Strained comparisons

“Drugs.” It’s a word like “food.” Encompasses a whole range of things, with a wide variety of impacts on humans.

Oreos and broccoli are both “food.” Yet I would guess that any educated person would say that there’s a difference in what happens if you eat a lot of one, compared to a lot of the other.

And yet, we’ve constantly dealt with public policy that treats “drugs” interchangeably (at least when convenient to do so).

NIDA’s Nora Volkow, whose entire job’s purpose is to find negative aspects to “drugs,” epitomizes this (intentionally) sloppy approach to science and policy.

“Look at the evidence,” Volkow said in an interview on the National Institutes of Health campus, pointing to the harms already inflicted by tobacco and alcohol. “It’s not subtle — it’s huge. Legal drugs are the main problem that we have in our country as it relates to morbidity and mortality. By far. Many more people die of tobacco than all of the drugs together. Many more people die of alcohol than all of the illicit drugs together.

“And it’s not because they are more dangerous or addictive. Not at all — they are less dangerous. It’s because they are legal. . . . The legalization process generates a much greater exposure of people and hence of negative consequences that will emerge. And that’s why I always say, ‘Can we as a country afford to have a third legal drug? Can we?’ We know the costs already on health care, we know the costs on accidents, on lost productivity. I let the numbers speak for themselves.”

We hear this over and over. “We can’t afford a third legal drug. Look at all the costs from alcohol and tobacco.”

Last I heard, marijuana is different than either alcohol or tobacco. Sure you can smoke both marijuana and tobacco (although you don’t have to), but the affects on the lungs are dramatically different and so is the nature of dependency. Sure, both marijuana and alcohol can make you high, but their mechanisms are remarkably different, as are the way they affect behavior.

Why are these the three? Why aren’t we considering the advisability of having the drug caffeine legal, given the societal costs of the other two legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco? Or how about sugar? Certainly sugar is much more dangerous to health and national health costs than marijuana.

The “we can’t afford a third legal drug” is extremely dishonest (and so naturally it’s used by the Kevin Sabet group all the time). Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, caffeine, sugar, khat, heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, etc., are all different. It does no good to crafting public policy to assume that any one of them will have the same effect on society as one of the others.

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