According to HG.org, one of the very first online law and government information sites, “first offense simple possession of marijuana or underage possession of alcohol criminal charges usually do not carry heavy penalties in and of themselves.” However, the real penalty occurs when the sentenced citizen leaves the courtroom; this penalty is a criminal record.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Barack Obama reflected on his past smoking marijuana. “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and 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,” the president candidly said during the interview. Unsurprisingly, the refreshingly honest president is not alone in his views about the two drugs. A few months after the in-depth interview, the Pew Research Center released a poll revealing that 69 percent of Americans believe alcohol is more harmful to people’s health than marijuana. Dr. Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, told CBS News that if teens are going to experiment, he considers alcohol much more dangerous to their developing minds and bodies than marijuana.
In a provocative piece written for the Times, Carroll explored the risks of abusing the two popular substances. While Carroll did not advocate underage users trying either one, he said that overall, alcohol is more detrimental to one’s body. As the investigative professor cited in his article, a 2013 case-control study found that marijuana use increased the odds of being in a fatal crash by 83 percent. However, combining alcohol and drug use increased the odds of a fatal crash by “more than 2,200 percent.” That’s a large chunk of percent added just from the addition of a seemingly innocent poison.
And the numbers don’t lie. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that “nearly 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.” However, according to Robert Gable, an American scientist, “no recorded cases of overdose deaths from cannabis have been found in extensive literature reviews.”
The gap between alcohol and marijuana deaths is because marijuana is considered an herb, while alcohol “is a poison and your digestive system is really the only part of your body even remotely prepared to handle it” (Heddleston). Kim Bellware of The Huffington Post reports that “drinking a mere 10 times the normal amount of alcohol within 5 or 10 minutes can prove fatal, whereas smoking or eating marijuana might require something like 1,000 times the usual dose to cause death.” Why is a drug that causes way less deaths than a substance that is prominent in many U.S. cities more heavily regulated and scrutinized than a substance that is the cause of thousands of drunk-driving deaths and accidents and countless health problems for Americans? Anyone with eyes can see that comparing alcohol and marijuana cons constitutes a big difference; big enough to call some attention to the contradictory laws we have in place today regarding the two popular vices.
The Guardian reported that in July 2015, “Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 men and women convicted for nonviolent drug offenses,” in turn “doubling the number of prisoners he will have freed early through executive action during his presidency.” Our own president pardoning people convicted of petty drug crimes illustrates what’s wrong with our criminal justice system; just because a person possesses and smokes marijuana does not mean he or she is a threat to society. After 6 years in office, Obama has granted commutations for 89 prisoners, including 79 this year, which is more than any president since Lyndon Johnson.
“These men and women were not hardened criminals,” Obama said in his announcement. “But the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced for life for nonviolent drug offenses. So their punishments didn’t fit the crime.”
According to the article, nearly all the prisoners were sentenced on charges linked to the possession or distribution of crack or cocaine. Even more interesting: two of the inmates were serving sentences of more than 20 years for possession with intent to distribute marijuana.
“We’re thrilled to see that more folks serving excessively long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses are going home,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Obama’s focus and concern for non-violent drug crimes reveals the disconnect between marijuana and alcohol related jail and prison sentences.
And the forgiving president isn’t the only one calling attention to the U.S.’s harsh marijuana-related sentences. According to the Dallas Morning News, on Jan. 6, 2016, a majority of Dallas City Council members announced that they want the Dallas police to test a pilot program that would ticket people caught with marijuana instead of arresting them. Under the six-month pilot program for cite and release, “police would write a citation with a court date for a person caught with four ounces or less of marijuana.” The person’s punishment would ultimately be decided by a judge. The program will save time and allow police to focus on violent crimes. Members commented that the implementation of the program puts the city in line with a national movement to legalize marijuana and treat drug offenses less harshly.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown said arrests for marijuana possession make up only 2 percent of the police department’s total arrests each year. According to the article, the police chief estimated that cite and release could save about 30 minutes per encounter with a suspect; time that is valuable as the police department tries to lower response times.
Will Dallas’ push for less harsh punishment towards marijuana-related offenses encourage other cities in the U.S. to follow in its footsteps?
If policymakers were to use evidence-based approaches to forming drug policy, they’d find that they have overestimated the risks of cannabis, while also underestimating the dangers of consuming alcohol. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Scientific Reports, researchers studied the amount of a drug a loyal user would normally consume and compared that to the amount that would kill the average non-drug using person. The researchers found that marijuana is “about 114 times safer than alcohol.”
Lucas Snipes, a writer from Los Angeles, states in an article that scientists have conducted studies to discover a lethal dose of marijuana, but have been unable to land on any identifiable amount. In fact, CNN informed people on its blog that animals who consumed 30% of their entire body weight in marijuana showed no adverse side effects. Alcohol, on the other hand, can easily prove to be fatal, and fast.
“You can die binge-drinking five minutes after you’ve been exposed to the alcohol,” said Ruben Baler, a health scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (Snipes).
Besides being fatal, alcohol causes lasting damage to one’s alcohol-susceptible body. Joe Brownstein, a freelance science and medical journalist, confirms that the long-term effects of drinking heavily are prominent.
“Excess alcohol is going to lead to very severe consequences, and chronic excess alcohol is the most likely to lead to a lot of threatening issues,” said Gary Murray, acting director of the Division of Metabolism and Health Effects at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (Brownstein).
Threatening issues such as alcoholic liver disease, which can progress to fibrosis of the liver, which in turn can potentially lead to liver cancer, are a few of the dangers of alcohol Murray describes. The effects of chronic marijuana use, however, are not as well established. While early studies revealed some evidence linking marijuana to lung cancer, subsequent studies have debunked that association.
Baler said it’s unclear why marijuana smoke does not have the same result as tobacco smoke on the lungs, but the health scientist contributes the differing effects to the beneficial compounds in marijuana smoke that supposedly cancel out the ill effects.
If lawmakers were to look at the cool hard facts, the truth would be obvious: marijuana is scientifically proven to be less dangerous and harmful to one’s body than alcohol, and it’s time jail and prison sentences reflect that. No person deserves to be in prison for 20+ years for a marijuana charge, especially when legal alcohol brings more consequences upon society. As Bob Marley once said, “Herb is the healing of a nation, alcohol is the destruction.”
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