Editor’s note: Dan Riffle is a former assistant prosecutor and the director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, the primary financial backer of the 2012 campaign to regulate marijuana in Colorado.
(CNN) — Anti-marijuana crusaders like Kevin Sabet, while well-intentioned, are promoting policies that lead to more violence and disease in our society. In his recent CNN.com op-ed, Sabet argues we should keep marijuana illegal. But as long as marijuana remains illegal, profits from sales go to criminals and drug cartels, and adults will continue to be punished for using a substance less harmful than currently legal drugs.
Confused? Let’s back up. For more than 80 years, our government has spent tens of billions of taxpayer dollars fighting a war against marijuana. We arrest three-quarters of a million adults every year, 87% for simple possession rather than production or sales of marijuana. Courtrooms turn into assembly lines churning out probationers — mostly minorities — with convictions that will make it virtually impossible to find employment.
The result? Marijuana is universally available, used by almost half of Americans at some point in their lives, and we’ve enriched murderous drug cartels fueling violence in Mexico that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.
Of course, we’ve been down this road before. During alcohol prohibition in the 1930s, federal agents raided speakeasies and busted barrels of illegally produced and imported booze. Meanwhile, bootleggers made money hand over fist, empowering criminals like Al Capone to turn Chicago into an urban war zone. And much like with marijuana today, even under alcohol prohibition most Americans who wanted a drink had no problem finding one.
Today, marijuana prohibition has proven itself just as disastrous a public policy failure as alcohol prohibition before it. Yet despite all the obvious similarities between the two, there’s one key difference: Marijuana is dramatically safer than alcohol.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, excessive alcohol use is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death. In a typical year, there are roughly 25,000 alcohol-induced deaths in the United States, most from long-term consequences like liver disease and some from acute alcohol poisoning brought on by binge drinking.
Marijuana, on the other hand, does not cause overdose deaths and comes with far fewer long-term health consequences. A 2009 Canadian study determined the annual health-related costs associated with alcohol are more than eight times greater per user than with marijuana. And, according to the Institute of Medicine, people who use marijuana are far less likely to become dependent than those who drink alcohol.
Even if you don’t drink, alcohol can kill you. Federal agencies report that 40% of violent crimes in the U.S. are linked to alcohol use, whereas those same agencies report that marijuana users usually do not commit violent crimes. Alcohol plays a role in a third of all emergency room visits. As a prosecuting attorney, I often had police confess to me how much they loathed arresting drunks, given how often the situation escalated to violence. I never fielded similar complaints about marijuana consumers.
The irony is that these perverse policies are cheered on by organizations with names like “Save Our Society” that seem to believe chaos will somehow ensue if adults are no longer punished for using marijuana. The reality is that by punishing adults who would rather use marijuana, we’re encouraging them to instead use alcohol — a more dangerous and harmful, but legal, drug. Public policy should be geared toward reducing violence and disease, not maximizing them.
There is a better way. Polling shows a majority of Americans want marijuana taxed and regulated. A growing number of states are bucking our federal government’s policy of absolute marijuana prohibition, and the Department of Justice recently signaled it will not challenge state laws that regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana.
By doing so, we can take marijuana away from criminals and cartels and put it in the hands of licensed businesses. Obviously, those businesses should be subject to sensible rules ranging from where and when they can operate and who is able to invest in them, to restrictions on advertising.
Don’t believe it could work? In 2009, Colorado’s medical marijuana industry exploded, prompting the state to put in place the kinds of regulations I’ve just outlined. According to CDC data on youth drug use, from 2009 to 2011 — a time when youth marijuana use increased nationally — the percentage of Colorado teens using marijuana dropped more than any other state in the country and is now below the national average.
Marijuana is safer than alcohol; let’s treat it that way. Adults who would prefer to use marijuana instead of alcohol should be free to do so. Just as significant, the law enforcement resources spent making those three-quarters of a million arrests could instead be devoted to preventing and solving real crimes.
In other words, regulating marijuana would make America a safer, healthier nation.