Why Alcohol is Legal Federally and Marijuana is Not

During the second Republican playground shouting match debate, Carly Fiorina had some words to say about alcohol and marijuana:

We are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having a beer. It’s not.

Fiorina is exactly right, one way or the other. Let’s investigate further to determine why marijuana and alcohol are treated differently by the law. We’ll compare marijuana and alcohol in terms of danger to self and danger to others.

In terms of danger to self, alcohol poisoning kills six people a day in the United States. But there are other health concerns related to over-drinking. According to the CDC:

Excessive alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) each year in the United States from 2006 – 2010, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years.

So alcohol does some real damage. But Fiorina is right: alcohol does not cause anywhere near the amount of damage marijuana causes. Not even close. Last year alone, exactly zero people died from marijuana poisoning. In fact, it is impossible to overdose on marijuana, so exactly zero people have ever died from marijuana poisoning.

But what about harm to others and to society? Again, the comparison is not even close. Driving under the influence of alcohol is far more dangerous than driving while high on marijuana, though of course neither is safe. As for violent behavior, alcohol has long been connected to violent, aggressive, and anti-social behaviors. Marijuana, on the other hand, has long been associated with giggle fits, the munchies, and meaningless “profound” conversations.

All in all, I think it is pretty clear from all metrics that alcohol and marijuana are, like Fiorina said, quite different. Marijuana seems pretty straightforwardly safer, both for individuals and society. That doesn’t mean that irresponsible use of either substance is beneficial for anyone. But we’re talking about the law here. No one can successfully argue that alcohol is safer than marijuana. Abusing alcohol is far less safe than abusing marijuana. The law should not encourage either, but right now we imprison people for years for even having marijuana while inveterate drunks have the freedom to continue getting DUI after DUI. It would be more consistent, if we are to continue prohibiting marijuana use, for us to also make alcohol (and tobacco for that matter) illegal as well. To the extent that we are not willing to do that, our legal code remains contradictory and irrational.