President Obama called it last year, and now a duo of European scientists is backing it up: Marijuana is not more dangerous than alcohol. Or so says a new study, which looks into the deadliness of recreational drugs and found that booze is 114 times more lethal than weed.
Cannabis was also found to be the drug least likely to kill you of all 10 commonly used substances analyzed in the study published recently in Scientific Reports journal, an ancillary publication of Nature.
The study's authors, Doctors Dirk Lachenmeierand Jürgen Rehm, conducted the research using a margin of exposure approach, which measured the ratio between the estimated amounts of each recreational drug typically taken by users against the point that doses of those substances become lethal — data that was derived from animal experiments.
The researchers then ranked the substances based on the risk posed to an individual, with drugs like alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and heroin falling into the "high risk" category, while other drugs like ecstasy and crystal meth both fell into the "medium risk" threshold. Marijuana was the only drug classified as "low risk."
These findings reinforce previous research and drug rankings — using completely different methodology — that rank the risks of alcohol, Rehm told VICE News. But the "absolute differences in riskiness between substances," was perhaps the most surprising aspect, he said.
As the study applies to the general population, alcohol was the only "high risk" addiction-related substance on the scale, which is likely in part because of its wide exposure and availability, the scientists said.
Rehm said the research should not be interpreted to mean that moderate drinking is more dangerous to an individual than using hard drugs like heroin, which can pose other environmental-related risks — such as sharing infected syringes, drug purity or strength, or "behavior of police" — which was not able to be tested on the animals.
He also stressed that regular drug and alcohol consumers should treat the results of the study with caution, as toxicological limits were conducted on animals, not humans, and no interactions with substances were taken into account. For example, someone who drinks, snorts cocaine, and then smokes a joint as a downer is likely at far greater risk than if they did the drugs individually.
Lachenmeier and Rehm — who has a background in generating scientific studies to inform policy makers on ways to minimize impacts of alcohol and tobacco on society — suggest that based on the findings, governments should look into adopting "a strict legal regulatory approach rather than the current prohibition approach" to marijuana.
In terms of social drug policy, the "results confirm that the risk of cannabis may have been overestimated in the past," the researchers said in the report, which was funded by the European Community's Seventh Framework Program and the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, which floated the scientists' salaries.
Lachenmeier and Rehm particularly noted tough stances on pot implemented by governments in Europe, where marijuana is still illegal in many countries, despite widespread decriminalization.
"In contrast, the risk of alcohol may have been commonly underestimated," and efforts may be better spent on "risk management prioritization towards alcohol and tobacco, rather than illicit drugs," they wrote.
While European-based, Rehm said the study could have resonance for similar "high-income countries," where the findings are also applicable to social drug policy.
"If you talk about the US or Canada, we would project similar findings," he said. "For Latin America, results may change."
The study has also been published at a critical time for the US, where an increasing number of states are seeking to pass individual laws to legalize and regulate cannabis, including efforts to declassify the drug as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
This week, Alaska saw its ballot initiative ending pot prohibition for adults take effect on Tuesday, while Washington, DC is set to allow adults to possess up to two ounces of recreational marijuana on Thursday, even though passage of regulatory policies on the sale and taxation of the drug has stalled.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields
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