Marijuana and Alcohol: Substitutes, but for whom?

The push for marijuana legalization seems to be gaining steam, with even the Monkey Cage Blog asking whether pot was the new gay marriage, meaning solely that the trend lines in polling around the country were starting to cross, with a majority supporting it rather than a majority opposing it (The American Prospect denies that it’s that important, though, at least politically). The New York Times Editorial board published a piece today citing research by Dan Rees of Colorado-Denver and Mark Anderson of Montana State to support the idea that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes, which means good things for road safety.

Logic: more marijuana use means less alcohol use means less driving drunk and more driving high, and driving high is safer than driving drunk.

While it’s odd in and of itself to herald impaired driving (even if it’s in comparison to even-more-impaired driving), I’d question whether we knew all that much, in a scientific sense at least, about driving high. Surely, it happens all the time (I’m from Colorado, people, I know it’s happening and so do you), but it’s not clear that those who would drive drunk see marijuana as a substitute and thus would drive high instead. There’s been no evidence presented that the specific group of those with a propensity to drive drunk sees marijuana as a substitute, which is the key to the road safety argument.

Secondly, the Rees & Anderson paper says “there is evidence that drivers under the influence of THC compensate for these impairments. For instance, they tend to drive slower and take fewer risks.” Admittedly not having read the studies they cite, I’m curious whether these drivers are being more careful and following less closely because marijuana makes them more relaxed and in less of a hurry, or because the consequences of getting caught are higher. Legalizing marijuana would eliminate the second concern, taking road safety off the pro-legalization side. It may be that THC itself induces the behavior, but I’m not convinced by these logical leaps.

The advent of conversations I thought I’d never have

Even teaching at a place like the University of Colorado, marijuana use was never something I discussed with my students or professors. It didn’t really come up among my fellow graduate students (except the ones who played Ultimate, let’s be honest). Outside of one friend who owned a medical marijuana dispensary and a few pothead friends (mostly my guitar teacher, who taught me some Bob Marley before anything else), it just wasn’t something I talked about that much.

The passage of Amendment 64, however, has suddenly turned the conversation on its head in ways I never thought possible. More than once this semester, I have had my principles of micro students ask about marijuana legalization and how we tax it. (The answer was I didn’t know, turns out that in Colorado it’s taxed at a higher rate (regular sales tax) than other pharmaceuticals (exempt from sales and use taxes), which, from an elasticity and deadweight loss perspective in a simple supply and demand model, is certainly the way to go).

Another student asked me this afternoon about moving to Denver after graduation, where he might have a job opportunity. I, of course, lauded Denver’s many highlights and, to my surprise, added, “well, and you can smoke pot legally if you want.” He responded it was not his thing, but we then delved into a conversation on the relative economic merits and costs of legalization. I know that people have been having conversations like this forever, it just seems like they’ve suddenly become much more mainstream.

Finally, on Saturday, I got together with some friends and one friend’s very conservative, elderly, immigrant parents, perhaps the last people on Earth I thought I would have a conversation with about marijuana. But, they grow orchids, and according to the new law, her dad told the group, he can grow six plants and so can his wife, so why not get started? He didn’t want to smoke it, he said. I’m still not sure what he planned to do with it, sell it, keep it just because he could, give it away? But both of my friend’s parents were extremely excited about the possibility. We went back and forth on the specifics of the law all while laughing uproariously at the insistence of two elderly Chinese that they wanted to grow pot and were looking for a consultant to help them, while their daughter tried to convince them not to because she didn’t want to take care of the plants while they’re not in town.

Not your run-of-the-mill cocktail chatter, for sure, but suddenly, it is. Brave New World.