Glenn K. Beaton
The Aspen Beat

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February 2, 2014
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Beaton: He’s no worse than alcohol

Last week a biochemist announced that marijuana “is no worse than alcohol.”

OK, he’s not exactly a biochemist, but he does have some expertise on the subject. As a teenager in an exclusive private school in Hawaii, he was a member of a “club” called the Choom Gang. They had a narrow charter: It was to get high smoking marijuana every day. “Barry,” as he was then called, excelled.

President Barack Obama, as he is now called, still publicly jokes and brags about his teenage marijuana habit. But the president of the United States of America promises that he does “not encourage” his two teenage daughters who live with him in the White House to do the same.

I’m glad.

The president himself still smokes, but now his smoke of choice is Marlboros. He says he “bums” them off White House staffers who don’t smoke but carry cigarettes for the president to “bum.” And he promises that he doesn’t “bum” them in front of his children because that (the smoking, not the “bumming”) would set a “bad example,” he said.

As for marijuana, he said the “main problem” is that too many poor people and too few rich people get arrested for it.

These pronouncements came in the same interview where he said that if he had an adult son, he “would not let” him play professional football because it’s too dangerous.

Squint through this haze, if you can, and see the juxtapositions: He would “not let” his hypothetical adult son play pro football in the NFL, but he would merely “not encourage” his two non-hypothetical, non-adult daughters to smoke marijuana in the White House. He hides his present legal cigarette addiction because it would set a “bad example,” but he jokes and boasts of his past illegal teenage marijuana habit because it’s “no worse than alcohol.” And the problem with the marijuana laws, says the man who twice solemnly swore to uphold those laws, is not that they are broken by too many poor people but that they are broken by too few rich people.

The biggest juxtaposition is his conclusion that marijuana is no big deal alongside conclusions to the contrary published on his own official White House website. According to that website, real biochemists lament “the false notion that marijuana is harmless.” It goes on to note the association between marijuana and respiratory illness, suicide, cognitive dysfunction and schizophrenia. Marijuana has 50 to 70 percent more carcinogens than tobacco and is more often associated with permanent brain damage than alcohol, the website says.

The White House website concludes, “The Administration steadfastly opposes legalization of marijuana and other drugs because legalization would increase the availability and use of illicit drugs, and pose significant health and safety risks to all Americans, particularly young people.” See www.whitehouse.gov/ondcp/marijuana.

But what registers with people is not the nation’s laws, not the scientific facts and not the White House website. It is the onetime hipster president promising that it’s no big deal.

Unsurprisingly, heavy use of marijuana — defined as smoking it more than 20 times a month — is up 80 percent since Obama took office. One in 10 teenagers is now a “heavy user.”

Since the president brought it up, let’s talk about alcohol for a moment. (Disclosure: I drink alcohol.) Let’s assume he’s right in his guess that marijuana is “no worse than alcohol,” even though the scientists referenced in his own White House website disagree with him.

Alcohol kills more than 100,000 people a year in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of all traffic accidents involve alcohol. The leading cause of death among young people is drunken driving. Alcohol is involved in a third of murders, half of rapes and two-thirds of other violent crimes.

Alcohol abuse costs the country about a quarter trillion dollars a year (that’s trillion with a “t”). That’s more than the federal outlays for education. We spend a billion dollars a year just to treat fetal alcohol syndrome, where a baby is born with alcohol dependency and alcohol-related disease.

The loss of work time, reduction in family stability and happiness, diminution of a person’s quality of life and shortened lives are incalculable. (Second disclosure: My father died of liver cirrhosis in 1999 along with 31,000 other Americans that year.)

In short, even if the president is right that marijuana is no worse than alcohol, that’s plenty bad.

So permit me to “bum” some of the president’s own words to say something about a former Choom Ganger seeking to burnish his fading anti-establishment “cool” credentials at the expense of the country’s health, finances, laws, youth, stability, cognitive function and lives by encouraging people not to get ahead but to get high: He’s probably no worse than alcohol.

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The Aspen Times Updated Feb 2, 2014 12:16AM Published Feb 5, 2014 06:51AM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.