Monday, May 17, 2010

Alcohol and Marijuana

Alcohol and Marijuana

When Prohibitionists argue that we don’t need another legal intoxicant or when legalizers claim that pot is not as bad as alcohol they are both building on the public’s idea that all intoxicants are alike. The fact is that alcohol and marijuana have nothing in common except for their both being used in social situations.

Marijuana is not alcohol. This statement looks obvious, but both sides of the marijuana legalization debate regularly conflate the two. The result is debates that are heated and emotional but that do little to clarify the social issues at stake.

One of the more common arguments advanced by the anti-marijuana advocates is based on the problems with alcohol. They point out deaths among alcohol users – both acute poisoning and long-term illnesses caused by alcohol – and deaths caused by alcohol users in car wrecks and domestic violence. From there, they may go on to workplace problems: absenteeism, decreased productivity, and increased injuries and deaths. They then make the (unwarranted) assertion that marijuana is an intoxicant like alcohol. The next step is to combine the two to support the assertion that legalizing marijuana would create a second legal intoxicant – another alcohol as it were – and greatly increase the incidence of the social evils enumerated.

Both of these arguments share two faults. The most fundamental one is that alcohol and marijuana have almost nothing in common except for their use in social situations. The other is that they prey on the public’s ignorance of any altered conscience than that caused by alcohol.

The second problem is what makes the first one so vicious. Most people today have seen or dealt with someone who has had too much to drink. The local news highlights a drunk driver almost every night. If anyone has not had to deal with an alcoholic in the family, they will probably have coped with one at work. On the other hand, few have had encounters (at least that they knew about) with someone impaired with any other drug. The exception might be those who have experienced a slight high from nitrous oxide (laughing gas) at the dentist’s office or seen someone groggy after a night on sleeping pills. When the majority tries to imagine the effects of any drug used socially, the only experience they can call on is the one that they have derived from drinkers. The result is that when most people hear “legal marijuana” they see hordes of drunken – or at least tipsy – pot-winos staggering around. And this vision points out the major problem with these arguments.

The first difference between them is that alcohol is a deadly poison and marijuana is virtually harmless. Drinking leads to over 100,000 deaths a year from consequences of alcohol-related diseases and several thousand deaths from acute intoxication. Marijuana has never been identified as the cause of a single death resulting from consumption. Long-term studies, some covering over forty years, involving thousands of patients, show no measurable health differences between marijuana users – even heavy daily users – and those who do not consume it.

The second major difference is in their relations to violence. Alcohol-related car wrecks kill over fifteen thousand people a year in the United States. Studies by four national governments, including the National Transportation Safety Board of the U’s., show that drivers who have consumed marijuana are a safe as unimpaired drivers. While marijuana does impair scores on laboratory reaction tests, since it does not impair judgment, drivers are conscious of that impairment and adjust for their slower reactions.

Alcohol is the only drug the consumption of which has been linked to violent crime. While many criminals are high on stimulants when arrested, the drug use itself was not a direct cause of their criminal behavior. Those crimes committed for the purpose of obtaining drugs result from the economics of the drug laws, not from the action of the drugs themselves. Alcohol is a factor in a significant number of domestic violence cases, and entertainment venues serving alcoholic beverages are centers of many assaults, fights, and shootings. Marijuana, if it has any effect at all in these situations, tends to reduce aggression.

Alcohol has marked effects as a cause of workplace injury and decreased productivity from both absences and from lowered efficiency. None of these factors have been associated with marijuana.

Alcohol is also highly addicting. Around ten per cent of all drinkers become addicts, for whom withdrawal can even lead to death. Marijuana is not addictive, although a few users, around three per cent, develop habitual use that may require some slight help in stopping.

All of these differences stem from the differences in the way the two drugs effect the brain.

Alcohol is a sedative that decreases the functioning of all parts of the brain. It first lessens the activities of the pre-frontal and frontal cortexes, which are responsible for judgment and higher mental functions. One consequence is that one who has had a few drinks will think that he is a skilled race driver, not one too impaired to drive. Alcohol then hampers the motor centers of the brain, leading to slurred speech and uncoordinated movement. Ultimately, it will suppress consciousness and even respiration, leading to death.

Marijuana, on the other hand, affects only specialized cannabinoid receptors in the nervous system. This results in its effectiveness in treating pain, spasms, and nausea. Its other major effect is as a mood elevator, making the user more relaxed and more cheerful.

Both those wanting to legalize marijuana and those opposed to the idea can find some data to support their positions. But if they truly want to convince people that they are correct, their arguments should be based on fact and evidence. The most basic fact they must both deal with is that alcohol and marijuana are different and have almost nothing in common.

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