DEA Abandons Student in Cell for Days: This Is Your Policy on Drugs

The nightmarish ordeal of a San Diego man, locked up and seemingly forgotten, raises questions about the Drug Enforcement Administration's handling of people in custody — and the U.S.'s dubious drug policy.

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K.C. Alfred / AP

Daniel Chong appears at a news conference where he discussed his detention by the DEA during a news conference on May 1, 2012 in San Diego.

A University of California, San Diego, student’s plan to celebrate 4/20 — America’s unofficial stoner holiday — went horribly awry after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) detained him after a raid on the house he was visiting, then inexplicably left him in a holding cell for four days, without food or water.

Daniel Chong, 23, said he was forgotten in the 5-by-10-ft windowless room. He said he screamed and kicked the door, but no one came. With no toilet and no sink, Chong survived by drinking his own urine; he also found a bag of white powder for nourishment, which turned out to be methamphetamine.

On the fourth day, the lights in his cell went out and he resigned himself to death. Still handcuffed, he broke his glasses with his teeth and swallowed a piece of glass. By the time he was freed on the fifth day, he had sustained kidney damage, severe dehydration and a perforated esophagus.

The acting special agent in charge of the DEA in San Diego extended his “deepest apologies to the young man” and Chong has not been charged with a crime.

(MORE: Study: Smoking Marijuana Not Linked with Lung Damage)

The whole story sounds like a sick joke, but Chong’s suffering is all too serious — as is the $20 million lawsuit he’s now filed against the agency.

And it raises even more serious questions about why the government persists in carrying out a policy against marijuana that is far more dangerous to mental and physical health than the substance itself.

More than half of the adult U.S. population has tried marijuana. Our last three Presidents are all former weed smokers. Indeed successful people who haven’t tried the drug may be harder to find than those who have. Unlike tobacco, cannabis is not linked with lung cancer, and unlike alcohol, it is impossible to overdose on and doesn’t produce liver damage.

Each year, 443,000 Americans die from smoking; 79,000 succumb to alcohol-related deaths. Prescription drug overdose kills about 20,000 [PDF] a year. Although there are probably also some marijuana-related accidental deaths (notably, however, stoned driving, while not advisable, is less risky than drunk driving), unlike alcohol, tobacco or prescription drugs, the drug itself isn’t linked with significant physical health risks.

What about mental health? Although cannabis may worsen psychotic disorders among some people at risk for schizophrenia, rates of the disorder have not increased despite the rise in marijuana use in the American population. The proportion of people who have tried marijuana has increased from single-digit percentages before the baby boomers to the majority of all adults in their generation onwards.

No drug is harmless, of course, and the small percentage of people who do become addicted to marijuana can have significant work and relationship problems, just like those with any other addiction. But trying to argue that marijuana use is riskier than being arrested, riskier than being saddled with a criminal record, riskier than the treatment that Chong received or riskier than alcohol or cigarettes is simply illogical.

(MORE: What Is President Obama’s Problem with Medical Marijuana?)

Of all drug arrests in the U.S., 52% are for marijuana crimes: 6% for sales and 46% for possession. Marijuana accounted for 850,000 arrests in the last year alone — at an annual total estimated cost to law enforcement of $7 to $10 billion. That figure does not include the costs to black men, who are disproportionately targeted and account for more than 80% of marijuana arrests in large cities, despite the fact that they are actually less likely to use marijuana than whites.

The government will surely add at least a few million dollars to the total costs to compensate Chong for his dreadful ordeal, but it would be even better if his bizarre and harmful incident got us to rethink our equally bizarre and harmful drug laws. Like marijuana, they’ve become a national joke — but one that’s just not funny.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.