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Pot Versus Alcohol: Experts Say Booze Is the Bigger Danger

For more than three decades, America's marijuana policies have been based upon rhetoric. Perhaps it's time to begin listening to what the experts have to say.
 
 
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Speaking privately with Richard Nixon in 1971, the late Art Linkletter offered this view on the use of marijuana versus alcohol. "When people smoke marijuana, they smoke it to get high. In every case, when most people drink, they drink to be sociable."

"That's right, that's right," Nixon agreed. "A person does not drink to get drunk  A person drinks to have fun."

The following year Linkletter announced that he had reversed his position on pot, concluding instead that the drug's social harms were not significant enough to warrant its criminal prohibition. Nixon however stayed the course -- launching the so-called "war" on drugs, a social policy that now results in the arrest of more than 800,000 Americans each year for violating marijuana laws.

Decades later, the social debate regarding the use of marijuana versus alcohol rages on. Yet among objective experts who have studied the issue there remains little debate at all. Despite pot's long-standing criminalization, scientists agree that the drug possesses far less harm than its legal and celebrated companion, alcohol.

For example, in the mid-1990s, the World Health Organization commissioned a team of experts to compare the health and societal consequences of marijuana use compared to other drugs, including alcohol, nicotine, and opiates. After quantifying the harms associated with both drugs, the researchers concluded: "Overall, most of these risks (associated with marijuana) are small to moderate in size. In aggregate they are unlikely to produce public health problems comparable in scale to those currently produced by alcohol and tobacco  On existing patterns of use, cannabis poses a much less serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol and tobacco in Western societies."

French scientists at the state medical research institute INSERM published a similar review in 1998. Researchers categorized legal and illegal drugs into three distinct categories: Those that pose the greatest threat to public health, those that pose moderate harms to the public, and those substances that pose little-to-no danger. Alcohol, heroin, and cocaine were placed in the most dangerous category, while investigators determined that cannabis posed the least danger to public health.

In 2002, a special Canadian Senate Committee completed an exhaustive review of marijuana and health, concluding, "Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue."

In 2007, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare hired a team of scientists to assess the impact of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs on public health. Researcher reported that the consumption of alcohol was significant contributors to death and disease. "Alcohol harm was responsible for 3.2 percent of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia," they concluded. By comparison, cannabis use was responsible for zero deaths and only 0.2 percent of the estimated total burden of disease and injury in Australia.

Such findings are not just relegated to overseas. In 1989, a California state research advisory panel conducted its own review of the health effects of pot and alcohol. They, like their international peers, concluded, "(A)n objective consideration of marijuana shows that it is responsible for less damage to the individual and to society than are alcohol and cigarettes."

For more than three decades, America's marijuana policies have been based upon rhetoric. Perhaps it's time to begin listening to what the experts have to say.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink (2009, Chelsea Green).

 
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