Pro-Choice or Pro-Pot?

Antiprohibitionists shouldn’t replace one set of pharmacological prejudices with another.

Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?, by Steve Fox, Paul Armentano, and Mason Tvert, Chelsea Green, 210 pages, $14.95

During the Euro 2000 soccer tournament in the Netherlands, local authorities let cannabis cafés stay open late and encouraged fans to smoke pot rather than drink. Prior to the Euro 2004 tournament in Portugal, police announced that pot smokers would be left unmolested. In both cases, Steve Fox and his two co-authors report in Marijuana Is Safer, the games and their immediate aftermath were remarkably peaceful.

Were these incidents refreshing acknowledgments that legal distinctions do not necessarily correspond to the hazards posed by drugs, as Fox and friends suggest? Or were they “sinister social experiments” that illustrated “the unholy alliance between alcohol prohibitionists and marijuana reformers,” as the journalist Brendan O’Neill argued in a Reason Online article last December? A little of both, I’d say. The challenge for antiprohibitionists is to compare marijuana and alcohol in a way that shows the folly of our current laws without setting drinkers against pot smokers or replacing one set of pharmacological prejudices with another. Marijuana Is Safer does not always strike the right balance. But by tackling “our nation’s perpetual double standard surrounding the use of marijuana and alcohol,” it advances both the debate about drug policy and the debate about how to advance that debate.

Fox, now with the Marijuana Policy Project, and his co-author Mason Tvert are the founders of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER), a Denver-based reform group that highlights marijuana’s advantages over alcohol. (The third co-author, Paul Armentano, is the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a.k.a. NORML.) SAFER’s strategy is deliberately provocative and not without humor. One of its billboards supporting Amendment 44, a 2006 state ballot initiative that would have made it legal for adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, showed a bikini-clad model extolling pot’s pluses: “Marijuana: No Hangovers. No Violence. No Carbs!”

But sometimes SAFER’s arguments are needlessly inflammatory and verge on simple-minded booze bashing. A billboard supporting I-100, a 2005 Denver ballot initiative that eliminated local penalties for adults possessing small amounts of pot, showed a woman with a black eye in the foreground, a man lurking in the darkness behind her. “Reduce family & community violence in Denver,” it said. “Vote YES on I-100.”

The discussion of violence in Marijuana Is Safer sends a similar message. Fox et al. are right that alcohol is more strongly associated with violence than marijuana; in fact, alcohol is more strongly associated with violence than any other drug, including those, such as PCP, crack, and meth, that have a reputation for turning their users into homicidal maniacs (a reputation that marijuana shed many years ago). But Fox and his co-authors are too quick to assume that correlation implies causation—a mistake they do not make when discussing marijuana’s alleged hazards.

“According to government statistics,” they write, “more than 40 percent of murderers in jail or state prison report that they had been drinking at the time of their offenses, and nearly one-half of those convicted of assault and sentenced to probation had been drinking when the offenses occurred. Further, among those who have suffered an assault at the hands of an intimate partner, about two out of three say that alcohol played a role in the violent behavior.”

You could look at these associations and conclude, as Fox and friends apparently do, that drinking makes people violent. But there are other possible explanations. Alcohol’s disinhibiting effects may promote violence in those already inclined to it. Violent people may be more likely to drink heavily because they’re especially unhappy and/or inclined to act out in general. People who commit violent crimes while drunk may be especially apt to get caught and therefore be included in the surveys cited by the government. People contemplating violence may drink to steel themselves for the task—or to provide an excuse for their misbehavior.

“Drinking (or claiming to be drunk) provides the perfect excuse for instances of domestic violence,” note the sociologists Richard Gelles and Murray Straus in their 1988 book Intimate Violence. “ ‘I didn’t know what I was doing when I was drunk’ is the most frequently heard excuse by those who counsel violent families. When women claim their husbands are like ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ they are actually providing the excuse their husbands need to justify their violent behavior. In the end, violent parents and partners learn that if they do not want to be held responsible for their violence, they should drink and hit, or at least say they were drunk.” 

More subtly, as the psychologist Craig MacAndrew and the anthropologist Robert B. Edgerton showed in their classic 1969 study Drunken Comportment, beliefs about how people behave while drunk influence the ways they actually do behave. Critics of the war on drugs understand the importance of set (the user’s personality, expectations, and emotional state) and setting (the physical, social, and cultural environment) in determining a drug’s perceived effects. This principle applies to legal as well as illegal substances—a point Fox et al. seem to forget when they suggest that alcohol causes violence. Uncritically citing a Justice Department estimate, for example, they assert that “alcohol…is responsible for approximately 100,000 sexual assaults among young people each year.”

The authors also succumb to pharmacological essentialism when they discuss the addictive potential of marijuana vs. alcohol. “Studies by the National Academy of Sciences and others have demonstrated that alcohol is significantly more addictive than marijuana,” they write. Later they cite a 1994 analysis of data from the National Comorbidity Survey indicating that 15 percent of drinkers qualify for a diagnosis of “substance dependence” at some point in their lives, compared to 9 percent of pot smokers. But the relative positions of the two drugs were reversed in a 2008 analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which found that 6 percent of marijuana users became “dependent” within two years of first trying the drug, compared to 3 percent of drinkers. The need to choose between dueling statistics is less pressing when you recognize that it’s a mistake to view “addictiveness” as a pharmacological property, since a person’s inclination to use a drug heavily, like his inclination to assault people after consuming it, depends on many factors aside from the drug’s chemistry.

Fox et al. are on firmer ground when they discuss marijuana’s other advantages. While it is relatively easy to die by drinking too much alcohol on a single occasion (as reckless frat boys periodically demonstrate), a fatal marijuana overdose has never been documented. The long-term health effects of heavy consumption are also far more serious with alcohol. (Furthermore, vaporizers and cannabis-infused foods eliminate the respiratory effects of smoking, the most serious pot-related health concern.) While both drinking and pot smoking impair driving ability, the former has a more dramatic impact. Hence it is reasonable to predict, even leaving aside any effect on violence, that legalizing marijuana, to the extent that it encouraged people to drink less and smoke pot more, would yield a net reduction in disease, injury, and premature death. That argument may be an effective response to prohibitionists who ask why we should risk compounding alcohol-related problems by making another intoxicant more easily and cheaply available. As Fox et al. say, legalizing pot would be “not adding a vice but providing an alternative.”

All this is worth pointing out, and the authors are certainly right that it makes no sense to legally favor a drug that is in several important, measurable ways more dangerous than marijuana. “Misconceptions about pot’s alleged dangers are the primary obstacle to changing marijuana laws in this country,” they write, and they offer a concise, accessible refutation of those misconceptions, including marijuana’s role as a “gateway drug,” its long-term impact on brain function, and the peril posed by rising potency. At the same time, the authors offer evidence that the myths are already fading. Citing poll results, they bemoan the fact that “one-fifth to one-third of Americans assume that pot is more harmful than booze.” The implication, however, is that most Americans think smoking pot is no worse than drinking.

By arguing that drinking is in fact quite a bit worse than smoking pot, Fox et al. risk alienating the people they’re trying to persuade—most of whom, it should be remembered, are drinkers. People whose drug of choice is alcohol may resent being portrayed as reckless, brawling, wife-beating, child-abusing drunks, especially since the vast majority of them are no more anti-social than the typical pot smoker is. During the I-100 campaign, SAFER erected a banner outside the office of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who made his fortune as a microbrewer. “What is the difference between the mayor and a marijuana dealer?” the banner asked. The answer: “Mayor Hickenlooper deals a more dangerous drug.” There is a valid point here, but social drinkers (not to mention fans of craft beer) are apt to bridle at the apparent attempt to delegitimize Hickenlooper’s industry.

Marijuana Is Safer implicitly condemns beer marketing, counts “widespread alcohol use” as a “negative consequence of current policy,” and declares that “most Americans give little, if any, thought to the moral and health implications surrounding the use of alcohol, and many could not imagine a society that was anything but accepting of the public’s ‘right’ to drink.” Those scare quotes are rather startling in a book arguing that the government has no business arresting people who choose to consume a politically incorrect intoxicant.

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