Smoking and Drinking

Have you ever wondered about the disparity in the way the law treats alcohol, tobacco and marijuana?

As any police officer will attest, a nasty drunk is far more dangerous than someone zoned out on “weed.” As the scientific literature will confirm, tobacco is many times more harmful than marijuana. Not only has the belief that marijuana is a “gateway drug” proved bogus, but for adults, it is less harmful than either smoking or excessive ingestion of alcohol. (No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose, although if your preferred method of indulging is brownies, I suppose the resulting obesity might get you.)

People with addictive personalities will abuse whatever is at hand–alcohol, drugs, even glue. Should we outlaw glue?

The history of America’s war on drugs is too labyrinthian and too racist to recount here, and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject if you are interested in the whole sordid story. Suffice it to say that our mindless war on weed has made the once-profitable cultivation of hemp illegal, prevented study of marijuana’s medicinal value, and not-so-incidentally ruined countless lives (mostly African-American; black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though both groups use the drug at roughly the same rate.).

But attitudes are finally changing.

In 1969, according to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans thought the drug should be illegal; by 2015, that number had fallen to 44 percent.

After Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana, policymakers began to seriously consider a number of issues–especially pot’s potential to generate tax revenue.

Legalization raises a number of questions with policy implications. For example, how can it be taxed? In 2015, Colorado raised $135 million in taxes and fees from legal sales. Another important question: Will states that stop arresting people for selling or having marijuana save money on policing and reduce their incarceration rates? Some 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2014, according to the FBI; young minority men were disproportionately targeted. Will more children take to smoking weed? As laws relax and the stigma associated with marijuana recedes, people may use more.

A study from Australia suggests some answers to those questions. The authors looked at what consequences we might expect if marijuana were regulated like alcohol and sold to people above the age of 21. They extrapolated their analysis to include the United States, a country with similar cultural behaviors and economies. Here are some of their findings:

  • The U.S. could raise between $4 billion and $12 billion annually by taxing legal marijuana. These numbers are based on a tax levy of about 25 percent, which is what the state of Colorado charges.
  • When people have more access to marijuana (through legal and illegal means) more people use it.
  • Currently, 17 percent of Australians say they do not use cannabis for fear of legal repercussions; 90 percent of those say that access is not the reason.

Access is evidently not a problem for people in either country; several years ago, an American study found that teenagers in Maryland could obtain illegal marijuana (and other drugs) much more easily than they could obtain legal but regulated alcohol. Legalization and regulation similar to that currently in place for liquor stores would probably reduce today’s easy availability.

The authors determined that a tax rate of 25% wasn’t high enough to incentivize a black market. One of the (many) negative consequences of drug prohibition is the fact that it makes an illegal market profitable.

In the U.S., tobacco and alcohol interests have powerful lobbies, so those substances are legal even though they do far more harm than marijuana.

Just to be clear, I don’t advocate prohibition for any of these; we’ve seen how well that works. Substance abuse is a public health problem; it shouldn’t be a matter for the criminal justice system.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we based public policy on evidence and analysis, rather than moralism and money?


  1. If we legalize marijuana, we erase red ink—costs of enforcement, imprisonment, as well as social costs of people unable to find employment or blocked from higher-paying jobs because of criminal records—and replace it with black ink—taxes raised from sales, as well as increased sales of pizzas. (Sorry—I had to say something about that.) That means a “win-win” outcome. Costs of recovery of taxes on sales will be far less than enforcement of criminal statutes. I assert that, but am fairly confident my assertion is supported by the math. And, for full: disclosure, I am co-counsel for the First Church of Cannabis in the lawsuit pending in Marion Superior Court.

  2. I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about legalization. Many of the points above are valid. But one point that is glossed over is that marijuana alters behavior and therefore affects driving, operating machinery, and other skills. Marijuana smoking may not lead to a driver who is dangerous to a police officer but it can definitely lead to a driver who is dangerous on the road. This is also a factor in the discussion. Marijuana is not benign and an increase in use is not a positive thing.

  3. There is no other plant on this planet that will feed you, clothe you, house you, heal you and help you to enjoy life than Cannabis. It challenges and defeats the petroleum, petroleum based chemicals, pharmaceuticals and alcohol that has been foisted off on us to meet our basic needs, all of which have seriously bad side effects. There are over 3,000 peer reviewed and replicated studies showing the safety and efficacy of Cannabis as a medicine and for personal use.

    The biggest mistake Colorado and Washington state have made in relegalization is over taxing, making it not much cheaper than what is available on the black market. Overall crime is down, traffic fatalities (and accidents in general) are down. Prescription drug abuse is down in all 25 states that have relegalized Cannabis in some form or other.

    Indiana currently has some of the worst laws against Cannabis in this nation. We would fare much better were we to get out of people’s personal lives and liberties and relegalize.

  4. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we based public policy on evidence and analysis, rather than moralism and money?”
    Wouldn’t it be nice if we based anything on data and analysis instead of lobbyist preferences?

  5. Dakota, certainly, but we already have robust OUI/DUI laws everywhere.

    And marijuana contributes less to domestic violence than alcohol, which is legal.

  6. Small steps can be helpful. First, we really need to get Pot off the Schedule one drug list. The notion that Pot is one of the worst, most dangerous drugs is absurd. Who really believes that? Once the need to fill beds in “for profit” prisons goes away, we will no longer need to arrest so many people. Comparing Pot to Heroin is akin to comparing booze to cool aid.

  7. Wow; already the comments on this issue are mounting. Mark Small; I find the First Church of Cannabis to be silly and baseless but…if it called attention to the basic issue, more power to you as their co-counsel. May you be victorious!

    Dakota; overindulgence in marijuana, alcohol, prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications can impair driving, walking and thinking abilities. It is the overindulgence that is the problem.

    I worked in a federally funded methadone clinic in the 1970’s; the alcohol treatment section was separate and had few patients. Not yet accepted as being a drug, those with alcohol problems who wanted help didn’t want the stigma of going into a drug treatment facility. There are still many people who do not accept that reasoning; alcohol is a far more dangerous addiction than marijuana.

    I’m glad Sheila referred to the inane connection Indiana lawmakers has made between marijuana and the growing of hemp in this state. The anti-plastic bag fight has just begun, hemp bags could replace plastic due the durability…if only they were available. Per a friend living in California, plastic grocery bags have been outlawed so people are buying permanent plastic bags for continued use…still plastic. The many uses for hemp, a natural substance, would/could be a boon to this state’s economy but small, closed minds prefer to believe someone might light up some hemp…IF they can find any.

    The medical advantages of marijuana are lost in the druggie struggle; cancer rages and glaucoma patients along with other painful, debilitating diseases are ignored and so they suffer.

    Prohibition of alcohol did not work; the number of deaths from “bathtub gin” and illegally produced alcohol has not been reported that I know of. Two Amendments added to the Constitution to prohibit then repeal took time and money which could have been better spent. But SCOTUS is still wasting time and money and continuing to allow big businesses, such as Big Pharma, to make decisions effecting our health and allowing state’s rights to govern what is a controlled substance and preventing the growing of a beneficial crop such as hemp.

    Good luck, Mark Small, please keep us informed. And, Sheila, I know your blog kicks to a new page after 50 comments…did your son set it to go higher? You many need it today.

  8. Ah, another part of our culture where truth must battle with belief. Truth always wins out in the end, but the idiotic battle leaves in its wake wasted time, energy, and effort… and sometimes lives.

  9. Gov Pence increased the penalties for marijauna three years ago so he could get more money from the private prison lobby. That lobby seems to have endless money streams in order to criminalize just about everything and there are governors and state legislators willing to grab that money.

    Your comments copied below sum up the issue in a nutshell:

    “Substance abuse is a public health problem; it shouldn’t be a matter for the criminal justice system.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we based public policy on evidence and analysis, rather than moralism and money?”

  10. We have lost the war on drugs illegal drugs are readily available to even middle school students on the US and their violent proprietors are enforcing their dominance on our streets. They drag in their wake prostitution which looks a lot like modern day slavery. Our dollars gushing into poor South American countries have created prohibition like conditions south of the border. Time for a change. Legalizing marijuana would remove 1/3 of the cartels business about. It seems like the responsible thing to do

  11. You forgot to mention how doctors and dentists have prescribed opoids for pain management for patients. For example, most teens get their wisdom teeth taken out and the dentist will prescribe perocet or something just as lethal and give them a 30 day supply instead of 2 days. That’s is what I believe has created the heroine overdoses not only in Indiana but nationwide. Doctors are over prescribing these dangerous drugs and within 30 days, someone can become addicted. The doctors refuse to refill these so the patients switch to heroine to get that high again.

    As for marijuana, just legalize it and the drug needs to be reclassified from it’s current status among drugs like heroine or cocaine. We’ve all read about how it lowers rates of seizures for patients and controls pain for cancer patients as well. It’s non-addicting so there needs to be more studies about its effectiveness and until this war on drugs is reclassified, more studies can be completed.

  12. I was recently in Colorado (July). My family tries to go out there at least every other year but the last time i think was in 2013. I noticed a stark difference between some of the smaller towns, some who looked like they were on the brink of becoming another ghost town 3 years ago. These same towns had an improvement in infrastructure and beautification efforts, these towns are not tourist towns. The nicest and most colorful building in town were the cannabis store and it appears some more businesses have opened up near them. I dont know if all these improvements are due to the opening of these cannabis stores or the tax money from them but after traveling to some of these areas for 15 years you cant help but notice the significant changes and wonder if cannabis is the correlation.

  13. Dear Ms. Kennedy,

    I am a substance use counselor and an RN. THC is much more carciniogenic than are cigarettes. The average joint sold on the street today has a half life of 72 hours because it is fat soluble. Studies indicate that long after the person smoking THC no longer feels the effects, there are still indications that the THC is affecting their ability to perform tasks at work.

    I can’t say I am against its legalization. I can say, however, that I get frustrated when people minimize how carcinogenic THC is and it’s long term effects on physical and mental health. I, myself, do not consider it “harmless.” Just as I don’t consider motrin, aspirin, or tylenol harmless. All drugs have potentially harmful side effects. THC is not harmless to people.

    And by the way when my wisdom teeth were pulled out in my early 20’s, I was not prescribed opiates. I did get a dry socket after tne 2nd set were removed. That was very painful but an antibiotic quickly resolved that.

  14. Attached below is the rather lengthy Denial for Petition to Reschedule Marijuana. The DEA submitted pages of clinical research outlining its reason for denying the petition to reschedule. I’m not a scientist so I’ll not argue with their research.

    Unfortunately, the DEA does not mention hemp nor does it separate industrial hemp from marijuana, genetically different by chemical make-up with THC levels at or below 1%.

  15. BSH:
    Putting the DEA in charge of deciding whether Marijuana should be classified the same as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc., supposedly with “no known medical benefits,” is analogous to putting the proverbial Fox in charge of guarding the Chicken coup.

    First, nearly every President, since the beginning of the so-called “War on Drugs” and the creation of the DEA, has appointed an avowed and committed anti-drug warrior to head the agency. Nearly everyone of them have firmly believed in their hearts that Marijuana is a gateway drug, and is an evil that must be stamped out at all costs.

    Second, the DEA, and other Law Enforcement agencies at all levels, get millions and millions of dollars every year from the various levels of our government to combat the “evils” of smoking pot. They get all kind of good toys to play “war” with. They get to go around busting into homes in the middle of the night and playing like it’s a real war they are fighting. Some of them get to go undercover and partake in all the things the bad guys do in order to bust the “bad guys.” They get to confiscate fancy cars and money that goes directly to their agencies, and their salaries, through forfeiture laws that are stacked against the average citizen. Many DEA agents and local drug task force agents owe their very livelihood to the war against drugs and marijuana, in particular, being illegal. It’s a self-sustaining industry that ironically depends on drugs being illegal and people continuing to buy and use them to sustain itself. Not to mention all the bodies and income that go to the prison industry.

    Don’t misunderstand, given our nation’s present “law enforcement” centric model of dealing with drugs and drug addiction, there is ironically an actual need for the DEA and Law enforcement agencies to deal with the cartels and drug distribution gangs that are the product and side effect of prohibition. My point is simply that as long as the President, Congress, and the citizens leave it up to the DEA to make the decision, IMO, marijuana will never be reclassified by the DEA as it is against the DEA’s institutional self-interest to do so .

  16. David, for sure, I do not disagree with your understanding of the interdependence of the DEA, the DOJ, and likely other agencies whose very livelihoods may depend on the continuation of the ‘War on Drugs’. Just imagine, what would happen if suddenly the Federal govt declared the ‘War on Drugs’ was successful, the enemy was defeated? Every ‘mom & pop-up’ drug program, every traveling drug rehab consultant, every expert from afar, and the entire cottage industry supported by Federal funds designated for fighting the ‘War on Drugs’ would collapse thereby leaving thousands unemployed. I understand exactly what you wrote and agree.

  17. Approve marijuana for medical use and add it to the list of controlled substances. I have to show photo ID to purchase my 2 mg Diazepam prescription monthly.

  18. First things. Work to separate the difference between industrial hemp and marijuana. There are too many ‘tin political ears’ in Indiana who perhaps unknowingly focus more on the marijuana aspect of Cannabis (whether for medical or recreational use) rather than getting their toes in the door first by working to separate industrial hemp from marijuana. No surprise that marijuana is a hot button in Indiana, one of those issues cloaked in moralism and fueled by images, maybe personal images, of a 20-something-year-old guy stretched on the family room sofa and saying something like, “C’mon, dude, it’s all good.” On the other hand, industrial hemp has no moral values remotely attached. It’s simply an agricultural crop, a form of crop diversification. Focus either on industrial hemp or recreational/medicinal marijuana while keeping in mind that your efforts with industrial hemp have a far greater chance of coming to fruition.

    At present, Kentucky agriculture is running with industrial hemp. Surprisingly enough, the growing hemp industry was spawned by the most unlikely collaboration of politicians who put aside their partisan views and decided to do something good for Kentucky. There is no reason that Indiana cannot do the same.

  19. Has anyone reading this ever actually smoked hemp or know anyone who has? If so; what was the result? What are the actual similarities that qualifies hemp to be restricted from Indiana’s agriculture production due to the possibility of using it in place of marijuana?

    We seem to have strayed from smoking and drinking as the issue today; nothing new for us. I’m sure the majority of us understand and agree with the healthy benefits of not smoking and or inhaling second hand smoke. Although I haven’t heard it referred to in some time; what is “third hand smoke” which was an issue in the not too distant past regarding regulation of smoking areas?

    The laws regulating drinking and driving arrests seem to be put in place as a placebo; they appear to be laws which are not enforced so provide no deterrent to those who are repeatedly arrested. Even those causing death, disability, property damage and total destruction and skyrocketing vehicle insurance coverage too often receive the proverbial “slap on the wrist” and are returned to our streets and highways. A placebo for those who want laws against drinking and driving but rarely fully applied to to those who opt to ignore them.

    We cannot legislate common sense but we do keep trying.

  20. JoAnn:

    I have no first hand experience with having smoked “industrial” hemp. But as us older folks may recall — even though it was before my time, industrial hemp was widely grown in Indiana during WW II as part of the war effort. After the war, even though farmers stopped growing hemp as a crop, the hemp seeds had been scattered in ditches and other areas near the fields where the hemp had been grown by birds and other animals. Hence, especially in Northern Indiana, there were large areas of what was called “ditch weed” growing wild in the 60’s and 70’s, which some enterprising young pot smokers would occasionally go out and try to harvest to either sell or smoke themselves. But either they or their customers were in for a disappointment.

    To make a long story short, it was widely known even in the 60’s that “ditch weed” wouldn’t get you high. It doesn’t contain the amounts of THC and other hallucinogenic properties of the cannabis strains that are grown for smoking. Of course, in spite of the fact it wouldn’t get you high and was basically harmless, “ditch weed” was just as illegal as other strains of cannabis, and police agencies dutiful would go out each year and destroy as much “ditch weed” as they could find. Not sure if the practice continues to this day or not.

  21. David; thanks for the interesting info. Several years ago the son of a friend, living in Oregon, grew a few pot plants in his yard. Someone reported it to police who came and, using a tarp as a carrier, pulled up the few plants, roots and dirt included, wrapped it in the tarp and weighed the entire thing. This, of course, was not the actual weight of the few pot plants but the full weight was listed on his charges which were a high level felony. Don’t know the outcome but sure do remember the police action which the court accepted as legal.

  22. JoAnn: That’s how the “game” is played. Hopefully, your friend’s son obtained a good defense lawyer, who was able to get the charges reduced upon demanding or obtaining a proper weighing of only the actual plant material. It is my recall that Indiana law, at least, wouldn’t permit adding in the dirt balls around the roots to the weight of actual plant material.
    To add a further level of irony to your story, Oregon has now legalized the recreational use of marijuana. Although I’m not familiar with the provisions of Oregon’s law, what your friend’s son was prosecuted for a few years ago would now likely not even be a crime

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