Is pot safer than booze?

On many dimensions of risk, yes. But are the two drugs mutual substitutes? If not, it’s not clear what we can learn from the comparison.

Latest survey figures show cannabis use up, and alcohol use down, among teenagers. This led the New York Times to run a typically pointless “debate” on the pseudo-question “Should Teenagers Get High Instead of Drunk”?

That might be a sensible question if we knew, or had strong reason to believe, that the two drugs are mutual substitutes. But the research results are mixed, with as much evidence of complementarity as of substitution. (There’s no reason to think that the answer will be the same across populations, or that the long-run answer will be the same as the short-run answer.)

I’m with Robert Gable in thinking that on most dimensions alcohol is by far the more dangerous of the two, though not in thinking that the risk of fatal overdose is the best measure of overall danger. But unless cannabis substitutes for alcohol, finding that it’s safer than alcohol has no obvious policy implication.



Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

18 thoughts on “Is pot safer than booze?”

  1. “…finding that it’s safer than alcohol has no obvious policy implication.” Except for that whole ‘throwing people into jail’ thing.

    1. You’re aware, I trust, that there are more arrests each year for alcohol-law violations (DUI, D&D, open container, possession by a minor, sale to minors) than for marijuana violations. (That doesn’t count the much larger number of arrests for crimes committed under the influence.)

      I’d like to get rid of marijuana possession as a crime, but it’s hard to see how the alcohol comparison ought to inform that debate.

      1. You’re aware, I trust, that most alcohol offenses involving minors don’t actually result in arrest at all, but rather citations … The beer is poured out or confiscated, the dorm party broken up, etc. Few go to jail with alcohol.

  2. There are various mechanisms in place to keep children away from alcohol, and various mechanisms in place to keep children away from pot. If alcohol is more dangerous than pot, it would make sense to emphasize the programs that try to keep kids from drinking at the expense of programs that try to keep kids from smoking pot. It’s true that some programs do both those things, but there are plenty that don’t.

    Whether or not easing up on marijuana growers would in itself cause kids to buy less hooch, if the actual concern here is protecting kids, looking at which is more harmful seems like the rational first step in creating policy. The same would apply if it were a question of whether kids are put at greater risk by pot smoking or by rampaging elephants. The question isn’t whether provoking bull elephants is a direct substitute for smoking pot, the question is which is a more common and dangerous problem, and knowing the answer to that question ought to inform issues of funding and prioritization in drug and pachyderm control.

  3. Yes, the comparison does matter. We allow breweries, wineries, and distilleries to function as businesses. They make a product that causes lots of harm.

    Meanwhile, we spend precious tax dollars arresting and imprisoning people who produce cannabis. They make a product that causes less harm.

    The difference in harmfulness points up the hypocrisy of continuing to criminalize the supply end of product that half of American adults want legal.

    1. “We allow breweries, wineries, and distilleries to function as businesses. They make a product that causes lots of harm.”

      This was because we learned, at great cost, that not permitting them to legally function as businesses, (Passing laws didn’t prevent them from functioning illegally.) caused vastly more harm. A lesson the government has been highly resistant to learning in the case of Prohibition Mk II.

  4. The question is relevant in so far as it affects the public policy debate about pot prohibition. The public debate would evolve, IMHO, differently under the working premise that pot poses similar or greater danger than alcohol as compared to the premise that it does not.

  5. I’m trying hard to see how a finding that “product X is more dangerous than product Y” doesn’t have a pretty obvious policy implication, namely “Product X should be regulated more strongly than Product Y”. Are you saying that you disagree with the assumption that “more dangerous products should be regulated more strongly?” or is there some other assumption you disagree with?

    And since, we in fact know more — that alcohol is regulated less strongly than pot– the policy implication can be made even more detailed: “Either pot is regulated too strongly or alcohol is not regulated strongly enough”.

    1. If that’s a multiple-choice question, I’ll choose (b). But the mechanics of regulating a product depend in part on how widespread its current use is.

    2. Actually, pot isn’t regulated, it’s banned (at the federal level, at least). Enforcing a ban is not the same as regulation.

      If pot were regulated, it wouldn’t be easier for high schoolers to get it than alcohol, it would pay it’s way in society through taxes instead of being an enforcement burden, and we the people would make the rules determining the price, quality, and availability through the open market and elected officials instead of ceding control of those things to violent criminals.

      1. Bans are, of course, a subset of regulations. Enforcing a ban is exactly a regulation.

        Where this nonsense idea that bans aren’t regulations comes from is a bit of a mystery, but it’s quite clearly nonsense whatever its genesis. They may not be particularly good regulations, especially with regard to product safety and transactional transparency, but regulating access and market availability is, in fact, regulating.

        1. This is a question of semantics. Most people do not call a ban a “regulation.” If you want to, you’re free to, but be aware that people may misunderstand your attempts to communicate on the subject.

  6. Dr. Kleiman, slight deviation :
    Are there any study on pot and Alzheimer’s? Either preventative, or remediative?

    completely anecdotal, but it seems, among the famous, to strike the straightest of arrows.

  7. Older teens, i.e. young adults, should smoke pot and drink alcohol while they have the free time and stamina. It’s a fun social activity. The best “policy” would be to drop the irrational hysteria, but I realize that’s a lost cause.

  8. The other day i had a a thought about our host’s refusal to call for full legalization of pot, which (my paraphrase, which may be inaccurate) is rooted in concern that, once big corporations get their hands on pot, it will be marketed relentlessly and effectively, caiuing the bad consequences to mount exponentially.

    I conclude that this concern is invalid for the following reason: the Lords of Tobacco and Booze are already the most vicious and venal creatures who walk the earth, putting even bankers to shame as far as the extent to which they are happy to inflict suffering on the their victims for profit. Given that fact, and the US Supreme Corp’s complete demolition of any barriers to corporate comtol of elections, I think we can safely say that the marketers who Klieman fears do not agree that the business model he fears is viable, because they would be leading the charge to legalize pot and spending rivers of money to bring about the result he fears.

    The bottom line is that if these entities thought that there was so much as a dime to be made in legalization, they would be making it happen. They aren’t, and it’s not because they have suddenly grown a conscience or decided that the is suddenly something called having enough money already. It’s because, in the era of the Internet, anyone can have the technology and knowledge of how to grow decent pot in their own home, at little or no cost, depending on latitude.

    1. Couldn’t similar gardening techniques be used to produce high-quality tobacco in one’s own home?

      1. No, tobacco is actually difficult to grow well enough to produce usable leaf, and it does not grow well everywhere. It is a very, very large field crop and the leaf has to be cured in large drying barns. Moreover, people who grow tobacco have a hard time growing anything else — nicotine is a poison and many plants suffer or even fail just from exposure to small amounts of it. You can’t grow tobacco in your garage under a grow light.

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