Marijuana: No Worse Than Alcohol?

Andrew Tallman
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Posted: Nov 02, 2010 6:19 PM
Marijuana: No Worse Than Alcohol?

One of the challenges in approaching any complicated topic is to deal with each particular slice of the discussion on its own merits. Instead, we usually try to handle the whole pie all at once, which usually leads to handling each bit quite poorly. With that in mind, let’s look at one limited aspect of the debate over legalizing marijuana: the premise that since marijuana is no worse than alcohol, it’s only fair to give it the same legal status as alcohol.

I think most people fight this idea by trying to show how much worse than alcohol marijuana is. Instead, I’ll grant the assertion for argument’s sake and show that even if marijuana advocates are right, there are still good reasons to not treat it the same as alcohol.

As I think anyone will agree, consuming alcohol in large quantities is bad. It’s bad for marriages. It’s bad for children. And it’s bad for simple health concerns. I also think anyone will agree that numerous Americans consume alcohol in precisely such quantities. Thus, I think reasonable people would agree that our current situation with regard to alcohol overuse is undesirable. If only there were some feasible way to fix it, we would want to.

Furthermore, the current efforts to control alcohol are an abject failure. Teenagers have virtually as much access to it as they would like, and this is certainly true of underage college students. Although drunk driving has been the focus of intense legal and media attention, the number of accidents and fatalities in which alcohol is a factor is still absurdly high. And of course alcohol is a major contributor to domestic assault. All of this is common knowledge.

But that’s the point. Even if marijuana is no worse than alcohol, why would we want to permit people to use yet another drug when the problems from alcohol abuse are so obvious?

If I may rephrase the argument a bit uncharitably, marijuana advocates seem to be saying the following: “Even though our society’s handling of alcohol has been abysmal, we think it’s only fair to let us start handling yet another drug just as badly. We know the social and personal problems from marijuana abuse are likely to be similar to those with alcohol, but it’s just not fair that we’re only allowed to have one substance that harms people, families, children, and society.”

Also, keep in mind that unlike alcohol, marijuana is not ordinarily consumed in moderation by anyone. The point of having access to it is to get high, the rough equivalent of being drunk. Nobody smokes a little pot with dinner for the flavor. So, the effect of legalizing marijuana would be to replicate only the worst parts of legalized alcohol.

It seems to me that a smart society, like a smart person, learns from its mistakes. And although I haven’t mentioned tobacco, a cursory exploration should conclude virtually the same problems exist there, albeit replacing drunk driving and domestic violence with more mundane issues like lung disease and cancer. We as a society simply don’t handle recreational drugs very well, particularly when it comes to their overuse and use by young people.

Taking that observation in hand, it seems beyond strange to me that some people want to add another similar substance to those already available. And just to reiterate, the single, simple argument we’re dealing with is that of fairness, as in, “It’s unfair to prohibit marijuana since you permit alcohol.”

Unfair? Perhaps.

Unwise? Not so much.

Some analogies may help clarify at this point.

Imagine that I have hired two employees at different times from the same college. Although each looked quite good on paper and in interviews, both turned out to be much less excellent than hoped for. Even though I can’t figure out a practical way to fire either of them, does that mean I’m obligated in fairness to hire the next applicant from that college who applies to me for a job? “But you hired both of them!” “Yes, and look how that’s turned out. I don’t intend to be so naïve a third time.” It’s a sadistic philosophy which holds that individuals or societies are beholden to the standard set by their worst decisions for any future choices.

Again, imagine some woman who picks up a man at a bar, dates him for awhile, and then finds herself being abused by him. She breaks up with him and returns to the bar to pick up a new man. She dates him for awhile and finds the same thing happening again. So she ends the relationship. Amazingly, she returns to the bar, but this time, she explains to the man who chats her up how she’s a bit wary of being abused by yet another guy from a bar. “Well, honey, don’t you think you owe me the same opportunity you gave those other two?” Please tell me our public policy advice is better than this.

Yet again, imagine that we as a nation involved ourselves in a failed war such as Vietnam but from which we actually couldn’t extricate ourselves. Then imagine we found ourselves on the verge of another war with similar-seeming difficulties. Would we really believe that consistency required us to engage in it because advocates assure us “it isn’t any worse than Vietnam?” Fool me once, shame on you….

Yet a fourth time, imagine that you have before you a heavy drinker who smokes two packs a day. I don’t imagine you would ever dream of saying to him, “I think you’re being inconsistent. Don’t you realize that marijuana isn’t as bad as either of the drugs you already abuse? And since you already smoke and drink a lot (even though you wish you could quit both), don’t you think for the sake of consistency you should add weed to your unhealthy regimen?” But how is this different from the argument at hand?

“So are you saying you favor prohibition of alcohol and tobacco?”

Nothing of the sort. I’m simply saying that the obvious problems we already have from both of those drugs being legal is the best reason to avoid embracing any more recreational drugs.

Now if you offered me a hypothetical society in which neither alcohol, nor tobacco, nor marijuana was in use and asked me to choose which of the three to permit, I can’t really say what I would pick. But it should be pretty clear we don’t have such a fantasy society in front of us. We live in a real one with a real past and a truly entrenched familiarity with alcohol and tobacco. If we add marijuana to the list, there will be more use of it than there is currently, which means more young users, more occasional users, more regular users, and more impaired driving. Needless to say, none of this will make our country stronger.

It seems to me that a wise society is the kind which learns from its mistakes rather than feeling obliged to repeat them out of a misguided sense of consistency. Our standards should improve because of our prior errors, not be permanently held back because of them. “It’s-no-worse-than” thinking is simply not the guiding light toward great personal or public policy.

Of course, as I mentioned at the outset, I know this is only one particular piece of the marijuana discussion, albeit an ubiquitous one. But I hope at this point you agree that this one invalid argument can safely be discarded. Naturally, we might choose to legalize marijuana for other reasons, but we certainly aren’t obligated to do so on the principle of fairness.