Pot Is Safer Than Booze: So Why Is Celebrating 4/20 a Crime, While It's OK to Get Wasted on St. Paddy's Day?

I spent last St. Patrick’s Day at the marijuana policy reform group NORML’s conference in Philadelphia. It was pouring rain when I arrived, and as I ran from my car through the University of Pennsylvania campus, I tried to discern the green-clad marijuana activists from St. Patrick’s Day revelers. I quickly realized it was not that hard: the pro-pot advocates, as quirky as the some of them were, appeared to have better control of their footing.

St. Patrick’s Day, though an Irish holiday rooted in history and tradition, is regarded by many Americans (perhaps on college campuses, in particular) as an opportunity to get wasted. Meanwhile, today, April 20, is known as the marijuana user’s holiday, 4/20. Across the country, stoners are gathering to defy the law and get high.

Both holidays, to some extent, celebrate mind-altering substances, but they couldn't be seen as more different by the law. You wouldn’t speak with your boss about your 4/20 plans or come to the office in weed-themed garb. That’s because while alcohol is legal, marijuana is grouped alongside drugs like heroin in the most restrictive category of the Controlled Substances Act, Schedule I. This is despite the fact that marijuana is by far the safer substance of the two. A scene full of stoners is far more peaceful (and safer) than a bar or city full of people who are trashed. But while weed is the subject of a decades-old onslaught of government propaganda decrying its supposed harm, our society glamorizes alcohol.

Unlike alcohol, marijuana use is not linked to increase in injury or reckless behavior, nor is it linked to violence or sexual assault. Alcohol, however, is.

From the National Center for Alcohol Law Enforcement:

  • Almost one in four victims of violent crime report that the perpetrator had been drinking prior to committing the violence.

  • Over one-third of victims of rapes or sexual assaults report that the offender was drinking at the time of the act.

  • It is estimated that 32 to 50 percent of homicides are preceded by alcohol consumption by the perpetrator.

  • Between 31 percent and 36 percent of prisoners convicted of a violent crime against an intimate reported that they were drinking alcohol at the time of the offense.

Nonetheless, alcohol is so normalized and integral to our culture that it's considered OK for hundreds of thousands of people to gather in one location -- a football stadium, for example -- and get drunk. Some will leave these mass drinking events inebriated, dangerously swerving down the road in their cars. 

While public celebrations and smoke-outs will occur across the country today, doing it is still very much illegal. Last year on 4/20, after smoking marijuana at a friend’s house, 23-year-old University of California-San Diego student Daniel Chong was thrown in a jail cell, handcuffed, for five days without food or water. Chong, who says agents offered to drive him home after saying he was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” was not charged with any crime. Agents had raided the home where he was staying in the early hours of April 21, and uncovered marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and 18,000 ecstasy pills, along with guns and ammunition. Seven of the nine people they arrested were taken to county jail, one was released, and one -- Chong -- was forgotten about, and effectively left for dead.

Forced to drink his own urine to survive, Chong says he lost 15 pounds while he was alone in the cell for five days. Hallucinating by the third day, he ate a “powdery substance” he found in the cell, later revealed to be methamphetamine. He tried to kill himself by breaking his glasses with his teeth and carving “Sorry mom” on his wrists. According to NBC, “He said nurses also found pieces of glass in his throat, which led him to believe he ingested the pieces purposefully.”

While Chong’s situation may extremely rare, a marijuana arrest occurred every 42 seconds in 2011. As Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said at the time:

“Being incarcerated, even for just a few days, can be devastating. People guilty of nothing more than possessing a little marijuana are locked up with people who may be violent criminals. Some are abused, beaten and raped, and others deprived of essential medication or contact with their families. A few commit suicide. Many are otherwise traumatized by the experience of being tossed into jail even when their jailers don’t forget about them. And even greater numbers suffer serious and sometimes permanent consequences from whatever conviction results, including loss of employment, housing and government assistance, loss of custody of one’s children, and much more."

People who drink (and those around them) might face myriad consequences from alcohol use, but legal troubles raised by marijuana use are not among them. For this reason, many reformers argue that marijuana prohibition creates a drinking culture that pushes people who may otherwise use pot -- a safer substance -- toward booze. The idea that choosing weed over alcohol is a decision adults should be allowed to make without consequence played a large role in Colorado's legalization legislation (Amendment 64), which was titled "Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol."

Like voters in Colorado and Washington, Americans participating in 4/20 activism today are pushing back against a false narrative that suggests alcohol is the vice that's been chosen for America, and that legalizing pot would only add another, bad substance to the mix. They are not the minority. Draconian punishments for marijuana crimes continue in America despite public opinion shifting largely in favor of reform. A Pew Research Center poll recently found that a record breaking 52% of Americans now support marijuana legalization, with young people holding increasingly reformist opinions about marijuana policy. Increasingly, Americans -- 77% of them, according to Pew --  think marijuana has medical purposes.

Despite a vast majority of Americans being way ahead of lawmakers when it comes to policy, Attorney General Eric Holder recently made remarks suggesting he is not interested in following the will of the people. Holder told Congress on Thursday that the Justice Department will make a decision about how to respond to marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado “As quick as we can.” Offering few details, other than that “We are certainly going to enforce federal law” and consider the impact of legalization on children, Holder offered little in the way of explaining why the federal government’s policy strays so far from public opinion.

President Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, also said earlier this week that, “No state, no executive can nullify a statute that has been passed by Congress,” and said law enforcement will continue to pursue drug sellers. 

What gives?

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