Debate Forum 01/28

DEBATE CENTER: Is it high time for more discussion about alcohol and marijuana?

Illustration: Chris Britt

By Alex Culpepper

 The 1936 movie “Reefer Madness” is a cult classic that portrays the lives of urban youth getting hooked on marijuana and becoming raving lunatics, who in some cases go insane, commit suicide or even kill someone else. The movie is viewed as propaganda from a movement intent on criminalizing the “evil weed” because of its role in the jazz and marijuana subcultures, perceived at the time to be bringing America to its knees.

At the heart of the movement was Harry Anslinger, the U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics, who made it his mission to criminalize marijuana and its users. He did influence Congress, and his success took the form of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 [sic]. That law made marijuana illegal for everyone.

In the years since, doctors have studied it and lawmakers have enacted policy for offenders, yet attitudes have changed – even among high-profile government officials. President Barack Obama recently said in an interview with The New Yorker although the use of the drug is a “waste of time” and a “vice,” it’s really no worse than consuming alcohol. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s a different direction than Anslinger’s, Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign and the first President Bush’s escalation on the war on drugs. The president’s words are comforting to people who want marijuana decriminalized, and comparisons between alcohol and marijuana are not in short supply. The president’s words, however, are not sitting well with everyone, and debate about his claim is not in short supply.

Supporters of Obama’s claim say marijuana is not a dangerous drug and no more likely to create the types of public health problems alcohol does. Supporters say claims about marijuana’s addictiveness and tendency to cause psychosis are wildly exaggerated and, unlike alcohol, overdosing on marijuana is nearly impossible. Supporters also note health-related costs per user are lower for marijuana users than for alcohol users. They further say marijuana is proven medically to alleviate a number of symptoms across a variety of illnesses, such as cancer. In the end, supporters say lighting up a joint after a day at the office is no different than having a couple of cocktails on the porch.

Opponents of Obama’s claim say, “not so fast now.” While they acknowledge studies on marijuana use are limited, which also is a problem, what information is out there is not so comforting. They say smoking marijuana deposits great amounts of tar in a user’s lungs, and those chemicals are linked to lung cancer, something alcohol is not linked to. Heavy use of marijuana, they say, causes psychotic reactions and can produce hallucinations and paranoia and can trigger schizophrenia in users who have a family history of the illness. Use even leads to brain abnormalities and will even lower a user’s IQ, opponents say.

Some experts think the alcohol/marijuana debate is really not helpful because each substance is so different from the other and comparisons are difficult to make. Even so, people are debating it and it is a big selling point for marijuana legalization efforts. Marijuana advocates continue to produce studies and data showing it to be just another recreational relaxer like alcohol, but the other side says it is not the benign substance as advertised and not a safe alternative to alcohol.

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Is marijuana use as safe as – or even safer than – alcohol use?

Debate Left: Mariwhiners

 By Ben Tomkins


I’ve noticed an interesting and wonderful trend that has been slowly blooming in our fair society since the election of Barack Obama. It would seem, on major social issues, the average citizen has become far more disdainful of arguments against what is demonstrably true. Of course, there are many issues upon which compelling grounds for disagreement exist like health care and such. However, when it comes to things like gay marriage and marijuana use, the cases of the opposition are so unconvincing and scientifically bereft most of us simply don’t have time for the discussion any more. At the very worst, we need only await the inevitability of the steamroller of time to flatten them under the weight of future, more enlightened generations.

In the meantime, let’s examine what President Obama said.

“I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

Alright then. So he has made the following assertions:

It is a vice – that is to say, using marijuana is less moral than not using it, but not so immoral and detrimental to society it necessitates the intervention of the state.

Its use is morally similar to that of cigarettes.

The effects of its usage result in no more personal or social damage than alcohol.

Regarding the first point, it’s unimpeachable in and of itself because it’s simply a premise. Saying he’s wrong based exclusively on his audacity to propose it is a method of reasoning typically reserved for the church, which grants itself a license to declare by fiat anything it wants because they think their book is a cracking good read. I think perhaps we can leave the God thing out of this as our Founding Fathers did when they wrote the Constitution.

Number two is the only point that lends credence to the Drug-Free America Foundation’s complaint “his laissez-faire attitude about legalization has drug policy and prevention experts scratching their heads in confusion as to why the president will not give clear guidance on this important issue.”

Agreed. As far as the affairs of state are concerned, the comparative morality or immorality of any thing depends on whether or not it inflicts harm upon others. And if so, how much harm and to whom? In that sense, the question of the morality of cigarettes as compared to marijuana is, albeit awkwardly phrased, merely a simulacrum of the third point about alcohol. Given the social effects of alcohol are unimpeachably more detrimental than those of cigarettes, it’s kind of a pointless thing to say. If alcohol is the upper threshold of drug effects that harm others we are willing to tolerate, then it is the only worthwhile comparison for judging the social morality, i.e. public detriment, of marijuana.

Therefore, the question before us is only that of the third point. We’re done with Aristotle by the way. I would prefer to handle this by humorously patronizing the opposition rather than by way of technical deconstruction. Besides, the people who will agree with me from here on out are probably stoned, the people who won’t are probably drunk and those who remain either don’t care or are Evangelicals who don’t have a single mote of hope of following a logic-based discourse anyway.

The individuals who cite the fact weed contains four times as much tar as a cigarette as evidence it shouldn’t be legalized are complete and utter idiots. Scotch contains an infinitely greater – and far more delicious, I might add – amount of burnt dirt than vodka and I don’t hear anyone complaining. Basically, if I can legally suck on the tailpipe of my car, we as a society have firmly established the willful inhaling of carcinogens is a birthright.

The notion weed has anything remotely resembling the negative and destructive social behaviors caused by alcohol is laughable. Weed results in docile, passive members of society who lay around their living room for one to seven hours with a penchant for listening to Phish. Alcohol results in belligerent, uninhibited assholes with a penchant for automotive transportation. Although I will concede any behavior resulting in Trey Anastasio being given credit for being a serious musician is very nearly the moral and social equivalent of vehicular homicide, it’s not quite so visceral.

A recent study conducted by the Harvard Medical School demonstrated the claim weed causes schizophrenia is as false as the idea vaccines cause autism. It doesn’t. Read the study. People who continue to repeat this despite things like “facts” are more detrimental to society than alcohol because a sober, rabid nutjob who is more interested in defending their opinions than being an adult and accepting reality has a much better chance of finding their way into a voting booth than a drunk, unless they decide to blow up a clinic.

I don’t really see anything left to go over here, so I’ll leave you with this: Before Colorado legalized weed, certain houses smelled like weed every night when I walked my dog, and most didn’t. After it was legalized, nothing changed, except now we make 25 cents on the dollar off of those houses and their owners couldn’t be happier.

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colo. He hates stupidity, and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of the issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at


Debate Right:  The societal curse of  cannabis: worse than alcohol

 By Dave Westbrock


“I don’t think it (pot) is more dangerous than alcohol,” quoth President Obama recently.  Apparently no one should know more than he, an admitted heavy user of the drug during his high school and college days. Of course, no one will probably ever know how it affected his academic performance, since he has spent enormous amounts of money to keep his records from the public. Nonetheless, such a claim is good fodder for a reasoned debate.

Let us go way back to the ignorant ’50s, when smoking reefers was blatantly illegal, and generally considered a gateway to more serious drugs such as heroin. “Reefer Madness” was a film depiction, initially produced by a church group, to convey the hazards of smoking marijuana.  It was later used satirically by marijuana supporters, using some of the corniness of low budget films of the early ’50s. It purported to show all sorts of bizarre and anti-social illegal behaviors to which cannabis can lead. A further short film sponsored by the Santa Monica Police Department, circa ’70s, while a campy portrayal of a young man deciding whether to take that step in smoking his first joint, is dissuaded when he sees the impact on his peers.

Marijuana use, by its very nature, has as its goal to “get high.” Not so with alcohol.

There are two questions to address. The first is this: Is marijuana use either occasionally or regularly found to be addictive and damaging to health and social norms? Secondly, is there a therapeutic benefit associated with cannabis use in individuals with cancer or chronic pain? In the past several decades, there has been a veritable jihad launched against the tobacco industry by government agencies and NGOs, as well there should, resulting in unprecedented billion dollar legal settlements. Yet, we have two states and the president seemingly ignoring history only recently past.

Since tobacco use is known to be carcinogenic, can the link be made to cannabis? A marijuana cigarette has 20 times the amount of carcinogen as a tobacco cigarette with twice the level of carcinogens (as polyaromatic hydrocarbons) as ordinary tobacco. A 40-year study of Swedish men revealed a doubling of lung cancer risk among heavy users. One study showed a five-fold increased risk of heart attack within the first hour of smoking a joint. In fact, alcohol, used in moderation generally has benefits including increasing HDL cholesterol and reducing blood pressure. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy, a less common cause of congestive heart failure related to excessive alcohol use is a risk, but the more common coronary heart disease is not related to alcohol consumption.

In terms of neurologic and psychiatric risk, several facts are known. Further, a New Zealand study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry revealed the risk of stroke was twice as high in pot users than in those who did not use. And although many in the study were also cigarette smokers, the authors concluded it is the cannabis that is causing the risk and not tobacco. Although in most states cannabis use is still illegal, there is general agreement in childhood and adolescence the psychiatric effects of pot can be catastrophic. Chronic high-utilizers of cannabis tend to be less able to cope with life and are less motivated, which may be a benefit in the society envisioned by the president presiding over a population with nearly 37 percent unemployment and 23 million unemployed.

Although we know the consequences of heavy alcohol use, we cannot foresee the consequences with what we know when and if the widespread use of marijuana becomes part of our culture.

Other effects of chronic cannabis use include reproductive issues with long-known evidence of low sperm counts and erectile dysfunction. Although I treat many men with testicular atrophy, some of whom have similar effects from alcohol, there is no evidence it causes testicular cancer as statistically shown with chronic cannabis use.

In regard to analgesia, most studies do not show significant benefit from the use of cannabis compared to traditional analgesics. In fact, Marinol, an oral THC based analgesic, did not show significant benefit as pain reliever in the experience of a director of a local hospice center. Some individuals, however, may experience relief owing to its tendency to take them out of this world perceptually. And, of course, it is a good excuse to introduce pot into society legally.

It is well known the lure to adolescents and young adults of illicit alcohol – particularly on college campuses – is strong. The argument then is it makes it all the more desirable. But do we want to add yet another intoxicant to the public square? Cannabis is readily, but not widely, available as it would be if it was legalized, and the argument that Prohibition was unsuccessful and led to new crime syndicates is not comparable because in Western culture alcohol has for millennia been both social and ceremonial, particularly so among certain ethnic groups.

It is known tolerance to the dysphoric effects to cannabis exists, and for heavy users to assume the same high after repeated use is progressively less. Although addiction to marijuana does not cause an individual to move on to cocaine, heroin or other drugs, facts are facts.

As a society, we seem to be entering more and more into a self-serving and hedonistic era, in distinction to our ancestors. Unfortunately, cannabis seems to be one vehicle to further that degradation.

Dr. Westbrock has been in private medical practice for 35 years. He was the Republican candidate for the U.S House of Representatives in 1994 and 1996. He has written and lectured extensively on the subject of health care reform and health care policy. He can be reached at




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