This week, Drug Policy Institute's Kevin Sabet and Drug Policy Alliance's Ethan Nadelmann debate marijuana politics.
Today's question concerns the push for more lenient treatment of marijuana in the context of a broader push for smoking bans, fatty food and drink restrictions, and other regulations ostensibly aimed at promoting public health.
Previously, Sabet and Nadelmann debated state marijuana initiatives.
At the same time many states are pursuing more liberal cannabis policies, many are also becoming more strict on other health issues, including tobacco. Does this make sense?
The increasing convergence of tobacco and marijuana policy makes a lot of sense in terms of both public health and public safety. On the one hand, reasonable measures to discourage tobacco consumption among the general population and especially among youth can prevent and reduce addiction to nicotine, a drug that heroin addicts routinely describe as tougher to quit than heroin.
Raising taxes on cigarettes—while trying to avoid the illicit smuggling that results from significant differences in tax rates among neighboring jurisdictions—is an effective means to do that. On the other hand, we can anticipate a public safety disaster if ever Americans decide to prohibit tobacco production, sale and consumption as we do now with marijuana and once did with alcohol. With regulation comes quality control, and restrictions on sales to minors, advertising directed at minors and locations where marijuana could be distributed. This would take it out of parks and neighborhoods and into licensed stores.
Ethan Nadelmann is Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Cannabis and tobacco are both harmful to the human body and their use causes billions of dollars in social costs every year. So it makes as much sense to get strict on tobacco and lax on cannabis as it does to institute seat belt laws but give little regard to highway speed limit laws. Attention to both is required to ensure safe driving. Similarly, we should prevent both cannabis and tobacco use—especially among youth—to promote public health.
Cannabis and tobacco are, of course, harmful in different ways. For example, according to the British Medical Journal, which conducted the most exhaustive review of the literature to date, driving while high on cannabis doubles the risk of a car crashes. Tobacco use does not affect driving. On the other hand, few doubt that tobacco directly causes lung cancer; the link between cannabis and lung cancer is still controversial. We also know that cannabis is linked to mental illness—like psychosis and schizophrenia—in ways that tobacco is not.
Finally, science has shown that tobacco addicts more people than any other drug (including heroin). One in three people who ever start using tobacco will become addicted. The number for cannabis is similar to that for alcohol—about one in 10 (though that number rises to one in six if one starts using cannabis in adolescence). Although their risk profiles are certainly different, there are some similarities too: cannabis and tobacco both contain many of the same ingredients including carbon monoxide, tar, and carcinogens (like "benzanthracenes" and "benzpyrenes").
A great incongruence of our time is that as science has gradually revealed new and disturbing conclusions about the role of today’s high-grade cannabis (it contains much more of its psychoactive ingredient today than ever before), support for lax policies has also risen. But with tobacco, learning about its dangers has led to stricter policies. If tobacco teaches us anything about cannabis, it is this: Legalization results in more availability, use, and addiction than we would otherwise have. And importantly, any taxes we collect on tobacco pale in comparison to that drug’s social costs. Indeed, for every $1 in tax revenue that states and the federal government take in, $10 are lost on the social costs of tobacco use.
When tobacco established itself in the United States, an entire legal industry erupted and downplayed any negative effects of the drug. Big Tobacco continually deceived the American public by targeting to kids, too. Subsequent court cases against the industry revealed that tobacco companies have said these things:
The Liggett Group: “If you are really and truly not going to sell [cigarettes] to children, you are going to be out of business in 30 years.”