Last month, students at two Colorado universities voted overwhelmingly in support of referenda urging their schools to equalize school penalties for marijuana and alcohol infractions. That campaign was led by a group that argues frankly that marijuana is safer than alcohol, Safe Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER. Earlier that same month, students at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, passed a similar resolution, and while the argument that marijuana is safer than alcohol was not their main one, it was a prominent one. This weekend, people in cities around the country and the world will participate in the global marijuana marches, and this year, organizers of that event's signature march in New York City are also playing the "marijuana is safer" card.
It appears that a drug reform movement that has traditionally been uncomfortable with actually recommending that people use marijuana instead of other, more harmful substances is taking a tiny step closer to embracing that position. And while one might expect a cautious response to such an approach, only a few yellow lights are blinking among reformers who spoke with DRCNet.
Ironically, the new tactic comes as drug czar John Walters' campaign to demonize marijuana is taking on a shrill new intensity. This week, in the latest installment of the long-running, taxpayer-funded national media campaign against the weed, Walters charged that marijuana use makes one more likely to suffer from mental illness. (See story this issue.)
But while Walters charges that marijuana is a dangerous, dangerous drug, leading experts on the plant say it is far less harmful than alcohol. "Is marijuana safer? The short answer is 'yes,'" said Dr. Mitch Earleywine, a University of Southern California psychologist who is the author of "Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence" and the just published "Mind-Altering Drugs: The Science of Subjective Experience." The evidence is clear, he told DRCNet. "Cannabis has no lethal dose, so you can't die from it. The impact on the brain structure for cannabis is nil, but there can be very serious brain function changes with alcohol abuse. Also, more dramatic liver functions are impaired with alcohol. Malnutrition, B-vitamin deficiency, and Korsakoff's Disorder are all linked to alcohol, but not cannabis."
The "marijuana is safer" argument went over big at the University of Colorado in Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where student referenda based on it won by 86% and 65% respectively, said Mason Tvert, director of SAFER. "It was very effective," he said. "There is a large population of people who are dramatically affected by both substances. Alcohol is harmful to them in itself, while marijuana is harmful because of the penalties, and this was a situation where it was clear that alcohol was doing harm," he said, referring to various alcohol-related scandals including the deaths of five Colorado college students in the fall semester. "And in the university setting, people were open to it because they are far more worried about a student who is drunk than one who is using marijuana."
At Appalachian State University, while the "marijuana is safer" argument was not the central one in a student senate resolution calling for the equalization of university alcohol and marijuana penalties, activists made ample use it. "We did play it up, and I think it was a useful tactic, particularly because our school has had a lot of alcohol-related tragedies in the past few years," said Ian Mance, ASU ACLU co-president and a former Students for Sensible Drug Policy national board of directors member.
At Appalachian, the code of student conduct calls for a minimum penalty of probation, drug treatment, and drug testing for a first marijuana offense, while first offense alcohol violators face only a less severe form of probation. One other difference in penalties was particularly grievous to students: For marijuana violations, the school would notify students' parents -- even if the students were legal adults -- while for alcohol violations, it would not until a second offense.
That was the main motivation for the resolution, said Mance. "We were picked as an experimental school in a statewide study of reducing student alcohol use because we've had a lot of alcohol-related deaths, yet we have the most extreme school policy in the state when it comes to marijuana," he said. "This is the Deep South. People get emotional about drug use here, and when parents are called and told their college-age children are using marijuana, they tend to lose it. This has caused some real problems for some students. For us, it is fundamentally a privacy issue. They do this even if you're an adult."
While student organizers have been making the comparison between marijuana and alcohol, Dana Beal, chief organizer of the annual May global marijuana marches now in their fourth decade, and his New York City march Saturday are emphasizing the comparison between pot and tobacco. (The march is also emphasizing the use of ibogaine as an addiction treatment and the use of hemp, Beal was quick to point out.) "Look, pot is less toxic than aspirin," Beal said. "The drug czar and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America have this big lie that a single joint contains 20 times more carcinogens than a cigarette; that smoking a joint is equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes," he said. But according to Beal, nicotine, too, is a carcinogen, while cannabinoids block cancer. "People get cancer from chewing tobacco, but nobody ever got cancer from eating pot brownies," he argued.
"This is harm reduction," said Beal. "Harm reduction isn't just about clean needles; it's about what you put in those needles. People like to party; that's just part of human nature. The question is which substance is safer, and the answer is clear. We will say that marijuana is safer -- we don't care how unpopular that may make us," he told DRCNet.
Maybe less unpopular than he thinks, at least among marijuana reform activists. "Yes, we make the argument that marijuana is safer," said Kris Krane, associate director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "If you look at the scientific research, marijuana is clearly safer than alcohol and there are far fewer negative health effects, particular with a vaporizer. If we recognize the harms and dangers associated with alcohol, but are still willing to tax and regulate it, we should do the same thing with marijuana," he told DRCNet. "We are not pro-marijuana, but anti-prohibition. With alcohol Prohibition, we saw how policy only exacerbated the harms of alcohol and the alcohol trade. Clearly, we see the same thing going on with marijuana prohibition."
"We have certainly been discussing this internally," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, "and we are being a little bit more forthcoming about talking about this. We've all had a certain unease about seeming to be 'pro-pot' and our position has always been that we are not advocating that people use anything, only that we have laws that make more sense. But we have been grappling with this huge effort to demonize marijuana, and a lot of us have come to feel there is a need to counter that propaganda. Not to be pro-pot, but to be pro-truth," he told DRCNet.
"The fact is, all drugs have risks," Mirken said, "but in any number of measurable ways, marijuana is clearly less dangerous than a lot of other substances, including tobacco and alcohol. It doesn't make you an advocate of pot-smoking to say that in the grand scheme of things, marijuana ranks pretty low on the danger scale. We're not saying 12-year-olds should go out and get stoned, but do you want your teens convinced that pot use is bad but it's okay to go out and pop some Vicodin?"
"I can understand how people could be nervous that we are seen as advocating or promoting the use of substances -- we don't want to do that," Mirken said. "But we have to be pro-truth, pro-science, pro-facts, and we have to be accurate. We have the government taking out ads telling parents explicitly that they should be more worried about a young person taking a few puffs of marijuana than getting addicted to tobacco. That's just crazy!"
"The 'marijuana is safer' message seems to resonate in places like Boulder, where it appears that alcohol abuse is rampant," said Tom Angell, communications director for SSDP. "It seems like it's something people on the ground can identify with, and those SAFER people have great organizing skills and know how to motivate students. But the question we have to ask ourselves as drug reformers is will this message work elsewhere?" he told DRCNet.
"Will it work on other campuses? Will it work with parents, administrators, legislators?" Angell asked. "We don't have an answer for that, and that is an important discussion we as a reform movement need to have."
It hasn't worked so far with administrators in Colorado or North Carolina. But the efforts at both schools are young and may yet bear fruit. "I just met with the vice chancellor of student affairs at Boulder," reported SAFER's Tvert. "He is going to look some more at the facts about arrests and suspensions, and we are trying to encourage the university to hold public hearings next school year. We're not going away."
And then there is the third rail of drug reform: actually slipping over the line into promoting or encouraging drug use. "Does the 'marijuana is safer' message encourage marijuana use?" asked Angell. "Does it condemn alcohol use? We at SSDP don't encourage or condemn drug use, and we don't encourage or discourage one drug over another. We're not scientists or pharmacologists; we look at policies."
"We do get accused of encouraging drug use," Tvert conceded, "but we don't encourage the use of marijuana -- just policies that make sense. Still, if kids are smoking pot instead of drinking, they're causing themselves far less harm."