Reality Check: Marijuana Safer Than Alcohol? Fact-Checking President's Claim

President Obama fuels an already torrid debate, and data appears to back him up

Washington and Colorado were the first ones to do it.

It stands to reason that other states- including California- aren’t too far behind.

We’re referring, of course, to the legalization of marijuana for recreational use, a policy that voters in both western states approved comfortably back in 2012.

President Obama recently fanned the flames of an ongoing debate about marijuana use, telling The New Yorker magazine, “I don’t think it’s more dangerous than alcohol.”

The president also described marijuana as “a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person.” Nonetheless, the controversy has crystallized over his remarks

Is the president right, that marijuana is safer than alcohol?

The subject lends itself to all sorts of arguments and volumes of research that could fill a presidential library.

To try and narrow the scope, we focused our story on information available about deaths related to those two substances, potential for abuse, impact on the roadways and risk posed to adolescents.

For nearly each of these benchmarks (with current data), the president’s case is a fairly easy one to make.

“My initial impression is he’s coming closer to telling the truth than what the government has ever been willing to do about marijuana,” said Dr. Timmen Cermak, an addiction psychiatrist and former president of the California Society of Addiction Medicine.

“If you look at things like mortality, what kills people?” Cermak asked. “Alcohol, or marijuana? I’m not sure there’s ever been an overdose or death from marijuana. There are plenty of overdose deaths, deaths because of physical damage from alcohol.”

Cermak explained that neither substance is abused by most users, but heavy use of either could impact the quality of a person’s life.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, only 15 percent of people who consume alcohol become addicted, compared to an even lower rate of 9 percent for marijuana users.

Cermak said those figures skew, however, when applied to teenagers.

“When we look at people who use it under the age of 18, 12-to-18 really, what we find is they get addicted much more rapidly and a much higher rate of them become addicted,” he said.

And that’s a point that the addiction psychiatrist does not want to see lost in this discussion.

The effects of heavy marijuana use in young people can raise not only the specter of addiction, but also the possibility of permanently stunting brain development and lowering adult IQ.

The latest research from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that teens who used heavy amounts of marijuana permanently impacted the functionality of their brain regions responsible for memory and reasoning.

This is one reason, among many, that the California Police Chiefs Association staunchly opposes the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

“I think from a law enforcement perspective, we were very disappointed in the president,” said Kim Raney, president of the association. “I’m 57 years old, and those were the most unpresidential remarks I think I’ve ever heard in my lifetime.”

Raney said he’s worried President Obama is leveraging the power of his office to shape public opinion on an issue where many questions remain unanswered.

“How far are we willing to lower the bar as a society?” he asked. “And then, what are going to be the unanticipated consequences a generation or two [down the road] that future generations are going to have to deal with?”

We asked Chief Raney what consequences, specifically, he fears.

Raney cited long-term health consequences, the difficulty of enforcing a state law that directly contradicts federal law [marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 Drug by the federal government], and the difficulties involved with enforcing driving while under the influence of marijuana.

With respect to this last point, the chief highlighted the challenges for law enforcement.

“You have a presumption [if] someone is under the influence of alcohol,” Raney said, referring to the .08 standard. “You don’t have the science or the legislation in place where based upon the THC in somebody’s blood, what is presumed to be ‘under the influence.’ That’s one of the challenges that we have from a prosecution standpoint."

The lack of data for driving under the influence of drugs, and particularly marijuana, makes an apples-to-apples comparison extremely difficult.

Here’s what we know for a fact:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 88,000 deaths were attributed to excessive alcohol abuse in the United States in 2012.

Of those deaths, about 10,000 came from alcohol-impaired driving accidents. That is the equivalent of one death every 51 minutes.

As for annual deaths and accidents due to marijuana abuse?

There is no definitive source to make a sound comparison. Research on the subject, however, is becoming more robust.

A recent report from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that fatal crashes involving marijuana use tripled in the last decade, concluding that one-in-nine drivers involved in fatal crashes now would test positive for marijuana.

The report’s co-author, Dr. Guohua Li, stated that if the trend continues, “in five or six years non-alcohol drugs will overtake alcohol to become the most common substance involved in deaths related to impaired driving.”

For more context, we contacted the California Highway Patrol to see if the agency has any way of tracking drug-related and marijuana-related accidents, and whether either has been on the rise in recent years.

“There’s a new law that started January 1 of this year that breaks down DUI law for both drugs and alcohol,” said Sergeant Jarod Primicerio, an impaired driving unit supervisor for the CHP.

“Previously it was all just part of one vehicle section, and now there’s a division of subsection for DUI [and drug-related arrests].”

To clarify, the CHP had no way of separating alcohol-related DUIs from drug-related ones, statistically, until this year. They were previously all lumped together.

We asked Sgt. Primicerio if marijuana use is a growing concern on the roadways.

“Impairment is impairment,” he said. “Without the statistical data, it’s hard to say whether it’s a trend. It’s a concern.”

While the long-term dangers of trying to regulate driving and marijuana use remain shadowy at this point, the health and medicinal benefits of cannabis do not.

Doctors have established the substance as a benefit for patients seeking pain relief, reduced inflammation, and therapy as they battle serious illness.

Dr. Donald Abrams, the Chief of Hematology-Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, has studied the safe use of marijuana in cancer and HIV patients for decades.

“As a cancer doctor, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t recommend cannabis to a patient who has nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, pain, insomnia, depression,” Abrams said.

“Patients who tell me that cannabis is the only anti-nausea medicine that worked and allowed them to complete their chemotherapy and perhaps, cure themselves of cancer- that makes me feel good about the medicine I recommended.”

Abrams added that in his 30 years of experience at SF General, he’s admitted an enormous number of patients to the hospital with complications of alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

“I’ve never admitted a patient to this hospital on the medical service with the complication of cannabis,” he said.

As for alcohol and its medicinal benefit, there’s not much certainty to date on this subject.

The Mayo Clinic says “moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits.”

Some of those possible benefits include reducing the risk of developing and dying from heart disease, and reducing the risk of diabetes.

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