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Steve Almond: For years, the government has been exaggerating the risks associated with pot, and downplaying the (by-now-pretty-darn-obvious) risks of alcohol. (Alexodus/flickr)

Let’s start here: I smoke pot.

In fact, I’ve smoked pot for many years. I celebrated the night of my bar mitzvah by smoking pot. I smoked pot on my wedding day. And while I am not smoking pot right now that’s only because it’s 10 in the morning and I try to limit my pot intake to the evening hours.

I’ve never been a serious pothead. Even in my single-dude days, I could never manage more than a few times a week. And now, as a parent of what I must reluctantly term “a brood of children,” I probably smoke up once a week at most.

If you down 20 drinks, you will probably die. And if you take 2000 hits of pot you will not die, though it is likely you will have trouble remembering where your car is, or what a car is.

I hope none of this scans as controversial. I’m not trying to be controversial. Because at this point, I don’t think of pot as that controversial drug. The days of Reefer-Madness-style paranoia are pretty much put to bed. Most Americans either smoke pot or have in the past or have friends who do. Public opinion continues to tilt toward some form of regulated legalization. Marijuana is pretty much the gay marriage of drugs.

Am I suggesting that pot is no big deal? Not exactly. It is a drug. I get that. I don’t want my kids smoking it until they’re old enough to make responsible decisions. But in a country as doped up as ours, where anti-depressants and mood stabilizers are widely prescribed, I have trouble figuring out why a natural weed that mellows most folks out is that big a flipping deal.

It strikes me as a lot smaller deal than, for instance, smoking cigarettes, or binge eating bacon, or… drinking alcohol. Which brings me to the point of this particular rant.

Some weeks ago, a group called the Marijuana Policy Project aired an ad [below] at a NASCAR race that made the simple and irrefutable point that pot is less toxic than alcohol.

They based this conclusion on a study in the American Scientist which concluded, among other things, that marijuana is 100 times less toxic than alcohol. Meaning that if you down 20 drinks, you will probably die. And if you take 2000 hits of pot you will not die, though it is likely you will have trouble remembering where your car is, or what a car is.

The study did not go into detail about other possible definitions of toxicity, but since we’re on the topic: Based on figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41,682 alcohol-related deaths were reported in 2010. Alcohol also causes more than a million trips to the emergency room each year, and plays some role in thousands of deadly auto accidents.

While I occasionally like to have a drink, I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in stating that most of the belligerence and poor behavior I’ve encountered in social settings is due to people being drunk. Getting high generally doesn’t make people want to fight. It makes them want to eat.

For whatever reason, the folks at PolitiFact decided to assess the ad’s claims. (Maybe there are closet potheads.) Anyway, they concluded that it was “mostly true.”

[The government has] criminalized a relatively innocuous natural weed and allowed a fermented beverage that pickles people’s internal organs and common sense to become a vast and profitable industry…

But in the course of doing so, they collected a quote from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the National Institutes of Health. “Claiming that marijuana is less toxic than alcohol cannot be substantiated since each possess their own unique set of risks and consequences for a given individual,” the institute wrote.

Does anyone else smell fudge?

I mean, come on.

The fact is that for years the government has been exaggerating the risks associated with pot, and downplaying the (by-now-pretty-darn-obvious) risks of alcohol. They have criminalized a relatively innocuous natural weed and allowed a fermented beverage that pickles people’s internal organs and common sense to become a vast and profitable industry, one whose ill effects are felt most acutely among our poorest citizens.

We can all agree that the abuse of any substance, legal or illegal, is a cause for concern. But it’s about time the various branches of the U.S. government took a big hit of common sense and caught up to public opinion.

We can all agree that the abuse of any substance, legal or illegal, is a cause for concern. But it’s about time the various branches of the U.S. government took a big hit of common sense and caught up to public opinion. That includes Barack “Hell Yes, I Inhaled” Obama, whose spokesman just announced that the administration has no plans to change the legal classification of marijuana, despite mounting evidence of its medicinal value.

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Tags: Crime, Law

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  • fun bobby

    whats nice about the governments lies about cannabis is that it is such a blatent example of the government lieing directly to us and everyone knows it.

  • PeterBoyle

    Once the government started lying, back in 1936, about marijuana they never stopped. The reason, as is so often the case, is money; who has it and who stands to profit. Ainslinger lied because he was an Abolitionist at heart and marijuana was anther intoxicant. His ‘hook’ was racist; it was “them”, blacks and hispanics, who used this evil and ‘they’ needed to be stopped. Nixon ws next with the Big Lie, linking marijuana with crime because those ‘hippies’ didn’t like him and voted against him. That was the beginning of the Drug War, and that got a lot of money flowing. Research had to be done outside the US because it became impossible to do any here, and that research increasingly showed that not only was marijuana much safer than alcohol or tobaccco, but it was very useful for all kinds of medical uses from appetite to cancer to PTSD. That research got the Big Pharma worried and more money flowed into the War on Marijuana. Now, after over 70 years of lying the government can not admit they were wrong, much less that they were lying. The size of their campaign coffers depend on keeping marijuana illegal and evil. In the end, it is money that finally is bringing a tortuous end to all this. Even the Republicans accept that we are spending too much money on the War on Drugs and keeping so many people in jail for so long. While it is sad that it was financial considerations, not medical efficacy or truth, that brought an end to this War, it is a relief to see the beginning of the end to it.

  • TJtruthandjustice

    Pot is neither as dangerous as anti-drug zealots would have you think nor as harmless as its defenders claim. If you can keep your use down to a few times a week, then there is no problem. If you wake and bake, your life path is going to change dramatically from what it would have been had you never smoked. Chronic pot use affects motivation, ability to plan and executive functioning, memory, and can exacerbate anxiety and depression. And guess what? For a minority percentage of the population, it is very addictive, as in “smoke every day for decades” addictive. Are you going to bottom out like an alcoholic? No. But you are going to end up being less of what you would have been otherwise. We love our drugs in America. We’re always in search of the magic pill. From Dr. Feelgood to Mother’s little helpers to Prozac Nation, we are eager to seek out the magic elixir that will serve as an antidote to our dysfunctional society. The latest is now “medicinal marijuana.” In the end, it’s just another drug.

    • fun bobby

      the latest?

  • Michele Barry

    It’s not about what’s good for you. And no amount of public opinion should govern such decisions–scientific fact should be the dominant force in the debate. Consider the continued legality of tobacco products and try to think of another product that, when used as directed, is a proven carcinogen to the user and non-using bystanders. Why are these products still legal??? In moderation, alcohol is not bad for you. In moderation, smoking is. Sure, as you point out, in excess, alcohol can kill you and/or can render you so inept that you are a danger to yourself and others. Laws against that are irrelevant. Our country’s culture supports those dangerous behaviors whereas other countries have cultures that do a far more successful job of preventing driving while intoxicated. Regarding pot, what you and all of the pro-pot smoking crowd never address is the impact that marijuana has on the user’s vision. Studies have shown that a user’s vision can be impaired for up to 72 hours AFTER the high. So it’s all well and good to talk about legalizing it, but unless all the potheads out there collectively agree to stay off the road for 3 days after they get high, you are even more dangerous than drunk drivers. Why? Because you can’t tell the point at which your normal vision returns, and no cop has a device that can measure it. You’re just out there causing problems. Again, scientific fact.

    • jen

      Source? I’ve never heard of or experienced this and it sounds like a load to me. Also just wondering why you refer to people who may use pot as “potheads”?

      • Michele Barry

        Source–former head of DEA in NY and Boston, Robert Stutman. You can do a simple google search on the effects of marijuana on airplane pilots, and you will find references to studies showing that pilots were unable to safely land planes in flight simulations until 48-72 hours after their intake of the drug.

        • fun bobby

          how does he find time to publish scientific research and be head of the DEA?

          • Michele Barry

            Seriously? Do you really think the head of the DEA doesn’t keep up with current research on the use and abuse of legal and illegal drugs?

          • fun bobby

            I think they are probably the worst possible source you could have quoted. the DEA has zero credibility on the issue. Their job depends on lying about the subject. here is an article that actually exists and links to actual studies on the dangers of cannabis and driving.

            “It is well established that alcohol increases accident risk. Evidence of marijuana’s culpability in on-road driving accidents is much less convincing.

            Although cannabis intoxication has been shown to mildly impair psychomotor skills, this impairment does not appear to be severe or long lasting. In driving simulator tests, this impairment is typically manifested by subjects decreasing their driving speed and requiring greater time to respond to emergency situations.

            Nevertheless, this impairment does not appear to play a significant role in on-road traffic accidents. A 2002 review of seven separate studies involving 7,934 drivers reported, “Crash culpability studies have failed to demonstrate that drivers with cannabinoids in the blood are significantly more likely than drug-free drivers to be culpable in road crashes.” This result is likely because subject under the influence of marijuana are aware of their impairment and compensate for it accordingly, such as by slowing down and by focusing their attention when they know a response will be required. This reaction is just the opposite of that exhibited by drivers under the influence of alcohol, who tend to drive in a more risky manner proportional to their intoxication.”

            http://norml.org/library/item/marijuana-and-driving-a-review-of-the-scientific-evidence

    • fun bobby

      Studies have shown that a user’s vision can be impaired for up to 72 hours AFTER the high.?

      • Michele Barry

        Instead of asking the same question again, just google it.

        • fun bobby

          the first name is still O-s-c-a-r right? (because its baloney)

          .” A 2002 review of seven separate studies involving 7,934 drivers reported, “Crash culpability studies have failed to demonstrate that drivers with cannabinoids in the blood are significantly more likely than drug-free drivers to be culpable in road crashes”

  • brettearle

    The problem with the dangers of Alcohol and Marijuana is this:

    Alcohol kills other people–via encouraging violence and through accidents (most often, automobile mishaps).

    BUT SO DOES MARIJUANA.

    To suggest that there would be LESS use of Marijuana, if it were to be legalized, MAKES NO SENSE.

    If there would be more use of marijuana–because it is legalized–then there will BE more DEATHS.

    • dust truck

      You’re assuming that more use of marijuana is the same thing as more irresponsible use. Plenty of people drink alcohol and never drive drunk. Or are you suggesting that we make alcohol illegal again? Need I remind you how poorly that went the last time we tried it?

      • Joe Sacerdos

        Simply stated: Prohibition does not work.

      • brettearle

        If you can provide me with conclusive arguments which tell me that deaths will not increase, as the result of legalization, then I would support legalization–if not enthusiastically.

        If it were not for the Public safety issue, I would likely celebrate the drug’s legalization–because it is such an enjoyable experience.

        For me, it is a Public Safety issue.

        While it may be true that outlawing alcohol may increase deaths, I simply don’t believe that.

        Prove to me that it would be true.

        People were against seat belts. But they saved lives.

        Second-hand smoke has been proven to be destructive to others.

        Therefore the use of tobacco should be curtailed and monitored–as it applies to the proximity of others..

        • dust truck

          Well, there are lots of studies out there as well as historical accounts of prohibition. So you could educate yourself. Or we can just continue with our merry conjecture on this comment forum.

          Part of the reason public opinion has been swaying so much against prohibition is because many respected scientists, economists, and other public health experts have been asserting that the 100 year old myths about Marijuana are simply not true. You’re certainly welcome to plug your ears and believe what you want, however. It’s a free country.

          • brettearle

            I dig the drug.

            But I don’t appreciate the possible dangers that it might pose, to those who use it, before getting behind the wheel or while being behind the wheel.

            If you can provide me with statistical links that could prove me wrong, I’m more than willing to change my mind.

            I’m quite motivated to do so. Like I said, I dig the drug. But I know of no convincing reports that prove your case.

            I simply believe that Prohibition was about alcohol and the 20s.

            This is about weed and the 21st century.

        • fun bobby

          if you don’t believe alcohol prohibition caused a lot of deaths simply look at the murder rate before and after

      • brettearle

        “Plenty of people drink alcohol and never drive drunk.”

        Plenty of people drink alcohol and CAUSE mayhem–including driving drunk.

        Newspaper articles and TV reports are FILLED with these incidents, EVERY DAY.

        What….are…..you….talking…… ABOUT?

        • dust truck

          Wow, so you’re saying that EVERYONE who drinks … drives drunk? Total logic failure.

          • brettearle

            Please show me–I simply beg of you–where I claimed that everyone who drinks, drives drunk.

            Please show me.

            Wow, total misreading failure.

          • dust truck

            “Plenty of people drink alcohol and never drive drunk.”

            Plenty of people drink alcohol and CAUSE mayhem–including driving drunk.

            Newspaper articles and TV reports are FILLED with these incidents, EVERY DAY.

            What….are…..you….talking…… ABOUT?

    • fun bobby

      oh yeah hippies are know as being belligerent and violent. are you high? actually if you were to do a statistical analysis driving “stoned” is safer than driving sober and of course the lease safe is alcohol. stoned drivers tend to overcompensate and drive slower and more carefully.
      in other countries when cannabis has been decriminalized the usage rate has gone down. it makes it less cool for kids if its not as taboo.
      there would be a lot fewer deaths because there would be fewer gangbangers and cartel members because they will not have the income from cannabis trafficking to support themselves with. The 60,000 or so Mexicans who have died in the last decade or so from “cartel violence” are really caused by Americas prohibition policy.

  • ferngilly

    Compared with alcohol, yes – pot isn’t “as bad” or “as toxic”. I am not completely against marijuana, I just don’t think its a necessary thing to participate in. Speaking from personal experience, pot can really do some nasty things to the brain – which is why I stopped my fairly light smoking habit. As an adult, I really don’t ever again want to lay prone on a couch feeling like I am drowning, feeling non-existent waves crashing over my head and then be in a raging, anxiety-induced bad mood the next day.

    It’s fair to say that marijuana is comparable to any of the psychotropic drugs which are available through prescription. Pot truly does affects some individuals badly – others, the high is not so bad, it’s a true feeling of relaxation. For users who have built a tolerance to it, they just need to keep puffing along until they hit their sweet spot and they claim that there are no side effects for them (although to the observer the opposite is true). As such, that is why it needs to be regulated. Zoloft isn’t beneficial for people who suffer from bipolar disorder and is therefore regulated by responsible physicians who have performed a thorough assessment of their patients mental health. Perhaps the emphasis should be placed on the fact that pot should be prescribed by responsible physicians, rather than be something people use for for social reasons.

    Is that too idealistic? I don’t know. There will always be this strange culture of black and white in our country, rather than shades of gray – and that bleeds over into other issues as well. Marijuana legalization is just another thing to get crazy about, I guess.

    • fun bobby

      It’s fair to say that marijuana is comparable to coffee

  • AClarke

    I am very conflicted on this issue. I come from a family with many addictive personalities. Many family members have died from alcoholism and my brother is having a battle with bipolar disorder and self medication with marijuana. What I can see from my family history is that the effects of the longterm heavy use of both alcohol and pot is detrimental, especially when psychological problems like addiction are added.
    Everyone knows the government lies. My problem is not when the government lies but when it is not willing to accept the financial and medical responsibilities for the consequent illnesses. Also, no one will accept the underlying problem with the overuse of all harmful substances which is addiction. If the government would give aid to the people and families that are trying to deal with addiction, I would be much more tolerant of the government’s views on substances.

  • Joe Sacerdos

    In my lifetime I’ve witnessed close up and from a distance the horrible effects that alcohol can have on people. Two uncles who died from alcoholism. Three first cousins who committed suicide while drunk. A father who beat up my mother when drunk. When I used to drink I became aggressive and verbally abusive. On the other hand, I’ve never seen anyone become violent after smoking pot. The times I’ve smoked it, I want to listen to classical music, eat salty food, eat sweet food, maybe cuddle a bit, then go to sleep! It’s time to make it legal and tax the sh-t out of it!

  • fun bobby

    why do NPR and other “journalists” continue to call cannabis “marijuana”. why do they call it by its Spanish name? perhaps someone from NPR would care to explain their apparent racism?

  • MickeyLong

    Enough with spending tax dollars to fight and incarcerate folks who wish to inhale marijuana! Forty decades and nearly a trillion tax dollars later changed nothing. Regarding intoxicants, I still fear more the drunk driver, drunk bully and local heroin, crack, or oxy addicts who lurk among our neighborhoods to rob homes and local merchants. Pot smokers don’t scare me (though please don’t drive while high). Spending tax dollars to fight weed does nothing to make me feel safe. Rather, pot’s illegality provides big-time drug dealers means to obtain money to finance other illegal enterprises that do put us at risk. I remain unpersuaded that marijuana, if legal, would constitute problems worse than those that exist while it remains illegal.

  • susan tepper

    I have no opinion on pot smoking. I can take it or leave it. Pot never made me high. Go figure. But there was a study done by Stamford University in the 80′s that concluded pot smoking led to ‘loss of esthetic.’ I found that an interesting conclusion. I read the study so long ago, I don’t remember specific details. I’m sure it can be dug up if anyone wants to read exactly how Stamford researchers came up with that.

  • Nale Dixon

    The last paragraph in this article is repeated. Anyway, smoking Cannabis takes practice, period. Inexperienced users may want to go hide in a corner somewhere. Lifelong users can actually drive better while high. Drinking alcohol takes practice, too. Although one should never drive drunk.

  • X-Ray

    Maybe the question should be, “Is pot worse for you than water.” What is the point of comparing the relative harm of two harmful substances?

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