Daniel Pryor challenges those who would ban cannabis, comparing the harm caused by legal alcohol and illegal marijuana.
It’s not often that a free market anarchist dedicates a piece to exploring the harmful effects of alcohol upon the individual and society. But doing so is crucial to fully understanding the mindset of those who oppose the legalisation of marijuana. They can be divided into two broad camps: the misguided but ideologically consistent who are in principle for alcohol prohibition, and the more reasonable but inconsistent who wrongly consider marijuana’s net effects to be more damaging than alcohol. I will discuss why the second group are mistaken, allowing for only one conclusion; if you oppose cannabis legalisation, you should also oppose alcohol legalisation. Once this is acknowledged, the Morris Sheppard’s of this world must contend with the 99.2% of Britons that drink alcohol: people who possess at least a modicum of respect for self-ownership and individual liberty.
First and foremost, alcohol undeniably has a deleterious effect on an individual’s health and, as a consequence, on society’s healthcare expenditure. As long as socialised medicine exists in the United Kingdom, taxpayers must bear the consequences of individuals’ lifestyle choices. Alcohol’s annual cost to the NHS is approximately £2.7 billion: numerical proof of the fact that alcohol consumption increases the risk of numerous preventable illnesses. Yet the jury is still very much out on cannabis.
Whilst there are some studies citing a link between cannabis smoking and lung cancer, one of the largest studies of its kind contradicts this entirely, and there is even evidence that smoking marijuana could cut the risk of certain cancers. Average health costs per alcohol user have recently been estimated at over eight times as much as the equivalent cannabis user.
There have been no reported deaths from marijuana overdoses, yet 188 people died from alcohol overdoses during 2010 alone. Admittedly, there are conflicting opinions on the question of cannabis causing mental illness, but again no consensus has been reached. Overall, the evidence for the damaging health effects of marijuana use is hotly debated. Harm associated with alcohol use is not.
The same certainty can be ascribed to the causal link between alcohol and crime. Alcohol Concern has previously highlighted that, as well as alcohol-related crime costing the taxpayer £7.3 billion per annum, nearly half of all victims of violent crime “described their assailant as being under the influence of alcohol at the time” (Home Office Study). Most readers will find that their own anecdotal evidence points to alcohol being a major factor in causing people to commit violent acts. Meanwhile, in the words of drug use researcher Paul J. Goldstein, attempts to link violent behaviour to cannabis “have now been largely discredited”. The same anecdotal evidence from readers is likely to concur with Goldstein’s judgement: that the notion of ‘reefer madness’ is madness in itself.
Negative social effects of alcohol are also well-documented. Many studies have drawn attention to the prevalence of alcohol in cases of domestic violence, whilst researchers have thus far failed to establish a meaningful connection between cannabis use and household aggression. Relationships can also be affected by alcoholism in other ways, ranging from low libido to loss of emotional trust. Whilst there can be negative social effects of smoking cannabis, they are not of the same magnitude as those of alcohol.
Environmental damage is another area in which alcohol trumps cannabis. A 2010 investigation by Professor David Nutt et al. found that the environmental damage inflicted by alcohol is far more severe than that of cannabis. For example, every gallon of tequila produced generates 18 gallons of liquid waste, which can make soil unfit for farming when released without treatment. Conversely, legalising cannabis would move production out into the open, reducing energy usage from artificial light systems.
The case that alcohol causes more overall harm than marijuana is cast-iron. Tax revenues and the political difficulty of abandoning centuries of tradition are therefore the only obstacles to imprisoning people for their booze. Those who cite tax revenues as their raison d’être for keeping alcohol legal should legalise cannabis for the same reason. This leads to only one logical conclusion for those who would arrest cannabis users.
Prohibitionist extraordinaire Peter Hitchens states that he has “no principled opposition to alcohol prohibition”, and this uniformity of belief is (whilst utterly flawed) at least consistent. A totem for the anti-drug lobby in the UK, he is representative of an absurd ideological position. In order to argue against cannabis legalisation, one must also accept that in an ‘ideal’ world, alcohol should be banned too.