During her factually troubled debate performance last week, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina accidentally made at least one somewhat accurate remark: "We are misleading young people when we tell them that marijuana is just like having beer. It's not."
Fiorina is right — just not in the way she meant. She was arguing that pot is more dangerous than alcohol. But the evidence shows the opposite is true — marijuana is, in fact, safer than alcohol.
This distinction should be a big deal for Fiorina and other presidential candidates: Getting this right isn't just a matter of being informed; it's also key to understanding some of the major issues surrounding marijuana, alcohol, and drug policy today.
Marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol
A 2010 study published in The Lancet found that alcohol is among the most dangerous drugs in the world, and far more dangerous than marijuana. Drug policy experts disagree with the specifics and value of the rankings — for example, whether alcohol is really more dangerous than heroin and crack cocaine. But one finding they don't disagree with is that, generally, marijuana is much safer than alcohol.
There's a lot of other evidence to support marijuana's safety relative to alcohol. While zero people have reportedly died from a marijuana overdose ever, alcohol poisoning kills more than 2,200 people in the US each year (and that's a small part of the 88,000 alcohol-related deaths in the US annually). While marijuana may, according to one study, almost double the risk of a fatal car crash, alcohol multiplies the risk by nearly 14 times. While alcohol is linked to more aggressive behavior and as much as 40 percent of violent crime, marijuana isn't linked to either. And on a per-user basis, alcohol sends far more people to emergency rooms than pot.
This doesn't mean marijuana is totally harmless. Dependence and excessive use — and the intoxication that comes with both — is more likely to be a hindrance to someone's productivity than not. But it's still important for policymakers to know that marijuana is safer than alcohol.
The relative risks of alcohol and marijuana can be critical to shaping drug policy
Alcohol's risk relative to marijuana matters for two big policy reasons: It demonstrates that the public would benefit if people replaced their alcohol use with marijuana, and it shows why politicians like Fiorina should take alcohol policy far more seriously.
Marijuana's relative safety to alcohol is actually one of the main arguments for legalization. If marijuana were legalized and people stopped using alcohol for pot, there would be less crime and fewer deaths, since marijuana doesn't cause these problems to the extent alcohol does. (But it's too early to say whether this actually happens after legalization: Alcohol sales in Colorado grew after the state allowed pot sales in 2014 — although it's possible increases in tourism and general economic growth simply offset a substitution effect caused by legalization.)
The relative dangers of both drugs also matter for alcohol policy. If politicians like Fiorina believe that marijuana is so dangerous that the government should ban it, then the evidence that alcohol is even more dangerous should at the very least compel them to take alcohol policy seriously. That doesn't mean the US should bring back prohibition. (That was an obvious disaster.) But there are other evidence-backed policy options for dealing with alcohol abuse, including a higher alcohol tax, 24/7 sobriety programs, and putting the state in charge of alcohol sales.
But since alcohol is a cultural norm and big part of the economy in the US (and much of the world), it's generally treated by lawmakers as if it's not dangerous, and as if its risks should just be accepted. But the evidence shows alcohol is a dangerous drug — certainly one that's riskier than pot. Acknowledging that could be a first step in America's recovery from its backwards drug policies.