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I regret to admit that I have, once or twice, ill-advisedly and many years ago, driven motor vehicles under the influence of marijuana.

I don’t recommend it, due to the obvious safety risks that being stoned behind the wheel entail. Research indicates that while both pot and marijuana can negatively effect driving ability, with alcohol more dangerous, driving capacity is worst when both substances are combined.

However, if I had to choose between driving high on pot or under the influence of alcohol (I’ve also, but almost never, driven drunk-ish), I would unhesitatingly suggest the former.

My long-past experiences driving while inebriated or stoned were starkly different. With alcohol, you tend to drive 95 mph but feel like you’re going 45 mph. With pot, it’s somewhat opposite: you feel like you’re tearing down the road but, in fact, are just creeping along like a paranoid granny.

Of course, your brain’s in an altered state with both drugs, and it’s all illusion—a dangerous illusion.

Until the next day, when the drunk’s inevitable pounding headache is all too real, and, conversely, the pothead is feeling fine (better than fine, actually).

But the night before, tipsy or stoned, as you drove your many-thousand-pound metal ramming machine through streets sprinkled with other vehicles and people, thinking you had it all together, your cognitive clarity and reaction time were, in fact, severely corrupted. Indeed, you were manslaughter waiting to happen.

Pot, alcohol effects significantly different

But to the pot-phobic, it should be pointed out that the overall effects of alcohol and of “Mary Jane” are usually completely and in significant ways different (although users’ sensations can differ for each). Despite common differing experiences getting high from either drug, both “have roughly the same effect on your cognitive abilities, reflexes, and judgment.”

Alcohol all too often can make imbibers angry, aggressive, and argumentative, while pot virtually never does (in my experience). Instead, pot generally seems to make people mellow, affectionate and … hungry. And driven to compulsively blow smoke rings (me, at least, as I recall from my college Marlboro- and pot-smoking days).

So, when my state (South Dakota) recently rejected an initiated measure (IM 27) seeking to legalize recreational marijuana in the just-concluded midterm elections, it struck me as not only an unforced error but somewhat hypocritical.

Why outlaw pot but allow booze and cigarettes?

After all, alcohol has long been as legal as cigarettes in the state, and beer, wine, and hard liquor—also cigarettes, for that matter— because way, way more damage to individuals, communities, and society writ large than pot ever has. Or would.

Yes, cannabis (aka, “pot”) can be habit-forming like ice cream with TV and, at least according to some studies, perhaps somewhat physically addictive. But its withdrawal symptoms are nothing compared to weaning from alcohol or even heroin addiction. I know; once upon a time, I quit pot. My main withdrawal symptom was just regrouping and learning to enjoy things “straight” again. It took an easy month or two to return to habitual normal. There were no night sweats, gastrointestinal agonies, bugs crawling on walls, psychotic breaks, none of that. It was a mental thing.

Stopping pot, which I did in college (I realized I needed to study more and party less) was actually much easier than quitting cigarettes, which I did in 1986 when I met the younger woman who would become my wife and wanted to live long enough to enjoy her many charms.

So pot seems to be the bogeyman for people who have never smoked it but think nothing of chugging a six-pack of beer or more a night. “It’s illegal,” was long the refrain against pot, when “juicers” (what potheads once called boozers) generally started experimenting with alcohol way before the legal age.

Recreational pot now legal in 21 states

But now recreational marijuana is now legal in 21 states, so the outlaw excuse is becoming quaint. However, it’s still federally outlawed, but a bill to decriminalize pot is now wending its way through the US House of Representatives. Medicinal marijuana is legal in all but 13 states.

People who have smoked pot know that, taken in moderate quantities, as most people seem to drink, the effects of cannabis overall are relatively subdued compared to alcohol. You commonly feel a sense of gentle euphoria and profound creativity, bathed in the natural brain chemicals of goodwill and psychic contentment that pot releases, and you crave food of any kind, which always tastes spectacularly good (you know, the “munchies”).

High on pot, you absolutely don’t want to argue or fight, rape anyone, or abuse your kids or significant other (although there are also undrugged psychopaths and creeps everywhere naturally). Indeed, while stoned you even sometimes find that people you don’t like very well suddenly seem utterly benign and even interesting. And your stressful social inhibitions largely vanish, which can be a relief for introverts (like me).

To be fair, alcohol does have some of the same enjoyable effects, minus the nonviolence and hunger, and plus nausea and vomiting if you guzzle too much, and, of course, dreaded hangovers the next day.

To its everlasting credit in this respect, pot produces zero hangovers.

Yet, still, driving under the influence of either substance always can be lethal—to yourself and innocent others. And most of us drive a lot, so those potentially awful risks, not to mention possible legal indictments, should be carefully considered.

I must admit—considering the potentially negative consequences I mentioned above—that I almost voted against South Dakota’s marijuana legalization measure in the midterm election.

What does pot do to adolescent brains?

Also, with pot, new research suggests that its effect on developing brains in adolescence and young adulthood might stunt or alter various cognitive capacities, according to an article on the website the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  That’s alarming, if it proves true, but the jury’s still out.

Developmental neuroscientist Kuei Y. Tseng of the University of Illinois, Chicago, says findings are concerning but not yet definitive. He explains that studies with mice indicate that “exposure to THC [the psychoactive ingredient in pot] or similar molecules during a specific window of adolescence delays maturation of the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a region involved in complex behaviors and decision making.”

So, partaking of alcohol or pot, particularly for the young, should not be viewed casually, no matter how enjoyable and outwardly benign in practice. There are consequences that should be seriously weighed.

READ: A long overdue pardon on marijuana possession calls for further change

I must admit—considering the potentially negative consequences I mentioned above—that I almost voted against South Dakota’s marijuana legalization measure in the midterm election.

‘What’s good for juicers should be good for stoners’

But at the last second in the voting booth, I decided that, in all fairness, what’s good for juicers should be good for stoners, especially when pot’s effects and risks are demonstrably far more benign. And because all the feared negative effects aren’t scientifically pinned down yet.

So it’s not a question of alcohol vs. pot. It’s alcohol and pot.

Just because alcohol, unlike pot, has long been legally available in modern times doesn’t mean it’s automatically a preferable intoxicant to others. And banning one vice because a society doesn’t want two is discriminatory. We already tried to ban booze once (unsuccessfully). After all, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the sweetest high is in the mind of the imbiber.

READ: In Debate Over Legalizing Marijuana, Disagreement Over Drug’s Dangers

How anti-pot zealots corrupted a legalization vote

South Dakota opponents of the pot measure, unsurprisingly, chose to demonize proponents and scare and deceive the electorate (successfully, apparently) rather than being honest and balanced with their arguments. Before the recent election, the website for anti-pot Protecting South Dakota’s Kids (PSDK) stressed on its landing page:

We need your support to fight off New York City Hedge Fund Managers and a well-funded, out-of-state pot lobby that has invested millions to “educate” South Dakotans about the “merits” of their product while seeking access to our kids, our families, and our communities. …

In 2006 and in 2010 South Dakotans soundly defeated recreational pot initiatives. In 2020, 1.6 million dollars of propaganda was funded from out-of-state to mislead voters on the “merits” of legalizing recreational pot.  Big commercial marijuana interest and money from radicals dumped millions into our state.

Again … What about alcohol and cigarettes?

As if South Dakotans don’t have rational minds of their own and are easy prey for carpetbaggers. And, of course, nothing was mentioned in tandem about the dangers of alcohol and cigarette use, which the state continues to embrace—and earn significant tax revenues from.

Ironically, the state could also earn significant tax revenues from legalized pot. But conservative fear rules.

When the pot measure was defeated by a 53% majority, PSDK Chairman Jim Kinyon said in a statement:

We know how destructive marijuana is to the residents in states that have already legalized the drug. And we presented a well-researched, fact-based informational outreach to many communities across the state as we could physically get to the last three months.

Among the supposed terrible effects of marijuana, PSDK on its website contends that “the #1 drug associated with a child’s death is marijuana, that “in Colorado marijuana is found in 34% of the teens that die by suicide age 15-19,” and that adolescent pot use “is associated with increased depression, suicide and psychosis.”

PSDK doesn’t explain, however, how marijuana is associated with adolescent deaths and how the victims died; whether pot was simply proximate with troubled youths in Colorado and not a cause of their suicides; and whether psychological issues of at-risk youths existed before they used marijuana and did not trigger their mental problems.

Does pot, like alcohol and cigarettes, ruin lives?

I’ve read reports that lots of troubled adolescents are in rehab for pot dependency, but I’m skeptical if they’re in rehab by choice or if at the insistence of right-wing state and local authorities waving draconian pot laws, and of potheads’ conservative parents. I’m skeptical of that because my experience with marijuana and that of people I know strongly indicate that it doesn’t ruin people’s lives or lead them into crime and debauchery like alcohol and hard drugs do. It just doesn’t.

On the other hand, I also understand that available pot strains these days are more potent than the milder leaves we smoked back in the day. But, like with alcohol, I presume users adjust intake to strength according to their preferences and how it affects their ability to safely function.

All this pot hysteria seems to me a lot of sound and fury over very little.

To parents: I’m sure you drank booze and/or smoked pot and cigarettes back in the day, and you recovered robust enough to bring kids into the world to responsibly worry and fret about. Hell, you may still be ingesting those substances today. If so, you know pot is hardly an imminent death sentence for the user—unlike with uncontrolled alcohol or cigarette abuse, which all too frequently is.

This is not to say everyone should go out and get high in some way. We shouldn’t irresponsibly because there can be sometimes terrible consequences for such recklessness. It’s that there should be some reason, balance and honesty in how we think about these things. And how we act on them.

It makes no sense to demonize pot while somehow ignoring the fact that far-worse alcohol is a debilitating scourge on society.

But, state after state, decade after decade, we do.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...