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Booze Kills, Pot Doesn't

The alcohol poisoning death rate in the United States is shockingly high, consistently between 300 and 400 a year. It's zero for pot.
 
 
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On Aug. 19, the Associated Press reported on a group of college presidents proposing reconsideration of the legal drinking age. I'll refrain from wading into the emotional debate about what the legal age for alcohol should be, but a graph that accompanied the story in some outlets, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, raises larger questions about our national policies toward drugs and alcohol.

Two things are striking:

1. The number of alcohol poisoning deaths in the United States is shockingly high, consistently between 300 and 400 each year. The number of annual deaths from marijuana poisoning remains -- as always -- zero.

2. The number of alcohol poisoning deaths spiked just as the U.S. government started going all out to demonize marijuana, deploying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of anti-marijuana ads on TV, on radio and in print.

One can't help but wonder if this is really just coincidence. The recent low point came in 2000, with 327 alcohol poisoning deaths overall, 16 of them among college-age Americans. In 2001, the Bush administration came into office, with anti-marijuana zealot John Walters taking over as drug czar late in the year. Shortly thereafter, Walters began his anti-marijuana crusade.

The airwaves were soon filled with commercials telling teens and their parents that lighting up a joint could lead to shooting your friends, getting pregnant, running over little girls on bicycles or supporting terrorists. Walters made wild statements, claiming that marijuana potency had increased up to 20-fold (a claim he's since backed off from but never directly retracted). The message was clear: Forget everything you think you know about marijuana being relatively harmless -- this stuff is dangerous, addictive and scary.

When sensible individuals noted that alcohol is in fact far more dangerous health-wise than marijuana, Walters told the Albuquerque Journal that the idea was "frightening." And the anti-marijuana crusade sped onward, with new waves of ads directed at both young people and their parents.

According to government surveys, marijuana use did decline modestly (though the decline had actually begun before Bush and Walters took office, a point the administration generally neglects to mention). And in 2002 -- the first full year of Walters' modern "reefer madness" -- alcohol poisoning deaths spiked to 383, a level they've roughly maintained ever since. Booze deaths among college-age young people also ratcheted upward and in 2005 set a recent record of 35 in one year -- a 250 percent increase in just four years.

And during that time, the government maintained virtual silence about the dangers of binge drinking.

No one wants to encourage kids to drink or smoke marijuana. But if you keep bombarding young people with propaganda about the dangers of marijuana while saying nothing about the possibility that booze can literally kill you -- which is precisely what our government has done -- well, that just might be "sending a message to young people," as the federal bureaucrats say. And that message could kill.

It's not unreasonable to suspect that it already has.

Bruce Mirken is communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project .

 
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