Rethinking Marijuana

It’s less harmful than alcohol and time to treat it that way

For decades, our federal government and supporters of marijuana prohibition have led people to believe that marijuana is so dangerous that it must be kept illegal at all costs. They have exaggerated its potential for harm, spread myths about its impact on society, and even spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars on TV ads designed to convince you that anyone who uses marijuana is a loser who sits around on the couch all day.

It is time to wipe the slate clean and take a closer look at the facts about marijuana. We are not here to tell you that it is entirely without harms — what product is? — or that it  is some kind of miracle drug. We simply hope you will come to understand that it is far, far less harmful than what your government has told you.

The truth is that marijuana is widely used in a manner quite similar to alcohol. Most adults consume it while socializing with friends or relaxing after work. And while some consume it for its medical benefits, others use it for therapeutic purposes. For example, some consume it to alleviate arthritis, relieve a migraine, or because it helps them fall asleep and get a good night’s rest.

None of this is “bad” or “wrong” or “immoral” if done responsibly, just as it is not “bad” or “wrong” or “immoral” for an adult to drink a cocktail after work, a beer at the ballgame, or a glass of wine with dinner. Consuming marijuana is simply something that some adults choose to do, and some specifically choose to do it instead of having that cocktail, beer, or glass of wine. And for good reason.  Marijuana is less toxic than alcohol, less addictive, less harmful to the body, and less likely to contribute to violent or reckless behavior.

Below are just a few facts that highlight the very different impacts of these two popular substances on those who consume them and on the broader community.

Impact on the Consumer

  • The health effects of alcohol consumption are a significant contributing factor in many deaths each year. The health effects of marijuana consumption are not. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 30,000 annual U.S. deaths are attributed to the consumption of alcohol (i.e. this figure does not include accidental deaths). On the other hand, the CDC does not even have a category for deaths caused by the health effects of marijuana. A study published in Scientific Reports in January 2015 found that the mortality risk associated with marijuana was approximately 114 times less than that of alcohol. Research released in 2007 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare determined that alcohol was a significant contributor to death and responsible for 3.2% of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia, whereas marijuana was responsible for zero deaths and just 0.2% of the total burden of disease and injury.
  • Many people die from alcohol overdoses every year, whereas it is virtually impossible to die from a marijuana overdose. The official publication of the Scientific Research Society, American Scientist, reported that alcohol is one of the most toxic drugs and using just 10 times what one would use to get the desired effect could lead to death. Marijuana is one of – if not the – least toxic drugs, requiring thousands of times the dose one would use to get the desired effect to lead to death. This “thousands of times” is actually theoretical, since there has never been a confirmed case of an individual dying from a marijuana overdose. Meanwhile, the CDC attributes more than 1,600 U.S. deaths per year to alcohol poisoning. In a 1988 ruling, after hearing two years of testimony, the chief administrative law judge for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) determined “it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death” and concluded, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”
  • The health-related costs associated with alcohol use far exceed those for marijuana use. Health-related costs for alcohol consumers are eight times greater than those for marijuana consumers, according to an assessment published in Visions: British Columbia’s MentalHealth and Addictions Journal. More specifically, the annual cost of alcohol consumption is $165 per user, compared to just $20 per user for marijuana. Following an “exhaustive and comprehensive” two-year study of marijuana performed by the Canadian government, the chair of the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs reported, “Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol.” The nonpartisan British think tank the Beckley Foundation commissioned extensive research into the health risks of marijuana and concluded in a 2008 report, “The probability and scale of harm among heavy cannabis users is modest compared with that caused by many other psychoactive substances, both legal and illegal, in common use, namely, alcohol…” In the mid-1990s, the World Health Organization commissioned a study on the health and societal consequences of marijuana compared to alcohol and other drugs, which determined the overall risks of marijuana are “small to moderate in size” and “unlikely to produce public health problems comparable in scale to those currently produced by alcohol and tobacco.”
  • Alcohol use damages the brain. Marijuana use does not. Despite the myths we’ve heard throughout our lives about marijuana killing brain cells, it turns out that a growing number of studies seem to indicate that marijuana actually has neuroprotective properties. This means that it works to protect brain cells from harm. For example, a 2009 study found that teens who used marijuana as well as alcohol suffered significantly less damage to the white matter in their brains. Of course, what is beyond question is that alcohol damages brain cells. In 2005, a University of Oxford meta-analysis published in the journal Current Opinion in Pharmacology determined “there is little evidence…that long-term cannabis use causes permanent cognitive impairment, nor is there any clear cause and effect relationship to explain [adverse] psychosocial associations.” It concluded, “Overall, by comparison with other drugs used mainly for ‘recreational’ purposes, cannabis could be rated to be a relatively safe drug.”
  • Alcohol use is linked to cancer. Marijuana use is not. Alcohol use is associated with a wide variety of cancers, including cancers of the esophagus, stomach, colon, lungs, pancreas, liver and prostate. Marijuana use has not been conclusively associated with any form of cancer. In fact, a 2009 study contradicted the long-time government claim that marijuana use is associated with head and neck cancers. It found that marijuana use actually reduced the likelihood of head and neck cancers. The largest case-controlled study ever conducted to investigate the respiratory effects of marijuana smoking and cigarette smoking concluded that smoking marijuana is not associated with an increased risk of developing lung cancer. In fact, the 2006 study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that people who smoked marijuana actually had lower incidences of cancer compared to non-users.
  • Alcohol is more addictive than marijuana. According to a 1998 report by Drs. Jack E. Henningfield of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Neal L. Benowitz of the University of California at San Francisco, alcohol’s addiction potential is significantly greater than that of marijuana based on a number of indicators. A comprehensive federal study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine arrived at a similar conclusion: “Millions of Americans have tried marijuana, but most are not regular users [and] few marijuana users become dependent on it … [A]lthough [some] marijuana users develop dependence, they appear to be less likely to do so than users of other drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), and marijuana dependence appears to be less severe than dependence on other drugs.”
  • Alcohol use increases the risk of injury to the consumer. Marijuana use does not. Many people who have consumed alcohol or know others who have consumed alcohol would not be surprised to hear that it greatly increases the risk of serious injury. Research published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found that 36 percent of hospitalized assaults and 21 percent of all injuries are attributable to alcohol use by the injured person. Meanwhile, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported that lifetime use of marijuana is rarely associated with emergency room visits. According to the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, this is because: “Cannabis differs from alcohol … in one major respect. It does not seem to increase risk-taking behavior. This means that cannabis rarely contributes to violence either to others or to oneself, whereas alcohol use is a major factor in deliberate self-harm, domestic accidents and violence.” Some research has even shown that marijuana use has been associated with a decreased risk of injury.

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Impact on the Community

  • Alcohol use contributes to aggressive and violent behavior. Marijuana use does not. Studies have repeatedly found that alcohol, unlike marijuana, contributes to the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior. An article published in the Journal of Addictive Behaviors reported “alcohol is clearly the drug with the most evidence to support a direct intoxication-violence relationship,” whereas “cannabis reduces the likelihood of violence during intoxication.” The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 25-30% of violent crimes in the United States are linked to the use of alcohol. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, that translates to millions of alcohol-related violent crimes per year. By contrast, the government does not even track violent acts specifically related to marijuana use, as the use of marijuana has not been associated with violence.
  • Alcohol use contributes to the likelihood of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Marijuana use does not. Alcohol is a major contributing factor in the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault. This is not to say that alcohol causes these problems; rather, its use makes it more likely that an individual prone to such behavior will act on it. For example, a study conducted by the Research Institute on Addictions found that among individuals who were chronic partner abusers, the use of alcohol was associated with significant increases in the daily likelihood of male-to-female physical aggression, but the use of marijuana was not. Specifically, the odds of abuse were eight times higher on days when men were drinking; the odds of severe abuse were 11 times higher. The website for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) highlights alcohol as the “most commonly used chemical in crimes of sexual assault” and provides information on an array of other drugs that have been linked to sexual violence. Given the fact that marijuana is so accessible and widely used, it is quite telling that the word “marijuana” does not appear anywhere on the page.
  • Alcohol is more likely to contribute to reckless behavior and injuries than marijuana. Research published in 2011 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, concluded that an estimated 36% of hospitalized assaults and 21% of all injuries are attributable to alcohol use by the injured person. Meanwhile, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported that lifetime use of marijuana is rarely associated with emergency room visits.

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