So, I just finished reading the excellent Drugs and Drug Policy What Everyone Needs to Know by my criminology guru, Mark Kleimann, and two others. It’s really like a textbook, but super-readable in a very friendly, question and answer format, i.e., do efforts to limit the supply in drug-producing countries work at all? (short answer: no). One thing I really like about the book is that they consider alcohol just like any other intoxicating drug, as it most definitely is. Thus, it’s appearance below in this chart that I loved and that I must have come back to at least a dozen times.
Among other things in the chart, I found the concept of “capture” to be key in how we typically think about just how addictive a drug is. That is, if you keep using a drug for a while, what is the likelihood you will develop a dependency. As you see, nicotine, cocaine, heroin, and meth are the highest for capture, with nicotine in a class by itself. The relapse rate shows that nicotine and heroin are the hardest to kick. As the authors point out, though, even drugs with a high capture rate grab only about 1/4 of continuing users. Surely much lower than we’ve generally been led to believe.
Anyway, as to the point of the post, you can see that marijuana is superior (i.e,. less damaging) than alcohol in every regard. So why on earth should alcohol be legal but marijuana not? Thousands of years or cultural history, in a phrase. Our current legal regime regarding marijuana is hugely problematic and surely causes more harm than marijuana itself, but that does not mean we should fully legalize marijuana. Sure, it’s easy for me to say as an almost tee-totaller, but it seems quite obvious that the massive amount of harm alcohol wreaks throughout our society far outweighs the aggregated social and psychoactive benefits. Especially, since there are other drugs that might achieve similar benefits with less downside. If alcohol were invented today, it would surely never be legal except under very serious restrictions, e.g., like opiates. We sure wouldn’t be advertising it constantly during every sporting event. So, the fact that marijuana is less bad than alcohol does not mean that benefits would outweigh costs with widespread marketing and widespread usage.
Kleiman is an advocate for decriminalization– not legalization. Grow your own, use your own, maybe even in small cooperatives. But putting the full capitalistic machine behind selling marijuana to everybody possibly would very likely have some serious downsides for American society. Just because those downsides are less than for alcohol, doesn’t mean they aren’t really that bad.
One big question in all this, though, is does increased marijuana usage displace alcohol usage or supplement it. If the former, that really changes the equation because marijuana definitely seems to have less societal costs. If the latter, well, that’s obviously not really helping us. Kevin Drum points out that some very preliminary evidence suggests that more pot equals less booze. We’ll need a lot more evidence on that– and CO and WA should really help. But if more marijuana usage really means less alcohol usage, than we should by all means legalize it. That said, hopefully, we could learn some useful lessons and legalize it in a way that will minimize dependency and harm to society.