Marijuana: Get With the Science, Congress

Marijuana: Get With the Science, Congress

Last week, during her Senate confirmation hearing, attorney-general nominee Loretta Lynch said that, unlike President Obama, she does not believe that marijuana is safer than alcohol. She further explained that, consistent with the position of the Department of Justice, she does not support the legalization of marijuana.

These statements have alarmed some reformists who feel that, if confirmed, Lynch may reverse the progress that has already been made. Others have taken her statements with a grain of salt, noting that Lynch would be expected to keep the public consensus in mind when conducting her work and suggesting that her comments may have been made solely to propitiate the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In fact, considering the individual senators who make up the committee, it's not that surprising Lynch responded the way she did. Congress is rife with misinformed politicians, and the ones with the most fatuous views on this subject seem to have gravitated toward the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee chairman, Iowa senator Chuck Grassley, not only has expressed his disapproval of state legalization efforts, but in a 2007 letter to his constituents said that illegal drug use costs society as much as murder, rape, and genocide. Grassley's views are not too far off from others on the committee. Sen. Dianne Feinstein also opposes legalization efforts, having explained in letters she co-authored with Grassley to Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder that she believes legalization can "weaken the United States' standing as an international leader on drug control issues." She has also claimed that marijuana is a gateway drug, despite much evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, Senator Orrin Hatch has said he believes there is "little evidence" to support the efficacy of medical cannabis, even though 23 states and the medical community think otherwise.

The committee also includes Sen. Jeff Sessions, who declared last year that he was "heartbroken" to hear President Obama's statement regarding marijuana's safety. Sessions said he found it "beyond comprehension" and "just difficult" to conceive, with his reasoning being, of course, that "Lady Gaga says she's addicted to it."

While one might think that marijuana's classification as a Schedule I substance has resulted in a paucity of information -- it's hard to study something that's illegal -- there actually is a substantial amount of evidence showing that pot is safer than alcohol.

For example, over 50 percent of Americans 18 and older are regular alcohol drinkers (meaning they consumed twelve or more drinks in the last year) and, among them, approximately 17.6 million suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence. This equates to roughly 15 percent of regular alcohol users, whereas only about 9 percent of marijuana users will become addicted to the substance.

The difference in addictiveness between the two substances is just the surface of the issue. Marijuana has never resulted in a death by overdose, but six people die each day in the U.S. from alcohol poisoning. Meanwhile, the health effects of excessive alcohol use -- which can include breast cancer, liver disease, and heart disease -- accounted for roughly 43,400 deaths in 2011, excluding accidents and homicides.

Of those alcohol-induced deaths, liver disease comes at the top, having been responsible for just over one-third. Surprisingly, marijuana can actually have some use in that area. Not only is medical marijuana often recommended to those undergoing cancer treatments, but a recent study has found that cannabidiol, one of marijuana’s active ingredients, can prevent acute alcohol-induced liver steatosis.

Some may argue that just as alcohol contributes to liver disease, marijuana contributes to lung disease. But to the contrary, several recent studies have concluded that marijuana use does not contribute to the development of lung cancer. The most recent study, published in the International Journal of Cancer last year, found that there is "little evidence for an increased risk of lung cancer among habitual or long-term cannabis smokers." More shocking, however, is that a 2011 study published in the journal CHEST concluded that heavy alcohol drinking actually puts people at an increased risk for lung cancer. Granted, much like alcohol, marijuana contributes to an increased heart rate and high blood pressure, but it does not inflict as many people with long-term, fatal diseases.

However, it's not just physical harm that that makes alcohol more dangerous; there are social harms as well. For example, alcohol is a factor in nearly 40 percent of violent crimes. Drinking lowers inhibitions, heightens aggressive behavior, and impairs judgment. In contrast, crime fell in Denver -- a hub of pot sales -- in 2014, the year Colorado’s first recreational marijuana stores opened.

Alcohol use is also heavily associated with traffic fatalities, contributing to about one-third of them. It is difficult to measure how many driving deaths are related to marijuana use, but the number is certainly much smaller. About 18 percent of drivers who are killed test positive for drugs other than alcohol, but for pot, the tests used to determine impairment rely on the presence of marijuana metabolites, which can "linger in blood and urine long after the drug's effects wear off -- 'up to 30 days after use' for frequent consumers," writes Reason magazine’s Jacob Sullum. Moreover, according to one study, marijuana use appears to affect driving ability much less than alcohol does. Not only are complex, consciously-controlled tasks "less affected" by marijuana use, but users have "an increased awareness that they are impaired," and, as a result, "tend to compensate effectively while driving by using a variety of behavioral strategies."

No matter how you look at it, it's easy to see the difference between alcohol and marijuana, and the facts point to marijuana being much safer. The majority of Americans have already acknowledged this, and it's about time for their representatives to follow suit.

Andrew Gargano is an editorial assistant at Young Voices, a policy project of the international nonprofit Students For Liberty.

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