Jan 292006
Authors: Vimal Patel

The concert floor was vomit-drenched, Mason Tvert said, and alcohol was the culprit.

"We saw about 10 girls carried out," said Tvert, executive director of the pro-pot legalization SAFER , about a Thursday night concert he attended. "They weren't smoking marijuana. They were wasted (on alcohol)."

And as SAFER (Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation) pushes its statewide ballot measure that would legalize marijuana, the group continues to hammer its message: Alcohol is far more dangerous than marijuana, and therefore it's illogical and fundamentally unfair to keep the plant illegal.

Many students agree.

"I think marijuana is a safer alternative to alcohol," said Peter Zola, a freshman history education major . "We should be looking toward the welfare of the people."


But some said the debate over which is worse misses the point and the drug is harmful, even if not as much as alcohol.

"There's a possibility that it could lead to (harder drugs) with some people," said Greg Myers, sophomore history major .

The "gateway" effect Myers eluded to states that marijuana use often and disproportionately leads to the use of harder drugs.

"From what I see working at a drug facility, people start at marijuana and move on when they get bored," said Holly Conklin, director of public promotion for Narconon International, a drug prevention and rehabilitation program.

She added that her center has treated several people for marijuana-only addiction.

Tvert, however, said the notion that marijuana is a gateway drug has been debunked numerous times by reputable studies, including one by the nationally and internationally respected RAND Corporation.

"The real 'gateway' is the fact that we make people buy the drug on the black-market where there are harder drugs available," he said. "Just because there's a correlation doesn't mean there's causation. There's also a correlation between eating fries and cheeseburgers."

Fries and cheeseburgers are often eaten together because they're available in the same place, but that doesn't mean the eating of one causes the eating of the other, his argument continues.

And by this reasoning, the so-called gateway effect would be eliminated if the government were to regulate marijuana, knocking the underground market out of business.

The 2002 RAND study cited by Tvert states that marijuana is typically the first drug used because it's the most readily available.

"While the gateway theory has enjoyed popular acceptance, scientists have always had their doubts," said Andrew Morral, lead author of the study, according to a press release. "Our study shows that these doubts are justified."

RAND did not advocate for legalization or decriminalization of pot.

"I can only hope that (the study) will be read with objectivity and evaluated on its scientific merits, not reflexively rejected because it violates most policy makers' beliefs," said Charles R. Schuster, a former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), according to the statement.


In the days before voters approved the groundbreaking city ordinance in Denver that legalized pot – the drug remains illegal under state and federal law – SAFER chided the city's brewery-owning mayor, John Hickenlooper.

In response to the mayor's chief of staff joking about sending a shipment of Oreos and Doritos to pot-legalization proponents, SAFER fired back by sending Hickenlooper a body bag with a fake foot sticking out, surrounded by jugs of alcohol from the mayor's brewery.

The message: Which is worse, the "munchies" that result from smoking pot or an alcohol-induced death?

No one has ever died from only smoking pot, legalization proponents say.

But that's doesn't mean the munchies are the only negative effect of marijuana.

Pot use hinders the ability to think, according to the NIDA.

"Because marijuana compromises the ability to learn and remember information," the institute states, "the more a person uses marijuana the more he or she is likely to fall behind in accumulating intellectual, job or social skills."

In the hours following use, the drug also increases the risk of heart attack five-fold, according to various studies, including one by a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School in 2000.

But the same study also put the spike in perspective: Pot use increases the chance of a heart attack only twice as much as a lazy person having sex, and is less risky than a couch potato's spurt of exercise.

Bruce Mirken, communications director for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project , said pot use isn't completely safe but it's not nearly as harmful as alcohol.

"Any drug has potentially negative effects and more so if it's used stupidly or recklessly," he said, adding that pot use increases the risk of bronchitis, like all smoke does.

"No mood-altering drug should be used if you're operating a car or machinery or doing anything risky," he said. "Beyond that, there's very little documented harm associated with marijuana use."



Alcohol, on the other hand, kills. And it does so frequently.

Of college-age students 18 to 24, alcohol contributes to an estimated 1,700 deaths, nearly 600,000 injuries and 97,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape every year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

In 2004, CSU student Samantha Spady died after reportedly consuming a large amount of liquor. Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr., a University of Colorado-Boulder freshman, also died of alcohol poisoning days later.

"If they would have used marijuana instead of alcohol, they'd still be alive," Tvert told the Collegian in November.

Tvert said SAFER, which has gained international attention since its November victory in Denver, started on Colorado's university campuses because they're at the forefront of the national problem with alcohol.

To get a statewide measure on November's ballot, SAFER will first have to get a ballot title and then collect about 67,000 signatures.

If voters approve the proposed measure, then individual cities will be free to decide on the legality of pot. Some cities, including Fort Collins, have no such city ordinances and are guided by state law.

If a statewide measure passes, the only way Fort Collins citizens 21 or older could be prosecuted for recreational use of small amounts of pot is by federal law, and it's extremely rare for the federal government to intervene in minor pot cases.



The Thursday night "Slightly Stoopid" concert that Tvert attended in Denver consisted of common behavior for drunks, he said.

"They're more likely to get involved in altercations," he said. "They just act like fools."

Zola could drink to that.

"The mentality of wasted people is far more chaotic," and it's not the same with pot smokers. "They're too paranoid to cause trouble."

SAFER officials said if they educate Coloradans about pot's relatively benign negative effects, at least compared to alcohol, then the state's voters will approve the proposed ballot measure.

"Times are changing and the policy needs to change," Tvert said.

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