What’s More Dangerous: Marijuana or Alcohol? (Ep. 163 Rebroadcast)

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(Photo: andronicusmax)

(Photo: andronicusmax)

This week’s Freakonomics Radio episode is a rebroadcast of the episode “What’s More Dangerous: Marijuana or Alcohol?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

Imagine a fantasy world that’s exactly as the world is today except that two things are missing: alcohol and marijuana. And then imagine that tomorrow, both of them are discovered. What happens now? How are each of them used – and, perhaps more importantly, regulated? How would we weigh the relative benefits and costs of alcohol versus marijuana? Read more…


The need to immediately, completely, legalize Marijuana throughout the world is one of the most pressing moral issues of our time.

More and more present and former members of law enforcement agree, and have formed a rapidly expanding group of current and former undercover cops, FBI, DEA, prosecutors and Judges, from all over the world, called

LEAP -- Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

because they've seen the damage prohibition causes to America and the world.

See http://www.leap.cc/

I'm a Scientist. Not a politician, not a cop.

But as a Scientist with a strong interest in Cancer research, I feel even more strongly about the need to ensure that no Cancer patient is denied it, because I'm so impressed with its benefits for Cancer patients.

I urge everyone reading this to PLEASE call and email the Attorney General, the press, Congress and the President today.

Medical Marijuana helps with Alzheimer's, Autism, Cancer, seizures, PTSD and chronic pain, and has helped may Americans, including many veterans, stop using Alcohol, and hard drugs, both legal and illegal ones.

Every minute an American dies of Cancer.
Every 19 minutes an American dies of a prescription drug overdose.
Many vets become addicted to prescription opiates and die from them.

NOBODY has ever died from smoking too much pot.

Cancer patients are seeing remarkable results using high dose Medical Marijuana oil, in many cases achieving complete remission, even for stage 4 cancers -- there are many excellent articles on the web, and videos on youtube with patient's personal stories about their experiences with it -- and every Cancer patient that uses Marijuana to ease their suffering benefits greatly from doing so.

Please see http://boingboing.net/2014/12/23/cancer-and-cannabis-how-i-lea.html

It is immoral to leave Marijuana illegal, for anyone, for even a second longer.

For Cancer patients, its a matter of life and death.

Cancer patients can't wait.

Medical Marijuana has an unmatched safety profile, and for people who suffer from so many diseases, of so many kinds, its a medical miracle -- and the scientific evidence behind it is rock solid.

For Cancer patients, Medical Marijuana encourages apoptosis and autophagy of Cancer cells, while leaving normal cells untouched, is anti-angigogenic, anti-proliferative, and is anti-angiogenic.

Its also synergistic with chemotherapy and radiation therapy, making both more effective.

For many Cancer patients its meant the difference between life and death.

For everyone else, its a far safe alternative to Alcohol, and infinitely safer than Cigarettes.

Either take them off the market too, or legalize Marijuana right now.

2016 is too far away, Its too long to wait. Every year we lose more Americans to Cancer than died in WWII.

Between now and the 2016 elections, roughly 1 MILLION Americans will die of Cancer.

And Its a horrible way to die.



"NOBODY has ever died from smoking too much pot", so long as you exclude all the people who died "indirectly" from smoking too much pot, like the people who died from asthma triggered by marijuana smoke (imagine that, smoke from marijuana can trigger an asthma attack in people who are sensitive to any kind of smoke) and the people who died because of a stoned driver (news flash: a drug that is famous for making some people slow and stupid also makes them poor drivers!).

It is unusual from someone to die directly from marijuana poisoning, although some kids may manage it yet. But you should take that "nobody ever died" myth and try telling the families of Levi Thamba Pongi (jumped to his death during an overdose), Christina Desforges (died of asthma after smoking marijuana), Jaye Wass (killed by a drugged driver on his way home from marijuana dealer), Kristine Kirk (shot by her husband, who was hallucinating after eating a lot of marijuana), and many others.



Maybe it should have been phrased "No one has overdosed and died from smoking pot". Yes, you're correct, indirect causes of death could be found. I don't agree that pot is the cause of someone's asthma problem. If they have bad enough asthma that they could die from smoke inhilation, you better believe they wouldn't be smoking it. They would use edibles, and this is one of the reasons they make edibles.

People who drive while stoned are idiots, if they kill someone due to stoned driving, they should be prosecuted the same way as someone who kills someone while under the influence of alcohol, prescription drugs, etc. It's no different. Keeping a substance illegal because of this reason isn't necessary. Education is the key.

To say "some kids may manage it yet" is ignorant. Look up how much pot you would have to smoke in order to overdose from it. It's a rediculously high amount (see what i did there?!?! :-) ) And... "kids" shouldn't be using marijuana just like kids shouldn't drink before they're 21.

This is one reason to legalize pot... If you take out the black market dealers, or make it much less profitable for someone to sell pot on the black market, it's going to reduce the likelihood of kids getting ahold of it. I know when I was in high school, it was MUCH easier to get pot than it ever was to get alcohol. You either had to pay someone to go into the gas station and get booze for you, or you had to steal it from parents, or even get a friend with an older brother/sister to buy it for you. It just wasn't easy. It was very very easy to just go to a buddy's house and get a bag.

Levi Thamba Pongi: Fluke, this is not the norm, and most people experienced with the stuff wouldn't eat 6 times the amount recommended. Idiots will be idiots, it's not the drug's fault. If you want to ban something, ban alcohol that kills 6 people per day (2190/year) due to alcohol poisoning.... that's a lot of people.

Christina Desforges: Shouldn't have smoked pot if she had asthma. Why would anyone smoke that had asthma anyway?

Jaye Wass: We all know that pot stays in your system for 30 days. I'm not saying he WASN'T stoned, but to take a drug test and test positive for pot doesn't make it so. And... as stated above, a DUI is a DUI... the person who hit Jaye should be prosecuted like all other people who kill someone or cause accidents due to driving while inoxicated.

Kristine Kirk: Husband may have been high....really high... but my opinion is that he was already mentally unstable.

Basically, you can't take 4 examples of deaths that had something to do with marijuana and say it's the norm. The vast majority of people who smoke/eat pot have absolutely no problem with it and would never get behind the wheel of a car, etc. while intoxicated. In order for this to be something that would cause a ban, it needs to be seen over and over, not just a freak occurrence.


Christian McKearney

The scientist guy who posted below needs a standard operating definition for "safe." On the surface, claiming that cigarettes are safer than marijuana is just asinine and silly. To deny the decreased motor skills and decision-making skills caused by marijuana is reckless, especially for teenagers.

Teenagers and marijuana don't mix. Marijuana makes teenagers erratic and inconsistent and goofy. You start getting into all of the undeveloped prefrontal cortex type stuff in the brain. I'd be really interested to see what percentage of teenagers and young men who committed violent crimes were stoned or recently stoned during the time of the crime. I'd imagine that the results would shock many.

This will probably be scoffed at by just about anyone who reads it, but I really do believe that marijuana mixed with the destructive themes in popular hip hop music is half of the problem in today's African-American disenfranchised areas and neighborhoods. These kids and young men get really stoned, start taking the music to heart and really do believe that they're some sort of real gangster or crime boss.

From a brain development standpoint and social intelligence standpoint, no one under the age of 25 should ever smoke marijuana imo.



Your theory is repellant, not your own (as it is a tremendously lazy and self-serving meme among white Americans, even as the structural-inequality-causes music you describe boasts white people as its largest audience) and unscientific/ahistoric to boot. Half? Slavery, Jim Crow, "Reconstruction," red-lining, loan denying, lack of education and housing support, many times the murder and arrest rate for the same crimes as whites but yeah sure it's *your subjective value judgement on a music genre.*


great show, but if you loose the background music it will be SO MUCH BETTER!
(listen to radiolab, you don't need the music, don't be afraid)


I wouldn't encourage my kids to drink a drop of alcohol in any situation. Wouldn't object if I learned they liked to smoke weed, but I wouldn't encourage it although I am a heavy marijuana user. Alcohol sucks. The only reason it's deeply embedded in our cultural psyche is because it's legal. Pot is more widely accepted nowadays, but there is a big part of the population who think legalizing pot is bananas. No matter what you tell them, they feel pot is dangerous and those who use it are losers. How about pondering it the other way? What if pot was legalized 100 years ago and was commercially available just like alcohol? My hunch is that alcohol wouldn't play such an important role.

Mike S

I must firmly agree with the first statement of Frank G: "I wouldn’t encourage my kids to drink a drop of alcohol in any situation."
I have never had a drink; never smoked a joint. This is also true of perhaps 90% of my friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances. To state that either alcohol or marijuana is somehow an "integral" part of American society is frankly one of the most ignorant things I have ever heard on this program. The correct answer is to discourage the use of either substance. Period. That is not an opinion; that is a fact drawn from the very evidence and statistics noted in this program. That I did hear one host call it "crazy" to raise kids that would never touch alcohol leads me to question the integrity of the hosts, and certainly dissuades me from recommending this program to others.


Ever consider the possibility that you and your friends, family &c are not really part of the mainstream of American society, but as much outliers as are the Amish or traditional Navaho?


Per the international center for alcohol policies (ICAP) slightly more than one third of Americans are teetotallers. About two thirds of college graduates have not had a drink in the last month according to the United States department of Health and Human Services .

Not drinking is certainly common enough to be part of the Mainstream!


I was really surprised at the angle and bias in this episode.

The entire comparison to me felt unfair, it seems like you were comparing abusive or irresponsible alcohol use with responsible recreational marijuana usage. Obviously, your general conclusion would then be that marijuana is less damaging to society.

If you would compare responsible alcohol usage with responsible marijuana usage, the story would be much less obvious. Several problems like violence, addiction, road accidents (drunk driving) attributed to alcohol would simply go away, because they are not an issue when alcohol is consumed in a responsible manner.

It also seems to completely miss that alcohol is not only associated with being drunk, but also with a sensory experience because one normally never consumes pure alcohol. You are always consuming some kind of beverage, which is not only drank for the alcohol but also for the flavour.

I would agrue (though I might not be well enough aware here) that marihuana is almost always consumed with the goal to "get high".

As for the "harmless" version of alcohol. That exists and I have it at home, it is inside alcoholic beverages which I drink at home, in moderation and without any intend to do activities that would require full focus. This way, it is possible to enjoy alcoholic beverages without any negative side-effect. It's possible to have some negative effects on health although I assume that when used in moderation, these effects are really not that damaging.

I think the same story applies to responsible marihuana usage. There will - no doubt - be some effects on your health, but when used in moderation possibly also equally small.

I don't want to make a judgement of which is safer, I can see many pitfalls in alcohol usage but the same goes for marihuana, or anything else really. Being able to handle it responsibly is key. The way people deal with drugs might be more a social issue than an inherent property of the drug itself. If it's socially accepted to seriously abuse alcohol, many people will be harmed by it. If it's socially accepted to seriously abuse , the same applies ...

Comparing abusive usage of both would probably create a more grim story. I see no difference in safety when driving drunk or high, it would be dangerous in any case. I can imagine alcohol is more addictive than marihuana, so that would be a fair point to make. I would be surprised if inhaling smoke in an abusive manner would also not greatly reduce your lifespan though, or induce cancer. I do not know if there is hard evidence for it, but I believe abusive marihuana usage, especially at a young age, is thought to make psychotic episodes more likely (although that could be nonsense). I can imagine that a continuous state of intoxication would have some negative effects on your mental health.

Bottom line: my general feeling was that you were attempting to convince us that marihuana was "safer" than alcohol, but many questions are left unanswered and very little was said about possible negative effects of marihuana. From the start it seemed alcohol was considered to have only negative effects (except it's vague "positive role in society"). An assumption seemed to be made that it is impossible to consume alcohol in a responsible fashion. The association of alcohol with an alcoholic beverage (which people enjoy - often - for the sensory experience) seemed to be completely ignored, yet I believe it's an important factor for the social acceptance of alcoholic beverages and thus alcohol.



(Full disclosure: I don't drink. I've lived with alcoholics, and discovered that I had alcoholics as co-workers and bosses [after they got fired or wound up in rehab]. I've never tried marijuana, though my significant other is a MMJ user. My experience as an observer is that alcohol is a performance enhancer for stupid, and that's the last thing American society currently needs, but that's just the data I personally have collected.)

It's my opinion that Levitt should have lost his "Think Like a Freak" badge for his comments on this episode where he said that the good caused by alcohol outweighed the bad by orders of magnitude...apparently backed up by nothing but his own opinion.

While responsible use of alcohol certainly exists (BTW, "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'"), the social costs of alcohol are massive, and it was the relative social costs that was the topic of conversation. On the opposite side of the scale from those nebulous societal benefits (what the hell are those, anyway), you'd need to balance such costs of the diseases that alcohol causes and/or exacerbates, death and injury due to drunk driving (tell the literally thousands of non-drinking victims about those wonderful societal benefits of alcohol), and the role of alcohol in crime. For starters.

Maybe the case could be made that alcohol is a net positive. I don't know. I wouldn't listen to me on the topic, because I'm incredibly biased, and I look at liquor stores with the same disgust as most people (including myself) would look at a heroin pusher at a playground. But Levitt's statement pissed me off because he seemed to be substituting his own bias, or societal views (that somehow, America "needs" alcohol), for "thinking like a freak": to seriously look at data, and do the hard work of trying to balance the positives with the very real damage that's done, every day, both to people that drink, and to the people that get in their way. David Nutt (the British doctor featured in the podcast) was doing that sort of work, and got fired for trying to think like a freak. Levitt, here, represented nothing but the conventional wisdom.

So I'm calling you out, Levitt. Live up to your own standards.



i personally dont smoke, but i am not against what ever someone would want to do, but I dont condone the activity.
We also have to use common sense hear, there is no way to ban Mary J or beer.
We should just let people do what they want if they dont harm others.