laws approving recreational marijuana use.

On Tuesday, voters in Ohio rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized cannabis for both medical and recreational use.

Rosenberg on Wednesday said that voters should have an intellectually "honest" debate about legalizing marijuana. "I don't recommend it, but there is other stuff in our society that is dangerous that is perfectly legal," he said.

As for the Ohio vote, he said there are no broader conclusions to draw from the outcome, calling the ballot initiative "a weirdly written statutory scheme."

"I don't know that there are any great lessons to draw from it," he said. He noted that it is an "off-year election, so turnout may be a little bit lower. I see it as anomalous."

Rosenberg also spoke to reporters about rising crime rates. The Drug Threat Assessment Summary says that "Methamphetamine distribution and abuse significantly contribute to violent and property crime rates in the United States."

Even so, Rosenberg said he agreed with FBI Director James Comey, who has suggested that crime rates may be going up in major cities because police officers are too concerned about viral videos to enforce the law. Rosenberg was a senior staffer for Comey before becoming acting DEA chief. When it was pointed out to him that this point of view puts him at odds with the White House, Rosenberg said, "The White House is a building. I'm not sure I know what the White House thinks. I think Comey was spot on."

He added that Comey gave "a thoughtful and measured speech" on the matter. "When you are criticized on the left and the right, you have probably hit it just about perfectly," he said. Both Comey and Rosenberg have encouraged more data collection to more fully understand what is causing a spike in violence in certain cities.

Rosenberg added that he doesn't believe this so-called "Ferguson effect" would apply to federal officers, since they typically don't serve as first responders and don't wear body cameras.

Rosenberg also answered questions about Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, saying that he's optimistic that El Chapo will be caught and that the U.S. will press for extradition.