Pot vs. Booze: The Battle Begins

Here in Washington, our NPR station airs a program on Sunday nights featuring old-time radio dramas like Gunsmoke and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar ("The transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account, America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator!"). A week or two ago they featured an episode of Dragnet in which Los Angeles is beset with a wave of juvenile delinquency. Formerly well-behaved teens start running wild, beating people up, smashing store windows, and creating general violent mayhem. Not only that, these kids commit their crimes in front of local merchants and citizens who know their names and their families—the teens are so crazed, they don't even care if they get caught. Sergeant Friday's suspicions are quickly confirmed, and the culprit is identified. The teens are caught in the grip of … marijuana!

Back here in 2013, the Brickyard 400, a NASCAR race, was this weekend in Indianapolis, and the Marijuana Policy Project, a legalization advocacy group, thought it would be interesting to buy space on an electronic billboard outside the entrance to the event to show this ad:

Once people started complaining, the company that owns the billboard pulled the ad, which naturally led to many more people seeing it and talking about it than otherwise would have been the case (good work, PR folks!). As the legalization debate spreads—there could be a half-dozen states with decriminalization or medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot in 2014, with more to come in 2016—we're likely to hear this argument a lot.

There are still plenty of people who have the same beliefs about pot that Joe Friday did—you may have seen that the fact that Trayvon Martin had marijuana in his system was trumpeted by conservatives looking to support George Zimmerman's version of events, when in fact pot is about as likely to increase your propensity for violence as alcohol is to increase your manual dexterity. So it'll be interesting to see how the anti-cannabis side responds when the pro-legalization side starts comparing the two in print and on the air.

As Mark Kleiman, who knows more about this topic than pretty much anybody, has explained, there are some cannabis advocates who would like to unite with the alcohol industry in an anti-prohibition alliance, while others want to see more ads like the one above, since they do make a compelling case. He advocates a more nuanced argument that acknowledges that though alcohol is a much more dangerous drug both in its potential for addiction and the behaviors it tends to produce (like violence), both drugs have risks and should be treated, from both a personal and policy perspective, with care. But as he says, "trying to take the Manichean tendency out of American politics is like trying to take the white out of snow." My guess is that comparing pot to booze is going to be too big a target for pro-cannabis activists to pass up. How persuasive that'll be remains to be seen.

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