Massachusetts recently issued its first recreational marijuana license, bringing pot more fully into the ranks of regulated substances. Bravo! Decriminalizing drugs is a tactic that has been demonstrated to reduce their harm, notably in Portugal. And legalizing pot in Colorado and other states has not led to a surge in usage and related crime — or indeed even that collective societal zombification predicted by legalization opponents. But regulation is not a panacea, as we’re seeing with a substance that’s been legal for much longer: alcohol.
Almost 1 in 5 adults in Massachusetts drinks excessively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of the higher rates in the United States. Consumption comes with substantial costs. For instance, the Massachusetts economy lost more than $5.6 billion in 2010, according to a 2015 study, from lost productivity, health care expenses, and other costs, including those from accidents caused by drunken driving. About 31 percent of driving deaths in the state in 2016 were alcohol-related. Nationally there are more than 88,000 alcohol-related deaths every year.
Beyond the statistics is the tragic personal impact of alcohol abuse: broken families, physical and sexual assaults, and infants born with physical abnormalities and mental disabilities when expectant mothers consume. Heavy alcohol consumption causes other serious illnesses, too. Liver disease and strokes are the two big killers, but as a medical student on rounds, I saw one patient whose drinking had caused issues leading to the removal of several abdominal organs. I was startled when that patient told me, “I would still drink if I could.” Also, people addicted to alcohol can die if they’re deprived of it, which is not the case with pot or even cocaine. Alcohol withdrawal syndrome claims the lives of between 5 and 10 percent of those who suffer from it.