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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Although I’m supportive of a move to legalization, has there been much examination of how we might move from the current illegal and criminally controlled distribution to the legal and commercially controlled one? In countries where smoking tobacco is legal, but heavily taxed, there is a large criminal distribution (smuggling) to avoid tax. I presume those operating the current distribution have a somewhat vested interest to resist change, or to a minimum resist taxation. I can see the current way it works, and can imagine a possible legal way. But I don’t see how we can transition from one to the other. It’s pretty important to have this figured out if you don’t want to simply turn murderous thugs into CEOs.

Posted by Nic | Report as abusive

I find it very difficult to find quality marijuana, and as a result have been forced to smoke horrible material that is damaging my lungs. Legalization would allow people to benefit in this manner as well.

Posted by notthateasytofind | Report as abusive

Have to wonder if it makes more sense to swap tobacco and pot, infrastructure for infrastructure.

Posted by esr | Report as abusive

People who cannot understand that legalizing marijuana is like dealing with the lesser of two evils, and are against it, i have to laugh, let them make alcohol illegal, and see what kind of fuss the alcohol lovers, and people and companies who profit from alcohol would say or do.
lets get real, most people want to be law abiding citizens,
i know i do, but if i have to risk using marijuana for my health and sanity, i will. the alcohol mentality, and state of drunkeness, where people forget what they are doing and saying, while drunk, and sometimes black out, or just use the drinking as a general excuse, i was drinking, is discusting. parents allowing there highschoolers to go to beer drinking parties, and even drink in the house young as a social behavior, is far worse then a marijuana toke.

i totally agree with previous people who have voiced their opinions and wrote about how we are wasting peoples lives who are good people in jail, and wasting a tremendos amount of taxpayers money on lawyers judges, jails, ppaperwork, even if it wasn’t taxed, we could save so much money, AND MAYBE USE IT FOR HEALTH CARE DUh!!!

Posted by issa | Report as abusive

Humans like to get high on one thing or another-always have and always will. No government has ever eradicated that basic human drive. Pot is always going to be there-being consumed by those that appreciate it and making non-pot people react with laws, etc.
Pot is illegal but pretty easy to attain. It always has been throughout my life-in every state where I have lived. The War on Drugs has only been a gravy train for those working on that government trough. For the rest of us, the WoD has cost a ton of money, created a new industry around incarceration, a new industry around drug testing, and kept a culture war brewing much to the detriment of bigger issues. Do people really think that if pot were legalized and regulated everyone would be stoned and society would collapse?

Posted by J Thomas | Report as abusive

Everyone does realize that even if is legalized, that like alcohol, you will only be able to have a small amount in your system while you are driving. The amount will be decided based on the same reasoning that .08 is limit for alcohol.

Posted by Scott | Report as abusive

It’s my decision wether or not injest anything – alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, whatever.

IF my use of any of the substances causes me to act in a manner harmful to others, MY use of that substance obviously needs to be restricted.

Just as drinking and driving is dangerous, and drunks msut be slapped and eventually have their licenses removed, so to we should deal with the abuse of any substance.

Making something illegal to fill police coffers and make jobs is the current practice, and it is highly offensive.

Besides the fact that weed is proven to be the least harmful drug of all, and even reported to have many curative and healing properties.

Cops need to focus on murders, robberies, real crimes. PArents and government need to educate on the effects of every available substance, and the consequences of using those substances.

Then each person, upon reaching adulthood could make an intelligent, informed decision.

The legalization of prostition in Amsterdam, and quality sex education in mainland europe has prevented many more teen pregnancies than any abstinence program under the Americans ever did.

It’s time we gave people more freedoms to do as they please with their bodies, while cracking down on the real crimes of murder, assault, wife abuse, and so on.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

“Your joking right? Your arguing for the lesser of two evils. But, your purposefully avoiding the core issue at stake. Addiction is not something that you can marginalize simply because your changing the category. Marijuana addiction is just as ‘Bad’ as being Alcoholic.”

You are ill informed. Marijuana is Not addictive. Fact. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

Posted by Mastersnort | Report as abusive

I think the anecdotal evidence can be summed up in a couple of sentences: Everyone has seen at least one violent drunk. Who ever heard of a violent pothead?

Personally, I don’t use marijuana as I find that a very boring way to spend time. I have trouble finding time for all the fun things I want to do.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Hey J, I have not smoked pot in almost two months. Didn’t go through horrible withdrawals and didn’t find myself unable to live. However, the depression that I have had since a child from being forced to live in a society that values money over human life, that came back. You talk about addiction being the worse problem.. try living without money. Money is a piece of paper, one that will get parents to ignore their children and how they are progressing in life. Money will bring about wars, and fund both sides. Money will cause a person to look the other way when people are dying. I have seen people live without religion, but have never seen a person give up money for it.. except those who are homeless and have the police called on them because they are too close to the things that cost them money. So try this, go after the most evil and pervasive thing we have in society, money.

Posted by not J | Report as abusive

legalize it legalize it legalize it now. what a bunch of gutless cowards our leaders are, that among other things. i’m so tired of being ruled by the stupidest of us. america the land of the brave, what a joke, the land of the free another bad joke. the land of corporatists and that’s who all the freedom was designed for. but as our leaders are cowards they will respond to massive emails and letters and phone calls demanding legalization of the beautiful weed and while they’re at it legalize hemp.

Posted by mark jensen | Report as abusive

i’d pay cash money for a fed tax…..and happy to do it. down here in Texas, we can grow the perfumiest.! i’d pay cash money to be able to grow it legally, instead of being a guerilla. you see, it’s really humanizing to grow a garden.

Posted by REX ANDERSON | Report as abusive

J, it is not a sign of social decay. With all due respect, that’s your ignorance speaking. I and many others I know are all productive and responsible members of society and we enjoy smoking pot. We have jobs, families, social commitments that we honor, and so on. Get the facts first and have the courage to acknowledge them; otherwise, you’re just making uninformed statements based on ignorance.

Posted by Peter | Report as abusive

Besides aspects of harm… the more expensive alcohol is, (UK taxes are usury… ) the more financially attractive substitutes become. That is economics 101 people.

The UK situation is ridiculous. We have teenage & adult drinking out of control creating a huge load on our Health System, Emergency Services and Police. We have a classification system that is about sentencing guidelines not harm – honestly, Ecstacy as Class A ? its about as harmful as a few glasses of champagne, and you wont start any fights.

The asymmetry of tax and (rightly) health warnings on a pack of cigarettes, contrasted with the lack of either on alternatives – is state neglect.

As as for treating us as adults ? Why should we not enjoy a smoke, at home, with friends, or for pain relief ?

Perhaps we would be rather happy to pay some sensible level of tax in recompense for safe supply, and to fund government health education and treatment for those who can not cope – we do for other drugs. Asymmetry again.

Human Beings (and other mammals) have been taking mind altering substances for millenia. Biggest drug in the world ? caffeine, its estimated 80% of humanity takes it everyday. Wikipedia “in cases of extreme overdose, death can result”.

.. ah bless them … un/26/drugs-deck-of-cards-politicians

Posted by phil | Report as abusive

It’s great to see this many great comments. Yes Marijuana is healthier choice than alcohol. It’s called a gateway drug, only because its sold among the hard drugs by your local drug dealer. If it’s legalized, we will save kids from buying hard drugs too. Most drug dealers makes most of their money from Marijuana. If it’s legalized, drug dealing business will dissapear. I hope the momentum builds and we can break this taboo once in for all.

Posted by Sun-J | Report as abusive

Morality laws are so strange, except that there’s always a money link that benefits the current power-holders. For example, NY police used to spend a lot of time and energy going after the “numbers racket.” Since then, the very same idea has been legalized and turned into the daily lottery in practically every state. Make sense of that if you can.

On second, thought, don’t bother. It’s impossible to make any sense of such ridiculous crusade. Instead, follow the money trail and you will eventually come to understand the game.

I’ve been smoking pot since I was 12years old. I am now 40. I have tried to quit for years but fall back over and over. I know many of people in the same boat. It is very addictive if it is abused, much in the same way alcohol is.
And what are the long term effects on cognitive ability? And the weight gain from all those munchies? Add to that anxiety and paranoia, loss of sexual desire, and, and, uh….what was I talking about again..? Oh ya, short term memory problems.
I believe it should not be criminal, but it is far from safe.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

When we need a lecture on the gains and losses of smoking marijuana, we’ll be sure to look you up, Bill. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with one’s legal right to do so. What is relevant is the absurdity (as described above, did you skim over those points, Bill?) of a more harmful in every fashion legal drug vs. a vastly less harmful illegal drug.

Posted by Pyr | Report as abusive

And Bob, while I can sympathize with your struggles, those sound like personal issues, not issues with the drug.

There are plenty of marijuana users that can use it without it dominating their lives. I personally have excellent cognitive function, much moreso that the vast majority of my co-workers, so I suppose I’m ok in that department. I can also feel the pangs of hunger and suppress them, or drink water. You know, these are things that discipline can teach you, and you will be richer for it.

Posted by Pyr | Report as abusive

“Cui bono?” To whose benefit? The “driven to drink…” metaphor is perhaps literal. Distracting the anti-drug legions from the alcohol industry with a continuing (and very likely futile)challenge to marijuana legitimacy keeps the quite a bit of heat off of that threatened $130 billion of the alcohol industry’s annual take. First things first: save a few tens of thousands of lives per year; deal with one of the top public health problems in history: alcohol. The 51,000 deaths per year doesn’t begin to tell the story of the impact on America.

Posted by aj park | Report as abusive