Obama says cannabis is no more dangerous than alcohol. He’s wrong: it’s far safer

Man rolling cannabis joint
Photo: Reuters

President Barack Obama has said something hugely controversial. “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,” he said. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

Mr Obama made the comments in a vast 17,000-word interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick (and you can read the whole thing here, if you have a spare six months). As we report, in America, cannabis “remains a schedule 1 controlled substance – along with heroin and ecstasy – under federal law”. There will, no doubt, be a tedious controversy about his remarks, as we are told that he’s sending out “the wrong message”.

But in fact he’s right. Or, rather, he’s wildly understating the case. There are about 2 million regular cannabis users in the UK, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. In 2011, six people died in cases where cannabis “was implicated alone”, according to the St George’s University of London annual report, and a further 17 in combination with other substances, including alcohol. Let’s be generous and take the total number, 23. Two million divided by 23 = one death per 86,956 cannabis users. This is almost certainly an overestimate of the true risk.

By comparison, in the same year, 8,748 people died of alcohol-related causes in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics. Let’s assume that every adult in the UK drinks (which they don’t). That’s about 50 million people. Fifty million divided by 8,748 = one death per 5,715 alcohol users. This is almost certainly an underestimate of the true risk.

So by this admittedly very crude metric, if you take up drinking, you are about 15 times as likely to die of substance abuse than if you take up smoking cannabis. The real difference in risk is likely to be greater.

More on cannabis

‘I smoked weed when I was young. But it should stay illegal’
Uruguay leads the way on drug regulation. Will Britain follow?
Stating the obvious: the drug laws aren’t working

Ah, but of course death isn’t the only risk that cannabis carries. It can also affect your mental health. The evidence for this is controversial but it does seem to be the case that heavy use, especially in your teenage years, makes you more likely to suffer from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. But the actual extra risk is not huge: a large study by researchers from Bristol, Cambridge and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that you would have to get around 2,800 male heavy cannabis users to quit the drug, or 5,000 female heavy cannabis users (or 10,000 and 30,000 light users, respectively), to prevent a single case of schizophrenia.

By contrast, Wernicke-Korsakoff’s syndrome, a form of early-onset dementia usually caused by alcohol abuse, affects about one person in every 1,000 worldwide. Not, I hasten to point out, one in every 1,000 heavy drinkers, or even one in every 1,000 drinkers. One in every 1,000 people. And that is only one of the many alcohol-related mental health concerns: drinking is heavily linked to psychosis, depression and suicide.

None of this is to say that cannabis is safe – especially since it’s usually smoked, and usually smoked with tobacco, at that. It’s clearly not something that I’d want my child doing too much, and Obama agrees: “I’ve told my daughters I think it’s a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.”

But he’s also right when he says “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do.” And when he says “African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties.” Also, in America at least, cannabis use is about as common among white youths and black youths, but black youths are jailed far more often.

And that’s how cannabis ruins lives: not by driving people insane or killing them, but by putting them in jail and/or giving them a criminal record. That’s why an alcohol habit, despite its hugely greater physical and mental health risks, is safer than a cannabis habit: because it won’t end you up in jail. The cannabis laws are what make cannabis dangerous, much more than does cannabis itself. Well done Mr Obama for having the nerve to say, if not quite that, at least something not ridiculous on the subject.

More by Tom Chivers

Is there such a thing as a ‘Muslim child’?
Kew’s ‘codebreaker’ mourns his lily
The best way to increase freedom may be stricter laws

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