As my children, and my friends’ children, are getting older, a question that comes up again and again from friends is this: Which would I rather my children use — alcohol or marijuana?
The immediate answer, of course, is “neither.” But no parent accepts that. It’s assumed, and not incorrectly, that the vast majority of adolescents will try one or the other, especially when they go to college. So they press me further.
The easy answer is to demonize marijuana. It’s illegal, after all. Moreover, its potential downsides are well known. Scans show that marijuana use is associated with potential changes in the brain. It’s associated with increases in the risk of psychosis. It may be associated with changes in lung function or long-term cancer risk, even though a growing body of evidence says that seems unlikely. It can harm memory, it’s associated with lower academic achievement, and its use is linked to less success later in life.
But these are all associations, not known causal pathways. It may be, for instance, that people predisposed to psychosis are more likely to use pot. We don’t know. Moreover, all of these potential dangers seem scary only when viewed in isolation. Put them next to alcohol, and everything looks different.
Because marijuana is illegal, the first thing I think about before answering is crime. In many states, being caught with marijuana is much worse than being caught with alcohol while underage. But ignoring the relationship between alcohol and crime is a big mistake. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that alcohol use is a factor in 40 percent of all violent crimes in the United States, including 37 percent of rapes and 27 percent of aggravated assaults.
No such association has been found among marijuana users. Although there are studies that can link marijuana to crime, it’s almost all centered on its illegal distribution. People who are high are not committing violence.
People will argue that casual use isn’t the issue; it’s abuse that’s worrisome for crime. They’re right — but for alcohol. A recent study in Pediatrics investigated the factors associated with death in delinquent youth. Researchers found that about 19 percent of delinquent males and 11 percent of delinquent females had an alcohol use disorder. Further, they found that even five years after detention, those with an alcohol use disorder had a 4.7 times greater risk of death from external causes, like homicide, than those without an alcohol disorder.
When I’m debating my answer, I think about health as well. Once again, there’s no comparison. Binge drinking accounted for about half of the more than 80,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States in 2010, according to a 2012 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The economic costs associated with excessive alcohol consumption in the United States were estimated to be about $225 billion dollars. Binge drinking, defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men on a single occasion, isn’t rare either. More than 17 percent of all people in the United States are binge drinkers, and more than 28 percent of people age 18 to 24.
Binge drinking is more common among people with a household income of at least $75,000. This is a solid middle-
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