Pot Prohibitionists Can't Handle the Truth

Obama's observation that marijuana is safer than alcohol exposed a central myth underlying support for the war on drugs.


Prohibitionists were outraged by President Obama's recent observation that marijuana is safer than alcohol—not because it is not true but because it contradicts the central myth underlying public support for the war on drugs. According to that myth, certain psychoactive substances are so dangerous that they cannot be tolerated, and the government has scientifically identified them. In reality, the distinctions drawn by our drug laws are arbitrary, and marijuana is the clearest illustration of that fact.

"As has been well documented," Obama told The New Yorker's David Remnick in an interview published last week, "I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don't think it is more dangerous than alcohol." When Remnick pressed him to say whether marijuana is in fact less dangerous than alcohol, the president said yes, "in terms of its impact on the individual consumer."

Judging from survey data, that is not a very controversial position. According to a recent CNN poll, 87 percent of Americans think marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, and 73 percent say it is less dangerous. Yet Obama's statement does seem inconsistent with his administration's stubborn defense of marijuana's placement on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, a category supposedly reserved for drugs with a high abuse potential that have no recognized medical value and cannot be used safely, even under a doctor's supervision.

The administration concedes that chemicals in marijuana have medical utility, but it argues that they should be taken in isolation, not by smoking, vaporizing, or ingesting the plant. The administration also maintains that marijuana's popularity as a recreational intoxicant demonstrates its high potential for abuse—if you define abuse to include all nonmedical use, as the government does.

Both of these claims are debatable, to say the least. But marijuana's Schedule I status seems especially vulnerable when you consider the safety prong. Alcohol, despite its familiar hazards, can be consumed safely, even without medical supervision. If marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, it necessarily follows that it also can be consumed safely. And if marijuana does not belong on Schedule I, then by definition it should not be banned.

As you might expect, survey data indicate that people who believe marijuana is safer than alcohol are especially likely to support legalization. In a 2012 survey by Public Policy Polling, 92 percent of respondents who strongly agreed that marijuana is safer supported legalization, compared to 24 percent of those who strongly disagreed. Increased understanding of these drugs' relative hazards seems to be one of the main factors driving up support for legalization, which according to several recent polls is now favored by most Americans.

You can see why pot prohibitionists reacted with dismay to Obama's comment—not because it was false but because it was true. As measured by acute toxicity, accident risk, and the long-term health effects of heavy consumption, marijuana is clearly safer than alcohol. That does not mean smoking pot poses no risks, or that drinking is so dangerous no one should ever do it. It simply means that the risks posed by alcohol are, on the whole, bigger than the risks posed by marijuana. So if our drug laws are supposed to be based on a clear-eyed evaluation of relative risks, some adjustment would seem to be in order.

No, no, no, say the prohibitionists. Patrick J. Kennedy, the former Rhode Island congressman who chairs the anti-pot group Project SAM, says, "We take issue with the President's comparisons between marijuana and alcohol." Yet Kennedy does not really explain why. Here is the closest he gets: "Two wrongs don't make a right: just because our already legal drugs may have very dangerous impacts on society it does not mean that other drugs should follow the same path." The first "wrong," according to Kennedy, was repealing alcohol prohibition. Having made that mistake, he says, we should not compound the problem by legalizing another recreational intoxicant, even if it is less hazardous than alcohol.

That argument can be challenged on practical and moral grounds. If marijuana is a substitute for alcohol (as some evidence suggests), legalizing it could lead to a net reduction in drug-related harm. And even if you accept the paternalistic premise of the war on drugs, it does not seem fair to treat suppliers of one drug as criminals while treating suppliers of a more dangerous one as legitimate businessmen.

Yet Kennedy's argument is a rhetorical tour de force compared to the protests lodged by other prohibitionists. Writing in The Washington Times, former Oklahoma congressman Ernest Istook complains that "pro-pot proponents…adopt an extremely narrow definition of marijuana's dangers by [focusing] solely on whether it is 'toxic.'" Istook is alluding to the fact that it is fairly easy to consume a fatal dose of alcohol, while there has never been a documented death from a marijuana overdose. That fact does seem pretty important in evaluating the relative risks of these two drugs, but it is not the only consideration. "Pro-pot proponents" also note that marijuana impairs driving ability less than alcohol does and that heavy drinking causes devastating organ damage unlike anything seen with marijuana.

Istook trots out the old canard that "marijuana smoke has significantly more carcinogens than tobacco smoke," implying that marijuana poses a bigger cancer risk. But the typical pot smoker absorbs much lower doses of combustion products than the typical cigarette smoker does, and the epidemiological evidence linking pot smoking to lung cancer, unlike the evidence linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer, is equivocal. Furthermore, there are other ways to consume cannabis (vaporization and edibles) that do not involve inhaling smoke.

Istook claims "adolescent use of marijuana…causes permanent brain damage"—an unproven assertion based on correlational evidence that does not necessarily indicate a cause-and-effect relationship. Public health officials also warn that adolescent brains may be especially vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. That concern is not usually considered an argument for banning alcohol consumption by adults.

Still not convinced that the president was wrong when he said marijuana is safer than alcohol? He can't be right, Istook says, since "the official National Drug Control Strategy from drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske lists marijuana as one of the 'four major drugs (cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine).'" There you go: Since marijuana is a popular illegal drug, it cannot possibly be safer than alcohol. Istook closes with a sneer that was already old when he was elected to Congress in 1992. If you disagree with him about marijuana's dangers, he says, you "must be smoking something."

Simply citing risks posed by marijuana, even if they are well established, does not prove it is more dangerous than alcohol—a basic logical point that the president's critics do not seem to understand. "President Obama is surrounded by a myriad of experts who have voiced serious concerns about the harms of marijuana," says the Drug-Free America Foundation, "so either he is seriously ill-informed about the issue or is completely ignoring warnings from his highly esteemed advisors."

Drug warriors also were irked that Obama, rather than reiterating his opposition to marijuana legalization, seemed curious to see how the experiments in Colorado and Washington turn out. Expressing concern about the racially disproportionate impact of pot prohibition, he told Remnick "it's important for [legalization] to go forward because it's important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished." A few days later, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney emphasized that "the president's position on these matters hasn't changed" and that "he's not endorsing any specific move by a state." Rather, "he's talking about the issue of disparities in prosecution of our drug laws that an experiment like this may be addressing."

Still, Obama's openness to the possibility that marijuana legalization might be something other than a disaster is too much for those who view the plant as inherently evil. "His laissez-faire attitude about legalization has drug policy and prevention experts scratching their heads in confusion as to why the president will not give clear guidance," complains the Drug-Free America Foundation. "His lack of a formal position on what he is or is not supporting is an irresponsible move for such a person in the most highly regarded position in this country."

The drug warriors' confusion reminds me of that Star Trek episode in which the robed agents of repression who enforce a brutally blissful dictatorship, having been freed from the mind control of the computer that runs their society, wander around crying, "Landru! Guide us!" On the subject of marijuana prohibition, it is long past time we started thinking for ourselves instead of relying on a government that has been lying to us for 77 years.

This article was originally published by Forbes.

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  1. “Butbutbutbut I don’t WANT to take my foot off of that good-for-nothing pothead’s neck!”

  2. I have never used, nor will I ever use, marijuana. I choose not to. But this notion that it is a dangerous drug that warrants prohibition is absurd.

    I lived for six months in Mexico back in the early 2000s near mountains where a lot of cannabis was grown, and it was a nice place. Fast forward five years, and the streets I walked down then at all hours of the night had become a war zone. 300+ people were murdered in one night on those very same streets by the drug cartels. 60,000+ have been murdered in Mexico since 2006. These do-gooder prohibitionist politicians and their proponents need their heads examined.

    1. Exactly, legalization would severely disable the drug cartels. They would still be bringing methamphetamine and ecstasy across the border from Mexico, but that is a fraction compared to the amount of marihuana they ship now.
      Most of their money is made on marihuana.

  3. “Alcohol, despite its familiar hazards, can be consumed safely, even without medical supervision. If marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, it necessarily follows that it also can be consumed safely. And if marijuana does not belong on Schedule I, then by definition it should not be banned.”

    Well see, now your using deductive logic and reasoning. That is unpatriotic. What, do you want the terrorists to win?

    As a side note, I find it outrageous to hear the Usurper use the “states-as-laboratories” argument when his actions over the past five years have revealed nothing but the belief that the Federal Government is All.

  4. Given that the Kennedy fortunes were amassed from Rum running during prohibition and their inability to hold their own liquor, I can see why Patrick wishes prohibition never ended.

  5. Sleep driving on Ambien is completely safe though.…..n-patrick/

  6. So many punchable faces so little time.

  7. The thread that would unravel the prohibitionists arguments is scientific study. What are all the issues that are contested about pot? How much legal pot would it take to conduct a definitive study or series of study that would settle the matter? Figure it out, apply for the stuff, and when you get refused, make it a matter of the DoJ’s conducting a war on science. Obscurantism doesn’t serve the American people well.

    The next Attorney General needs to be pinned down and forced to commit that he won’t get in the way of science by turning down study materials to find out whether Schedule I drugs have legitimate medical uses and are currently mis-scheduled.

  8. Marijuana is a dangerous drug. Here’s the proof. It causes:

    1) Property damage – when the police bust down your door and trash your place looking for your stash.

    2) Brain damage – when the police officer whacks your head with his nightstick to get you to tell him where your stash is.

    3) Death – When the police officer caves in your head or shoots you for resisting arrest. Alternatively, marijuana related death can occur when your cellmate shivs you.

    You see? It’s obviously true that marijuana is dangerous.

    1. saweeet

  9. What’s funny is to realize that in a few yrs., most of those “anti-drug” people will be defending pot use the way they now do liquor, saying how bad other substances are compared to the “good” or at least tolerable cannabis. There will be a few who when pressed will say pot was a mistake just as booze was, but mostly it’ll be, “How dare you compare [x] to marijuana?”

  10. I’ve had family members really hurt by pot. I’m not saying it should be illegal. If someone wants to hurt themselves with pot it is his or her life. But, it is disingenuous to say it is not a harmful substance.

    It is more dangerous than alcohol in some ways, and much less in other ways. But, in some ways it is more dangerous. A person has to work a bit at getting drunk, and if you do, you will be found out, but with pot a couple of tokes before work and again at lunch and you can be stoned all day and no one will know. A lot of people do that. And, it really hurts them, in many ways.

    1. There was one well-known drug reform activist who told those she trusted that she’d been “addicted” to marijuana. I’m sure there are plenty of people who focus their dysfunction on a substance, and pot’s as good as any for that, I guess.

      I’ve also known people of whom I’ve thought they’d be so much more productive if they didn’t smoke so much pot. But I’m never sure about that. It could always be that they need that much down time, and if they weren’t stoned they still wouldn’t be getting stuff done during that time. And it might always be that getting stoned or at least a little intoxicated as often as they do actually helps them be more productive the rest of the time. No way of getting inside their head to find out which impression is the truth.

      I do think, though, that it’d have to be really strong stuff for someone to toke just a couple of times before work and then again at lunch to be stoned all day! The buzz doesn’t just switch off, but it should taper faster than that. What I think might produce an all-day haze would be edibles. Or if you could work in a couple smoke breaks in addition. I don’t think I’ve ever known of anyone to be what you could justly call “stoned” for more than 2 hrs. after smoking.

      1. I had a college roommate who never drank or ingested any kind of drug. He never went to class and played EverQuest all day. At that time, he was an ok guy, but kind of a lazy P.O.S. Later, he started partying and smoking pot. After that, he never went to class and played World of Warcraft all day. At that time, he was a pretty hilarious guy, but kind of a lazy P.O.S.

        I’ve also known people who were very high achieving, productive people who smoked a lot of pot.

        I don’t remember ever meeting someone who was high achieving and productive and then turned into a lazy P.O.S. once they started smoking.

        I’m not at all saying it does not or cannot happen. I just don’t recall ever seeing it.

        1. Sorry, too many “people”s in that second proposition.

        2. Sorry, too many “people”s in that second proposition.

          1. too many “people”s period…..

            too many periods too…………

    2. I’ve been in recovery for 27 years. I used just about any drug I could get my hands on, but it always included copious amounts of MJ. My father was in recovery for 22 years before he passed. His main drug was alcohol. He and I share a predisposition to use drugs to an extreme, regardless of type. Many more people can take or leave drug use without finding themselves addicted. Therefore, the issue that MJ “hurts” people is not any more relevant for it, than for any other drug.

      Regardless of my personal experience (well, actually probably because of it), I believe all drugs should be legal.

    3. “A person has to work harder to get drunk and if you do you will be found out, but with pot a couple tokes before work and again at lunch and you can be stoned all day and no one will know” No one will know….? So they will know if your drunk , but not if your high, but some how being high is more dangerous? Come again? Your not very high if no one can knows it.

  11. Hey all you politicians take notice, legalization of weed is your next cash flow. You bast*ards will tax your mother’s funeral but mark my words. Pot stays in the human system for thirty days and if you are non smoker it makes no difference with second hand smoke, you’re guilty. A DUI is just as bad for being high as it is for alcohol above the legal limit. The anti drug technology is warp speed. The drug enforcement people can tell if you handled a one hundred dollar bill roll up to snort coke. It’s that good! While your high on weed can you be absolutely sure you stopped at that stop light? Weed destroys memory to a point to make it dangerous. Do you want your X-rays read by a person who’s high? It’s far from alcohol and you can sober up in a short amount of time, sometimes.

  12. I want an intellectually honest liberal (if any are left), to start hitting the racist history of marijuana prohibition. And for an intellectually honest conservative (there may be a few left), to start hitting the corporate welfare history of marijuana prohibition (DuPont, anyone?).
    Not to mention the post civil war politics of hemp as a cash crop to replace Old Man Cotton and the goal of keeping the south down, both by racists who wanted to keep blacks down, and by Yankees who wanted to keep white southerners down…
    When Grant was replaced by Hayes, Reconstruction ended, and blacks lost the last decade and a half of progress (very substantial progress, with black politicians winning state and federal elections, whole cities transformed into areas where there was a black middle class majority, etc.), and instead the U.S. was set on the path where the next 70 years saw blacks in the south reduced once again to almost slave status, setting up the Civil Rights troubles of the mid 20th Century, and basically costing the nation 70 years worth of progress. Marijuana prohibition was part of all of that.
    To believe that my girl Mary was banned for the public good is naive as all hell.
    Meanwhile, I reserve to myself the right to smoke, drink, or snort any substance I choose, nanny-state be damned.

  13. Two questions for Pres. Obama.

    1. Where would you be today had you been arrested for marijuana possession?

    2. What do you have to say to the millions of Americans whose lives have been deliberately and systematically destroyed because they got caught doing the exact same thing that you got away with?

    1. He’d find some way to evade answering questions like that. Usually he’ll look down, smile gently and shake his head. As though what you asked was somehow “silly”.

      Then he’ll make some non sequitor comment and pull the discussion in a different direction.

      And your name gets added to the list.

  14. Pot smoking causes lung cancer equivocal? It Prevents lung cancer:…

    An earlier report from a former prohibitionist Donald Tashkin.…..01729.html

  15. What is the difference between liberals and libertarians?

    Libertarians could care less if someone chooses to smoke marijuana with their freedom. Liberals think that smoking marijuana is bad. Therefore, because liberals disapprove, nobody in the entire general population should be allowed to do so. It doesn’t matter if there are scientific studies that show that Cannabis can actually give malicious cancer cells a fight. Anywho, for anyone who has not smoked marijuana, I would definitely recommend trying it at least one time before you die. At the very least, the psychedelic experience is at the core of every human being. Whether or not you choose to deny that knowledge is for you to decide! 🙂

    1. I think there are plenty of differences between liberals and libertarians but I”m not sure it’s that liberals think “smoking marijuana is bad”.

      I think plenty of liberals have smoked and god knows their thought processes are questionable enough as is. My impression is that most of our drug warriors are doing their flying monkey thing coming at us and flinging their poo, from the right.

  16. We’d all be better off if the police focused on crimes that have actual victims!

    Does anyone honestly believe that wasting $20 Billion and arresting 3/4 Million Americans annually for choosing a substance Scientifically proven* to be safer than what the govt allows, is a sound policy?

    *FACT Marijuana is less addictive and less harmful than Caffeine, let alone Alcohol and Tobacco; (3 Scientific Studies)
    BTW, Dr Henningfield is a former NIDA Staffer;.
    Addictiveness of Marijuana –…..rceID=1492

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