Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Editor: Douglas A. Berman
Moritz College of Law

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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Is it "misleading to compare marijuana to beer"?

Beer potThe question in the title of this post is drawn from a quote by someone from the Beer Institute appearing in this notable new National Journal item headlined "Alcohol Is Really Pissed Off at Marijuana Right Now; The marijuana industry is convincing Americans its substance is safer than alcohol, and booze lobbyists don't like it."   Here are excerpts from the new National Journal piece:

Marijuana has been giving alcohol a bad name. So contend booze lobbyists, who are getting sick of an ad campaign that makes the claim that pot is safer than their beloved beverages.

"We're not against legalization of marijuana, we just don't want to be vilified in the process," said one alcohol industry representative who didn't want to be quoted harshing his colleagues mellow. "We don't want alcohol to be thrown under the bus, and we're going to fight to defend our industry when we are demonized."

The marijuana industry has had a good couple of years: a recent poll found that 58 percent of the country thinks the product should be legal, recreational use has been legalized in two states already, and this past election saw the city of Portland, Maine, legalize 2.5 ounces of pot. Ahead of the vote in Portland — which received 70 percent support — the Marijuana Policy Project put up signs around the city with messages like "I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it doesn't make me rowdy or reckless," and "I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it's less harmful to my body."

Alcohol lobbyists believe it's a "red herring" to compare the two. "We believe it's misleading to compare marijuana to beer," said Chris Thorne of the Beer Institute. "Beer is distinctly different both as a product and an industry."

Thorne notes that the alcohol industry is regulated, studied extensively, and perhaps more importantly already an accepted part of the culture. "Factually speaking beer has been a welcome part of American life for a long time," he said. "The vast majority drink responsibly, so having caricatures won't really influence people."

But MPP takes issue with the idea they are painting a false picture. In a recent Op-Ed for CNN, Dan Riffle, the group's director of federal policies, notes that according to the Centers for Disease Control excessive alcohol use is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death. Booze also "plays a role in a third of all emergency room visits," he says....

"That's like saying we shouldn't talk about relative harms of sushi to fried chicken," said Mason Tvert, who in addition to working at MPP wrote a book called Marijuana is Safer: So Why are We Driving People to Drink? "It's important that people know the relative harms of all substances, so there's no reason not to talk about the two most popular substances in the world."

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 7, 2013 in History of Alcohol Prohibition and Temperance Movements, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Are there undisputed benefits from prohibition regimes and/or undisputed harms from legalization/regulation regimes?

The question in the title of this post is a variation of the topic that consumed discussions today in my "Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform" seminar.  Though I am not sure I did a great job steering the discussion, I am sure that students had a number of interesting and thoughtful reactions to the first part of this question.  

One of my goals in these questions is to explore whether, if we take as an empirical given that prohibition regimes do tend to reduce use of a prohibited product, folks would accept or resist the contention that reduced use is an undisputed benefit of prohibition regimes.  (We have been considering the history of alcohol Prohibition in the US at the start of the course, and some research suggests that the enactment of the 18th Amendment and related laws drove down alcohol consumption to 30% of pre-Prohibition usage, although over the period of Prohibition alcohol use rose to reach about 60 to 70% of pre-Prohibition usage levels.)  Of course, to say reduced use of a product is an undisputed benefit indicates a belief that any and all use is an undisputed harm.   I suspect many folks would now resist the claim that any and all use of alcohol is an undisputed harm, and I explored with students whether they thought more of society was coming to resist the claim that any and all use of marijuana is an undisputed harm.

At the end of the class, we only briefly got to the question of what undisputed harms might be said to flow, at least in part, from legalization/regulation regimes for a drug like alcohol.  I started this part of the discussion with my concerns about significant harms that result from drunk driving, and other students raised issues related to crimes and physical violence and related to poor allocation of societal resources.  How much of these harms could and should be attributed to our current legalization/regulation regime for alcohol is, of course, a contestable question, but in this setting the issue seems to be not whether these matters count as harms, but rather whether a legalization/regulation regime increased or increases these harms.

September 5, 2013 in History of Alcohol Prohibition and Temperance Movements, History of Marijuana Laws in the United States, Recreational Marijuana Commentary and Debate | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Seeking views on important under-appreciated lessons from US history with alcohol Prohibition

As I explained via this post on one of my other blogs a few month ago, I thought it wise to devote at least a few early weeks in my Fall 2013 seminar on "Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform" to a review of the legal and social history of alcohol Prohibition.   I am doing so because (1) public health scholars tell me that that use, abuse and addiction surrounding the drug of marijuana has more parallels to alcohol than to tobacco, and (2) there are many legal and social themes and lessons from the US temperance movement and the years during and surrounding the Prohibition era that merit significant coverage in my new class before we jump into modern marijuana law and policy.

I have kicked of my class activites by urging all my seminar students to watch with me the full wonderful 2011 Ken Burns' PBS documentary on Prohibition, as well as cruise around this terrific website from the History Department at Ohio State (which includes this especially interesting account with visuals concerning campaigns by the "drys" in Ohio).  I also have urged students to read parts of the terrific 1970 article by Richard Bonnie & Whitebread, Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge - An Inquiry Into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition, 56 Virginia L. Rev. 971 (1970) (available here).

There are, of course, lots of important obvious lessons to take away from US history with temperance movements and alcohol Prohibition.  For example, in this page from the PBS website under the heading "Unintended Consequences," historian Michael Lerner concludes a lengthy discussion with these observations:

The greatest unintended consequence of Prohibition however, was the plainest to see. For over a decade, the law that was meant to foster temperance instead fostered intemperance and excess. The solution the United States had devised to address the problem of alcohol abuse had instead made the problem even worse. The statistics of the period are notoriously unreliable, but it is very clear that in many parts of the United States more people were drinking, and people were drinking more.

There is little doubt that Prohibition failed to achieve what it set out to do, and that its unintended consequences were far more far reaching than its few benefits. The ultimate lesson is two-fold. Watch out for solutions that end up worse than the problems they set out to solve, and remember that the Constitution is no place for experiments, noble or otherwise.

I suspect my students and others are quick to take away from the US history here that we should seek to avoid governmental cures that are worse than the disease and also avoid too much constitutional experimentation.  But, as the title of this post suggests, I am eager to explore (in this space and with my seminar students) what might be deemed important under-appreciated (or at least under-discussed) lessons from not just Prohibition itself, but also from the broader alcohol temperance movements that stretch back many centuries and arguably still have some enduring echoes and impacts today.

August 29, 2013 in History of Alcohol Prohibition and Temperance Movements | Permalink | Comments (1)