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Canada's prime minister said marijuana is "infinitely worse" than tobacco. Absolutely not.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Saturday, October 3, made the most incorrect statement possible about drug policy.

Asked about the Conservative Party's opposition to marijuana legalization, Harper said, "Tobacco is a product that does a lot of damage. Marijuana is infinitely worse."

It is difficult to overstate just how wrong Harper is. Tobacco's health effects cause 37,000 deaths in Canada each year — an astonishing 17 percent of all deaths in the country. Marijuana, meanwhile, has never been conclusively linked to any deaths from direct health effects. Even the scientific evidence on whether pot causes lung damage when smoked is mixed, with studies that control for tobacco smoking finding no significant effect from marijuana on lung cancer risk.

One caveat: A very small number of people likely die due to accidents while under the effects of marijuana. But this data isn't reliably tracked, and there's still some debate about whether pot even significantly increases this risk.

Of course, this is true not just in Canada, but in the US too. In fact, the top three deadliest drugs in the United States are legal: tobacco, alcohol, and opioid painkillers. Some of that, of course, is caused by their legality, which makes them more accessible and more widely used. But tobacco in particular is so deadly that it's unlikely anything would catch up to it even if all drugs were legalized.

The three deadliest drugs are legal.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Now, drugs carry dangers other than death. Marijuana's biggest risk, Jon Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University previously told me, is dependency and loss of productivity: "At some level, we know that spending more than half of your waking hours intoxicated for years and years on end is not increasing the likelihood that you'll win a Pulitzer Prize or discover the cure for cancer."

But this is a fairly abstract risk — one that affects a minority of pot users. Tobacco, on the other hand, will almost certainly kill you or take years away from your life through long-term use. It is much, much worse than marijuana.


Correction: The headline and tweet for this article originally flipped the quote.