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Alcohol or Cannabis? No Question Which Substance Poses a Greater Risk to Health

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The federal government is being roundly criticized, and rightly so, for its latest foray into the land of reefer rhetoric.

Specifically, representatives of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) -- the same agency that claims to sponsor 85 percent of the world's research on controlled substances, but yet admits that it steadfastly refuses to engage in clinical research to assess marijuana's therapeutic benefits -- weighed in on the question of which substance poses a greater danger to health: marijuana or alcohol. The agency's political non-answer: "Claiming that marijuana is less toxic than alcohol cannot be substantiated since each possess their own unique set of risks and consequences for a given individual."

NIDA's reply, while predictable for an agency wedded to the notion of cannabis criminalization, is shockingly low on credibility. As the co-author of a book comparing and contrasting the societal costs of the two substances, I ought to know. But I'm hardly alone in my assessment.

A February 2011 World Health Organization report concluded that alcohol consumption is responsible for a staggering four percent of all deaths worldwide, more than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence. No similar statistics were compiled by the agency for cannabis.

Similarly, a recent paper published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology assessing the relative physical, psychological, and social harms of cannabis and alcohol concluded, "A direct comparison of alcohol and cannabis showed that alcohol was considered to be more than twice as harmful as cannabis to [individual] users, and five times more harmful as cannabis to others (society)." Likewise, a 2009 review published in the British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal estimated that health-related costs per user are eight times higher for drinkers of alcoholic beverages than they are for those who use cannabis, and are more than 40 times higher for tobacco smokers. Authors concluded, "In terms of [health-related] costs per user: Tobacco-related health costs are over $800 per user, alcohol-related health costs are much lower at $165 per user, and cannabis-related health costs are the lowest at $20 per user."

None of these findings are particularly novel, of course. In fact, numerous commissioned studies, many of which were federally sponsored, have consistently reached these same conclusions.

For example, in the mid-1990s, the World Health Organization commissioned a team of experts to compare the health and societal consequences of marijuana use compared to other drugs, including alcohol, nicotine, and opiates. After quantifying the harms associated with both drugs, the researchers concluded: "Overall, most of these risks (associated with marijuana) are small to moderate in size. In aggregate they are unlikely to produce public health problems comparable in scale to those currently produced by alcohol and tobacco. On existing patterns of use, cannabis poses a much less serious public health problem than is currently posed by alcohol and tobacco in Western societies."

French scientists at the state-sponsored medical research institute INSERM published similar findings in 1998. Researchers categorized legal and illegal drugs into three distinct categories: Those that pose the greatest threat to public health, those that pose moderate harms to the public, and those substances that pose little-to-no danger. Alcohol, heroin, and cocaine were placed in the most dangerous category, while investigators determined that cannabis posed the least danger to public health.

In 2002, a special Canadian Senate Committee completed an exhaustive review of marijuana and health, concluding, "Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue."

And in 2007, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare hired a team of scientists to assess the impact of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs on public health. Researcher reported that the consumption of alcohol was significant contributors to death and disease. "Alcohol harm was responsible for 3.2 percent of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia," they concluded. By comparison, cannabis use was responsible for zero deaths and only 0.2 percent of the estimated total burden of disease and injury in Australia.

Need any more convincing? A 2011 analysis published the American Journal of Preventive Medicine determined that in the United States alone, an estimated 79,000 lives are lost annually due to either excessive drinking or accidental death by overdose. (Cannabis, by contrast, is incapable of causing lethal overdose.) The study further estimated that the overall economic cost of excessive drinking by Americans is $223.5 billion annually.

NIDA and other government agencies are privy to this information, of course, yet they willfully choose to ignore it -- as does the Obama administration. It shouldn't.

Upon taking office, the White House publicly issued a 'Scientific Integrity' memorandum stating, "Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration." It is high time for the administration to follow through on this pledge in regard to cannabis.

Science, not rhetoric, should guide America's decisions on marijuana policy.