As we approach the vote on California’s Proposition 19, I’ve been seeing variations of this assertion in a number of places. Here’s David Sirota:
Here’s a fact that even drug policy reform advocates can acknowledge: California’s 2010 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana does, indeed, pose a real threat, as conservative culture warriors insist. But not to public health, as those conservatives claim.
According to most physicians, pot is less toxic — and has more medicinal applications — than a legal and more pervasive drug like alcohol. Whereas alcohol causes hundreds of annual overdose deaths, contributes to untold numbers of illnesses and is a major factor in violent crime, marijuana has never resulted in a fatal overdose and has not been systemically linked to major illness or violent crime.
So this ballot measure is no public health threat. If anything, it would give the millions of citizens who want to use inebriating substances a safer alternative to alcohol. Which, of course, gets to what this ballot initiative really endangers: alcohol industry profits.
Beer distributors believe this to be the case as well. The California Beer and Beverage Distributors, has given $10,000 to defeat the measure. But is it true? Gus Lubin at the Business Insider writes:
Would marijuana legalization really cut into alcohol consumption?
Probably so. The interest group also includes Heineken, which knows from Amsterdam how legalization affects the market.
But the numbers don’t back this up. The WHO statistics on alcohol consumption across European countries don’t show any difference between the Netherlands and other European countries when it comes to alcohol consumption. Nor does it show any marked decrease in alcohol consumption since the Dutch started tolerating marijuana sales in the 1970s. In fact, while alcohol consumption across the entire EU dropped from 1980 to 2003 by 27%, it only dropped by 18% for the same time period in the Netherlands.
Marijuana and alcohol are often compared to each other in order to drive home the parallels between our historical attempts to prohibit each drug. And those comparisons are valid and illuminating. But the drugs themselves aren’t so similar in their effects on users. Marijuana is far more psychoactive than alcohol, but also more safe to consume. Alcohol tends to make people more aggressive and more social, while marijuana tends to make people more passive and less social. As a result, each drug caters to different personalities and different situations. And since marijuana is already widely available to whoever wants it, that segregation of use occurs already. As with the Netherlands, I’d expect that the eventual end of marijuana prohibition won’t have any noticeable effect on the current rates of alcohol consumption.
What it would have an effect on, however, is our prison overcrowding problems.