Skip to main content

Marijuana is safer than alcohol

By Dan Riffle, Special to CNN
October 24, 2013 -- Updated 1043 GMT (1843 HKT)
Public perceptions about pot have come a long way, from the dire warnings of "Reefer Madness" to growing acceptance of medical marijuana to the legalization of recreational weed use. Public perceptions about pot have come a long way, from the dire warnings of "Reefer Madness" to growing acceptance of medical marijuana to the legalization of recreational weed use.
HIDE CAPTION
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
History of marijuana in America
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dan Riffle: The war against marijuana has not worked, just like alcohol prohibition
  • Riffle: Marijuana is far safer than alcohol; there are many alcohol-induced deaths
  • He says we can take pot away from criminals and let licensed businesses handle it
  • Riffle: Regulating marijuana would make America a safer and healthier nation

Editor's note: Dan Riffle is a former assistant prosecutor and the director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, the primary financial backer of the 2012 campaign to regulate marijuana in Colorado.

(CNN) -- Anti-marijuana crusaders like Kevin Sabet, while well-intentioned, are promoting policies that lead to more violence and disease in our society. In his recent CNN.com op-ed, Sabet argues we should keep marijuana illegal. But as long as marijuana remains illegal, profits from sales go to criminals and drug cartels, and adults will continue to be punished for using a substance less harmful than currently legal drugs.

Confused? Let's back up. For more than 80 years, our government has spent tens of billions of taxpayer dollars fighting a war against marijuana. We arrest three-quarters of a million adults every year, 87% for simple possession rather than production or sales of marijuana. Courtrooms turn into assembly lines churning out probationers -- mostly minorities -- with convictions that will make it virtually impossible to find employment.

The result? Marijuana is universally available, used by almost half of Americans at some point in their lives, and we've enriched murderous drug cartels fueling violence in Mexico that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.

Dan Riffle
Dan Riffle

Of course, we've been down this road before. During alcohol prohibition in the 1930s, federal agents raided speakeasies and busted barrels of illegally produced and imported booze. Meanwhile, bootleggers made money hand over fist, empowering criminals like Al Capone to turn Chicago into an urban war zone. And much like with marijuana today, even under alcohol prohibition most Americans who wanted a drink had no problem finding one.

Today, marijuana prohibition has proven itself just as disastrous a public policy failure as alcohol prohibition before it. Yet despite all the obvious similarities between the two, there's one key difference: Marijuana is dramatically safer than alcohol.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, excessive alcohol use is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death. In a typical year, there are roughly 25,000 alcohol-induced deaths in the United States, most from long-term consequences like liver disease and some from acute alcohol poisoning brought on by binge drinking.

Marijuana, on the other hand, does not cause overdose deaths and comes with far fewer long-term health consequences. A 2009 Canadian study determined the annual health-related costs associated with alcohol are more than eight times greater per user than with marijuana. And, according to the Institute of Medicine, people who use marijuana are far less likely to become dependent than those who drink alcohol.

Seattle opens marijuana farmers market
Washington details pot sale rules
Free pot handed out in Colorado
White House clarifies stance on pot

Even if you don't drink, alcohol can kill you. Federal agencies report that 40% of violent crimes in the U.S. are linked to alcohol use, whereas those same agencies report that marijuana users usually do not commit violent crimes. Alcohol plays a role in a third of all emergency room visits. As a prosecuting attorney, I often had police confess to me how much they loathed arresting drunks, given how often the situation escalated to violence. I never fielded similar complaints about marijuana consumers.

The irony is that these perverse policies are cheered on by organizations with names like "Save Our Society" that seem to believe chaos will somehow ensue if adults are no longer punished for using marijuana. The reality is that by punishing adults who would rather use marijuana, we're encouraging them to instead use alcohol -- a more dangerous and harmful, but legal, drug. Public policy should be geared toward reducing violence and disease, not maximizing them.

There is a better way. Polling shows a majority of Americans want marijuana taxed and regulated. A growing number of states are bucking our federal government's policy of absolute marijuana prohibition, and the Department of Justice recently signaled it will not challenge state laws that regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana.

By doing so, we can take marijuana away from criminals and cartels and put it in the hands of licensed businesses. Obviously, those businesses should be subject to sensible rules ranging from where and when they can operate and who is able to invest in them, to restrictions on advertising.

Don't believe it could work? In 2009, Colorado's medical marijuana industry exploded, prompting the state to put in place the kinds of regulations I've just outlined. According to CDC data on youth drug use, from 2009 to 2011 -- a time when youth marijuana use increased nationally -- the percentage of Colorado teens using marijuana dropped more than any other state in the country and is now below the national average.

Marijuana is safer than alcohol; let's treat it that way. Adults who would prefer to use marijuana instead of alcohol should be free to do so. Just as significant, the law enforcement resources spent making those three-quarters of a million arrests could instead be devoted to preventing and solving real crimes.

In other words, regulating marijuana would make America a safer, healthier nation.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Riffle.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2248 GMT (0648 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT