Why Is Marijuana Illegal?
- Ph.D., Religion and Society, Edith Cowan University
- M.A., Humanities, California State University – Dominguez Hills
- B.A., Liberal Arts, Excelsior College
For almost a century, seven lines of reasoning have been used to outlaw marijuana in the U.S. While pot legalization advocates have worked hard to decriminalize the drug, and have succeeded in doing so in some states, the federal government continues to prohibit cannabis. Outdated public policy, racial injustice, and misperceptions about drug use contribute to the reasons why marijuana has yet to be legalized nationwide.
Advocates for legalization rarely make a convincing case. To hear some supporters of marijuana legalization tell it, the drug cures all diseases while promoting creativity, open-mindedness, moral progression, and a closer relationship with God and the cosmos. That sounds thoroughly unrealistic and too good to be true for people who don’t use the drug themselves—especially when the prevailing public image of a marijuana user is that of a burnout who risks arrest and imprisonment to artificially spur an endorphin release.
Although people from all age groups, racial backgrounds, and walks of life use marijuana, the drug has long been associated with the counterculture, particularly with “stoners” who aren’t doing much with their lives. This persistent stereotype has made it difficult for many lawmakers and voters to shore up enthusiasm about marijuana legislation. Imposing criminal sanctions for marijuana possession is viewed as a form of communal “tough love” for undesirables and slackers.
Lack of “Acceptable Medicinal Use”
Marijuana seems to yield considerable medical benefits for many Americans, with ailments ranging from glaucoma to cancer, but these benefits have not been accepted on a national level. Medical use of marijuana remains a serious national controversy, with lively legalization debates and many skeptics. In order to fight the argument that marijuana has no medical use, legalization advocates are working to highlight the impact it has had on people who have used the drug for medical reasons. Meanwhile, highly addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco do not have to meet the same burden of positive evidence.
Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug on the basis that it is perceived as addictive, with “a high potential for abuse.” This classification comes from the suspicion that people who use marijuana get hooked, become “potheads,” and lead lives dominated by the drug. Some users do become addicted to cannabis, but many don’t. The same happens with alcohol, which is perfectly legal.
In order to fight this argument for prohibition, legalization advocates have asserted that marijuana is not as addictive as government sources claim. So how addictive is marijuana really? The truth is that we just don’t know, but the risk appears to be relatively low, especially when compared to other drugs.
Historically Racist Associations
The anti-marijuana movement of the 1930s occurred at the same time that bigotry against Chicanos began to rise. A Spanish-origin word, marijuana was linked to Mexican-Americans, just as the Chinese had been stereotyped as opium addicts, and, later, African Americans were tied to crack cocaine. Today, thanks in large part to marijuana’s popularity among whites during the 1960s and 1970s, pot is no longer deemed an “ethnic drug.”
Link to Heavy Narcotics Like Heroin
Historically, early anti-drug laws were written to regulate narcotics like opium and its derivatives, such as heroin and morphine. Marijuana, though not a narcotic, was described as such, along with cocaine. This association stuck, and there is now a vast gulf in the American consciousness between “normal” recreational drugs, such as alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine, and “abnormal” recreational drugs, such as heroin, crack, or methamphetamine. Marijuana is generally associated with the latter category, which is why it is convincingly misrepresented as a “gateway drug.”
Inertia in Public Policy
If a substance or activity has been prohibited for only a short period of time, then the ban is typically considered unstable. But if something has been outlawed for a long time, then the ban—no matter how ill-conceived it might be—tends to go unchallenged long before it is actually taken off the books.
Legislators and voters tend to accept the status quo, which, for nearly a century, has been a literal or de facto federal ban on marijuana. Some lawmakers and constituents are actively invested in maintaining business as usual, while others fall victim to the powerful force of inertia.
Although there are many reasons to legalize marijuana, also known as weed, herb, pot, or the devil's lettuce, it has faced nearly a century-long ban.
We took a scientific look at whether weed or alcohol is worse for you — and there appears to be a winner
Which is worse for you: weed or whiskey?
It’s a tough call, but based on the peer-reviewed science, there appears to be a clear answer.
Keep in mind that there are dozens of factors to account for when comparing the health effects of alcohol and marijuana, including how the substances affect your heart, brain, and behavior, and how likely you are to get hooked.
Time is important, too — while some effects are noticeable immediately, others only begin to crop up after months or years of use.
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The comparison is slightly unfair for another reason: While scientists have been researching the effects of alcohol for decades, the science of cannabis is murkier because of its mostly illegal status.
Here’s what we know about which substance is more harmful.
A large new study suggested that for people between the ages of 15 and 49 years old worldwide, alcohol was the leading risk factor for death in 2016.
A large review published in August in the medical journal The Lancet found that among people aged 15–49, alcohol use was the leading health risk factor across the globe in 2016, with 3.8% of all female deaths and 12·2% of all male deaths attributable to alcohol use.
The review looked at published data from nearly 600 studies that comprised data on 195 countries and territories between 1990 and 2016. The results showed that among people of all ages, alcohol was the seventh leading risk factor for deaths in 2016.
The more people drank across the globe, the more their risk of dying and their risk of cancer rose, the study authors found. As a result of these findings, they concluded that there was no “safe” level of alcohol consumption.
“Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for global disease burden and causes substantial health loss,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “and the level of consumption that minimizes health loss is zero.”
More than 30,700 Americans died from alcohol-induced causes in 2014. There have been zero documented deaths from marijuana use alone.
In 2014, 30,722 people died from alcohol-induced causes in the US — and that does not count drinking-related accidents or homicides. If those deaths were included, the number would be closer to 90,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, no deaths from marijuana overdoses have been reported, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. A 16-year study of more than 65,000 Americans, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that healthy marijuana users were not more likely to die earlier than healthy people who did not use cannabis.
Marijuana appears to be significantly less addictive than alcohol.
Close to half of all adults have tried marijuana at least once, making it one of the most widely used illegal drugs — yet research suggests that a relatively small percentage of people become addicted.
For a 1994 survey, epidemiologists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse asked more than 8,000 people from ages 15 to 64 about their drug use. Of those who had tried marijuana at least once, roughly 9% eventually fit a diagnosis of addiction. For alcohol, the figure was about 15%. To put that in perspective, the addiction rate for cocaine was 17%, while heroin was 23% and nicotine was 32%.
Marijuana may be harder on your heart, while moderate drinking could be beneficial.
Unlike alcohol, which slows your heart rate, marijuana speeds it up, which could negatively affect the heart in the short term. Still, the largest-ever report on cannabis from the National Academies of Sciences, released in January, found insufficient evidence to support or refute the idea that cannabis may increase the overall risk of a heart attack.
On the other hand, low to moderate drinking — about one drink a day — has been linked with a lower risk of heart attack and stroke compared with abstention. James Nicholls, a director at Alcohol Research UK, told The Guardian that those findings should be taken with a grain of salt since “any protective effects tend to be canceled out by even occasional bouts of heavier drinking.”
Alcohol is strongly linked with several types of cancer; marijuana is not.
In November 2017, a group of the nation’s top cancer doctors issued a statement asking people to drink less. They cited strong evidence that drinking alcohol — as little as a glass of wine or beer a day — increases the risk of developing both pre- and postmenopausal breast cancer.
The US Department of Health lists alcohol as a known human carcinogen. Research highlighted by the National Cancer Institute suggests that the more alcohol you drink — particularly the more you drink regularly — the higher your risk of developing cancer.
For marijuana, some research initially suggested a link between smoking and lung cancer, but that has been debunked. The January report found that cannabis was not connected to any increased risk of the lung cancers or head and neck cancers tied to smoking cigarettes.
Both drugs may be linked with risks while driving, but alcohol is worse.
A research note published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (PDF) found that, when adjusting for other factors, having a detectable amount of THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) in your blood did not increase the risk of being involved in a car crash. Having a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.05%, on the other hand, increased that risk by 575%.
Still, combining the two appears to have the worst results.
“The risk from driving under the influence of both alcohol and cannabis is greater than the risk of driving under the influence of either alone,” the authors of a 2009 review wrote in the American Journal of Addiction.
Several studies link alcohol with violence, particularly at home. That has not been found for cannabis.
It’s impossible to say whether drinking alcohol or using marijuana causes violence, but several studies — including a recent analysis published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience — suggest a link between alcohol and violent behavior.
For the study, which was published in January, researchers used fMRI scans to see how two alcoholic drinks impacts brain function in 50 healthy adult males. Compared with sober participants, the intoxicated volunteers were found to have reduced functioning in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain linked with moderating social behavior. That reduced functioning was also linked with aggressive behavior.
The finding aligns with some previous research on alcohol’s connections with violence. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes, and a study of college students found that the rates of mental and physical abuse were higher on days when couples drank.
On the other hand, no such relationship appears to exist for cannabis. A recent study looking at cannabis use and intimate partner violence in the first decade of marriage found that marijuana users were significantly less likely to commit violence against a partner than those who did not use the drug.
Both drugs negatively affect your memory, but in different ways. These effects are the most common in heavy, frequent, or binge users.
Both weed and alcohol temporarily impair memory, and alcohol can cause blackouts by rendering the brain incapable of forming memories. The most severe long-term effects are seen in heavy, chronic, or binge users who begin using in their teens.
Studies have found that these effects can persist for several weeks after stopping marijuana use. There may also be a link between daily weed use and poorer verbal memory in adults who start smoking at a young age.
Chronic drinkers display reductions in memory, attention, and planning, as well as impaired emotional processes and social cognition — and these can persist even after years of abstinence.
Both drugs are linked with an increased risk of psychiatric disease. For weed users, psychosis and schizophrenia are the main concern; with booze, it’s depression and anxiety.
The largest review of marijuana studies found substantial evidence of an increased risk among frequent marijuana users of developing schizophrenia — something that studies have shown is a particular concern for people already at risk.
Weed can also trigger temporary feelings of paranoia and hostility, but it’s not yet clear whether those symptoms are linked with an increased risk of long-term psychosis.
On the other hand, self-harm and suicide are much more common among people who binge drink or drink frequently. But scientists have had a hard time deciphering whether excessive alcohol use causes depression and anxiety or whether people with depression and anxiety drink in an attempt to relieve those symptoms.
Alcohol appears to be linked more closely with weight gain, despite weed’s tendency to trigger the munchies.
Weed gives you the munchies. It makes you hungry, reduces the natural signals of fullness, and may even temporarily make food taste better.
But despite eating over 600 extra calories when smoking, marijuana users generally don’t have higher body-mass indexes. In fact, studies suggest that regular smokers have a slightly reduced risk of obesity.
Alcohol, on the other hand, appears to be linked with weight gain. A study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that people who drank heavily had a higher risk of becoming overweight or obese. Plus, alcohol itself is caloric: A can of beer has roughly 150 calories, and a glass of wine has about 120.
All things considered, alcohol’s effects seem markedly more extreme — and riskier — than marijuana’s.
When it comes to addiction profiles, risk of death or overdose, and links to cancer, car crashes, violence, and obesity, the research suggests that marijuana may be less of a health risk than alcohol.
Still, because of marijuana’s largely illegal status, long-term studies on all its health effects have been limited — meaning more research is needed.
When comparing weed and alcohol, there are lots of factors to consider, including effects on your heart, brain, and behavior. Overall, alcohol seems to be worse for you.