US attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch on Wednesday said at a congressional hearing that she disagrees with President Barack Obama on his views that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) asked whether Lynch agreed with Obama's statements to the New Yorker that pot is no more dangerous than alcohol. Lynch responded, "I certainly don't hold that view and don't agree with that view of marijuana as a substance. I certainly think that the president was speaking from his personal experience and personal opinion — neither of which I am able to share."
But the empirical literature is actually very clear on this issue: marijuana is much safer than alcohol.
Alcohol is directly responsible for far more deaths than marijuana, according to the best federal data on direct health effects. No one has reportedly died from a marijuana overdose, but tens of thousands die each year due to direct health complications, such as liver disease, brought on by excessive alcohol consumption.
Alcohol is even more dangerous than the fatality numbers suggest. A previous report published in The Lancet took a comprehensive look at 20 of the world's most popular drugs and the risks they pose in the UK. A conference of drug experts measured all the factors involved — mortality, other physical damage, chance of developing dependence, impairment of mental function, effect on crime, and so on — and assigned each drug a score. They concluded alcohol is by far the most dangerous drug to society as a whole, while marijuana fell near the middle.
What makes alcohol so dangerous? The health effects of excessive drinking and drunk driving are two obvious problems. But there are other major issues rooted in alcohol-induced aggression and erratic behavior: injuries, economic productivity costs, family adversities, and even crime. (Alcohol is a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.)
The Lancet's report comes with a couple caveats. It doesn't entirely control for the availability of these drugs, so it's possible heroin and crack cocaine in particular would be ranked higher if they were as readily available as alcohol. And the findings are based on the UK, so the specific scores would likely differ to some extent for the US.
But marijuana doesn't come close to alcohol in terms of risks — indicating that, on this particular issue, Obama is right and his attorney general nominee is wrong.
Further reading: The 3 deadliest drugs in America are all totally legal.