In Kingsley Amis’ book “Everyday Drinking,” a collection of essays on the art of imbibing, the author assures readers that unlike other narcotics, “hilarity and drink are connected in a profoundly human way.” He goes on:
One would be that no such healthy linkage exists in the case of other drugs: a major reason for being on guard against them. More to the point, the collective social benefits of drinking altogether (on this evidence) outweigh the individual disasters it may precipitate.
Now that the War on Drugs seems to be winding down — and it’s about time — we’re going to hear more about the benign effects of smoking pot when compared to the hazards of consuming alcohol. This is a longstanding talking point for legalization advocates — and for many people a handy justification to sign on to the cause. For others, it’s a way to create an equivalence between one of man’s greatest innovations and what amounts to a big waste of time.
These days, we’re programmed to repeat this platitude. Even an ABC News/Washington Post Poll on the drug legalization question prompts participants to link the two, asking whether they believed that alcohol consumption was more dangerous than pot (73 percent believe that alcohol is more dangerous and 14 percent “equally dangerous”). During David Remnick’s wide-ranging New Yorker interview, President Obama said, “As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
How exactly are we defining dangerous? Because smoking, say, a pack a day, has a lot more health risks than smoking a joint. Driving on the Beltway each day is a lot more dangerous than a smoking a joint. So does chowing down on steaks and fries three times a week. Or crossing the street in Manhattan. If we measure alcohol and pot for toxicity, there may well be a rock solid scientific case to be made that vodka is more “dangerous” than cannabis.
As a personal choice, we don’t weigh the risk against one another, we weigh the tradeoffs and consequences of each. Unless there is some medicinal purpose to your habit, the real danger of smoking pot for a “big chunk” of your adult life is that you’re going to end up at a 7/11 buying Pringles and giggling at the cashier at the age of 45. Alcohol, on the other hand, can add richness to our personal and communal lives. The same can’t be said of marijuana use, no matter how safe or legal it is.
Fortunately, we don’t drink for our health, only to it – though there are a number of studies that allege moderate intake of alcohol can be beneficial (and I choose to believe every single one of them). The social value of alcohol is immeasurable, whereas the social value of pot is negligible. Alcohol, in its countless variations, flavors, and uses, has widespread prevalence in in our rituals and social lives for a good reason.
Marijuana might have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-psychotic properties, and it may provide a fulfilling personal experience, generating euphoria or heightened sensations (also anxiety and paranoia), and chances are high nothing averse will happen if you smoke up when you’re young. But it’s doubtful you’ll ever be clinking bongs at a wedding or setting aside the Scotch to drown your sorrows with family members over a joint. That’s not only because of the stigma. Alcohol, which can be consumed, unlike pot, for the taste alone, often makes life more accessible, you more likeable, and others more bearable.
It’s also likely to make you more interesting. In a recent piece in The New Republic, “Is Drinking Responsible for the Great American Novel?”, Alice Robb runs down some interesting studies that link creativity and imbibing, riffing off of Olivia Laing’s book “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking,” which focuses on writers John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams and their prodigious drinking habits. The literary list of drinkers is endless. I suppose there can be a debate about whether creativity springs from the alcohol or the creative life leads to it. Then again, the art and literature created by the dedicated non-alcoholic drug user seems only to be interesting to other dedicated drug users.
Yes, there are cases of doctors and lawyers and homemakers smoking pot regularly and functioning effortlessly in the world. Yes, like all things, alcohol has downside – irresponsible people staggering into their cars driving and killing innocent people or systematically destroying their own livers and health, to name just two. Abuse is abuse. Is consuming marijuana daily over decades really going to turn out much better? Not to mention, we’re dealing with a false choice. Is anyone under the impression that most pot smokers don’t also drink? And does anyone really trust that driving stoned is safer than driving drunk (one study found that it was far more dangerous)?
Do those 73 percent of Americans polled by ABC News/Washington Post believe smoking up with their neighbors is a less “dangerous” choice than sharing a bottle of chardonnay? It seems implausible.
In his New Yorker interview, Obama also says that pot isn’t something he would “encourage, and I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.” Would the president offer the same advice to his kids regarding the consumption of alcohol — since it is, supposedly, no less dangerous to their health than cannabis? If not, why? I mean, I think his advice is excellent, and I hope to impart similar fatherly guidance to my own two daughters. Though, I would also hope that one day I’ll be able to share a nice glass of wine or a good beer with them. I suspect it’ll be safe enough.