03/02/2012 09:32 am ET Updated May 02, 2012

Pot vs. Alcohol -- Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Which is safer, pot or alcohol? Which is "better"? If you had to pick, which would you prefer your teenagers to do -- smoke pot or drink alcohol? The debate has been heating up lately, now that the legalization of marijuana (in small amounts) is on the table in Colorado. The ballot proposal is called "The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012."

There's even a site called, which touts marijuana as the "safer" choice. Last I read, marijuana use was up among teens, and alcohol was down, but the pendulum always swings back and forth.

So which is safer/better/preferable?

Is this the question we really should be asking? It's not like we're going to go back to the days of Prohibition. By this time, alcohol is a given part of our culture, like TV and the Internet.

I realize there are compelling arguments for the legalization of marijuana (supposedly no one has ever overdosed on pot; people get less violent when they smoke pot, not more, like they do when they drink; making pot illegal taxes our criminal justice system (you can find many of these arguments online), but still -- why add another drug to the roster of iffy life choices? Why make it easy?

And do we really want to add toker-moms and dads to the growing ranks of "cocktail moms" (and dads!)? Instead of sneaking into their parents' liquor cabinets, teens could sneak into their parents' pot stashes! We don't need to model another easy "check out of real life" option for our teens.

I'm familiar with the popular argument that if you make something forbidden, it becomes more attractive (see Prohibition), but I also think the converse is true: For some people, the fact that pot is illegal is a deal killer, enough of a deterrent to make them stay away. I know it is for me.

I'm a mom of three, and I try to be a role model for my kids. Just the thought of my kids busting me doing something illegal is enough to make me steer clear of this popular suburban pastime. Or the thought of them watching me being handcuffed and carted away, calling after me, "Mom -- why would you break the law?!" Full disclosure: I'm biased, as the sister of someone who went to rehab after smoking a little pot led to smoking five times a day, which led to staying emotionally stuck at age 14 (as she'll tell anyone who asks), which led to harder drugs. For me, alcohol has always been one thing and drugs, another. And there's a line between the two that I wouldn't want my own kids to cross.

At least now, people have to think twice before they light up. First, they have to deal with buying it in secret, and then they have to plan where and when to smoke it so they won't get caught. This makes smoking pot a more conscious act, rather than a default behavior.

All behavior is healthier when it's conscious, whether it's eating, drinking or whatever else. For example, when drinking becomes mindless binging instead of conscious consuming (think: having a great glass of wine to complement a meal), it becomes a slippery slope -- a way to escape life's problems rather than a means of enhancing the sensual experience of life.

Taking drugs has always been a counter-culture choice, and that's how it should remain: counterculture. That's the allure, and that's the deterrent. Make it mainstream, and you've opened up a whole other can of worms.

Make it hard and you'll save a lot of people from addiction and drug dependence.

Examining the effects of his pot-smoking days, memoirist Nic Sheff put it best on the website, The Fix, when he wrote: "For me, all these years later, I still suffer from all the fucking decades I lost to smoking pot. My emotional maturity is probably a little better than a 16-year-old's (maybe) -- but not a whole lot. I basically overreact to any kind of problem I have. And I definitely blame a lot of that on my years getting high."

In the New York Times "Room for Debate" section, Brian E. Perron, an Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Michigan, points to the need for further research on marijuana before we jump into fighting for legalization. He concludes that, "... an increase in marijuana use among the teenage population is not good ... we are unclear of the long-term consequences of marijuana use on the developing brain of the adolescent. The potency of marijuana has also increased significantly over the years. Thus, along with an increased sensation of euphoria, we can expect an increase in its addictive potential. The research is also clear that early involvement with substances is associated with heavier use and a variety of other problems later in life. From this perspective, marijuana may be associated with fewer risks in comparison to other substances, but marijuana use does introduce its own set of known and possibly unexpected problems that are deeply concerning."

That's enough for me to hold my hand up and say, wait -- what's the rush? Do we really need another readily available, commonplace drug?

Leah Odze Epstein is a writer and co-founder of the Drinking Diaries. She is currently working on a young adult novel about a character who is the daughter of an alcoholic. She has reviewed books for BookPage and Publisher's Weekly, among other publications. She also writes poetry, and her poems can be found on the website Literary Mama.

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