As the sale of recreational marijuana kicks off in Colorado it’s worth reflecting on the original proposition that was put before the people. Amendment 64 was called ”The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act”.
Harmful substances like alcohol and tobacco are legal. By analogy, why can’t we legalize marijuana? The answer is of course that we can. The crucial question is whether we should.
”Regulate marijuana like alcohol” may sound like an attractive proposition. But the fact remains that alcohol(and tobacco, for that matter) is among the leading risk factors for death and ill health in the world today – despite regulation and market restrictions. It is abused, smuggled, traded on the black market, sold to minors, affordable and widely available.
In Europe and the US, vested interests have vigorously fought evidence-based public health policies, such as restrictions on alcohol sales, marketing and excise duties. And despite a strong scientific basis, most countries have not implemented these ”best buys” of alcohol policy. Colorado, for instance, has one of the lowest alcohol tax rates in the US and tax rates have not been adjusted for inflation this side of the millennium.
This is not unique to alcohol. Indeed, many of the leading health threats in the world today can be described as industrial epidemics, i.e. epidemics associated with the commercialization of harmful products. Producers and retailers have an interest in increasing the acceptability of their products, as well as in reducing market regulation. Expect to see the same as the fledgling marijuana industry matures.
Furthermore, the truth is that alcohol is largely unregulated in many countries – often the countries that have the least resources for treatment, health services and rehabilitation – in short, countries where substance abuse problems are likely to have disastrous consequences for individuals and their families.
Alcohol and tobacco are anomalies among consumer goods. They are clearly harmful, and their legal status is less to do with their intrinsic properties than with historic and cultural circumstances. We should not make this anomaly a guiding principle for public health policies.