This fall, voters in Oregon and Washington will decide whether to legalize marijuana.
But it would go one step further: The Oregon ballot measure would allow people to grow their own marijuana. In both campaigns, there's no shortage of claims about the drug. Many are comparing marijuana to alcohol.
To Paul Stanford, this isn't really a question. "Marijuana by any measure is much safer," he says.
Stanford is the architect of Oregon's marijuana legalization initiative. He says it's hypocritical for government to allow people to use alcohol but not marijuana.
"To take this substance that's safer than alcohol and say it's illegal, and these other substances aren't, destroys the credibility of other valid warnings about the dangers of substance abuse," Stanford says.
Indeed, statistics bear out the claim that alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana. According to the Centers for Disease Control, thousands of people die each year in Oregon and Washington from alcohol-related diseases. It's hard to find any evidence of anyone ever dying from using too much marijuana.
Meanwhile, hundreds die in the Northwest each year in highway accidents in which alcohol was a factor. A far lower percentage of motor vehicle fatalities are blamed on illegal drugs of any kind. But that isn't necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison, since alcohol is widely available and consumed a lot more than pot.
Tom Parker of the Portland anti-substance abuse group Lines for Life says if marijuana is legalized, you'll see more problems blamed on its use.
"Anytime with alcohol, or marijuana, or anything else, if you have availability, you have opportunity," he says.
And Parker says legalizing pot would open the doors, big time, for people to use it. Especially teenagers, with their still developing brains. And he says people who don’t even use the drug could feel the consequences.
"I don't know about you, but the thought of someone driving down I-5 under the influence of marijuana is a frightening one," Parker says.
Opponents of legalizing the drug also say that pro-pot groups downplay its effects on the body. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says chronic marijuana use can lead to decreased brain functions.
Andrea Barthwell of the American Society of Addiction Medicine says pot can be just as debilitating as alcohol.
"It certainly depends upon how an individual is using it," she says. "So if you're going to compare someone who has alcoholism to someone who is chronically and severely dependent on marijuana, they'd probably stack up in about the same way."
Oregon pro-pot campaigners believe the claim that marijuana is safer than alcohol so much, they put it into the actual text of their initiative. But their Washington state counterparts are more reserved in their arguments in favor of legalizing pot. In fact, many marijuana activists criticize Initiative 502 as too conservative.
Allison Holcomb directs the Washington pot initiative campaign. She says yes, you could say that marijuana is safer than alcohol. But, she says, "I think that that can be a confusing message because it suggests that perhaps we think it's a good idea for people to use marijuana. And that's clearly not the message that our campaign is trying to get across."
Beyond the public health issues related to pot, the initiatives raise larger policy questions, of how legalizing marijuana compares to ending the prohibition on alcohol. Libertarian vice-presidential candidate Jim Grey says these initiatives would cut out the illegal trade in the drug.
"Today you do not see Mexican drug cartels raising illegal vineyards in our national forests in competition with Robert Mondavi," he says. "They could, but there's no money in it. But today of course they're raising marijuana all the time."
But the claim that legalizing marijuana would undermine illegal drug traffickers is hard to prove. No state has ever voted to do this before.
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