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

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(Photo: Samantha Cohen)

(Photo: Samantha Cohen)

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?

That’s the topic of our latest podcast, “What’s More Dangerous: Marijuana or Alcohol?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, 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.)

As simple a question as this may be, it isn’t so easy to answer empirically. That’s because alcohol is legal, widely available, relatively cheap, and for the most part society smiles upon it — whereas marijuana is generally illegal, less easily available, and often frowned upon. This, of course, is changing, as more places are legalizing marijuana (Colorado and Washington State in the U.S.; Portugal, meanwhile, decriminalized many drugs not long ago.) That said, there is a lot more data on alcohol use than marijuana use, simply because of alcohol’s prevalence.

Working within these limitations, we do our best to address the question of whether alcohol or marijuana is “more dangerous.” Along the way, you’ll hear Steve Levitt‘s views on the relationship between alcohol and crime. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron tells us whether prohibition works, and whether the long-standing belief in marijuana as a gateway drug is legitimate. And you’ll hear from the British psychiatrist David Nutt, a one-time “drug czar” who was fired for criticizing the British government’s decision to reclassify marijuana as a more serious drug. Nutt had come to believe that alcohol (and cigarettes) are, on balance, more dangerous than marijuana and other drugs. He and his colleagues calculated the “harm score” of various drugs, taking into account everything from physical damage to lost productivity. As you can see here, alcohol came out at the very top — in large part, to be sure, because of its prevalence:

Nutt

Nutt is, however, realistic about the everlasting appeal of alcohol:

NUTT: Most of my professional career, I have been trying to find ways of treating alcoholism and helping people deal with the problems of alcohol dependence and alcohol withdrawal, and trying to find an antidote to alcohol. And I realize now that’s impossible. And it occurred to me a while back that maybe we’re asking the wrong question — rather than try to solve the problem of alcohol, why don’t we find an alternative to alcohol which doesn’t cause problems. Find a safe alternative, a drug which makes you pleasantly intoxicated, but which does not cause addiction, does not rot your brain, your liver or your guts, etc.

That’s why Nutt and his colleagues have been working on a synthetic alcohol product, as well as an alcohol antidote, a “sober pill”:

NUTT: So the idea would be you would have this safe alcohol that you could drink and have fun. But you could also take an antidote that would block its effects. So you would sober up within half an hour if you took a pill. And that would mean that you were perfectly, absolutely normal and you could drive home quite safely.


Pete

I understand y'all were focusing on dangers, but what about second hand smoke externalities of public marijuana smoke?
How do these factor in, they could be as simple as the unpleasantness of the smoke, or a serious as allergic reactions to the smoke.

Les

I think people should be aware of their limits. I mean you know yourself if you have an addictive personality & can't handle the effects of things that are easily addictive. I'm sure most of the population at one point in their life have tried things such as alcohol, pot, cigarettes & even taken prescription medication when it wasn't really necessary. If it causes problems in your life such as putting others in danger or being unproductive or problems at your job or so on then you should make a conscious effort to avoid these things out obviously you will bring on more trouble than it's worth.

If you can as a responsible adult make good decisions on how to use these things without it effecting your everyday life in a negative way then I see nothing wrong with having a glass of wine or whatever it is you prefer. The problem is that even as grown adults there are a lot of people that don't make good decisions but with that being said they will have to pay the price in one way or another eventually.

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corvi42

You speculated that the high "harm score" for alcohol may be due to its prevalence. Couldn't this be tested, and then all scores normalized on a per-capita basis? Was this not already done in the research that produced these scores? It seems this would be simple to check and only slightly more complicated to calculate.

Barry Kotek

Dr. Bob discovered the substitute years ago, its called having faith. Its called love. AA may not work for for everyone. What matters is that if it works fine for you.

Frank T

I am curious as to how and why ecstasy, LSD, and mushrooms are less harmful to users and society than marijuana?