Let’s Save Lives and Modernize Drug Policy (No, not that drug)

Three of the most popular drugs in our society.

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of decriminalizing or even legalizing marijuana in Canada. Laws in certain European countries and US jurisdictions have recently been relaxed, allowing individuals to grow and use small amounts of the drug. The question of legal marijuana use isn’t an easy one; unlike harder street drugs, marijuana is linked to few deaths, is less addictive than most drugs and legalizing it could possibly reduce drug-related violence. Marijuana is probably the least harmful illegal drug.

Let’s imagine, however, that marijuana was not so innocuous. Let’s think about a hypothetical scenario that will allow us to evaluate current drug policy.

It’s the present day in Canada, but marijuana has been legal as far back as we can remember. And of course it is; nearly everyone uses it. We smoke it at dinner, we take it to parties, we tell our friends stories about it–even politicians and public figures use it. TV and movies reflect the fact that marijuana is the thread that weaves through every social gathering. Restaurants and bars advertise the varieties and preparations they serve, and companies compete with each other to produce the richest taste and most pleasant high. Teenagers look forward to being part of the culture, and wait (or don’t) for their birthdays, when they can smoke it with their friends or family. While a few thousand people, most of them young, die every year in marijuana-related car crashes, we do our best to teach people not to smoke before driving. It’s true that marijuana use is connected to almost half of violent crime, most of youth-related crime, and that over a million people in Canada are dependent on it, and what a shame that is. Marijuana’s just fine if you don’t abuse it … even if a majority of it is smoked while binging. It’s part of a healthy, responsible lifestyle and there’s no use demonizing it. Tobacco, on the other hand, is no good. Good thing we’ve cracked down on it.

As is probably transparent, I am not really talking about marijuana. I’m talking about society’s favorite drug. In comparison to marijuana, alcohol is more poisonous, more impairing, more addictive, more deadly–and more available, more glorified, and more widely used. If marijuana was half as destructive as alcohol, we wouldn’t think of legalizing it. But we sympathize with alcohol despite its harms, because everyone uses it. It should be pointed out, more specifically, that the reason that alcohol use is unrestricted, in contrast to other drugs, is that the people in positions of power in our society drink alcohol.

My intention in this entry isn’t to promote the legalization of marijuana. I can’t spare much sympathy for the cause of any harmful drug. But the critical issue today is alcohol. Forget guns, gangs, street drugs and even war for a moment–when it comes to body counts over the years, few preventable causes can touch alcohol. The cowardice of the adults in our society to stop indulging in a useless drug is killing people.

I want to insist again that I do not promote the prohibition of alcohol. The public policies I promote are similar to those surrounding tobacco: the requirement of graphic warnings on alcohol labels, a ban on most forms of alcohol advertising, and public funding for alcohol education programs. If you feel the same way as I do, please contact The Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, the federal Minister of Health in Canada, through this form:


3 thoughts on “Let’s Save Lives and Modernize Drug Policy (No, not that drug)

  1. A ban on alcohol advertising would actually raise the profits of alcohol companies by a massive degree. This happened when tobacco ads were banned; marketing is a huge expense which, in cases of well established brands like we find in tobacco or alcohol, mostly mean companies are fighting to swing users from one brand to another, not get new users.

    Other than that, I think you nailed it.

    • This is a great point. Advertising bans can definitely boost profits, especially for sellers of inelastically demanded goods like tobacco. I wasn’t aware tobacco profits had risen when ads were banned. I’d be interested to see any data on that, if you have it.

      The fact that profits rise isn’t a problem in itself from a public health point of view. The problem would be that, without advertising expenses, the marginal cost of production falls, driving the price of the drug down in the market and raising the quantity demanded. In the case of tobacco, this has probably been offset by high excise taxes. I’ve avoided talking about higher taxes on alcohol, but I do think they’d be a necessary part of public policy aimed at reducing consumption–and easily justified, because of the large externalities imposed by alcohol use.

      If I had to guess, however, I’d say that industry profits would rise in the short to medium run but ultimately fall in the long run as demand for alcohol shrunk.

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