The science (and responsibilities) behind marijuana

By Russ Davis

In January, President Obama did something I approve of. That’s something that rarely happens, so I have to document it.

In an interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick, Obama implicitly endorsed legalizing marijuana. In his comments, he criticized politicians who support the federal ban on marijuana when they’ve “probably done the same thing.” (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Sarah Palin, among others, have admitted to using weed in their younger years.) Obama also critiqued the racial and income disparities in marijuana related arrests, as those who are arrested are more likely to be poor and nonwhite.

The comment that attracted the most attention was when the president told Remnick, “I don’t think [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol.” Instantly, battle lines were drawn over the comparison.

Michele Leonhart, the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), reportedly told a closed-door meeting that Obama’s comparison was “irresponsible.”

The conservative TownHall.com published a column, penned by John Hawkins, titled “Five Reasons Marijuana Should Remain Illegal.”

MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, typically an apologist for the Obama White House, said, “I don’t think [Obama]’s right on this one because I think people have addictive personalities.”

Was Obama’s comparison off the mark? One of the challenges with comparing the effects of marijuana vs. alcohol, at least in this country, is that, save for 13 years of prohibition, alcohol has always been legal in the U.S. Therefore, it’s not difficult to study its effects on Americans. By contrast, it’s been more difficult to study the effects of marijuana, since potential test subjects run the risk of being arrested.

There is some limited data. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that nine percent of marijuana users become addicted to the drug. For alcohol, the best statistic is most likely one published by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which says that 28 percent of Americans “drink at levels that put them at risk for alcoholism… and other problems.” This figure is telling, when you consider that NIAAA also states that 72 percent of men and 60 percent of women report drinking in the past year.

Outside of the addiction question: Is marijuana more dangerous than alcohol? Both alcohol and marijuana use can and do cause car crashes but, again, obvious legal issues prevent the two drugs from being measured side by side, be it for car crashes or other incidents.

What about health benefits? In 20 states and the District of Columbia, marijuana is prescribed as a medicine. Medical marijuana can be of assistance to patients of arthritis, glaucoma, epilepsy, and other ailments. By contrast, the Mayo Clinic reports that – despite having some potential cardiovascular benefits – for most adults, alcohol has a better chance of doing more harm than good.

But here’s the thing. Let’s assume that President Obama’s comparison is incorrect. Let’s assume that marijuana is more addictive and dangerous than alcohol. I still say it should be legal.

What are America’s current laws regarding alcohol and tobacco? The government sets some regulations but otherwise allows adults to decide for themselves whether or not to accept the risks of consuming these substances. You’ll be charged with a crime if your use hurts someone else (driving drunk, or instigating a bar fight) but any harm you do to yourself is your problem. Let’s do the same with marijuana.

And while our welfare state may blunt this expectation somewhat, I suspect that many, if not most, Americans expect that those who drink alcohol or smoke tobacco should live with the negative consequences of their actions. Again, let’s do the same with marijuana.

There are people who smoke marijuana and wreck their lives. There are also people who smoke marijuana and lead productive lives. Let’s let adults decide for themselves what’s right for them, and let’s have them live with the consequences of their actions.

Researchers should continue to study drugs and publish their findings. But the science they publicize shouldn’t override two more important responsibilities: Personal choice, hand-in-hand with personal responsibility.