12/10/2014 01:45 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Marijuana Legalization: The Big Tobacco Smokescreen

Shutterstock / JeremyNathan

Big Marijuana? It's catchy, but comparing legalized marijuana to the tobacco industry misleads both the public and policymakers about the challenges of regulating this industry.

First, there already is a marijuana industry. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 4.6 million people sell illegal drugs every year. And given that marijuana is the most popular illegal drug, most of them sell pot. The NSDUH also reveals that the number of people who grow marijuana for personal use has increased from 206,000 in 2003 to 477,000 in 2012. These statistics, along with annual Drug Enforcement Administration data about seizures of marijuana grow rooms (2,596) and marijuana plants from them (302,377) in just 2012 provide a bare but impressive sketch of a thriving illegal and unregulated marijuana industry. Big Pot is already here. It has been around for a while and it was created by the federal policy of marijuana prohibition.

So the question is not whether or not America wants to have a marijuana industry, but what sort of regulations are appropriate for providing more regulation and control than exists now.

Second, it's a big mistake to create public policy based on analogy, and a bigger one to ignore the mistakes that were made creating failed policies that need replacement. This point is discussed in detail in a recent article in the Harm Reduction Journal, which includes the following arguments.

Comparing a legal marijuana market to the current tobacco market is clever, but good spin doesn't make good policy. One of the mistakes of prohibition derived from comparing marijuana to heroin. For people who oppose marijuana legalization, the comparison to tobacco makes good sense; after all, marijuana and tobacco are both smoked, tobacco use is unpopular, and tobacco companies have been widely condemned in recent decades.

Why not compare marijuana to alcohol instead? After all, both substances are viewed as creating impairment and intoxication. There was once a time when comparisons between marijuana and tobacco were dismissed on account that smoking tobacco doesn't create such impairment. Critics of marijuana legalization avoid the comparison with alcohol because alcohol is not as unpopular as tobacco these days. More important, a comparison of marijuana with alcohol introduces an unwanted distinction into the debate, the issue of use versus abuse. Alcohol use has risks, but many Americans use it responsibly. In fact, the same is true for marijuana. Marijuana use has risks, but many Americans use it responsibly. And, like the alcohol industry, the marijuana industry can play an important role in promoting responsible use.

The bigger mistake in comparing marijuana to tobacco, and to alcohol for that matter, is that they are different drugs. They have different pharmacological effects, pose different risks to the human body, have different dependence liabilities and have different patterns of use. Tobacco, for example, is one of the most addictive substances known to man, with a dependence liability similar to that of heroin. It is also used frequently in the course of a day, with a consumption range of 10 to 40 cigarettes a day. Marijuana has a much lower dependence liability and has a consumption range of 1 to 4 cigarettes a day, if even that among many users.

There are many differences between marijuana and tobacco. One of the key ones for this debate is that tobacco is a processed product, created by an industrial manufacturing process, in an industry controlled by a handful of firms. Marijuana can be grown by anyone, grown just about anywhere, and is most often consumed in its natural form. Marijuana prohibition is unenforceable because government has been unable to enforce strict controls over its production. There is now, and there will be under legalization, a competitive market in producing and selling marijuana. The legal market will be big, but the industry will be diverse -- whether regulatory policy takes this lesson into account or not.

There are a lot of common sense regulations needed in a legal marijuana market. There must be an age-limit on sales restricting access to adults. Marijuana should be labeled with respect to potency and certification that it has not been contaminated by mold or other dangers. There need to be standards for enforcement of laws against driving while impaired. And there will be taxes.

However, marijuana regulations need to be devised on solid information and experience, and not on the basis of superficial analogies, and most certainly not based on hypocrisy. Big Marijuana already exists -- it's also called the Black Market. Public concern over a large, unregulated, socially irresponsible marijuana market is, and should be, argument number one in support of marijuana's legalization.