Driven to drink by marijuana laws?

By Bernd Debusmann
July 23, 2009

(Bernd DebusmannBernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Tough marijuana laws are driving millions of Americans to a more dangerous mood-altering substance, alcohol. The unintended consequence: violence and thousands of unnecessary deaths. It’s time, therefore, for a serious public debate of the case for marijuana versus alcohol.

That’s the message groups advocating the legalization of marijuana are beginning to press, against a background of shifting attitudes which have already prompted 13 states to relax draconian laws dating back to the 1930s, when the government ended alcohol prohibition and began a determined but futile effort to stamp out marijuana.

How dismally that effort has failed is not in doubt. Marijuana is so easily available that around 100 million Americans have tried it at least once and some 15 million use it regularly, according to government estimates. The U.S. marijuana industry, in terms of annual retail sales, has been estimated to be almost as big as the alcohol industry — $113 billion and $130 billion respectively. On a global scale, marijuana is the world’s most widely used illicit drug.

Since the United States, and much of the rest of the world, plunged into a recession last year, the most frequently used argument in favour of legalizing marijuana has been economic: if it were taxed, the revenue would help stimulate economic recovery just as a gusher of dollars in fresh tax revenue from alcohol helped the United States pull out of the Great Depression after the 1933 repeal of prohibition.

That idea enrages some leading drug warriors, including the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa. In the preface to the U.N.’s 2009 World Drug Report, he asks whether proponents of legalization and taxation also favour legalizing and taxing human trafficking and modern-day slavery “to rescue failed banks.”

Never mind that drug abusers hurt themselves and human traffickers hurt others. It’s the kind of topsy-turvy logic which has made sober discussion of national and international drug policies (largely driven by the United States) so difficult for so long.

The case for adding a compare-and-contrast dimension to the debate is laid out in a statistics-laden book to be published next month entitled “Marijuana is Safer, So why are we driving people to drink?” The authors are prominent legalization advocates – Steve Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Mason Tvert, co-founder of SAFER (Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation).

“The plain and simple truth is that alcohol fuels violent behaviour and marijuana does not,” Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief, writes in the foreword of the book. “Alcohol … contributes to literally millions of acts of violence in the United States each year. It is a major contributing factor to crimes like domestic violence, sexual assault and homicide. Marijuana use … is absent in that regard from both crime reports and the scientific literature. There is simply no causal link to be found.”


Violence committed by belligerent drunks apart, there is the question of which drug — marijuana or alcohol — is more harmful to your health. The authors cite government statistics and a long string of academic studies that show marijuana is less harmful.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, around 35,000 Americans die of alcohol-related diseases every year. That’s almost 100 a day. Add to this another 16,000 people killed in road accidents involving drunk drivers. There are no equivalent statistics for deaths linked to marijuana use.

Yet alcohol is legal, marijuana is not. The monumental lack of common sense in the attitudes of successive U.S. administrations towards marijuana is one of the explanations for a steady shift in public attitudes as reflected by opinion polls. In May, a Zogby poll found 52 percent support for treating marijuana as a legal, taxed and regulated substance.

Opposition to legalization, polls show, has been weakening over the past few years. Before 2005, no national poll showed support for legalization above 36 percent.

But surveys also show that there is a persistent perception that alcohol and marijuana are equally harmful and that legalization would merely add another vice.

“This perception is wrong,” says Tvert, “and it can’t be corrected overnight. What we aim for is legislation that would give adults the choice between alcohol and a less harmful alternative. Current laws steer people towards alcohol because they fear the consequences of being caught using marijuana. But I think we are nearing a tipping point.”

Perhaps. One of the biggest obstacles on the road to policy changes is a sprawling bureaucracy of drug warriors who have an obvious interest in keeping things as they are and have long practice in shrugging aside data and evidence. During the eight years of the Bush administration, they were led by a staunch, ideologically-driven proponent of prohibition at any cost, drug czar John Walters.

The man President Barack Obama chose as his top drug policy official, Gil Kerlikowske, is likely to be more open to rational argument. Kerlikowske succeeded Norm Stamper as Seattle police chief and during his tenure, possession of marijuana by an adult ranked as the city’s lowest law enforcement priority. Lower than running a red light.

(You can contact the author at

(Editing by Kieran Murray)


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Professor David Nutt, who chairs the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), told Newsbeat the risk to mental health from smoking cannabis is no greater than getting drunk

“When we look at the evidence, we have seen a huge increase in the use of cannabis but a fall in schizophrenia.”

“Alcohol is probably more likely to cause dependence than cannabis.

“Alcohol causes brain damage through vitamin deficiency and withdrawal can lead to psychosis. Overall the mental health risks of alcohol and cannabis are not dissimilar.”

Professor Nutt from the ACMD reckons the link between cannabis use and that kind of severe mental health problem is “probable but weak”.

The latest research suggests the government would have to stop 5,000 men and 12,000 women from smoking cannabis to prevent a single case of schizophrenia in both groups.

“Using cannabis will tip a few people over the edge but in terms of most of the population, there isn’t really a risk there,” he said.

That comes from a professor advising the British government. Now can anyone really tell me why it shouldn’t be legalised??

Posted by Kate | Report as abusive

Here’s an argument I’ve made so many times I’m getting bored with it:

By the time one reaches my age (I’ll be fifty-one in ten days) one has known – at the very least – fifty people who have died on lung cancer and another fifty who have died of cirrhosis of the liver. Now ask yourself the following question:

How many people have I personally known who have died as the result of consuming too much grass?

Not only have I never known anyone to die in that matter, I am not aware of it happening in all recorded human history.

I cannot believe that seventy-two years after pot was made illegal, we are still having this same stupid argument.

I need a drink….On second thought….

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY


I apologize for being harsh, however…

Are you forgetting that there are other drugs out there too? Cocaine and Methamphetamine(sp?)would be two very big ones for example.
I mean heck, there’s Meth Labs being busted here in northeastern OHIO ran by none other than the afforementioned illegal immigrants from Mexico! Every month the U.S. Coast Gaurd is hunting down custom-made SUBMARINES coming from south of the border filled with up to 25 Kilos of cocaine.
So, you’re going to put all the blame on stinkin’ American potheads for the violence and danger these people bring? Did it ever cross your mind that they are going to do whatever it takes make a buck for themselves?

Harvard economist Jeffrey Mirron found that California alone spends $981 million a year enforcing the marijuana ban (that’s the policing, the courts, and jail time). Nationally, legalizing marijuana would save $7.7 BILLION
a year on drug-war spending. And government could raise $6.2 billion annually in tax revenues.
That’s almost 14 BILLION DOLLARS every year!!! How much do you think that would help with fighting the real drugs out there?

Open your eyes my friend, marijuana users are the LAST thing that will bring this country down.

Posted by SmokinSteve | Report as abusive

Here is an idea, legalize weed and take the profits from that and invest the money in port security to help stop weapons of mass destruction from entering our country.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Alcohol kills brain cells, THC does not, it merely binds to receptors in your brain and prevents other chemicals (dopamine I think?) from bonding to those neurons, temporarily until the THC decays.

In other words, no long term brain damage from THC. Less brain cells with each drink.

Posted by Hal | Report as abusive

With more and more city and state governments outlawing smoking cigarettes in public places, the idea of legalizing a more dangerous smoked substance seems counter to the progressive nature of the American democracy. The short term economic benefits do not outweigh what the long-term effects will be. The cancer rate will shoot through the roof and all the progress made on decreasing the rate of cigarette smokers from state to state will be undermined. In the name of public health, it should not be done.

Posted by Jeremy | Report as abusive

Who really cares about marijuana? It is such an uninteresting drug, and its legalization would not add anything beneficial to society. Maybe some extra tax revenue even though income from its sale is currently taxable anyway. The idea that people would drink less with legal marijuana is pure speculation and almost certainly false. Why even waste your time arguing for it? It seems silly to me.

Make all the arguments you want, but at the end of the day, the majority of people don’t care about it all that much.

Posted by James | Report as abusive

Someone argues that legalizing marijuana would not add anything beneficial to society. Why should MY freedoms be framed by whether society gains? I should be free to behave as I please as long as it harms nobody else, not just when it adds something beneficial to society. A society strong enough to take away individual freedom on the grounds that such freedom doesn’t add anyting beneficial to society can take away much more than your freedom to peacefully enjoy yourself in the privacy of your own home.

Posted by David | Report as abusive

This is a very sad time for our country…which prayer do you think God listen too given the two choices?

Posted by Larry | Report as abusive

I firmly believe that alcohol is more harmful than pot. Drunks can be violent. The only thing I’ve seen a stoned person attack is a pizza!

Posted by Marla Taylor | Report as abusive

Of course pot should be legalized, but I doubt it will be. It is far too valuable a cash cow for law enforcement, prisons, and lawyers. And, it’s easy to grow your own, which means the government would have a hard time selling and taxing it. Should it be legalized, I know I’d have a couple plants in a grow room for personal consumption.

Posted by Marla Taylor | Report as abusive

Anyone who is claiming that legalizing cannabis would have no benefit to society are ignorant of the facts and wrong. Aside from the fact that they’ve recently discovered cannabanoids that aided in treating prostate cancer in the UK(we can’t research in the US due to cannabis being a schedule 1 narcotic-which is rediculous), there is no legal distinction from cannabis and hemp, so legalizing would allow for textile research, fuel, and innumerable other products that promote a more sustainable form of existence in this society. That sure sounds like a benefit to me. Educate yourselves, and maybe you’ll START caring.

Posted by Daniel | Report as abusive

Cannabis can also help with anger management issues, whereas alcohol only promotes violent behaviour(as mentioned countless times before). This is written from personal experience.

Posted by Christie | Report as abusive

Perhaps long over due term limits for our legislators would be helpful in moving necessary change forward. Campaign contributions need reform as well. What we have now is reprentation by benifaction rather than actual representation.

The manner in which the president came into the amazing dollars for his election was by recieving small numbers of dollars from large numbers of people via the internet. Hopefully this will be the model going forward placing special interests, who consider influencing legislators with campaign contributions standard operating proceedure, in a less advantaged position.

The problem for our legislators at the present time is that in order to legalize marijuana or for that matter all drugs, even if it could be shown to have a net benefit to society, is explaining to his or her benefactors why they would be contemplating changing anything at all. They made possible the election of their choosen legislators so that they might control the pace and direction of change. Legislators are not put in office by special interests to do any origional thinking unless instructed to do so.

If you want to nearly have a heart attack learning about the war on drugs and what a complete and total disaster it has been and continues to be – read: Judge James P. Gray’s book entitled “Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It.”

Posted by Steve | Report as abusive

1. Check out tobackgo industry contributions to anti-cannabis candidates (especially, since the 1960′s, Republicans) and figure out who the enemy of legalization really is. Also bear in mind that for every dollar they contribute directly, the cigarette companies spend many dollars on hiring well dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken attractive young bodies to contact the legislators and schmooze with their staff, building up empathy and guilt over anything threatening to the hot burning overdose nicotine genocide profit margi

2. “Big Alcohol is the Running Dog of Big 2Wackgo.” Many nicotine addictions result from a bout or two of binge drinking, followed by a need to self-medicate off a hangover and study for the big test. Many youngsters after a party, realizing they need to sober up and drive the car home somehow, try “a cigarette or two”.

3. As Pres. Obama said when he quit cigarette smoking in 2007, he was one of over half the addicts who were already hooked before being of legal age to purchase the product. What would happen if cannabis were not only legal but just as cheap as tobacco for teenagers on a limited bodget? The high black market prices caused by illegality are the last prop holding up the tottering nicotine empire.

4. “Big pHARMa feeds of Big 2Wackgo and both fear cannabis.” If the wise practice of many cannabis users (vaporizer, long-stemmed one-hitters) spilled over into the nicotine addict population, many tobacco users might keep smoking but use 1/28 as much product the rest of their lives. This could cause a drastic decline in smoking-related illnesses which feed the demand for blood pressure meds, etc.

Posted by maxwood | Report as abusive

Alcohol is destructive, and very addictive. Marijuana is neither,,and could bring more revenue than keeping it illegal. The only problem is, that, the US government is a bunch of alcoholics. They would rather make money with DUI’s and busts than allow adults to choose a safer alternative to drinking,,and therfore causing no ill effects in public. Allow me to buy marijuana , and smoke it in my home. I am happy. While holding down a job and performing well. Make me an alcoholic,,and who knows what havoc I may cause,,including problems holding a job.

Posted by Mark | Report as abusive

Good afternoon fellow bloggers. Very interesting piece of info I’d like to share with you guys that I just learned from Now hear this approximately 98 percent of cannabis destroyed or taken by the D.E.A is actually ditch weed or what stoners refer to as headache weed, because the THC content is next to nothing and will never get you high. It’s absolutely hilarious to know that we the tax payers spend billions every year for overpaid landscapers. LOL

Posted by James | Report as abusive

Growing up in Los Alamos in the 70′s and 80′s, it was a rite-of-passage for high-schoolers to drive up into the mountains to get ripped at keg parties. That scared me a lot, since I also heard about the accidents and deaths. The pot-alcohol combination was clearly detrimental, too. I’m not sure I would agree that people would drink less if Pot were legal – perhaps – but with such societal vilification of the herb, and widespread acceptance of alcohol, I remember a lot of my peers who just opted for passing out, leaving the ‘stoners’ to run around nature getting a cardiovascular workout while pondering the meaning of things. Of course, it took real guts to seek out such an alternative to alcohol, because it meant one had to acquire pot by illegal means, rendering one paranoid and distracted. This illicit environment created it’s own set of problems, such as what I also witnessed, among them the behavior of those who used marijuana in excess, or were attracted in an anti-authoritarian way to the underground culture that arose (in large part, a consequence of pot’s prohibition). I admire folks like Bernd who are discussing this openly.  

Posted by macelf | Report as abusive