Across America, the doobie debate continues. In fact, this November an unprecedented number of states will vote on whether to ease up on marijuana restrictions, including Florida. Currently, four states and the District of Columbia already allow the use of weed as a form of recreation.
Proponents of the change argue that marijuana is much safer than alcohol, which is legal in all fifty states. But this is an argument that has been bandied about for years. What do the facts show?
The facts of the debate
Answering this question is not a simple matter of saying yes or no. Factors such as addiction, impairment, risk of automobile accident, risk of death from overdose, and various long-term health repercussions all enter into the equation. Here is how things break down:
- Addiction – Both alcohol and marijuana are addictive. Roughly nine percent of marijuana users become addicted, although that figure almost doubles to 17 percent if marijuana use starts in the teen years. The addiction rate for alcohol among teens is similar, but for adults it is higher than that of marijuana.
- Risk of overdose – Alcohol is much more toxic than marijuana and more likely to result in death from an overdose. For example, a few shots of vodka might give you a buzz or even result in intoxication, but 15 or 20 shots over a short period of time – two or three hours – could send you to the undertaker. On the other hand, there is currently no known fatal dosage level of marijuana. In fact, a recent study listed cannabis as the least risky recreational drug on a roster that included alcohol, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, meth, and tobacco.
- Impairment – This is difficult to quantify, since alcohol and marijuana don’t impair the body in the same way. But risk to self and society seems to give the advantage to marijuana. Federal crash data show that alcohol is much more likely to result in an auto accident. Alcohol is also more closely linked to violent behavior.
- Health risks – The risk of organ damage is higher with alcohol abuse. Organs especially at risk are the heart, brain, liver, pancreas, and kidneys. Marijuana, however, is carcinogenic, and can create pulmonary problems, higher rates of psychosis, long-term cognitive impairment, and behavioral problems, including dependence.
Although a firm answer is elusive and opinions differ, many drug policy experts agree that, overall, marijuana is safer than alcohol. Jonathan Caulkins, drug policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, likes to say that “marijuana is safer than alcohol, but it is also more likely to harm its users.”
Spotlight on Florida
One of the states voting on the medical use of cannabis in 2016 is Florida. In May, Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law that allows terminally ill patients access to marijuana to ease their suffering. The proposal up for vote in November, however, is much broader, and would allow patients with a wide variety of problems access to full-strength marijuana. If passed, Florida could become the first state in the south with such a law.