“Six people die each day of alcohol poisoning.” That was the headline that ran in news media nationwide earlier this year following the release of a new U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report finding that alcohol poisoning kills more than six Americans each day.
Of course, the finding that drinking alcohol can be lethal isn’t exactly news. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States, including contributing to an estimated one out of every 15 cancer deaths. But what was notable in the latest CDC report wasn’t so much the reality that Americans are drinking themselves to death. The surprising finding was in regard to which consumers were most likely to do so.
Those most likely to imbibe a lethal cocktail are not young adults but middle aged white men. Moreover, thirty percent of those who die from alcohol poisoning do not have a history of excessive alcohol use.
“Death from alcohol poisoning is a serious and preventable public health problem in the United States,” the CDC reports concluded. “A comprehensive approach to the prevention of excessive drinking that includes evidence-based community and clinical prevention strategies is needed to decrease alcohol poisoning deaths and other harms attributable to excessive alcohol use.”
Is pot capable of poisoning consumers in a similar manner? Despite a recent rash of sensational headlines, the answer is definitively ‘no.’ As acknowledged in the British Medical Journal by Dr. Stephen Sidney, associate director for clinical research at Kaiser Permanente and an author of one of the largest studies ever assessing cannabis and its impact on mortality, “No acute lethal overdoses of cannabis are known, in contrast to several of its illegal (for example, cocaine) and legal (for example, alcohol, aspirin, acetaminophen) counterparts.” He adds, “Although the use of cannabis is not harmless, the current knowledge base does not support the assertion that it has any notable adverse public health impact in relation to mortality.”
So why do the two most popular intoxicants share such drastically contradictory safety profiles? For starters, alcohol, unlike cannabis, is a central nervous system depressant that possesses an affinity to the brain’s opioid receptors. This is why the consumption of alcohol depresses the brain’s inhibitory control mechanisms, and why the over-consumption of alcohol may cause respiratory failure, coma, and death. By contrast, consuming cannabis, regardless of quantity, does not depress central nervous system function and is incapable of causing lethal overdose. (In fact, cannabinoids appear to primarily interact with receptors in the body that exist largely for the purpose of maintaining homeostasis — a state of physiological balance and well-being.)
Further, it is well established that alcohol consumption is associated with adverse effects on the body and on behavior. Reports by the World Health Organization and others link alcohol consumption with increased odds of intimate partner violence. This is far from the case with cannabis. In fact, recent studies find that marijuana use is inversely associated with such violent outbursts. Moreover, analyses of the prevalence of alcohol in criminal activity reports that an estimated four out of ten violent victimizations are committed by an offender who had recently been drinking. Cannabis, by contrast, does not typically stimulate reckless or aggressive behavior nor is its use associated with an increased risk of hospitalization.
The toxic effects of alcohol on the body can cause significant long-term health damage and premature death. For instance, drinking alcohol over time is associated with inflammation, scarring, and cirrhosis of the liver. Among women, about 15 percent of breast cancer deaths are linked to alcohol consumption. Not so with pot. Even subjects who regularly inhale cannabis smoke possess no greater risk of contracting cancer than do those who consume it occasionally or not at all, according to a 2015 analysis of six case-control studies, conducted between 1999 and 2012, involving over 5,000 subjects. Recent studies further indicate that subjects’ exposure to pot smoke, even long-term, appears to have, at worst, only nominal adverse pulmonary effects.
Globally, the World Health Organization reports that booze is responsible for a staggering four percent of all deaths worldwide, more than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence. No equivalent global statistics have ever been compiled for cannabis.
Of course, none of these facts are meant to imply that cannabis is innocuous. However, it is self-evident that cannabis’ associated risks are not so great as to warrant the continued arrest of some 600,000 Americans annually for possessing it, nor do they justify the plant’s present status as a Schedule I controlled substance – a classification that equates the purported dangers of pot to be equal to those of heroin. (Alcohol, despite its litany of adverse effects, is unscheduled under federal law, as is tobacco.)
In an environment that celebrates booze, yet repeatedly warns consumers of its potentially lethal consequences, it makes no sense to maintain a public policy in place that continues to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate those who choose to responsibly consume an objectively safer alternative.
Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML — the National Organization for the reform of Marijuana Laws — and also serves as a senior policy advisor for Freedom Leaf, Inc. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013).