Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) looks back proudly at his efforts, alongside Nancy Reagan, to “create a hostility to drug use” in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, Sessions was not pleased by President Obama’s recent comments about the relative hazards of marijuana and alcohol, as he explained to Attorney General Eric Holder during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today:
I have to tell you, I’m heartbroken to see what the president said just a few days ago. It’s stunning to me. I find it beyond comprehension….This is just difficult for me to conceive how the president of the United States could make such a statement as that….Did the president conduct any medical or scientific survey before he waltzed into The New Yorker and opined contrary to the positions of attorneys general and presidents universally prior to that?
Sessions, by contrast, clearly did his homework. He rebutted Obama’s observation that marijuana is safer than alcohol by citing a renowned expert on substance abuse:
Lady Gaga says she’s addicted to it and it is not harmless.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Image: Senate Judiciary Committee)
I have been covering drug policy for about 25 years, and I am still sometimes startled by what passes for an argument among prohibitionists. What should we conclude from this sample of one about the hazards posed by marijuana? That it can be taken to excess, like every other fun thing on the face of the planet? That some people say they have trouble consuming it in moderation? Didn’t we know both of those things before Dr. Gaga’s earthshaking discovery?
More to the point, what does the possibility of addiction tell us about the truth of the statement Obama made—i.e., that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol? After all, “less dangerous” does not mean “harmless.” As Holder observed, “any drug used in an inappropriate way can be harmful,” and “alcohol is among those drugs.” To evaluate relative hazards, we have to dig a little deeper.
According to one widely cited study, based on data from the National Comorbidity Survey, “dependence” is nearly 70 percent more common among drinkers than it is among pot smokers. So even by this measure, marijuana looks less dangerous. That’s without considering differences in acute toxicity, driving impairment, and the long-term effects of heavy consumption, all of which weigh strongly in marijuana’s favor.
Gaga was not the only authority cited by Sessions. He also mentioned former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, chairman of the anti-pot group Project SAM, who according to the senator “says the president is wrong on this subject.” Yet here is what Kennedy said during a recent debate on CNN with my Reason colleague Nick Gillespie:
I agree with the president. Alcohol is more dangerous.
Sessions was on firmer ground when he pressed Holder to admit that “if marijuana is legalized for adults, it makes it more available for young people.” As I’ve said before, it is likely that legalization in Colorado and Washington will be accompanied by an increase in underage consumption. While the newly legal marijuana stores are not allowed to serve anyone younger than 21, there will be a certain amount of leakage from adults to “minors” (who in this case include a bunch of people who in most other respects are considered adults), as there is with alcohol. Buying marijuana may become more difficult for people younger than 21 (assuming the black market eventually withers away), but that does not mean obtaining marijuana will be more difficult. Some teenagers and young adults will get pot by swiping it from parents or older siblings, and some legal buyers will have no qualms about sharing with older teenagers or 20-year-olds (although that will remain illegal). Given this reality, Holder’s response to Sessions’ concern about underage access is a bit troubling:
One of our eight priorities is the prevention of distribution of marijuana to minors. If there’s an indication that marijuana is being distributed to minors, that would require federal involvement….
Young people find ways to get alcohol because adults can have access to it. I’m not sure that we’ll see the same thing here given what we have said with regard to our enforcement priorities.
Holder is referring to the eight issues the Justice Department expects Colorado and Washington to address as the price of federal forbearance, one of which is “preventing the distribution of marijuana to minors.” If that means stopping state-licensed stores from selling marijuana to people younger than 21, it can be accomplished through strict enforcement of the states’ age limits. But if it means preventing 21-year-olds from sharing marijuana with their 19-year-old friends or brothers, it is not a realistic expectation. It is more like an excuse to crack down whenever the president gets tired of sniping by diehard drug warriors like Sessions.