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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Marijuana is Safer -- So Why Are Driving People to Drink?" by Paul Armentano, Steve Fox, and Mason Tvert (2009, Chelsea Green Publishers, 209 pp., $14.95 PB)

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #598)
Consequences of Prohibition
Politics & Advocacy

In the past few years, Colorado-based activist Mason Tvert has taken the notion of comparing marijuana to alcohol and used it to great success, first in organizing college students around equalizing campus penalties for marijuana and underage drinking infractions (marijuana offenses are typically punished more severely), then in running a successful legalization initiative in Denver in 2005. Tvert and his organization, SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation), continue to hammer away at marijuana prohibition, and now, in collaboration with NORML analyst Paul Armentano and MPP director for state campaigns Steve Fox, he has taken his "marijuana is safer" campaign to a new level -- and, hopefully, to a new and broader audience.

Having known (and repeatedly interviewed) all three coauthors in the course of my duties for the Drug War Chronicle, I assumed "Marijuana Is Safer" would be a good book. I was mistaken. It's a great book, and an extremely useful one. "Marijuana Is Safer" starts out hitting on all eight cylinders with a foreword from former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper and never lets up. It hits its points concisely and engagingly, it is thoroughly researched, and its political arguments are carefully thought out.

Regular readers of the Chronicle may not expect to learn a lot that they didn't know already, but they will likely be surprised, especially when it comes to the deleterious effects of alcohol. Did you know about the nasty effects of acetaldehyde? I didn't. It's what you get when you metabolize ethanol (alcohol), and it's carcinogenic and damages internal organs. Because it is so damaging, the body breaks it down into acetate, but if you're drinking at the rate of more than a drink an hour, you're body starts lagging behind. Something to keep in mind the next time someone invites you to join a drinking contest.

Similarly, you may share the general conviction that alcohol use can lead to violence, disease, crime, and accidents, but "Marijuana Is Safer" offers up the hard numbers -- complete with footnotes. Here's just one hard number: 35,000. That's the number of deaths each year attributed to chronic alcohol consumption. We all know what the number of deaths attributed to chronic use of the chronic is, don't we? That's right, zero.

Armentano, Fox and Tvert offer a mix of history, science, medicine, media critique, and just plain straight talk as they survey the history of alcohol and marijuana use in America, discuss the differing attitudes toward the two drugs, explain the rise of marijuana prohibition, and, most centrally, compare and contrast the effects of the two drugs on individual consumers and society as a whole.

They also dissect the arguments that legalizers have used -- so far, unsuccessfully -- to try to end marijuana prohibition. While those arguments are perfectly valid, the coauthors argue that they cannot counter the objection of people who might otherwise be persuaded: Why should we legalize another vice?

Naturally enough, Armentano, Fox and Tvert have the answer: "We would not be adding a vice; we would be allowing adults the option to choose a less harmful alternative for relaxation and recreation," they write.

They also provide the "money quotes" for several other skeptical responses to a legalization pitch, all designed to highlight the comparison of alcohol and marijuana. And these three are extremely well-positioned to know what to say; all three have been engaging in this conversation for years.

The coauthors also make a compelling argument that the "marijuana is safer" approach is a winner precisely because it forces listeners to think about alcohol and what it does -- something that all Americans know quite a bit about even if they don't drink. The comparison of marijuana and alcohol brings the discussion down from lofty abstractions about freedom and liberty to real world experiences with America's most popular drugs.

The "marijuana is safer" approach works just fine for marijuana, but potentially subverts broader anti-prohibitionist politics. It is difficult to imagine an argument for drug legalization based on "methamphetamine is safer" or "heroin is safer." It also effectively throws up a wall between "soft" marijuana and "hard" other drugs, abandoning broader drug legalization for freeing the weed alone. But perhaps "abandoning" is the wrong word. After all, Armentano and Fox work for marijuana reform organizations -- not drug reform organizations -- and Tvert's work all along has been about marijuana.

But possible unhelpful side-effects for broader anti-prohibitionism aside, "Marijuana Is Safer" is extremely worthwhile. This is a book you can hand to your mother or your teacher or your preacher and provide him or her with a nice framework for looking at marijuana -- one that by its inexorable comparative logic leads to the inescapable conclusion that marijuana should be legalized.

And for those readers with an interest in activism, this book needs to be on your bookshelf. It's full of handy, well-documented facts, it's got the answers to the questions you're likely to hear, and it's even got a how-to activism section at the back. I guarantee that if you own this book, it's going to be very well-thumbed before very long.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


I'm sure it is a good book but let us not miss the forest for the trees here. Armentano is from NORML and Fox is from MPP. Both support the AZ initiative which will eliminate "self cultivation." Not acceptable. And neither organization will give voice to the MERP Model which protects all "self cultivation."

There is seriously something wrong in the "movement" and you can read the details at MERP Headquarters through the numerous articles and videos.

If you go to MERP Headquarters below you will understand how this model is transforming the "Marijuana Reform" movement into the "Marijuana Rights" movement: much more closely akin to the "Civil Rights" movement. And the sad thing is that if we could get the moneyed groups to cooperate Marijuana could be legal for all adults by years end. We need to insist on a special session of Congress to end the Drug War once and for all. Much in the same way that we got robbed in the special session of Congress that pushed through the TARP bailout. At least this time a special session would benefit the people instead of screw the people.

If you want to receive more info on MERP you can get on our mailing list here:

These are two questions that I would like both organizations and Dave Borden to answer. I think they put things in proper perspective:

(1) Are you in support or opposition to the Arizona initiative? Do you dispute my interpretation of this initiative in any way?

The Arizona initiative will ultimately disallow self cultivation unless the patient is more than 25 miles from a dispensary. The Arizona is the 14th Medical Marijuana Initiative and the first to disallow cultivation according to the constraint described above. My concern is that this will ultimately prohibit self cultivation since, at some point, no one will live more than 25 miles from a dispensary. I look at this as a "bait and switch" since it is obvious that this will ultimately end all self-cultivation. From the mid-60's the right to self cultivate Marijuana has always been a main theme of the "grass roots" movement. Obviously such a model would maximize your profits since it would maximize the number of contracts for your "Marijuana Tax Systems." But if you truly support self cultivation it would seem to me that you would have to be against Rob Kampia's (President of MPP) Arizona initiative.

It seems to me that this is the most probing question I can ask to ascertain your true support for self cultivation.

(2) I would really like to hear your views on the MERP Model. What you think of it? Could I add you to the list of those that endorse MERP? If not, what aspects of the MERP model do you find unacceptable?

Here is a concise description of the MERP Model:

MERP Headquarters
The Marijuana Re-Legalization Policy Project (MRPP)= "MERP"

In a nutshell the MERP model would allow any adult over 18 to grow all the Marijuana they would like without ANY taxation, regulation or other government interference (e.g., there would be no control over THC levels etc.). It is very important to understand that MERP absolutely does not preclude the issuance of commercial licensing or commercial taxation and regulation. But self cultivation is protected as an inalienable sacred right. Such a system would self regulate the market without much need for regulation since the current profit margins (e.g., $300 to $600 and ounce) would be replaced by normal profits where an ounce would probably not sell for more than 100 percent over the cost of growing. In other words commercial price

Ron Kasinsky (wrong spelling) and I have talked at length on a number of occasions. It was his recommendation to lift the limit of 100 plants, under MERP, to an unlimited number of plants. His argument was that Marijuana would not just be grown to smoke but to produce seed, flour and EFA containing oils as well as tinctures (e.g., Run From the Cure). I could not argue that point which is why I recently changed the model to allow unlimited self cultivation.

At any rate if you could answer these two questions there is really no need for a phone interview as I can easily construct the emails into a interview format. I will also provide links to your website regardless of your answers. Of course the ultimate purpose of this is to give MERP a voice as we try to determine the best model for Re-Legalizing Marijuana (e.g., which model best serves the greater interests of society).

Fri, 08/21/2009 - 1:23pm Permalink
borden (not verified)

In reply to by Bruce W. Cain (not verified)

Sigh... I thought we might be done with Bruce's rantings after I demonstrated last month their total lack of logic, if not intellectual dishonesty, here. I was one of many participants in that comment thread who thought his position was either dumb or in many cases offensive.

I'm going to repeat the obvious again, though I'm not sure why. First, though, I hope the stupidity and mindlessness of attacking the authors of this book because of their affiliation with NORML and MPP is obvious enough to all and that I don't have to explain that too.

Okay, here we go again. The Arizona initiative did not "disallow self cultivation." Cultivation, self or otherwise, was disallowed under Arizona law several decades ago when they prohibited marijuana. Advocates today are trying to find their way through the nation's unsympathetic drug politics, and so we try different things that we hope will advance the issue. Part of that is trying to figure out what initiatives or legislation will pass (hopefully), or at least come close enough to advance the dialogue and thereby help in the long run. Some of the strategies work and some of them don't, but that's the challenge we face. Bruce's continued refusal to acknowledge this simple distinction -- that it is the prohibition laws, passed long ago, which ban cultivation, not the laws advocates are promoting now to try and loosen things up -- vividly demonstrates what is either an inability or a refusal to discuss these matters honestly. Because this point has been laid out for him over and over, and because he still refuses to even acknowledge it, much less offer a serious counterargument, I have to assume that he is simply addicted to attacking his ideological allies, for the sake of stroking his ego, even if he doesn't realize consciously that that is all that this is about.

My view on the Arizona initiative is that it made a statement, and in that way helped the issue, but not as much as an initiative could have. There is one more state, in this case a conservative western state, whose voters are on record supporting medical marijuana. The Arizona initiative ultimately failed to make medical marijuana available, but not because it "disallowed self-cultivation." The initiative failed to change things because it tied the medical marijuana approval process to the federal prescription system. That meant that doctors who wrote prescriptions for medical marijuana could be targeted by the DEA, by prosecution or even just by yanking their prescribing licenses. California worked because it only required recommendations, not prescriptions. When the DEA threatened to go after doctors for recommending marijuana, the Supreme Court told them they couldn't do that, recommendations are protected by the 1st amendment. This is why during the 13 years since then, initiative sponsors have built on the California model, not the Arizona model.

Bruce, do whatever you want with these comments, or do nothing with them, I don't care. I think you should turn your attention back to helping with real activism in Michigan, something you used to do but seem to have abandoned years ago. If this silly stuff on the net is all you're interested in now, that's unfortunate, because all you're doing is causing people to pay less and less attention to you. (On the other hand, it has provided an opportunity to explain the California and post-California strategy, so I guess that's worth something.)

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Fri, 08/21/2009 - 2:02pm Permalink
Paul Armentano (not verified)

In reply to by borden (not verified)


Thank you for the cogent reply to Bruce Cain, but as you acknowledge, it will all be for nought.

Bruce, why not apply for the position of Drug Czar because you -- like him -- are a liar. I have, quite literally, piles of personal one-on-one communications between you and the NORML staff where your false allegations have been answered time and time again. Yet nonetheless you continue to lie and libel both me and NORML on web forums all over the Internet.

You have claimed on Alternet and other forums that NORML "will only discuss the option of taxing and regulating Marijuana under what I have called a "Government Marijuana Dispensary" program.”

By contrast, NORML’s public position, which you are familiar with, is:

The Importance of Permitting Consumers the Right to Cultivate Marijuana for Personal Use

"The cultivation of cannabis for personal use is the single most important element of the NORML legalization proposal. Allowing for the legal, personal cultivation of cannabis provides consumers with the option to grow their own product should commercially available sources offer cannabis that fails to meet the consumers’ needs because it is excessively expensive, too heavily taxed, or of inferior quality. The mere threat of consumers exercising this option should be sufficient to assure that the legal market for cannabis will be responsive to the needs of consumers, and will not be exploitive.

So when any organization or any state or federal legislator proposes legalizing cannabis, either for medical use or for personal pleasure, but forbids the consumer from growing their own cannabis, those of us who lobby on this issue must insist on amendments to permit personal cultivation.

Otherwise we, cannabis law reformers, trade away our only leverage to keep the big corporations and the government honest and responsive to cannabis consumers."

Moreover, Steve, Mason and I dedicate an entire chapter in Marijuana Is Safer to this subject, talking about how a legal and regulated market must allow for home, personal cultivation and private commercial sales/distribution — NOT a government monopoly on production/distribution.

Your deliberately and knowingly false statements are meant to influence and persuade others. You sir are a liar.

Now you want to allege that NORML has not been critical of legislation that seeks to impose restrictions on personal cultivation? More BS. I discussed this issue critically and in depth on the NORML podcast after the provisions to eliminate personal cultivation were removed from pending med-mj bills in NH and MN. You want to bring up Arizona? NORML has discussed this in depth too -- and Russ Belville has personally responded to your inquiries. He even penned an essay on the subject voicing NORML's concerns which is featured in the new West Coast Leaf -- or you can read it here -- not like you will of course:

No Bruce, you will be content to keep lying on message boards because nobody else would ever give you a forum to spout your bullshit.


Fri, 08/21/2009 - 2:46pm Permalink
Russ Belville (not verified)

In reply to by borden (not verified)

We at NORML have a very strong statement underscoring our position that any marijuana law reform efforts should protect the right of patients (and ultimately, consumers) to grow their own medicine (marijuana).

I personally have some of the same reservations Bruce Cain does regarding the mandate that patients living within 25 miles of a dispensary must buy their medicine at ridiculously-inflated (i.e., black market) prices. It sounds like a businessman's dream: force your needy and desperate customers to come to you and only you for your product. But it's still a patient's nightmare - if she can't afford that $420/ounce weed on the streets, how will she afford it in the store?

Furthermore, this notion that home growing for oneself must be eliminated isn't limited to Arizona; similar language is proposed in NY, NJ, MA, and PA. After 13 years and 13 medical marijuana states, with teen use dropping in those states and public support holding steady or rising, shouldn't these bills be getting more inclusive and less restrictive, not the reverse?

That said, half a loaf may be better than none. Some medical marijuana protection in Arizona may be better than no protection. Our Arizona chapters (being independent like all NORML chapters) are supporting the measure for these reasons (how could a NORML chapter turn to patients and say, "Sorry, you'll just have to keep being arrested and jailed because this bill isn't perfect.")

As for Bruce MERPcain? Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Since I see nobody rushing to the door, I'm guessing the mousetrap doesn't work so well. It's quite something to have a cyberstalker who consistently lies about us and our organization and then expects us to jump aboard MERPwagon and sing Kumbaya. I had a girlfriend like that once.

Fri, 08/21/2009 - 3:52pm Permalink
Trogo (not verified)

In reply to by borden (not verified)


Thank you for your response to Bruce Cain's remarks. I live in Tucson, AZ and currently have undiagnosed symptoms. Every week a new diagnosis comes in, new meds prescribed, more side effects and reactions occur, throw out that idea, then rinse and repeat the following week. I do know cannabis helps me as it has in the past, but I can't really discuss that as an option with my doctors. Most won't even acknowledge it's effectiveness because of AZ's stringent laws against it's use. The most I get is comments/questions like: "Where'd you get it?", "Are you smoking it?" (of which I am not, I used tinctures or vaporizers), and then I get a new Rx for something heavily addictive or completely ineffective (unless causing nausea is effective?).

I believe cannabis should be legal for adults to consume, and doctors should be able to recommend/prescribe it without recourse. But, I believe if benefit to the community can be sought through taxation of cannabis, then it should be looked at and discussed. The in-fighting that people like Bruce Cain are causing, is hindering progress that could move issues faster. Especially since his comments and actions make legalizing cannabis make us look like we don't know what we are doing.

One last thing, it angers me that he is using AZ as an example when there is no concession for people who could benefit from cannabis right now. How can you argue something that doesn't even exist yet? If Bruce Cain is trying to make things difficult for people like myself, then it is working.

Fri, 08/21/2009 - 5:22pm Permalink
borden (not verified)

Bruce, it's not an alternative point of view that's the problem, it's the lies you tell over and over about advocates who unlike you are actually doing real work! Don't dignify your lying by dressing it up as some legitimate alternative viewpoint! I will start deleting your posts soon if you continue to pollute our message boards like this.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Fri, 08/21/2009 - 5:33pm Permalink
Carl Darby (not verified)

In reply to by borden (not verified)

There is already enough of that around. I appreciate hearing both Bruce's and David's opinions.

I do think that everything Bruce wrote should not be dismissed as a "rant". In most respects I am more inclined to agree with him. Who says that "tax and regulate" is the only viable model?

For literally centuries there was NO tax and NO regulation of marijuana. Prohibition is a completely failed model -- anyone with half a brain knows that, but Bruce's yearning for the halcyon days of growing what you want in your own garden along with your tomatoes is one that is shared by many activists.

This is far more preferable than finding yet another way to feed the rapacious maw of the police state.

Sat, 08/22/2009 - 3:16am Permalink
borden (not verified)

In reply to by Carl Darby (not verified)

Bruce and others are welcome to talk about personal cultivation, call for work to be done on that issue, etc. If future such discussions are not permeated by dishonest attacks on groups and individuals, as Bruce's previous discussions on this topic have been, then there won't be any problem.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Sat, 08/22/2009 - 3:26am Permalink
Bruce Cain (not verified)

In the last comment I meant to say:

Supporters of Marijuana Legalization are NOW the majority.

According to Zogby we are now a 52% majority and we are growing with each passing day. So lets start acting like we are the majority. We won't allow the government to become our new drug dealer.

Fri, 08/21/2009 - 5:25pm Permalink
maxwood (not verified)

1. One thing Bruce got right is: "Let's start acting like we are the majority." I sort of agree with his view that incrementalism is no longer necessary. However, by taking a pass on the Riefer-vs.-2Wackgo issue and wasting a whole book on alcohol both si8des of this controversy are missing the point.

2. Which is: Opportiunism in Pursuit of Eco-Justice is the Right Device. A Device is at hand which hands us the victory: E-CIGARETTE. Why? Because if a huge frontal campaign were mounted to approach the poor addict suckers outside buildings everywhere and convert them from hot burning overdose genocide to SAFER (don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good) vaporizing technology, we might juswt be able to collapse overnight the Big 2Wackgo oligopoly which is the most determined and vicious enemy of free legal riefer worldwide and uses its clout, fart worse than Big Pharma, to keep cops busting cannabis users.

3. And without waiting for the inevitable complete transuition to e-cigarette among nicotine users (and NICOTINE is also a medicine and has its uses), let's ghet busy funding, supporting, promoting secret or nonsecret factopries filling e-cigarette cartridges with THC formula, which once abundant everywhere by the millions, will by unstoppable andunsuppressable, unsniffdoggable, and de facto THC legalization will be achieved worldweide.

Fri, 08/21/2009 - 6:26pm Permalink
maxwood (not verified)

I abjectly apologize for several grotesque typographical errors caused by stroking extra keys in haste to finish my above letter before the end of the hour on a big city library computer surrounded by hundreds of other geeks waiting. Including one unintended word when a "t" was hit next to the "r". Actually there is a "fart" worse than Big pHARMa and that is the smell of a hot burning overdose nicotine cigarette, either before or after it has "gone out" (and have you noticed, "snuffing" those things, a dozen or more per day, is a way the addicts have of practicing up for when another Reinhard Heydrich shows up to hire them for service in an Einsatzgruppe so they can earn a little secret cigarette money snuffing cannabis users).

Sat, 08/22/2009 - 12:23pm Permalink
Donna4Freedom (not verified)

Most all people who support marijuana legalizaton, for whatever reason, soft pedal the true issue which is : You own yourself. What you choose to ingest is no one elses business or concern. Enjoy your life in whatever way turns you on. If you Kill yourself; so what? Quality over quantity ;-)
One less person on the bankrupt governments' dole...........
Sounds like a PLAN to Me !!!!
If the bureaucrats had any sense, ( which they don't) they would advocate all hedonistic carnal acts and Hope that we the sheeple never make it to the ripe old " Social Insecurity age."
Lets replace "IN God we Trust" with SEX< DRUGS and ROCK and ROLL, for the American Motto!!!!

Wed, 08/26/2009 - 10:01pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Donna4Freedom (not verified)

But be careful donna there are alot of 'Tax & Regulate' liberals, and medical marijuana conservatives around here that DO NOT know their rights, where they come from, and usually not interested in the rule of law. The idea of self-ownership/sovereignty/determination etc is often ridiculed around here... as freakky and irresponsible... and toooooo libertarian for many a conformist.

Hope you can survive the frequent muggings by the mmj conservatives and the 'tax & regulate' liberals... sure would love another peace loving, freethinker?, among's sorely missed... in most forums... everywhere.

My copy of "The Hedonism Handbook: Mastering the Lost Arts of Leisure & Pleasure" by Michael Flocker still sits on my smoking table! Wish I could afford to buy a copy for everyone.

Choose Legality & Radically Yours,
Thomas Paine IVXX

B.S. Sounds like you may be fimiliar with the comedian Bill Hicks, RIP? He does a great bit about 'that guy' that does acid then jumps off a biuilding because he thinks he can fly... another idiot dead.. goood who cares... should have started from the ground... "oh my god... we're missing another idiot...' LOL

Thu, 08/27/2009 - 1:08pm Permalink

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