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Is Cannabis Any Different From Tobacco and Alcohol?

By Erick Ponce - Cannabis Industry Promotion Group - GPIC


By Erick Ponce | President - Wed, 02/22/2023 - 17:00

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The debate around support for cannabis legalization and opening the industry to conscious consumers and patients is often framed as a choice between two evils; that is, intoxication and abuse, framing cannabis in the same light as legal recreational substances: tobacco and alcohol. However, this is a false dichotomy. Cannabis can be legalized and regulated in ways that don’t create an incentive for more use or abuse.

It’s perplexing that we are still unable to distinguish between harmful substances like tobacco and alcohol, with documented potential for abuse and major health risks and cannabis, that while far from innocuous, clearly has less harmful effects and with actual health and wellness benefits. 

Mexico recently enacted what is being called “one of the world’s strictest anti-tobacco laws,” banning smoking in all public places, and restricting the advertisement of tobacco products. Retailers and stores are basically being asked to hide tobacco products from sale, which basically paints a legal substance as illegal.

True, tobacco is a leading cause of preventable death worldwide; the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that tobacco use is responsible for 1 in 10 adult deaths worldwide. It is one of the gravest legal health hazards and while I support completely all necessary actions to slow, prevent and stop consumption of such a dangerous substance, the way we present such efforts and execute them matter as much as the intent behind it.

All in all, more than intent, the way we portray such intentions and more importantly how we carry them out, have a deeper impact than what we may realize. Time and time again, we have seen factual demonstration that prohibition will never be as effective as regulation, especially in terms of impact on health and risk prevention as well as controlling the black market.

Prohibition (or in the case of Mexico’s anti-tobacco law, the resemblance of prohibition) of any substance is a bad approach to minimize health risks because it creates a vacuum, where there is a clear lack of regulation and impossible to follow quality control of an existing and demanding market. Additionally, a prohibitionist approach often leads to a lack of education and resources, creating confusion, uncertainty, and a lack of accountability. Overall, prohibition is not an effective way to minimize health risks and can actually exacerbate the problem.

So grouping a prohibitionist approach to substances with potential health risks with a view of cannabis as “just another drug,” will undoubtedly create the perfect storm: fuel the black market, create confusion among consumers, lack of accountability from the authorities, and an ever-expanding state of anarchy surrounding the commercialization of such products.

No doubt, the cannabis industry has its own unique set of challenges and opportunities. While there are many who paint similarities between cannabis, tobacco, alcohol and other substances that have been branded as drugs or consumer products targeted for intoxication for decades, few consider their key differences.

Studies have found that the risk of death from cannabis use is almost non-existent, and that the plant is not as harmful as other legal and illegal substances. Unlike tobacco, the WHO states that there is no evidence to suggest that cannabis use is associated with increased mortality.

It is important to note that the effects of cannabis use on health can vary depending on how it is consumed and the individual's health status; however, one of the main reasons why cannabis is less harmful than other drugs is that it is non-toxic. Unlike alcohol and many other drugs, cannabis does not have the potential to cause death by overdose. 

So, while legal substances like alcohol and tobacco are influential markets, unlike those two, the regulation and further legalization of cannabis is expected to have a significant and positive impact on both health and the economy. From a health perspective, the advent of the legal cannabis market is expected to improve access to the compounds of the plant for medical purposes, particularly for patients suffering from chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions that have been shown to respond well to cannabis-based treatments. This would improve the quality of life for these patients and reduce their dependence on actual harmful drugs, such as opioids.

Moreover, opening the legal cannabis market will lead to increased research into the medical uses of the plant and the development of new, more effective cannabis-based treatments. This, in turn, would bring new jobs and business opportunities across different sectors.

From an economic perspective, the legal cannabis market is expected to generate significant tax revenues for governments, which could be used to fund public services and improve the lives of citizens. It also creates jobs across an ample spectrum of the industry, from cultivation, to retail, to processing and manufacturing. It also reduces the burden on the criminal justice system, which is currently clogged by low-level cannabis offenses.

We must level expectations, then, and not group cannabis in the same category of truly harmful substances. However, it is important to be cautious in its use and to always follow medical and scientific advice. Although cannabis has many potential therapeutic benefits, it can also have negative effects on some individuals, particularly those who are susceptible to mental health issues. Long-term, heavy use of cannabis can lead to addiction and other negative effects on cognitive function and mental health. Therefore, it is important to use cannabis responsibly and in consultation with a medical professional, as with any other substance. 

Nothing is completely harm-free, but cannabis has a relatively low-risk profile compared to other legal and illegal drugs, with numerous upsides. We have ample experience to know that the economic and health benefits of embracing the legal cannabis market will depend on specific regulations and how our authorities will implement such rules. It is not enough, then, to talk about regulations, potential risks and cautions. Equally important is  how we portray, educate and inform the general population about these. 

Photo by:   Erick Ponce

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