Guest Column: Is marijuana safer than alcohol? |

Guest Column: Is marijuana safer than alcohol?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Incline resident Andy Whyman, MD, is a former opinion columnist for the Bonanza. Over the next several months, he will author columns pertaining to drugs, mental health and substance abuse in an effort to raise better awareness. The columns will be featured on a periodic basis in both the Bonanza and Sierra Sun.

In the past several weeks news coverage of the burgeoning marijuana business, the criminal justice system, and illegal drugs has accelerated. Television news, print media, and the Internet have all jumped in.

Hardly a day goes by without another illuminating story. This trend started after the passage of laws legalizing and regulating the production and sale of marijuana in Colorado and Washington state.

When Colorado entrepreneurs started selling legal marijuana after January 1, interest across the political and legal landscape exploded. What’s going on here? Is this merely another media driven faux news cycle? Or are we witnessing a profound culture shift in the American story about illegal drugs?

Ever since Richard Nixon invented the War on Drugs in 1970, federal and state governments have spent billions of dollars fighting this allegedly mortal threat to our citizens. Overseas, the feds have militarized production eradication efforts over wide swaths of the globe.

In country, federal prisons, state jails, and the private prison industry are now filled to overflow with nonviolent offenders, a substantial proportion of whom are incarcerated solely for nonviolent drug offenses.

Remarkably, because of laws criminalizing the use of certain drugs, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In the federal prison system alone, 50 percent of the 215,000 inmates have committed drug related crimes. Overall, there were 1.6 million people locked up in 2009.

Whether you are a moral crusader at the federal level, or just some guy or gal worried about where your tax dollars go, there is an emerging consensus that the financial cost of criminalizing certain drugs is unsustainable.

It’s in this environment that politicians and the public are looking toward alternative approaches. There are likely trillions of dollars at stake here. The criminal justice enterprise, the illegal drug market, and entrepreneurs in the drug decriminalization and/or legalization movement could see substantial change in their trades.

We can also expect this battle to play out at all levels of both federal and state bureaucracies. No agency willingly gives up its turf. Behemoth federal institutions like the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, down to state and local district attorney’s offices, and local policing operations stand to rise or fall on these waves of change.

Here are a few recent media releases to illustrate the scope of this dynamic.

Federally, Attorney General Eric Holder, according to the New York Times, endorses a proposal to reduce prison sentences for drug dealing. In a separate initiative, Holder is pushing for the elimination of mandatory minimum prison time for nonviolent drug crime while the Justice Department is encouraging low level crack cocaine offenders serving lengthy prison sentences to apply for clemency.

Then there were a series of pieces that illustrate the political complexities. After all, no politician wants to be branded as “soft on crime,” no matter the science or the facts.

So, in a New Yorker interview President Obama told the nation that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. Then CNN asked the President if he would consider removing marijuana from Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act.

This Schedule, for those in the know, are drugs such as heroin and LSD, which are labeled as highly addictive and having no accepted medical use. Obama replied that this is a job for Congress, not within his purview.

Turns out that marijuana is actually safer than alcohol and that he does have the authority to remove marijuana from the Schedule One list. Glancing at state initiatives, California has cleared four proposals for signature gathering to legalize and tax marijuana, and one to reduce penalties for simple possession of cocaine or heroin from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Should these initiatives gain sufficient signatures they will appear on the November ballot in California. Nevada has no similar proposed initiatives.

Now for this week’s medical tip: “Drugged driving” is no different than “drunk driving’ in the eyes of the law. Get pulled over with marijuana in your system, and you could have a DUI or worse.

So, know that for three, four, or five hours after smoking marijuana there will be at least subtle impairment in your driving skills. Also know that marijuana, because it is fat soluble, can remain in your system in measurable amounts for up to a week or more

Given these medical facts, I recommend you try really hard not to get pulled over if you smoke marijuana.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at

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