The Double Standard of Smoking Marijuana

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Debunk myths about smoking marijuana, why it’s safer than alcohol, and how we can change marijuana policy in “Marijuana is Safer.”
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Marijuana is objectively safer than alcohol, both for the user and for society.

Marijuana is Safer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) by Steve Fox, Paul Armentano, and Mason Tvert poses the question: Why do we punish adults who make the rational, safer choice to use marijuana instead of alcohol? In this updated version, the authors revisit research that supports the position that marijuana is safer than alcohol, as well as provide persuasive arguments to advance the marijuana-policy reform. In this excerpt taken from the introduction, see how America has placed a double standard on smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. 

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It’s June 2004 and the city of Lisbon, Portugal, is preparing for war. Not a literal war, but an epic encounter almost as frightening in its potential for violence: England is playing France in the opening round of the Euro 2004 soccer tournament. But the showdown on the field will be nothing compared to the anticipated battle in the stands and in the streets. Soon the city will be overrun with one of Earth’s most dreaded species, the English soccer fan. Branded as “hooligans,” these fans are notorious for their drunken antics and their propensity to instigate alcohol-fueled fights, assaults, and, in some extreme cases, all-out riots.

So with 50,000 rabid Frenchmen and Englishmen descending upon this normally quiet town, what were the authorities to do? Ban alcohol? Not a bad guess, but no. Instead, the police announced that French and English soccer fans would not be arrested or sanctioned in any way for smoking marijuana. A spokeswoman for the Lisbon police explained the policy to Britain’s Guardian newspaper this way: “If you are quietly smoking and a police officer is 10 meters away, what’s the big risk in your behavior? I’m not going to tap you on the shoulder and ask ‘What are you smoking?’ if you are posing no menace to others. Our priority is alcohol.”

In large part because of Lisbon’s novel approach, the highly anticipated match took place without incident. Police made no arrests during the game, and England’s infamous hooligans behaved remarkably peacefully, even in the immediate aftermath of England’s 2-1 defeat by its hated rival. Unfortunately, while this social experiment proved successful, it was short-lived. Later that evening, after English fans had drowned their sorrows at the local pubs, violence erupted among clashing fans, and several hundred people were arrested.

What’s surprising about the Lisbon experience is not the outcome, which was predictable, especially since a similar lack of violence was observed when England played a soccer match in the Netherlands (where the possession of marijuana by adults is de facto legal) during the Euro 2000 tournament. Rather, it is the lack of attention the story received in the U.S. media and among policy makers. Although the Lisbon experiment was not conducted in a scientifically controlled environment, it nevertheless prompts the question: Would the legalization of marijuana reduce alcohol-related harms in society? In a country where, according to the Department of Justice, alcohol plays a pivotal role in some two-thirds of all cases of violence suffered by an intimate (such as a spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend), and is responsible for approximately 100,000 sexual assaults among young people each year, this is a serious question deserving of serious discussion.

Ironically, just a few years later, the same American media that turned a collective cold shoulder to Portugal’s unique experiment in “pot tolerance” became enamored with a campaign by university presidents to spur a national debate about whether to lower the drinking age in the United States to eighteen. This campaign, dubbed the Amethyst Initiative, “aims to encourage moderation and responsibility as an alternative to the drunkenness and reckless decisions about alcohol that mark the experience of many young Americans.” Are these university presidents also pushing for a debate about whether the legal use of marijuana could provide an alternative to “drunkenness and reckless decisions about alcohol”? Not as of this writing.

The Double Standard

So we are left with a puzzling dichotomy. Despite knowing that a large percentage of assaults and injuries on their campuses are related to alcohol, university presidents are still willing to consider lowering the legal drinking age. Yet these same officials will not even discuss the idea of granting students the legal right to use a substance that is less likely to lead to violent behavior.

This is just one example of our nation’s perpetual double standard surrounding the use of marijuana and alcohol. How did we as a society end up in this position? Why do we criminally arrest or discipline hundreds of thousands of Americans annually for consuming a substance that is not associated with acts of violence, yet tolerate and at times even celebrate the use of another that is? Why do we embrace the use of alcohol, a toxic substance whose consumption is responsible for hundreds of acute alcohol-poisoning deaths in the United States each year, while at the same time condemn smoking marijuana, which is incapable of causing a fatal overdose? Although marijuana remains the third most frequently consumed drug of choice in America, trailing in popularity only behind alcohol and tobacco, these questions have never been addressed at length by either the media or America’s elected officials. This is about to change.

Americans have a unique, if slightly schizophrenic, relationship with Mary Jane. On one hand, the U.S. government reports that well over 100 million U.S. citizens—that’s nearly 42 percent of the population over twelve years of age—admit that they’ve smoked pot. On the other hand, marijuana possession and recreational use is illegal in nearly all fifty states. (The two most notable exceptions to this present prohibition, and the primary impetus for releasing a second edition of this book, are Colorado and Washington. On November 6, 2012, a majority of voters in both states decided in favor of citizen initiatives to legalize under state law the private possession of specified quantities of cannabis. In Colorado, adults may also legally grow a limited amount of marijuana for their personal use. We focus specifically on Colorado, and the successful campaign to enact legalization there, in this book. Also noteworthy, the private use of marijuana inside the home is legal in Alaska, based on a state court determination that it is protected under a right to privacy. In addition, as of this writing, the medical use of cannabis is legal in eighteen states as well as in Washington, D.C.) Cannabis has been described—by an administrative law judge at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, no less—as “one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.” Yet the U.S. government stubbornly classifies it under federal law as one of society’s most dangerous drugs. Hollywood actors unabashedly simulate pot smoking in movies and on television, much to audiences’ delight. Meanwhile, this same behavior has been criticized and discouraged in government-sponsored public-service announcements on the very same screens.

One might wonder how a substance so universally demonized by America’s elected officials remains so popular among the American public. Perhaps the answer is that politicians and the mainstream media are just reinforcing each others’ talking points, while much of the rest of America now accepts marijuana for what it is—a relatively benign substance that is frequently used responsibly by millions of people. Well, that may be the case for a certain segment of the population, but this enlightened attitude is far from universal.

Despite pot’s popularity, surveys indicate that many people—nonusers in particular—tend to overestimate the drug’s actual harms. Not necessarily to the same degree as the federal government, mind you, but nonetheless much of the public still holds many misconceptions about the plant and its effects. In fact, some one-fifth to one-third of Americans assume that pot is more harmful than booze. Another one-third of Americans consider marijuana to be equally as harmful as alcohol.

It is our contention that these misconceptions about pot’s alleged dangers are the primary obstacle to changing marijuana laws in this country. Therefore, our goal is to demonstrate to you, the reader, that marijuana is not only less harmful than alcohol, but that the difference is really quite significant.

This is not to say that cannabis is harmless. No rational person would make this assertion, and indeed we have dedicated a portion of this book to addressing pot’s potential health hazards. Nevertheless, almost all drugs, including many that are legal, pose greater threats to individual health than does marijuana. To date, virtually every federally commissioned government study ever conducted on the subject affirms this conclusion.

But don’t expect your government to highlight this fact or even stay neutral on the issue. Rather, most politicians and law enforcement officials today rely on gross distortions and exaggerations regarding pot’s supposed dangers—call it “Reefer Madness redux”—to justify their failed and destructive prohibitionist policies. In this book, we provide ample scientific evidence contradicting a number of the government’s more popular and egregious marijuana myths. Readers will learn the facts surrounding the alleged “new dangers” of today’s supposedly potent pot. We will also examine just how harmful marijuana smoke is to the lungs, and what association, if any, there is between the use of cannabis and harder drugs. The answers may surprise you.

One might ask, if marijuana poses so few legitimate harms to health and society—in fact, far fewer than those posed by alcohol—then why has the federal government spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on public advertising campaigns primarily designed to maintain the criminal prohibition of cannabis? Is the feds’ fixation on pot a moral crusade or part of a larger cultural battle? Regardless of the government’s underlying motivation, it is beyond dispute that politicians and members of law enforcement have systematically demonized pot to such a degree that a significant portion of Americans still support criminalizing the recreational use of marijuana—even though it could lead to the arresting and jailing of their friends, neighbors, and perhaps, even family members.

Of course, the dissemination of antimarijuana propaganda is not our government’s sole means of marijuana demonization. Where persuasion does not suffice, there is always the threat of punishment. The federal government, as well as most states in the nation, prohibit the possession and cultivation of marijuana for recreational use, with state penalties ranging from $100 fines (in Ohio) to life in prison (in Oklahoma). Since 1965, police have arrested more than twenty-two million Americans for marijuana-related crimes—mostly for simple possession. This figure is roughly equal to the combined populations of Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Nevada. While a relatively small portion of first-time offenders arrested for marijuana possession are sentenced to time in jail, the fact remains that the repercussions of the arrest alone are significant. The potential sanctions include:

• loss of driving privileges;

• loss of federal college aid;

• loss of personal private property;

• revocation of professional driver’s license;

• loss of certain welfare benefits such as food stamps;

• removal from public housing; and

• loss of child custody.

Cannabis consumers are also subject to additional punishments stemming from the now nearly ubiquitous specter of drug testing. Depending on the circumstances, individuals who test positive for having consumed pot at some previous, unspecified point in time may lose their jobs, be suspended from school or barred from participating in extracurricular activities, be forced to enter a “drug treatment” program, have their parole revoked, or even be stripped of an Olympic medal.

We contend that the ultimate, if unintended, impact of the government’s extreme antimarijuana laws and propaganda is to push people away from cannabis and toward consuming alcohol. If students learn that they may lose their financial aid if they use cannabis, but will most likely receive a slap on the wrist—at worst—for drinking alcohol while underage, which option are they likely to choose? A similar incentive is created in many workplaces that impose random drug testing. Employees know that they can spend their off-hours drunk as skunks with nothing more to fear than some lost productivity if they arrive to work hungover the next morning. Yet if an employee at the same company is randomly drug tested on Monday after relaxing with friends and enjoying a joint the preceding Friday, he or she may be searching for a new job within the week.

The irony is that these policies implicitly motivate people to use what is an objectively more harmful substance. Studies by the National Academy of Sciences and others have demonstrated that alcohol is significantly more addictive than marijuana. Moreover, chronic alcohol use, as well as acute intoxication, can lead to organ damage and death. According to a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for an average of 79,000 premature U.S. deaths every year. By contrast, no study to date has ever identified a link between long-term marijuana use and increased mortality—meaning, researchers have not identified any way in which long-term marijuana use hastens death.

Alcohol has also been shown, in contrast to marijuana, to fuel aggressive, violent behavior. In one study of domestic violence, researchers found that men were eight times more likely to be abusive on days when they consumed alcohol as compared to days when they did not. Overall, the U.S. government estimates that alcohol contributes to 25 to 30 percent of all violent crime in America. In the United Kingdom, the association between alcohol and violence may be even more pronounced. In 2004, the Guardian newspaper reported that the police minister planned to “blitz alcohol violence [that coming] summer, in the face of Home Office research showing that alcohol is the root cause of nearly half of all violent crime, and of 70% of hospital emergency and accident admissions at peak times.” 

So what can we do to ensure that individuals have the freedom to choose marijuana instead of alcohol without risking arrest, jail, and their very livelihoods? The obvious answer is that we need to amend federal and state laws that criminalize the possession and use of marijuana by adults. But how does one go about doing so?

On this topic we speak from experience, having worked for more than thirty years combined at three of the nation’s most prominent organizations dedicated to reforming marijuana laws—the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER). Through public-education campaigns, state and federal lobbying efforts, and state and local ballot initiative campaigns, these three groups have helped to diminish anti-marijuana sentiment in America. However, prior to the establishment of SAFER in 2005, no organization had single-mindedly engaged in the strategy outlined in this text: that is, a high-profile, public-education campaign focused entirely on the fact that marijuana is objectively safer than alcohol, both for the user and for society.

Previous efforts to reform marijuana laws in this country typically made only passing references to the marijuana-versus-alcohol comparison. Instead, they emphasized other, more conventional arguments, many of which we will discuss in greater detail later in this book. One such contention is that it is a waste of law enforcement resources to arrest and prosecute marijuana users. Although arguments like this are valid, they had, on their own, failed to convince our elected officials—or even a strong majority of the American public—to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana. Instead, reformers were all too often confronted by citizens and elected officials echoing one common refrain: “Why should society legalize another vice?” In essence, much of the public and its elected officials, having witnessed firsthand the many problems associated with alcohol, have been hesitant to give a green light to another intoxicant—regardless of what its relative harms may be.

In the face of this obstacle, many advocates have downplayed discussing the relative harms of the two substances. Instead they have simply argued that marijuana should be “treated like alcohol”—in other words, it should be sold legally and regulated. Although we agree with this conclusion, the call to treat marijuana like alcohol does little to alter the underlying public perception that marijuana is “bad” or “dangerous” and, therefore, is no more than another unnecessary vice. Until we force the public to appreciate that the legalization of marijuana would not be “adding a vice,” but instead would be providing adults with a less harmful recreational alternative, wide-scale legalization will likely remain—pardon the pun—a pipe dream.

Of course, educating the public about the relative harms of cannabis and alcohol will not be accomplished through a top-down, government-run advertising campaign. It will require a broad movement of citizens willing to speak honestly and openly about the relative harms and benefits of the two substances. We hope this book, which is designed to both educate and inspire, will become an essential part of that movement. Whether you are a cannabis connoisseur seeking to educate friends and family or someone who has never even seen a marijuana plant outside of a television or movie screen, we are certain that you will benefit from reading the pages in this book.

Reprinted with permission from Marijuana is Safer by Steve Fox, Paul Armentano, and Mason Tvert, and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013. 

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