If you heard a drug dealer denigrate his competitor's product as unsafe, would you trust his criticism? Last week, thanks to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, that became the central political question in the fight over whether to continue America's destructive war on marijuana.
The frontline in that war is Colorado, where the federal government has interfered with its system of state-regulated medical marijuana businesses, despite President Obama's promise to refrain from doing so. Countering that crackdown is a 2012 ballot initiative that would make Colorado the first state to fully legalize marijuana and regulate it like alcohol.
Enter Hickenlooper. In the same month a poll showed majority support for the marijuana legalization initiative, the governor blasted the measure for allegedly "detract(ing) from efforts to make Colorado the healthiest state" and for "send(ing) the wrong message to kids."
What makes his announcement so stunning, and what evokes the drug-dealer comparison, is the governor's career as a purveyor of the drug commonly known as alcohol. That's right, as the founder of the state's first brewpub, Hickenlooper was instrumental in flooding the state with his beery drug of choice.
So it all comes down to trust. Will voters trust that their beer-mogul-turned-governor is actually worried about health and children? Let's hope not, because when you put Hickenlooper's brewing career next to his marijuana fearmongering, he's essentially saying that while pot is unhealthy and bad for kids, alcohol is not - and that assertion is not supported by facts.
Whereas the Centers for Disease Control report that alcohol use is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death, marijuana use has never been shown to kill a single person. Whereas the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse reports that more than a third of violent crimes are connected to alcohol use, no research has ever shown a correlation between violence and marijuana use. And whereas alcohol is a known carcinogen, pot has never been proven to contribute to cancer.
The standard retort to these facts is to insist that two wrongs do not make a right, and to then claim that marijuana prohibition at least keeps one of those wrongs off the market. But those suppositions are negated by two realities:
1. Under our existing prohibition, marijuana is already "almost universally available," according to the federal government.
2. Even if you do believe all mind-altering drugs are "wrong," it makes no sense health-wise to only let users choose a dangerous substance (alcohol) rather than a safer alternative (pot).
But, then, that latter item spotlights a powerful economic force shaping the politics of drugs. Despite the health consequences of a market that legally preferences alcohol over marijuana, the alcohol industry that has an obvious business interest in maintaining the status quo.
This is almost certainly why the industry bankrolled the fight against more tolerant marijuana policies in California and probably why the nation's first self-described brewer-governor opposes the measure in Colorado. Alcohol peddlers and their political allies are simply trying to preserve a government-mandated monopoly - health, safety and facts be damned.
David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He co-hosts "The Rundown" on AM630 KHOW in Colorado. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.