President Barack Obama’s recent acknowledgement that cannabis “is no more dangerous than alcohol” is accurate and long-overdue.
Alcohol, unlike cannabis, is a central nervous system depressant. Its over-consumption may cause respiratory failure, coma, and death. By contrast, consuming cannabis -- regardless of quantity -- cannot cause lethal overdose.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, about 15 percent of persons who experiment with alcohol ultimately become dependent upon it. (For cannabis, this percentage is estimated to be only nine percent, though some researchers have suggested the actual figure is likely to be lower). In addition, ceasing one’s alcohol consumption can trigger significant feelings of craving as well as physical withdrawal and even death. Manifestations of physical withdrawal from cannabis have also been observed, though these symptoms have been described by the National Academy of Sciences and others as “mild” compared to those of alcohol, opiates, or benzodiapenes (e.g., Valium).
It is well known that alcohol is also associated with adverse effects on the body and on behavior. For instance, a recent study published in January in the journal Addictive Behaviors links alcohol consumption, but not cannabis use, with increased odds of intimate partner violence. The results are hardly a surprise. Victim survey data analyzed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that just over a quarter of all violent crimes -- and specifically, some three out of every four incidents of intimate partner violence -- are committed by an offender who had recently been drinking. Cannabis, by contrast, does not typically stimulate reckless or aggressive behavior nor is its use associated with an increased risk of hospitalization.
The toxic effects of alcohol on the body can cause significant long-term health damage to the consumer. Drinking alcohol over time is associated with inflammation, scarring, and cirrhosis of the liver. Excessive consumption of alcohol is also estimated to account for one out of every 15 cancer deaths in the United States. In women, about 15 percent of breast cancer deaths are linked to alcohol. Not so with pot. Subjects who regularly inhale cannabis smoke possess no greater risk of contracting cancer than do those who consume it occasionally or not at all, according to a 2013 UCLA analysis of six case-control studies, conducted between 1999 and 2012, involving over 5,000 subjects. This includes cancer of the lung and other adverse pulmonary effects associated with tobacco smoking. Writing in the scientific journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society last year, noted UCLA pulmonologist Donald Tashkin concluded: “Cannabis smoking is not equivalent to tobacco smoking in terms of respiratory risk. Despite the presence in cannabis smoke of known carcinogens, toxic gases, and particulates, cannabis smoking does not seem to increase risk of chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD) or airway cancers. In fact, there is even a suggestion that at low doses, cannabis smoking may be protective for both conditions.”
By contrast, alcohol’s impact on mortality is well established. According to the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Globally, the World Health Organization reported that booze is responsible for a staggering four percent of all deaths worldwide, more than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence. No similar statistics have ever been compiled for cannabis.
Of course, none of this information is meant to imply that pot is altogether innocuous. Virtually no substance that acts on the human brain and body is without risk. However, it is self-evident that cannabis’ associated and/or potential risks are not so great as to warrant the continued annual arrest of one American every 42 seconds for violating pot laws (mostly pot possession laws), nor do they justify the plant’s present status as a Schedule I controlled substance -- a classification that equates the purported dangers of pot to be equal to those of heroin. (Alcohol, despite its litany of adverse effects, is unscheduled under federal law.)
The continued criminalization of cannabis and its consumers is a disproportionate response to what is, at worst, a public health concern. In an environment that celebrates and regulates booze, it makes no sense to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate those who choose to responsibly consume an objectively safer alternative.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and he is the co-author of the book “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?”