Marijuana and Tobacco: A Subjective Comparison

With a steady increase in the number of governments implementing marijuana law reform into their political agendas, it is only natural that cannabis be compared to alcohol and cigarettes. As with any pot enthusiast, I rejoice in reading research findings that indicate the relative safety of marijuana in contrast to the socially and legally acceptable substances of ethanol and tobacco. However, cheerleader-esque triumph is replaced with more sober considerations upon closer examination of the drugs in question.

A vice-riddled creature, I am a user of all three substances. Cannabis is used to enhance perspective and the physical senses; to intensify appreciation of food and of art. Alcohol is used to complement meals (a full-bodied Barolo with meat dishes, a citrusy Sauvignon blanc with pasta and seafood, and beer of all types with anything deep-fried) and to render the labyrinth of expected conduct at large social gatherings more navigable and enjoyable. Tobacco was used as a means of obtaining peer acceptance as a teenager and gradually as a source for immediate stress relief. All three are used as social stimulants: for reasons beyond comprehension, collective substance use increases camaraderie and can strengthen or even forge friendships.

The fundamental discrepancy between these substances lies in that I no longer wish to smoke cigarettes. After no less than a dozen escape attempts, I have relinquished hope of quitting completely, establishing a new standard of smoking only occasionally (defined as less than two cigarettes a month) with the intention to set more realistic goals and to reduce the frequency with which I disappoint myself with failure.

I know all three are “not healthy”. I know that excessive marijuana can diminish my short term memory. I know that excessive alcohol can damage “nearly every organ in the body”. Most of all, I know that smoking cigarettes increases mortality rate by about 300% and decreases life expectancy by “at least 10 years”; that this little white stick is literally killing me. Despite awareness of such staggering dangers and of the atrocious behaviour of tobacco companies (i.e. Philip Morris International suing the Uruguayan government to avoid educating consumers of risks through graphic informative packaging.), I still cannot stop. I am able to withhold from alcohol (though I admit that it is difficult to say no at celebratory occasions and that it would indeed be pleasant to have a glass of wine or pint of beer with most meals). I am capable of abstaining from marijuana (a beloved substance which I believe improves the appreciation of art and life) for weeks with no symptoms of withdrawal. But I am unable to say there will ever be a day when I am completely free from nicotine. Even if I successfully “quit”, the addiction will remain; a poltergeist forever lingering in the shadows, a parasite lying dormant deep within the body.

Such horrifying addictiveness and plethora of health repercussions make for a nasty combination, best described by the World Health Organization as “the single most preventable cause of death in the world today”, responsible for more deaths than “tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria combined”.

At the moment, all attention is centered on cannabis: its legal status, its health and sociological effects. Assuming, however, that the government and the courts adopt an evidence-based approach, I truly hope that the dialogue on drug policy reform eventually extends to tobacco; that there be future consideration of increased regulation and taxation, of its inclusion as a Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act (Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in Canada), and of the establishment of licensed tobacco dispensaries as opposed to ready availability in every gas station and convenience shop.

But, I suppose, one step at a time.