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How Marijuana Legalization Could be a Huge Public Health Success

Marijuana is much safer to use than alcohol. It may seem hard to believe, but the statistics speak for themselves:

According to the CDC, alcohol-related deaths account for roughly 88,000 deaths in the U.S. per year. Total, that’s around 2.5 billion years of potential life lost, and a total economic cost of 223.5 billion dollars per year. Excessive drinking accounts for 1 in 10 deaths of working-age adults, and it remains fourth on the list of leading preventable causes of death in the U.S. Marijuana, on the other hand, is nearly impossible to overdose on, and the number of deaths it leads to is practically zero. While driving while high does significantly increase your chances of getting in a car crash (83%), it is negligible compared to the increased risk when someone is drunk (2200%).

This isn’t to say pot is good for you, and marijuana combined with alcohol is particularly dangerous. But if marijuana replaced alcohol as the drug of choice for even a fraction of the population, it could be a huge public health success.

But does marijuana availability actually decrease levels of alcohol consumption? Early statistics suggest it does.

A new study by a trio of researchers from the University of Connecticut and Georgia State University looked at the number of purchases of alcoholic beverages from 2006-2015 in states where medical marijuana was legalized and compared them to the rates in states in which it wasn’t. What the study concluded was that “We find that marijuana and alcohol are strong substitutes. Counties located in MMA [Medical Marijuana Law] states reduced monthly alcohol sales by 13 percent, which is a consistent finding across several empirical specifications.”

13% is a large number, however, it must be taken into account that this study only accounts for medical marijuana. A decrease in alcohol consumption in MMA states doesn’t necessarily mean that total marijuana decriminalization will decrease alcohol sales, but it’s a strong indicator that it might.

Also, a decrease in alcohol sales isn’t the only potential benefit of legalizing marijuana. Numerous studies have come to the conclusion that legalizing medical marijuana decreases opioid usage and overdoses. [1][2][3] And while little research has been done on the effects of recreational legalization on opioid usage, preliminary data from Colorado suggest that it does indeed decrease opioid-related deaths.

As the opioid epidemic rages and tens of thousands die from alcohol consumption, any solution that alleviates either of these issues must be given serious consideration. When we examine the implications of marijuana legalization, not only should we consider public opinion and mass incarceration, but we must also look at it as a means to improve public health.

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