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)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

The world has followed US drug policy – blindly, and under coercive trade agreements in some cases – since those ill-fated 1930 legislations.

Were the laws of the US, under the present and somewhat more reasonable administration, to reflect the sentiment of the man in the street and go on to be enacted, much of the present burden on penitentiary and judicial systems the world over would be relieved.

The sooner some sense starts filtering up to the people in power, the better for all of humanity. The 1971 Single Convention Treaty was informed by emotional, paranoid, unreasonable and reactionary judgement. Now is the time for that particular piece of unilateral control to be reviewed objectively, and with the swathe of scientific evidence that we now have at hand.

Legalise and regulate drugs. All of them.

Posted by Travis Lyle | Report as abusive

Any discussion on narcotics and public behaviour needs hard numbers – as in, documented surveys subject to peer review and independent verification – before I even bother skimming past the first paragraph.

So why should I believe a word of this article? A special-interest group put out a press release based on numbers that are no more to be believed than any of the nonsense trotted out by ‘evidence-debased’ policy-makers and self-interested czars in the law-enforcement agencies.

Do you really think that the attitudes and behaviours of *any* segment of the population are changed by public policy? Let alone a segment who have clearly-demonstrated issued with decisions that balance gratification, risk, and their long-term health?

Show your working, and we might even move on to discussing your logic and your conclusions.

Posted by Nile | Report as abusive

“possession of marijuana by an adult ranked as the city’s lowest law enforcement priority. Lower than running a red light”

Well yeah. Running a red light can swiftly lead to the violent death of innocent people.

Whereas smoking weed leads to sitting around and laughing… and maybe eating Doritos.

Posted by Bryan X | Report as abusive

We may not have specific data for marijuana related deaths, but how many deaths are connected to lung problems? A few, perhaps.

Also, just for some reference, in 2002 (sorry, it’s the only website data I could find quickly) 65,000 people died of flu and pneumonia.

Legalizing more drugs won’t accomplish anything but expanding access to people.

Posted by Ed | Report as abusive

I think you are fishing in a five gallon pail. People drink because of outside pressures and alcoholism is a desease. Alcoholism is also passed along from generation to generation in families. Check it out.

Marajuana is an aquired taste and also a crutch to hold troubles at bay. I compare it to prescription drugs.

For every situation we have an institute that we can quote. These people know very little about the real problem they are trying to correct and enjoy giving out information. It takes a real reporter to collect his own information and not quote quasi agencies and self anointed government leaders of personal fifedoms.

Posted by f belz | Report as abusive

It is about time people discuss this arguement. In my experience, I would have to say that Alcohol consuption is one of the most distructive habits one can have. Pot is one of the greatest things put on this earth for Humanity….Send someover to North Korea!! The leaders there need it!

Posted by steven | Report as abusive

Well written Mr. Debusmann! However, every time I see your picture, I have visions of paddlewheel boats, and white suits… Has anyone ever said you look like Sam Clemmons???

Posted by Dan Martin | Report as abusive

This makes complete sense to me. Fact is that when I told my doctor that I was using marijuana to treat my current chronic pain, he didn’t even bat an eye, and made no negative comments. I find marijuana more effective than diazepam and codeine (I am prescribed fairly low doses of both) in treating my pain.

I also find that I have much less DESIRE to drink when I am using marijuana. I find that being too intoxicated while mildly stoned to be an unpleasant feeling. Included in this is the fact that I use MUCH less marijuana (literally, I use a 1-toke pipe) than I would alcohol, to get to the same ‘relaxed’ feeling.

Posted by dave | Report as abusive


A Cronkite like piece of unbiased facts trying to dissect the problem and make it easier to understand for most.

A big part of why Pot was outlawed can be laid at the feed of William Hearst, who’s family had large tracts of forested land surrounding their mines around 1900. Hemp was used for the massive ropes the Navy used on our ships as well as being used for the original Levi’s, and making Paper.

When Hearst got into newspapers, and Dow just came up with a paper making process from wood pulp, as well as nylon for rope, Hearst saw a way to double up his money by using his “Woods” to make his “Papers”. I’m pretty sure he invested in Dow as well, so as to make money off stock options. To make more money, Hearst got his “Harvard” friends in government to make Pot Illegal, creating a “Paper Making Monopoly” to profit a few “Harvard” connected friends through out “Upper Society”

100 years later it has only gotten worse, this “Good ol’ boy” society where it is “Who you know, not what” since “intellectual property” is stolen from us commoners daily.

Posted by C.D. Walker | Report as abusive

Amen, legislatures and the right wing hypocrites have been fighting this way too long. It is time to legalize it.

Posted by SamIam | Report as abusive

Where precisely does the government get the authority to illegalize any drugs? Oh, I know that they claim the authority of the Food and Drug Act but does our constitution actually authorize the Federal government to do that? I think not.

From a practical perspective, we’ve caused more human misery and spent far more money on this approach over the last 70 odd years for fairly piss poor to shitty results. But I don’t actually expect people to start thinking logically anytime soon….

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive


Thanks, Bernd, for this great article. We do need to get the message out about the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol and this column is a big help. As one of the authors of the book, Marijuana is Safer (mentioned in the column), I just wanted to let readers know that it is possible to pre-order the book at Amazon. This link should get you there:

Steve Fox

To those who doubt this article…I am allergic to pain pills. I used to smoke Marijuana for pain until someone decided to turn me in.

Now…I drink and I hate to drink but the pain is bad and I have no other way to take the edge off. Booze will kill me faster than marijuana by far but sure…go ahead and say no one turns from pot to booze…cause it happens daily! I was able to smoke and still I drink and don’t work. Which is more of a burden on society? Booze by far!

Posted by FormerSmokerInPainNow | Report as abusive

Keep in mind the article COMPARES two substances. Clearly it makes valid points with actual backing data. If one substance is a cuturally engrained staple and “past-time” while the other is frowned upon and illegal, lets see why.

Question the legal substance.

Posted by Jefferson | Report as abusive

I drink for the buzz, weed is out of reach for a law abiding person, but I would not drink again if weed was legal.

Posted by Brian | Report as abusive

Thank you, Mr. Debusmann, for a well-written and interesting article. I think detractors, like f belz, for instance who commented on this article and seems to have no insight, experience or knowledge himself, will finally have to be swayed to the reality that marijuana is just NOT harmful, nor is it violence-producing, as is alcohol.

People who don’t want marijuana legalized either have a monetary stake in the squashing of marijuana, or they have absolutely no idea what it may be like, or how it helps millions of people with different chronic ailments. They just can’t admit they know nothing about it.

Posted by Frit | Report as abusive

Re: Posted by Nile — “Any discussion on narcotics and public behaviour needs hard numbers – as in, documented surveys subject to peer review and independent verification – before I even bother skimming past the first paragraph”

So we can conclude that you have read the documented evidence, peer reviews, and independent verification on alcoholism and its consequences and are now endorsing a return to prohibition?? Or did you just skim those first paragraphs, too?

Posted by OSMR | Report as abusive

Which of the 2 can be detected weeks down the road from a night of use? As a business owner our accident record follows the employees that have failed drug tests.
If it can be detected, it is still effecting you.

Marijuana does have medicinal properties that have been known to help people with cancer, glaucoma, depression, fibromyalgia as well as other various and sundry ailments. Any law that makes criminals out of 15 million Americans cannot be good. Seriously, legalize, control it and tax it…Not only will it help the economy, it might even help things like road rage!

Posted by Anna | Report as abusive

A little over a year ago this author published an article here on Reuters covering the marijuana legalization topic. I emailed him in support and he gave me a prompt response for which I was very grateful. Keep up the great work Mr. Debusmann! It is so refreshing to see rational and balanced coverage of such a divisive topic in the mainstream media. Lets end this “war on pot” and make America a better and more free place.

Posted by Andre | Report as abusive