Anti-pot propaganda drives most people to drink alcohol instead. But booze is far more dangerous than marijuana.
Professor David Nutt didn’t play the game. As the chief drug policy advisor in the British Government, an unspoken part of his job description was to help maintain a public fiction about marijuana – or cannabis, as it is known in the U.K. and other parts of the world. Specifically, he was expected to further the misperception of cannabis as a substance worthy of being classified and prohibited in a manner similar to more dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine.
He made a big mistake at the end of last month. In a lecture at King’s College in London, he spoke honestly – and truthfully – about the fact that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and urged the government to factor the relative harms of substances into their policy-making. Moreover, he accused the British government of ignoring the evidence about the true harms of cannabis in order to reclassify the drug and increase penalties for possession.
Reacting with the logic and reason of pub patron after last call, Home Secretary Alan Johnson immediately demanded that Prof. Nutt resign as the head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. He said Prof Nutt had "crossed the line between offering advice and … campaigning against the government on political decisions."
More accurately, Prof. Nutt crossed the line between deceiving citizens and being honest with them. The home secretary, a former member of Parliament, is no doubt comfortable with a little verbal jousting over public policy decisions. What he could not abide by was a top ranking official threatening the anti-cannabis mythology embraced at the very top level of government. Based on Nutt’s fateful bout of truthfulness, Johnson said he had “lost confidence” in Nutt as an advisor.
In a letter to Professor Nutt, Mr. Johnson explained how the system is supposed to work. He said: "As Home Secretary it is for me to make decisions, having received advice from the [Council] ... It is important that the Government's messages on drugs are clear and as an adviser you do nothing to undermine the public understanding of them ... I am afraid the manner in which you have acted runs contrary to your responsibilities."
The Home Secretary’s chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson put a similar spin on this hostile reaction to fact-based statements to the public. "These things are best sorted out behind the scenes,” he said, “so that the government and their advisers can go to the public with a united front."
In the real world, what this means is that advisors are free to provide research or reports based on an honest assessment of the scientific evidence, but when this research is completely ignored in setting policy, they are expected to keep their mouths shut and move on as if nothing ever happened.
This is all part of the game the government plays in order to maintain marijuana prohibition. In the United States, there are many examples of significant advisory opinions related to marijuana being completely ignored – even where the opinions were part of a decision-making process that should have led to action by the federal government.
In 1970, Congress established the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse to study marijuana and make recommendations about how to control its use. The Commission’s final report suggested removal of criminal penalties, noting, “The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior.” President Nixon ignored the Commission’s findings and launched and all-out war on marijuana users.
In 1988, Francis Young, an administrative law judge at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), following hearings to determine whether marijuana should be placed into a less restrictive category under the Controlled Substances Act, wrote that marijuana should be moved from Schedule I (the most restrictive category) to Schedule II and it would be “unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious” to conclude otherwise. More than 20 years later, marijuana remains a Schedule I drug.
A recently as February 2007, an administrative law judge at the DEA issued an opinion concluding that it would be in the public interest for the agency to grant a license to the University of Massachusetts to grow a limited amount of marijuana to be used to study its potential therapeutic benefits. Faced with this seemingly rational opinion, the political powers at the DEA sat on it for nearly two years and then rejected it by formally denying the University the license in the very last days of the Bush administration.
Of course, ignoring fact- and evidence-based advice about marijuana is just one part of the game our government has played over the past four decades. It has also gone out of its way to promote and spread myths about the drug – from the “gateway” theory to marijuana’s supposed connection to cancer to the notion that “potent pot” is somehow more dangerous than “your father’s marijuana.” Each one has been debunked or proven wrong or misleading, but there is no doubt that they have helped keep marijuana illegal.
Yet there is one myth more insidious than the rest. And it is one that is as devastating as it is subtle.
You see, whether intentional or not, the government’s greatest achievement when it comes to keeping marijuana illegal has been its ability to convince a majority of Americans that marijuana is as harmful as, if not more harmful than, alcohol. By doing so, it has secured alcohol’s place as the recreational substance of choice for the vast majority of the public.
Influenced by the government’s anti-marijuana propaganda, a large segment of our population is comfortable with a system that bans the use of marijuana but allows – and even celebrates – the use of alcohol, despite the fact that alcohol is objectively far more harmful.
Let’s consider just a few facts about the two substances. For starters, alcohol is far more toxic than marijuana. Just ten times the effective dose of alcohol can be fatal. Yet there has never been a recorded marijuana overdose death in history. The highly toxic nature of alcohol is also what leads to the all-too-frequent occurrences of nausea and vomiting from over-indulgence.
Over the long-term, alcohol consumption is also far more likely to lead to the death of the user. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, between 33,000 and 35,000 Americans die annually from the effects of alcohol. The comparable number for marijuana? Zero. The supposed cancer-causing properties of marijuana? Non-existent.
Perhaps most disturbingly, as almost anyone who has been exposed to the two substances could tell you, alcohol is far more likely to produce dangerous and socially destructive behavior. It is cited as a contributing factor in 25-30 percent of violent crimes in this country and in about 100,000 sexual assaults on college campuses annually. These kinds of negative associations simply don’t exist with marijuana.
As mentioned at the beginning, facts like this were quite familiar to Professor Nutt. Even after his firing, he endeavored to spread the truth about the relative harms of marijuana and alcohol and urged parents to be especially wary of the one that posed the greatest potential for damage.
"The greatest concern to parents,” he said, “should be that their children do not get completely off their heads with alcohol because it can kill them ... and it leads them to do things which are very dangerous, such as to kill themselves or others in cars, get into fights, get raped, and engage in other activities which they regret subsequently. My view is that, if you want to reduce the harm to society from drugs, alcohol is the drug to target at present."
Our nation's leaders might think this is a game, but it isn’t. There are children and adults seriously suffering and even dying because of alcohol, and it is time our leaders started being honest and realistic about how it compares to marijuana – both in terms of public education and public policies. Neither propaganda nor policy should be used to steer adults – or teens, for that matter – toward alcohol instead of marijuana. This does not mean that marijuana is harmless; it simply means, and all of the evidence indicates, that it is less harmful than alcohol.
And no one should be fired for saying that.
By Steve Fox
November 9, 2009