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

I completely agree with all of the points made by the author. I’ve also heard that DuPont and other plastics makers don’t want it legalized because hemp would become a more easily accessible material from which a lot of sturdier, more ecologically-friendly products could be created.

Posted by JC | Report as abusive

The problem is even though someone uses pot and recovered
by the next day it will still flunk drug test’s and get people fired while alcohol can be used the night before and be completely out of your system by the next morning.

Posted by Mike C | Report as abusive

i think what what j said about marijuana being as addictive as alcohol is very wrong. i know many alcoholics that feel as if they didn’t have alcohol they would die. i have never met any one in my 25 years of life that felt like they were going to die if they didn’t smoke marijuana. i think he doesn’t understand the differences between having a habit and a addiction. on a side note if pot brought our nation back to being a strong and healthy society i would shed a tear with pride.

Posted by cj | Report as abusive

i wish my noisy neighbors would switch from booze to weed. Our neighborhood would be a helluva lot quieter.

Posted by jerry garcia | Report as abusive

The real issue is the addiction mentality of so many pro-legal marijuana advocates that, rather than fully make themselves responsible for being absolutely stupid throughout their lifetime, decide to blame their alcohol addiction, and any other addiction they have, to the fact that marijuana is illegal.
Let’s grow up, shall we?
Admit you have a problem that starts with yourself.

So you want all your drugs legal?
You should have them, so you can wallow in the immensity of your emptiness and the shallowness of your existence.

Better to speed up the process of decadence than to sustain a mortally wounded society.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

@ J:
This article has nothing to do with addiction as stated in your comment. Approximately 10% of the population have addiction issues, the other 90% should not have their rights curtailed to accomodate this minority.

User DOES NOT equal Abuser.

Posted by Jim Cornett | Report as abusive

As a small scale farmer, I would love the opportunity to diversify my crops. Until that day, though, I’ll continue to struggle with margins that are unsustainable for a family of four without a second person working for the county government part time. Maybe this would solve more problems than we suspect.

Posted by Buck | Report as abusive

There are plenty of vested interests that like putting people in jail for a “crime” that affects nobody but themselves. The unions representing prison guards is one of the biggest examples. In this “free” nation of ours, you are only free to do what they allow us to do.

Actually, there is one aspect of the drug laws that is a success. The original push behind them was to crack down on minorities – Mexicans and later blacks. This is why 1 in 9 black males between 20 and 34 is in jail. Forget about improving themselves with college – student loans are denied (check line 1 of the FAFSA).

See the drug laws are working as intended – they are the last vestige of Jim Crow to be socially acceptable.

Posted by Dave404 | Report as abusive

I think care needs to be taken when pushing the fact that marijuana is supposedly less harmful than alcohol, or even not harmful at all. I am very supportive of legalizing marijuana, but you can’t deny the ill effects of smoking. Smoking marijuana is not healthy and can definitely increase your risk of lung cancer above someone who doesn’t smoke at all. I’m not saying that it will be the cause of more or even a comparable number of deaths to alcohol related diseases, but I do not think that you can safely say that marijuana is completely free of harmful effects, depending of course on how it is used.

Posted by Kristen | Report as abusive

I have had family, friends and neighbors, in hospitals, prisons, and graves because of alchohol. Iv’e said for 35 years exactly what you say here. The pot laws make alot of people drink.

Posted by K. Brooks | Report as abusive

The most interesting part of this article to me is

“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.””

My thought is if you legalize the stuff won’t companies like Proctor and Gamble or Reynolds get in on the game therefore eliminating the need for trafficking and thus counter-act this point? I mean right now, since it is illegal, if you want to buy Marijuana you are buying on the black market so it has to been grown and harvested illegally. If you could buy it at Circle K or 7/11 then that need drops.

Now this may sound like I am pro-Marijuana maybe even a user, but I am not a user and personally I don’t think that our a lot of current laws make sense. A lot of these laws get passed and later we figure out that they are a mistake, I think we are stuck with them so that we can “save face”.

Just my humble view and the end of the day won’t mean much.

Posted by Twistedfish | Report as abusive

Seems to me, that with the illicit profits removed from marijuana, that organized, and disorganized criminals wouldnt really care to deal with it. since there wouldnt be any profit int he green and leafy. (huge incentive)

its said that mj is a gateway drug. but pretty much from what ive seen in my days, its only so because the people who sell the stuff also dabble in other illicit stuffs.

alone, the obscene amount of money that enforcement and imprisonment of marijuana laws and offenders cost this nation. . and you have several good reasons to admit that the standing policy has been nothing but lies and distortions. at the taxpayers expense.

seriously understand its biology and legalize the stuff already.

Posted by D Nigel | Report as abusive

Legalize it and empty the prisons of the non violent offenders. Then there would be room for the murders, rapists, theives, ect

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

The biggest obstacle is making people believe the truth, which is the opposite of what most of the American public have been told. Marijuana is evil, will cause you to become insane and will lock you into an endless cycle of addiction…or will it?

Saying substance A is less harmful than substance B isn’t a reason to immediately legalize it. But we also can’t ignore the fact that alcohol and it’s abuse have serious risks, ones that we already know cannot be curbed simply by banning it. We have poured our taxes into the war on drugs, raided medical marijuana dens and thrown countless citizens into jail in an effort to put a stronge face forward. But has it helped the situation?

I believe no matter what, people will eventually see that simply pouring money into the problem has done nothing but create new ones. Instead of smugglers, we now have growers finding it safer to move into our country, we have a police system that frees “small-time” offenders in return for information about king-pins, and an over-crowded legal system that is stretched to it’s boundaries both in terms of space, budget and manpower. De-criminalizing possession and imposing taxes would allow the DEA and law officials to focus on more dangerous street-drugs as well as help balance the enormous expenditure our current “War on Drugs” has had.

Posted by Beth | Report as abusive

I don’t have much to say other than I think that the law is stupid. I know a lot of people that smoke and honestly they’re much more pleasant to be around than the drunk ones you have to carry out from a bar. I don’t smoke, myself, but wouldn’t care if it were legalized. Everyone can make their own decisions whether or not they want to.

One of the most fascinating things I’ve noticed about the anti-legalization articles, is that they make it seem like once Marijuana is legalized, EVERYONE will smoke it. Just like cigarettes and alcohol (which I personally think do more harm), it would be a personal choice. Yes, there are MANY, MANY people addicted to, if not one, than both. But there are also people that have made the choice not to be. The same would happen with weed.

And in response to a previous comment about being a business owner and weed showing up in your system weeks later (and not alcohol)… blah blah blah. Yes, weed does show up in your system weeks later, good point. However, you failed to recognize that other, more harmful drugs such as meth get flushed out of your system within a few days. Which would you rather hire, sir? A person that takes Meth (except for a few days prior to your drug screening) or someone that smokes?

If it’s that big of a deal to business owners, then drug test your employees. For those business owners who don’t care… who cares! As long as your workers aren’t coming to work high or drunk, and they get their jobs done, why does it matter what they do in their personal lives? I know so many EXECS that get high, it’s ridiculous. I was actually SHOCKED.

It’s not my right to make decisions for everyone else, only myself.

Okay, so I guess I had a lot to say. :)

Posted by Michelle | Report as abusive

The only harm that people get from weed is from getting caught with it. if it wasn’t illegal then it would not be a problem. In the land where people think that they are free why are we afraid of a plant?

We will be a free nation when only real criminals are incarcerated.

Mr. Debussmann has hit the nail on the head with this article, thank you for writing it.
I like to imbibe either one after work, alchohol mostly out of habit, although I’m not addicted (one CAN enjoy a drink without being an alchoholic). I have heard of a small number of individuals that have become addicted to marijuana but it’s rare. People can get addicted to literally anything.
Over the years I have consumed much more alchohol than I would have if marijuana had been legal. One reason, besides fear of jail, is accessibility. Everyone assumes that you can walk out onto any street and buy mj. That may or may not be true but many of us who toke are not willing to deal with people that we do not know. It tends to get harder to find as you get older. I would much rather be able to walk into a store (maybe mj could be sold through liquor stores) and have the choice of whether to buy a bottle of wine or a couple of joints. Maybe I’d buy a little of each. Everyone would NOT grow their own, that’s a ridiculous argument.
Alchohol definitely has a detrimental effect on your body, I don’t feel that with marijuana. It’s a mild pain killer, helps you to relax and I sleep much better with no alchohol-like effects the next morning. As far as it being an aquired taste or comparable to presciption drugs I’d say to each his own. If you don’t like it, don’t partake. Speaking of prescription drugs, it is my belief that if mj were legal that many people would use it rather than chemical prescription drugs that big pharma likes to try out on the public. We’ve seen how well THAT’S worked out.
Drug companies will fight legalization, so will companies that produce alchoholic drinks. Greed is ruining everything. I think that legalization will prevail, it makes too much sense on so many levels.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

Most of you on here that do not support marijuana and its many many positive attributes are completely uneducated, you believe stereo types from the media and government but chances are you probably know tons of people who smoke or use it medicinally and dont even know it. You make Americans look stupid because of your own shallow interests. Wake up, its the 21st century, no more witch burnings and black slavery, no more average age of 45, wake up because the Country as a whole is starting to. Before long all of you anti-pot advocates will be on the wrong side of the tracks defending something archaic and ridiculous.

The biggest obstacles to legalization are the alcohol producers and the pharmaceutical companies.

They both stand to lose a lot of customers. They’re going to spend a lot of money lobbying against legalization. They do not want this to happen. Bastards.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

I’ve smoked for quite some time. Not addicted, but just don’t drink much and prefer the light buzz over the stupor from alcohol. It’s a choice.
I researched drugs in college and gave presentations to local schools about the dangers of alcohol and drugs, never telling the kids, “Don’t take them”, but if they make a choice to do so, here are some warning signs to indicate potential problems, at which point, we instructed the kids, to stop, or the cut way back, it’s a choice that each individual has to make on their own. Weed has some mior addictive qualities, but nowhere near those of alcohol or cigarettes.
The catalyst for change will most likely come from abuse of pain killers, i.e. Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole, and Michael Jackson. Pain killers such as Loritabs Percocet, and Vicadin are the most abused drug in America, and probably more dangerous then alcohol or cigarettes, but widely perscribed and easily available on the internet. The abuse needs to stop and marijuana is the best answer for pain management and to curb bad habits such as drinking or smoking cigarettes.
Weed contains some harmful carcinogens, but nothing as bad as cigarettes. Pot is not that bad and is not a gateway drug any more than ciagarettes or alcohol. Marijuana is an effective way to manage pain and should be legalized.

Posted by joebeaster | Report as abusive