Marijuana vs. alcohol

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.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

5 Responses to Marijuana vs. alcohol

  1. I have to say this issue is a good one to talk about. In Illinois it is not legal. I AM taking classes online with Devry and it’s Tech Management…I have a paralegal degree but cannot find work, so I do Security full time. Four years now. I just started DeVry because of the low pay wages just having an AA degree…it’s like the future is only in BA or + degrees for pay scale to go up. I am 47 single mom with a 18 year old, cannot live on 9.00 an hour. This is pathetic…sorry to vent but I feel you do understand as you are a Professor. Sincerely, Jackie

  2. Mike from Canada says:

    Decriminalization creates its own problems in comparison to legalization. Decriminalization leaves dealers illegal, and gives them incentive to sell pot more because their users are not going to get caught and flipped by the police. Judges will likely give less harsh sentences because of the decriminalization of the users.

    Since it’s illegal there will be no effect on the sale of pot to minors. Certainly for any drug, weather you feel it does minimal or much harm, the one class of people you don’t want getting it is minors.

    Personally, I would much prefer legalization by way of government controlled outlets with strict restrictions against selling to minors. Weather it’s tobacco or alcohol, some private businesses, illegal or not, always wind up selling to minors. Either due to greed, or hiring younger adults for minimum wage who simply don’t care, are sympathetic, or make money on the side.
    And there is always the benefit of taxation.

    A wise government (ha!) would target that tax money towards helping people who do develop problems with dependence. Of course, they don’t really do that for gambling and lotteries except perhaps for token amounts, so I wouldn’t expect too much.

    I think I’ve said it before, pot was always easier to get then alcohol, and I worked in a bar from the age of 15. Back then in my province sales of alcohol by the bottle was in government owned stores. Clerks had no incentive to sell to minors, and lots of disincentives, such as losing a good paying job with benefits. The last government opened it up to private retailers and retail has crappy wages and next to no benefits. High staff turnover and often young adults. We’ve seen the same with tobacco products.

    When retailers sell it, minors can get a hold of it much easier. It just makes dealers out of retailers.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Actually, in a sensible policy world, your proposal sounds about as good as we can get. Of course, that’s in a sensible policy world.

      • Mike from Canada says:

        I forgot one of the most important reasons for separating the dealer from the buyer, and that is the dealer introducing more harmful (and profitable) drugs.

        I think North America is not anywhere close to being sensible when it comes to drug policy. Sensible is a long, long, LONG way away from here. And Canada’s federal government is moving closer to the US model, which makes me wonder what Canada’s politicians are smoking.

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