When It Comes To Pot Vs. Alcohol, The Facts Are Hard To Ignore

Eric March

It's time to unlearn what you learned in your high school health class.

Ezra Klein: Here's something most people don't know about marijuana. Officially the U.S. government classifies it as a Schedule I drug. That is the strictest classification they have, period, full stop. That means the government thinks marijuana is more dangerous than Schedule II drugs like cocaine or meth. It means they think marijuana is on the same plane as heroine, but 3,000 people died from heroine overdoses in 2010. You know how many people died directly from overdosing on marijuana - zero. And I don't mean zero in 2010, I mean zero in basically recorded human history, which isn't to say smoking [hay bells] worth of pot is a good idea. It's not, but notice what I did there. You hear that all the time. That's what we in the media business call the "to-be-sure-paragraph." It's the paragraph where we cover our asses. Almost everyone says it and even the people, who think legalizing marijuana is a great idea, don't say it's a good thing. The argument for legalizing pot isn't that pot is good, but that the [war] on pot is bad.

But there is a way in which legal pot could be a huge public health win, I mean one of the biggest public health wins we've had in decades saving huge numbers of lives. Let's go back to that drug schedule. There is one drug you won't see on there even though it is a hell of a lot more dangerous than pot or even cocaine. That's alcohol. The thing about alcohol is it's really bad for you, lethally bad for you. I don't want to be hypocrite here, I enjoy a drink but the evidence on this is you cannot run away from it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there are 88,000 deaths each year attributable to alcohol. About 25,000 of them are just direct overdoses. The numbers here are really amazing. A Columbia University study found that being drunk increases the risk of a fatal accident 13-fold. Pot, by contrast, increases risk less than two-fold. Then there's all the other nasty stuff alcohol leads to. It's a big contributor to violence, to crime, to addiction, it breaks up families, it gives people cancer, it gives liver failure. People forget this, but prohibition. We've [allowed for] it now but it was happening for a reason. People drank more than and it was a scourge.

So this is a question of legal pot. Would people use it as a replacement or a complement to alcohol? If it's a replacement, it's a huge deal. Marijuana is a lot safer to use than alcohol. People don't die from it. They rarely kill others while on it. More marijuana and less alcohol means fewer deaths in intoxication, fewer drunk-driving fatalities, less crime, less violence. But if marijuana complements alcohol rather than replacing it, then it's a problem. If it makes people, for whatever reason, drink more, then legalizing pot might actually make our alcohol problem worse.

Now, I'm going to say something that kind of sucks. We actually don't know the answer here. There's encouraging early evidence. In a survey of Canadian medical marijuana users are 41%, so they'll replace alcohol with marijuana. Another survey of California medical marijuana users [inaudible] national average. But those are medical marijuana users, they might be different from the general population. People using marijuana for fun might have a very different relationship to alcohol than people using marijuana because it's [sick]. But this isn't just something we can study, it's something we can affect, that we can change. Since we know a lot of people want to use some kind of mind-altering substance, we could arrange public policy to push them towards a safer one. Right now we can't because the federal government, against all the evidence, thinks marijuana is an incredibly, insanely dangerous substance with absolutely no redeeming value under any circumstance. What are they smoking?

There may be small errors in this transcript.

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