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Do Harsh Pot Laws Create a Dangerous Drinking Culture? 5 Reasons to Get Stoned Instead of Drunk

January 27, 2012
By Kristen Gwynne

Myths about marijuana convince people that alcohol is safer, but science shows pot is the healthier choice.


Alcohol kills approximately 70,000 people per year. Prescription pills, which have helped overdose become the leading cause of accidental death in America, result in more than 20,000 deaths per year. Marijuana has never killed anybody.

Although scientific research is available to show that pot is relatively harmless, and in fact medically beneficial, myths and propaganda about the plant’s alleged harm lead to marijuana laws so severe they often have the unintended consequence of driving people to drink alcohol, a much more dangerous substance than pot.

Many people do not understand just how harsh some marijuana legislation is. In America, pot possession so minor it is not even a misdemeanor can cause caring parents to lose custody of their children, because welfare offices may charge them with neglect, regardless of how good a parent they are. The legal ramifications of pot use may make parents who want to smoke marijuana more likely to drink alcohol, which is much more likely to create abusive or otherwise harmful behavior.

Jail time is another, more obvious consequence of pot use that may drive some people to drink. Last spring in Oklahoma, legislators voted in favor of House Bill 1798, enforcing a mandatory minimum of two years in jail and maximum penalty of life in prison for manufacturing hash. This is despite the fact that in Oklahoma, state law already allowed judges to sentence pot growers to life in prison.

What's more, pot convictions can take away scholarships, food stamps, welfare, and public housing. Depriving a pot smoker of access to public assistance and housing while undermining his or her educational opportunities, may seem shocking. But politicians are escalating the punitive effort, with many states eager to implement mandatory drug testing for public assistance. Laws like these may well make alcohol a better choice than marijuana, as it does not have the same legal repercussions. Still, its health consequences are much more harmful than pot. Alcoholism not only causes liver and other types of cancers, as well as brain damage, it also increases the risk of death from car crashes and other accidents. And alcohol use is linked to acts of violence like rape, homicide and suicide.

The health effects of drinking will kill about 30,000 people a year, but another 40,000 people die each year from car crashes and other accidents caused by excessive alcohol consumption. The dangers and death associated with alcohol use become more shocking when we consider how many Americans drink: 67 percent of U.S. adults drink alcohol, and 17.6 million adults have drinking problems. Perhaps these numbers would not be so high if people who want to smoke pot were not worried about legal, and other disciplinary, consequences of using.

Aside from tough-on-pot laws, we see so-called pot deterrents regularly in our culture, especially in athletic departments. In some schools, athletes must pass drug tests or get the boot. Disciplinary policies like these can make alcohol the more appealing option.

As Steve Fox, one of the authors of Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?, told AlterNet:

“[M]arijuana laws, drug testing and societal pressures most definitely steer people toward alcohol every single day. Let's take one simple example. The National Football League, which inundates society with advertisements encouraging alcohol use, bans the use of marijuana among its players. In fact, it just suspended two players for marijuana use, include one player, Trent Williams, who lost $1.85 million as the result of his four-game suspension. A nearly $2 million penalty for getting high! So what will Trent Williams do the next time he wants to chill with his friends? Smoke marijuana or drink alcohol?”

A recent NIDA study on teen substance youth offers an example of how marijuana and alcohol use negatively correlate. The survey found that teenagers are increasingly using marijuana, and decreasing their alcohol and cigarette use, at the same time that fewer teens view marijuana as harmful. The study's authors suggest that the increase in pot use, if related to a dwindling belief that pot is bad, may be linked to "the debate over medical marijuana." In other words, teens may be increasingly hearing the medical benefits and relative harmlessness of pot and making decisions less likely to harm themselves. This should be good news.

As Fox told AlterNet,

“There are three choices for teens: drunk, high and sober. Of course, we hope they all choose to be sober, but that is not realistic. The best we can do for teens is to provide them with honest information and encourage them to be sober while their brains develop. But a campaign that only discusses -- and exaggerates -- the harms of marijuana will likely have the effect of steering teens toward alcohol use instead. Do we really want that outcome? Why? If we as a society cannot accept the fact that marijuana is less dangerous for teens than alcohol, then we aren't really addressing the issue at all.”

But some people believe that an increase in marijuana use -- even when possibly contributing to a decrease in alcohol use -- is negative. Part of why some people cannot see how reducing alcohol consumption reduces harm, and why the laws that discourage pot use are so harsh, is because myths about pot's so-called danger remain rampant. Many Americans still believe that pot and alcohol are similarly harmful, and that legalizing marijuana may only create another American vice.

“This perception is wrong,” Mason Tvert, co-author of Marijuana is Safer, told Reuters, “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 toward alcohol because they fear the consequences of being caught using marijuana. But I think we are nearing a tipping point.”

To change the laws or provide youths, and adults, with the tools to make smarter decisions, accurate information must replace propaganda. As Fox explained to me:

“There is no way to ensure teen safety. The best we can do is diminish the likelihood of negative outcomes. One way to achieve this goal is to educate teens about the actual harms of intoxicating substances....Every teen should know that drinking too much alcohol could result in a fatal overdose. They must be careful. Drinking games sound fun, but they can literally be deadly. Of course, one cannot die from using too much marijuana. These two facts need not be conveyed at the same time. But this is just an example of the kind of honest information teens need.”

There are facts about pot that need to be communicated and repeated over and over. If fully understood, this information would help achieve reform of marijuana laws, and possibly have the long-term effect of not driving people to drink.

1. Marijuana is not a gateway drug.

"It's a gateway drug" is an argument that anti-pot people often use when they run out of false health concerns, as if marijuana's relative harmlessness is void because getting stoned will automatically turn people on to heroin. But the truth is that marijuana is not a gateway drug, and the vast majority of people who smoke pot will never move onto harder drugs. In 2009, 2.3 million people reported trying pot, but only 617,000 said they had tried cocaine, and just 180,000 said they had tried heroin.

Multiple studies have failed to prove that marijuana is more of a gateway drug than other substances like cigarettes, alcohol or prescription drugs. But we’ve known this since as far as back as 1999, when government researchers said, “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.” Pot and other drug use can correlate, but not necessarily due to characteristics of pot itself, but something more powerful.

As Maia Szalavitz wrote in Time,

“People who are extremely interested in altering their consciousness are likely to want to try more than one way of doing it. If you are a true music fan, you probably won’t stick to listening to just one band or even a single genre — this doesn’t make lullabies a gateway to the Grateful Dead, it means that people who really like music probably like many different songs and groups.”

While pot is not a gateway drug, pot laws may very well be a gateway to alcohol use, as people who fear the law may turn to booze. And for those who choose to use pot even though it is illegal, pot’s criminal status may nudge them closer to criminals, by putting them in contact with dealers.

2. Pot smoke is relatively benign and does not cause lung cancer.

The "anything you smoke can't be good" meme helps keep prescription pot stigmatized, and supports pot's classification in the strict drug category Schedule I (with hard drugs like heroin), where substances are said to show lack of safety in use, among other qualifications like lack of medical value.

But a study released earlier this month proved that marijuana is not actually linked to breathing problems. Researchers studied the effects of marijuana smoke on lung function, and found that smoking pot does not cause the same irreversible breathing problems as cigarettes.

This information is not new; multiple studies have concluded that marijuana is not associated with similar health problems. As Paul Armentano, also a co-author of the book Marijuana is Safer, wrote for NORML:

“In 2006, the results of the largest case-controlled study ever to investigate the respiratory effects of marijuana smoking reported that cannabis use was not associated with lung-related cancers, even among subjects who reported smoking more than 22,000 joints over their lifetime.”

Alcohol, however, is linked to many cancers, including liver, mouth, throat, and breast cancer.

3. Pot does not cause schizophrenia.

Many drug war advocates allege that marijuana use causes schizophrenia or other mental health problems, but science continually shows otherwise.

A study led by Dr. Serge Sevy, an associate professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, found that controlling for factors known to increase schizophrenia risk eliminated the association between disease onset and marijuana use.

Steve Fox told AlterNet,

"These mental health issues are generally as baseless and misleading as past prohibitionist claims, such as the claim that marijuana contains carcinogens that increase the users risk of lung cancer. The truth is that there has never been a documented case of lung cancer among marijuana-only (as opposed to marijuana and tobacco) smokers. Similarly, the rates of schizophrenia in society have not increased as marijuana use has become widespread, as one would expect if marijuana use caused the condition. There may be a correlation between people with mental health issues and marijuana use, but that is far different than causation."

The long-term cognitive effects of marijuana use are difficult to measure, because they are evident during highly demanding brain functions, according to the California Association of Addiction Medicine. But even the most long-term weed smokers will not face health problems comparable to those linked to long-term alcohol use, which include liver cirrhosis and Korsakoff’s syndrome, a disease that causes debilitating brain damage and the inability to form new memories.

Of course, any substance abuse is potentially more detrimental to a developing brain than to an adult brain. Prevention, or delaying use, is a great way to reduce harm. But prohibition does not guarantee increased safety, especially when alcohol is legal.

4. Driving high is not very dangerous.

Driving an automobile while high is another example of the fear-mongering used to facilitate harsh pot laws. Jill Cooper, the associate director of the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at the University of California, Berkeley, argued with good intention in the New York Times that while alcohol is still "a very real threat to teen drivers," an increase in marijuana use also threatens threatens safe driving. She says,

"We should not feel that teens are safer stoned than drunk. Why would we want anyone with diminished skills, either as a result of cannabis use or alcohol use, operating a machine made of two tons of steel?"

But her logic is ill-informed. You would be hard pressed to find someone who advocates putting a driver with diminished skills behind the wheel. But marijuana use may actually cause a decrease in traffic fatalities. A study by the Institute for the Study of Labor, a research center for science, politics, and business in Bonn, Germany, showed that in states where medical marijuana is legal, adults were smoking more marijuana and drinking less alcohol, and the result was a 9 percent decrease in traffic fatalities.

Another study, conduced by Andrew Sewell, found that quantity affects ability, but "marijuana smokers tend to compensate effectively while driving by utilizing a variety of behavioral strategies," like driving slower. The study concluded:

Epidemiological studies have been inconclusive regarding whether cannabis use causes an increased risk of accidents; in contrast, unanimity exists that alcohol use increases crash risk."

Mix alcohol and pot together, however, and the effects may be more intoxicating than either drug alone.

5. Pot does not make you lazy.

You've seen the image a million times: A pothead slumped on the couch surrounded by a cloud of weed smoke, paralyzed by his high. But marijuana is not a couch-potato creator. The technical name for marijuana-induced laziness is "amotivational syndrome," and research suggests it has a lot more to do with other factors than with pot. A study on marijuana use and amotivational syndrome shows circumstances unique to a person, or some underlying problem, are more to blame for amotivational syndrome than the drug itself. Like research on pot and schizophrenia, the challenge is separating pot use from other variables that may take place at the same time, and attributing the correct cause to effect.

But even if marijuana did make people lazy, pot is not associated with violent crime or sexual assault. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a contributing factor in many cases of violence, as well as sexual assault and rape. According to 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.

Alcohol is linked to reckless behavior and to serious injuries, and it is highly associated with emergency room visits. But marijuana is rarely associated with emergency room visits, and is not proven to increase reckless behavior or cause injuries.

As Fox told AlterNet,

"There are very few things in life that are harmless. We understand that McDonald's, Popeye's and tuna fish, for that matter, pose certain risks to our health. We don't ban all of these things because they are not harmless. When it comes to using a substance for recreation or relaxation, alcohol and marijuana are by far the two most popular choices in our society. In many ways they are quite similar. But the most significant difference is that marijuana is far less harmful to the user. More than 30,000 Americans die every year from the health effects of alcohol. The comparable number for marijuana is zero. If making marijuana legal results in millions of Americans shifting from alcohol consumption to marijuana consumption (at least in part), that will result in less physical harm to Americans and possibly fewer deaths. I will let other people judge whether that is a good thing."

To reduce the harm associated with substance use, Americans need the options and tools necessary to make health-based, informed decisions -- not harsh consequences that punish a relatively harmless drug.