Thursday, June 6, 2019

Interview: NORML's Paul Armentano says "alcohol poses far greater risks to health than does cannabis", explains why

Editor's note: This interview was originally published in March 2017.

This is the third part of my discussion with Paul Armentano. The first and second articles are available. 
Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

"Unfortunately, it's easy to enforce anti-marijuana laws: just arrest hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, which we do," Paul Kuhn, then serving as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws's chairman, told me in 2012, when I interviewed him for my column at The Washington Times Communities. "Do these arrests deter pot use?  No.  Marijuana use rates in states which have decriminalized possession, for example, are generally no different than in states with harsh penalties.  We have much higher rates of marijuana use in America than in countries like Holland where use is de facto legalized."

Much has changed across the fruited plains since then. Our discussion, along with virtually all other Communities articles published before January 2014, was pulled down from TWT's website; rendering it -- essentially -- lost to historical record. Marijuana, in both medicinal and recreational contexts, has been legalized in eight states. The idea of ending prohibition against pot now enjoys strong support in both major parties. 

What may account for such a radical shift?

"The health risks of marijuana are far less than those of alcohol and tobacco and more akin to those of caffeine," Kuhn explained later in our discussion. "In fact, thousands of studies show marijuana has potential health benefits in fighting diseases like Alzheimer's, Crohn's, MS and even cancer.  A recent Mayo Clinic report found marijuana offers "potentially head-to-toe therapeutic breakthroughs."

"Most hard drug addicts start with tobacco and alcohol, not marijuana. I have friends who consider marijuana 'the exit drug' because it helped them recover from dependence on alcohol and other addictive, deadly substances."

Lock, stock, and barrel reform of marijuana laws in our country is, at core, not a political issue, but one of personal health. That it has become politicized is a testament to how no shortage of 'civic servants' seek to manipulate a quintessentially private matter for public gain. I do not regard driving the criminalization of marijuana into the back pages of history as anything relative to politics, but rather culture; at both the personal and group levels.

Recently, I spoke with Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, about where cannabis stands in the American story. Some of our conversation is listed below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: While today's debate over marijuana rages on, the ramifications of alcohol consumption often go unmentioned. Which do you believe poses a greater threat to society; the over-consumption of pot or liquors?

Paul Armentano: Having co-authored Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2009/2013), I feel like I literally wrote the book on this issue.

There is little doubt that alcohol poses far greater risks to health than does cannabis. Statistically, alcohol consumers are nearly twice as likely as cannabis consumers to become dependent on their drug of choice. Further, alcohol is highly toxic to cells and healthy organs at higher doses and can lead to death by overdose. By contrast, cannabis is incapable of causing death by overdose. The adverse effects of long-term alcohol use on health are also staggering. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of death in the United States, trailing only tobacco consumption and poor diet/exercise.  

According to the World Health Organization, alcohol consumption is responsible for more than four percent of all mortality worldwide. No such statistics exist for cannabis. The social costs attributable to alcohol use and abuse are also enormous. According to findings published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the overall economic cost in the United States due to excessive drinking is $224 billion annually, a total which accounts for lost productivity, health care costs, and criminal justice costs. Again, no similar statistics for cannabis exist.

Cotto: In understanding the impact of marijuana on human beings, late New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's report on this -- undertaken by the New York Academy of Medicine -- typically goes without mention. Do you have anything to say about that?

Armentano: The LaGuardia Report is just one of many federally commissioned reports whose findings were later ignored by the very politicians who appropriated them. The Shafer Commission, which recommended that Congress decriminalize the possession, use, and exchange of marijuana by adults, and the 2017 National Academies’ report, which concluded that marijuana possesses therapeutic efficacy for the treatment of chronic pain, spasticity, nausea, and appetite loss, among other indications, are two more recent examples.

In short, the available science has never justified or substantiated cannabis prohibition. But, of course, marijuana policy has never been particularly influenced by science or evidence.