Date of Original Version



Working Paper

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Abstract or Description

Both marijuana and alcohol are dependence-inducing intoxicants that bring pleasure to most users but causes a range of physical, mental, and behavioral harms to others, including harms borne by the users themselves, by their family and friends, and by society more generally (Edwards et al., 1994; Volkow et al., 2014). To borrow Tom Babor’s phrase, neither is an ordinary commodity (Babor et al., 2010).

Yet policy treats them very differently in the United States. Federal law prohibits marijuana; alcohol has been legal for over 80 years. Support for legalizing marijuana has grown sharply, and comparisons with alcohol are common (Caulkins et al., 2012). In particular, those favoring legalization often argue that marijuana is safer than alcohol (e.g., Rifle, 2013; Fox et al., 2013).

Alcohol is certainly more dangerous in some respects, including sole-cause acute overdose deaths, accidents, and violence. But risk is multi-faceted, and this paper demonstrates that marijuana is the riskier substance with respect to other important outcomes.