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Reefer Madness: Seeds vs. Suds

Marijuana: A safer alternative to America's favorite social lubricant?

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Sept. 11, 2009

Reefer Madness: Seeds vs. Suds

In the wake of July's controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., President Barack Obama sought to take the rhetoric down a notch via an informal White House meeting between Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the officer who arrested him. The two, joined by Obama, would sit down and talk things out, adultlike, over beer. It sounded folksy and practical, something that many, many Americans could get behind – a so-called "beer summit."

No one really batted an eye at the idea of adult men sitting around hashing out their differences with the help of a little social lubricant. And that's fine. But here's the truth: They were using drugs – on the president's urging.

Sure, one might say, but alcohol is legal and has been an accepted part of social life for centuries, etc. True. But also true is the fact that alcohol is really bad for a person. It's ethanol. It can – in not too large an amount – kill. There were just more than 22,000 alcohol-induced deaths, "excluding accidents and homicides," in 2006 (the most recent year for which there are statistics), and another 13,050 deaths from alcoholic liver disease. Meanwhile, 11,773 died in alcohol-related traffic fatalities in 2008. Still, no one would think of going back to the days of prohibition – because it was such a failed experiment.

The same can be said about marijuana prohibition. The endless war on pot incarcerated a whopping 872,271 people in 2007 alone, and the insatiable market for marijuana fuels drug violence south of the border and across the U.S. No wonder: According to government statistics, more than 96 million Americans have used marijuana at least once, and more than 25 million have used it in the last year; there's big money to be made off the evil weed.

Nonetheless, unlike with alcohol, ingesting marijuana isn't unhealthy. Sure, smoking pot isn't great – for the same reason breathing smog or cigarette smoke isn't great. Smoking, as we know, kills – but otherwise, there is no data to suggest that marijuana is bad for you. And despite government insistence that no evidence proves marijuana to be medically useful, scientific studies from around the world suggest quite the opposite – as does the success of medi-pot laws, which are now in place in 13 states.

In fact, advocates for changing pot laws posit that marijuana is actually safer than alcohol, and that is the subject of a new book by three pot-law reform advocates from the nation's leading advocacy groups – Mason Tvert of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recrea­tion, Steve Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, and Paul Armentano of the National Organiza­tion for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In their new book, the three seek to answer the primary question raised by this policy chasm, a question that also happens to be the title of their book: Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?.

The three authors set out to put to rest the double standard many Americans have developed about drug use – alcohol and cigarettes are OK, pot is bad – and look forward to a different way of approaching the topic. For example, marijuana is neither toxic nor addictive. Its main psychoactive ingredient simply does not interact with the brain in the same way as alcohol. (Yes, the feds also like to point out that more and more people are presenting themselves to drug rehab centers for marijuana "addiction," but they fail to mention that a good number of those are there only because rehab is a way to avoid jail time on a pot charge – a factor that significantly changes the discussion.)

"Alcohol, quite literally, is a poison," Fox said in a recent AlterNet interview. "That's why excessive alcohol use often causes vomiting. The body is rejecting the poison." Marijuana, "on the other hand, is virtually nontoxic to healthy cells and major organs," he continued. "In fact, the active components in marijuana ... actually mimic chemicals naturally produced by the body ... that are necessary for the maintenance of proper health. Further, unlike alcohol, marijuana does not depress the central nervous system – making an overdose impossible, regardless of how much a person consumes."

And, Armentano told me during a recent interview, it seems that the greater public is catching on – regardless of what the government has to say. As budgets tighten – especially in California, where Armentano is based – the question of whether marijuana prohibition makes fiscal sense has grown in intensity. California voters will decide next year whether to legalize and tax-and-regulate its use by adults (much like alcohol or tobacco). The top question during a virtual town hall meeting with Obama in March was about marijuana legalization; last Novem-ber, pot-law reform measures did better with voters in Michigan and Massachusetts than did the president. "You know ... when the economy is booming, you can say: 'Yeah, I think the drug war is working. We waste a lot of money, but who cares?'" But the economic downturn has begun to stimulate critical thinking, argues Armentano – and the time has come to re-evaluate what we think we know about marijuana and the goals and accomplishments of prohibition.

"For the first time in a long time, I don't feel like I'm banging my head against a wall," Armentano said. The question that often comes up, he continued, is, "How could we even think to change the policy when we have all these institutions built up around the policy?" His answer, he said, is that "it is as if you had this big mansion and it was built on a faulty foundation. If you step back and look, you'd say, 'That is a gigantic house; it could never come down.' But if the foundation is faulty, it could come down all at once."

For sure, pot news hasn't been all bad. Obama, for example, has admitted using, and he joins a long line of prominent and successful Americans who have toked, including Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, and, of course, Texas' favorite redhead, Willie Nelson, to name just a few.

"I don't know if it has to do with Americans having a better understanding of marijuana than they did in the past, or they understand the real dangers associated with alcohol, but there seems to be a shifting in public perception," Armentano said. "And it's just hypocritical to have a public policy that celebrates and embraces the more dangerous drug while stigmatizing and criminalizing the users of the more objectively safe substance."


For more "Reefer Madness," see the archive at austinchronicle.com/reefermadness.

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