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The real truth on marijuana, alcohol

More than one-half of Americans now believe that smoking marijuana is less dangerous than drinking alcohol. That’s according to the results of a just-released national telephone poll of 1,000 likely voters by Rasmussen Reports.

By contrast, just 19 percent of respondents said that they believed that pot is more dangerous than alcohol.

The public has it right. The law, which results in the arrest of some 800,000 Americans for marijuana violations annually, has it wrong.

As I explain in my new book, “Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?” (I will be discussing the book at Panama Red on Friday at 5 p.m.), the risks posed by marijuana and alcohol — both to the individual consumer and to society as a whole — are far from equal. Quite literally, alcohol is an intoxicant; cannabis is not.

The word intoxicant is derived from the Latin noun, toxicum, meaning: “a poison.” It’s an appropriate description for booze. Alcohol is toxic to healthy cells and organs, a side effect that results directly in some 35,000 deaths per year from illnesses like cirrhosis, ulcers, and heart disease. Furthermore ethanol, the psychoactive ingredient in booze, is carcinogenic. Following ethanol’s initial metabolization by the body it is converted to acetaldehyde. This is why even moderate drinking is positively associated with increased incidences of various types of cancer, including cancers of the breast, stomach, and pancreas.

Heavy alcohol consumption can depress the central nervous system — inducing unconsciousness, coma, and death — and is strongly associated with increased risks of injury (Booze plays a role in about 41,000 fatal accidents per year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control) and acts of violence. In fact, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Crime Statistics, alcohol consumption plays a role in the commission of approximately 1 million violent crimes annually.

By contrast, the active compounds in marijuana, known as cannabinoids, are remarkably non-toxic. Unlike alcohol, marijuana is incapable of causing fatal overdose — cannabinoids do not act upon the brain stem — and its use is inversely associated with aggression and injury.

Unlike alcohol, the use of cannabis is not associated with increased risk of mortality or various types of cancer — including lung cancer — and may even reduce such risk. For instance, a just published study in the current issue of the journal of Cancer Prevention Research reports that moderate use of marijuana is associated with “a significantly reduced risk of head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.” A separate 2006 population case-control study, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles, also reported that lifetime use of cannabis was not positively associated with cancers of the lung or aerodigestive tract, and further noted that certain moderate users of the drug experienced a reduced cancer risk compared to non-using controls.

Of course, providing this information is not intended to suggest that marijuana is somehow “good” and that alcohol is necessarily “bad,” and none of these differences should imply that America would be better off returning to the days of alcohol prohibition. Rather, comparing and contrasting the effects of cannabis and alcohol provides an objective frame of reference for Americans, many of who may be personally unfamiliar with the effects of marijuana or may be uneducated to many of the effects of booze.

Rasmussen’s surprising results ought to spark a long-overdue dialogue in this country asking why our criminal laws continue to target and prosecute those adults who choose to make the rational choice to relax with a substance that is objectively safer than alcohol. Perhaps when President Obama finishes his beer, he can provide the public with an answer.

By Paul Armentano