By Mason Tvert
If you are one of the millions of Americans who thinks marijuana should remain illegal, chances are you share my concerns about the health and safety of our nation’s teens. And I, also like millions of Americans, strongly believe that making marijuana legal for adults and regulating it like alcohol would dramatically enhance the wellbeing of younger and older people alike.
How Safe Is Marijuana?
Those who support ending marijuana prohibition contend it would be more difficult for teens to buy marijuana if sales were conducted in licensed businesses instead of in the underground market. After all, illegal drug dealers do not ask for proof of age. And they might also have access to more harmful drugs. Supporters also believe that a legal marijuana market would generate tax revenue that could be used to improve schools. And law enforcement officials would be able to focus more time and resources on violent and otherwise serious crimes.
As you might have guessed, I find these to be valid and compelling arguments. But it is another that especially hits home for me. Marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol to the consumer and to society. Specifically, a wealth of government data and scientific research has demonstrated that marijuana is less toxic. It’s also less addictive. It’s far less harmful to the body. And unlike alcohol, it does not contribute to violent and reckless behavior.
Nevertheless, laws and policies throughout our nation allow (and at times even encourage) the use of alcohol, while threatening to punish people if they choose to use the less harmful substance instead.
Why Is Alcohol More Acceptable Than Marijuana?
I learned the relative harms of these two substances (and how our society treats them) the hard way. Just weeks before graduating high school, a single evening of teenage drinking produced a blood-alcohol level high enough to earn me an ambulance ride to the emergency room. Oddly, I was not cited for underage drinking. Nor was there an investigation into how a minor procured a near-deadly amount of booze.
Yet, as a college freshman less than one year later, I encountered intense law enforcement scrutiny simply because I used marijuana from time to time. Unlike alcohol, it had not caused any problems in my life. Yet police and prosecutors threatened me with serious penalties and demanded to know where it came from.
Nothing ultimately came of the investigation, but my overall experience raised a lot of questions. Why do we have laws that steer people toward using alcohol. Why do we drive people away from using marijuana instead, if that is what they prefer? More importantly, why do drug education programs such as D.A.R.E. lack an honest examination of the relative harms of these two highly popular products? Shouldn’t we want young people to be aware of the fact that alcohol can kill you in one sitting and marijuana cannot? Or that rape awareness organizations warn that alcohol use—and not marijuana use–is often associated with sexual assault and date rape?
In an ideal world, teens would not have access to alcohol and marijuana or the desire to use them. But we live in the real world, where for decades these substances have been popular and universally available to them. I think it is clear that our current prohibition model has failed. Regulating marijuana would be a more effective means of controlling marijuana. But most importantly, I believe our laws should reflect the facts. And it is a fact that marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol. Regardless of whether you support making marijuana legal for adults, I hope you will agree that young people should at the very least be aware of it.
Mason Tvert is the director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. She is also the coauthor of Marijuana Is Safer: So why are we driving people to drink?