A new study confirms what supporters of marijuana legalization have been saying all along: Marijuana is far safer than alcohol, and should be regulated as such.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, looked to determine how deadly seven illicit and licit drugs were by comparing the amount it takes to kill someone to the amount most people typically use. By this methodology, alcohol came up as the deadliest, with the smallest gap between individual exposure and a deadly dose. Marijuana, meanwhile, was the only drug to fall into the “low risk” category, as it was about 114 times less deadly than alcohol.
The other drugs involved in the study, in order of most to least deadly, were heroin, cocaine, tobacco, ecstasy, and methamphetamine. The findings were based solely on the danger of the substances, and didn’t account for other factors that go into drug use. The researchers said their findings don’t point to moderate alcohol consumption posing a higher risk than heroin use. “Much of the harm from drug use is not inherently related to consumption, but is heavily influenced by the environmental conditions of the drug use.” For heroin users, these could include dirty needles and unregulated supplies.
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The findings support previous research showing that it takes more weed than anyone can smoke at once to be deadly. According to a 1988 Drug Enforcement Administration brief, it would take “20,000 to 40,000 times as much marijuana as is contained in one marijuana cigarette” to kill a person. By comparison, it only takes about 15 shots within three to four hours — raising blood-alcohol content to .35 percent and higher — to kill a 160-pound man.
“The results confirm that the risk of cannabis may have been overestimated in the past,” the researchers wrote, while also noting the risk of alcohol may have been underestimated. Indeed, marijuana is classified under the Controlled Substances Act as a Schedule 1 drug (the strictest category), defined as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule 1 drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules.”
But not only is it less deadly than alcohol, its use has also been linked to a lower risk of domestic violence, car crashes, and crime rates. All of those rates, it can be said, are the opposite when it comes to alcohol. In fact, alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., with 88,000 deaths each year, and it accounts for 31 percent of all driving fatalities.
So how is it that the government has gotten this backward? In their paper, the researchers said that when it came to assessing the risk of illicit drugs, a lot of it was based more on anecdotal evidence than qualitative and quantitative analyses, meaning their classifications are based more on “educated guesses” than scientific data. “Currently, [the results] point to risk management prioritization toward alcohol and tobacco rather than illicit drugs,” the researchers wrote, while the low risk of cannabis suggests “a strict legal regulatory approach rather than a current prohibition approach.”
As of Tuesday, Alaska became the third state to legalize recreational marijuana, along with Colorado and Washington. Aside from the aforementioned benefits, supporters also argue that legalization would bring about more tax revenue for states; lower petty marijuana arrests, which disproportionately affect minorities; and it would divert any money spent on enforcement to prevention and care. All of this could be done without the marketing or promotion that alcohol gets, thus limiting encouragement of its use. Adding public health initiatives to that mix would also ensure a population-wide understanding that marijuana consumption, like everything else, still poses a risk if it’s used excessively — minors, especially, face psychiatric risks.
Source: Lachenmeier D, Rehm J. Comparative risk assessment of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other illicit drugs using the margin of exposure approach. Scientific Reports. 2015.