The idea that the use of cannabis leads to the use of hard narcotics and addiction has been around practically since the release of the propaganda film, Reefer Madness in 1936. That concept has been questionable, to say the least – and for the past several months, scientific research has shown that the concept of marijuana being a “gateway drug” has virtually no validity whatsoever. In fact, research has found that states in which cannabis has been legalized in one form or another have lower rates of narcotic use, particularly opiates.

A recent study from the University of Connecticut has also shown that in states that have legalized marijuana, sales of alcohol have dropped by an average of 15 percent. The study examined data on 90 major liquor stores across the country, gathered over a ten-year period from Nielsen’s Retail Scanner. According to the report,

States legalizing medical marijuana use experience significant decrease in the aggregate sales of alcohol, beer and wine. Moreover, the effects are not short lived, with significant reductions observed up to 24 months after the passage of the law.”

Interestingly, the greatest decreases were seen in sales of beer and wine. The trend is not going unnoticed by the brewing industry; Constellation Brands, the third-largest producer of alcoholic beverages in the U.S., has invested over $190 million in Canopy Growth, a major cannabis producer based in Canada.

In a related story, a number of studies have also examined the question of whether alcohol or marijuana is more harmful. This has been a bone of contention for some time. One survey, published in Scientific American in 2012, found that while “marijuana use can be problematic” (because of psychological dependence), it rarely leads to physical addiction – at least by itself. However, add tobacco into the mix, and the addiction rate can be over 30 percent.

On the other hand, statistics from the World Health Organization estimate that alcohol use is implicated in nearly 6 percent of premature deaths around the planet every year. That amounts to 3.3 million per year, or roughly one person every 10 seconds. This is due not only to alcohol-related disease such as cancer and cirrhosis of the liver; it includes indirect consequences such as traffic accidents and the spread of sexually-transmitted disease.

Overall among dangerous drugs, alcohol ranked Number One, followed by heroin and crack cocaine, in terms of addiction and harmful health effects. On the other hand, studies have demonstrated marijuana to be relatively innocuous; authors of a paper published in 2015 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology recommended that governments and lawmakers focus their drug policy on “drugs with the highest overall harm, including alcohol and tobacco.” The paper also recommended that drug policies should approach drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Meanwhile, countries and states in which marijuana continues to be illegal are spending billions of dollars to enforce these antiquated laws – while those that have legalized cannabis are reaping economic benefits and enjoy significantly lower rates of addiction to more dangerous substances.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.