Art by Nathan Campos / Daily Nexus

This past weekend, I engaged in the use of mind-altering substances a total of two times. The first time was on Friday night. After selecting a winning outfit, meticulously drawing on my winged eyeliner and taking a few pictures with my partner-in-crime for the night, three shots of Peach Amsterdam and a few light beers were all I needed to complete my pregame ritual before heading out to the streets of I.V.

On the walk to our target address on the 67 block of DP, we passed by hordes of drunk individuals shouting, fighting and otherwise making merry. Once we reached the address, we engaged in conversation with a few drunk men whose offers to refill our drinks we promptly declined.

We danced in the sweaty, screaming crowd for a short while and left the party once a mosh pit formed. We then left to another party and were catcalled several times along the way. At the second address, we selected more alcohol from the stash on the kitchen counter and danced for the rest of the night until the party was disbanded by the police.

My second engagement with substances this weekend occurred the next day, Saturday. I woke up that morning with a pounding headache and decided that a more mellow day was in order. So, I opted for a smoke sesh rather than another night of booze-fueled partying. That night, just as the sun was setting, I headed to the beach with a small group of friends and laid a towel down by the ocean. We sat down, set up a portable speaker to play music and packed a bowl of indica.

I inhaled the sweet smoke and blew out, watching it dissolve into the ocean breeze. I sat with my friends for a while and talked about Kendrick’s new album and our plans for Spring Quarter. I looked out over the waves and sunset, feeling content, relaxed and more grateful than ever to attend school by the beach. We then packed up our things and walked into I.V. to get dinner at Buddha Bowls.

Marijuana and alcohol are the two most popular mind-altering substances at UCSB and most other colleges. On an average weekend, a substantial number of students use them to unwind from the stress of college and have enjoyable experiences somewhat like the ones I described above. As you can see, the two stimulants offer pleasurable but quite different effects. The main distinction between them, however, is that one is stigmatized and frowned upon by the public, while the other is considered to be a normal aspect of the college experience that most students will engage in at one time or another.

The sound of ambulance sirens is a routine component of the ambient noise in I.V. on a weekend night. Alcohol overdose is not uncommon and has been fatal for several UCSB students in the past.

Everyone knows that college students are going to drink and party, especially at UCSB. The party scene is often the first thing people bring up to me when I tell them what school I attend. Smoking, on the other hand, is an activity I cannot afford to talk about so openly. Despite the recent legalization of marijuana and discovery of its medical benefits, those who own up to using it are still labeled as lazy, aimless drug users and are stigmatized in the public eye.

I understand each substance has negative health effects and should not be used in excess. Users of both substances place themselves at risk for plenty of adverse short and long-term consequences. Overall, however, the negative stigma applied arbitrarily to marijuana while alcohol use gets a free pass is archaic and seriously needs to be amended.

It is my belief that marijuana stacks up equally to alcohol on almost all bases of comparison between the two. In fact, in many ways, marijuana is the less harmful substance. First, let’s examine the immediate, short-term effects of each stimulant. Allow me to generalize here and say that the descriptions I gave at the beginning of this article are fairly representative of the average experience of a UCSB student using each substance.

I know that everyone’s experiences are different, but on the whole alcohol tends to be the toxin of choice at large, rowdy gatherings typical of the “I.V. party scene.” This is because, as we all know, alcohol lowers the drinker’s inhibitions and allows him or her to dance with no reservations, be loud and goofy with friends or approach a potential partner with unlimited courage. In other words, alcohol puts us in the perfect mindset to receive optimum enjoyment from the parties happening just down the street.

Unfortunately, however, most people who are familiar with the wonderful benefits of alcohol also know its negative consequences all too well. The sound of ambulance sirens is a routine component of the ambient noise in I.V. on a weekend night. Alcohol overdose is not uncommon and has been fatal for several UCSB students in the past. Even those who haven’t experienced it to the point of requiring hospitalization can probably recall puking their guts out at a house party at least a few times.

Other negative consequences of alcohol can set in even before one has overdosed. The lowering of inhibitions that attracts people to the substance in the first place can influence drinkers to perform actions they wouldn’t dream of doing while sober. Sexual mishaps ranging from unprotected sex to rape most commonly happen while under the influence of alcohol. Violence and fighting are also much more likely to happen once individuals are intoxicated. Drinking can lead to some of the most fun and memorable experiences in college, but there is definitely a dark side to its use.
Weed, on the other hand, produces none of these harmful consequences.

Personally, I would much rather be sitting on a couch with a pounding heart and panicked mindset for a few hours than in an ambulance racing to the hospital with my life on the line.

The drug is most often consumed in mellow circumstances with fewer people around and less dangerous activities taking place. Since people often use it to relax and unwind rather than as a party fuel, the dangers associated with the I.V. party scene do not usually apply to smoking. There have been no instances of weed overdose invoking physical harm or death on a smoker. The drug does not cause people to act violently or perform careless actions; in fact, a person nearing their limits of marijuana consumption is more likely to be lost in thought on the couch than acting out in any sort of harmful way.

The most common negative effects one will experience after a smoke sesh are cottonmouth, a bit of short term memory loss and paranoia. Ask anyone what their absolute worst experience with weed has been, and they will probably describe a “bad high” during which they felt panicked and glued to one spot, unable to move. While experiences like this are certainly not fun, they are rare and always wear off within a few hours with no lasting harm to the smoker. Personally, I would much rather be sitting on a couch with a pounding heart and panicked mindset for a few hours than in an ambulance racing to the hospital with my life on the line.

The short-term dangers of marijuana clearly pale in comparison to those of alcohol, but the long-term effects of the drug are why many people claim to disapprove of it so harshly. While these effects are the most convincing argument against the use of the drug in my opinion, I still believe they are disproportionately emphasized compared to the effects of alcohol. Research has shown that heavy marijuana use can impair cognitive function, especially for users who have been getting high from an early age. But impaired brain development is also a side effect of long-term alcohol use. So yes, it’s accurate to say that the use of illicit substances is damaging to young people’s brains, but this statement applies to both of the substances most commonly used by young people. It still doesn’t explain the negative stigma applied to marijuana specifically.

Many people also believe that smoking weed causes lung cancer down the line, but in reality no study has proven this to be true. While existing research is limited, the studies that have been done have found no significant increase in the risk of lung cancer for marijuana smokers. Alcohol, on the other hand, has been proven to increase the risk of liver disease and some cancers for long-term users. So once again, it would be misguided to cite long-term health effects as a justification for the disproportionate stigma against marijuana.

While we’re on the topic of health effects, let’s talk about the fact that marijuana can actually have medical benefits to its users, something that cannot be said about alcohol. Medical marijuana is prescribed by doctors to alleviate a wide variety of conditions such as adverse side effects from chemotherapy, poor appetite and seizure disorders. Alcohol, on the other hand, possesses none of these curative benefits and essentially has no use beyond its recreational value.

When the pros and cons of marijuana versus alcohol are compared side by side, it seems impossible to understand the reasoning behind the cultural stigma against marijuana use. This brings me to what I believe is the real reason marijuana is so stigmatized in our culture: racialized stereotypes formed during the War on Drugs that are still perpetuated today in mainstream culture.

A full explanation of the War on Drugs and the ways in which the criminalization of drug use has harmed the African American community is beyond the scope of this article. There have been several books written on the topic that I highly recommend reading for a more complete understanding of this troublesome and deeply rooted issue in the American criminal justice system. I would recommend The New Jim Crow and Understanding Mass Incarceration for those interested in learning more.

There is simply no reasonable justification to stigmatize smoking and condone drinking.

To offer a brief explanation for those who are unfamiliar, the War on Drugs was first declared in the 1970s by President Nixon and was later carried out through a series of policy changes during the administrations of Reagan and Clinton. These policies were claimed to be a necessary remedy to an alleged drug epidemic taking America by storm.

In reality, the War on Drugs was a thinly veiled strategy to further marginalize African Americans and strip them of their civil liberties by placing absurd criminal penalties on even the most minor drug use. Its harmful effects still exist today, and I believe it is the number one explanation for the unreasonable stigmatization of marijuana use. Think about it: when people picture a typical instance of alcohol use, the image in their minds is composed of white college students drinking from red Solo cups at a party. Marijuana use, however, is associated in the American collective consciousness with the “hood” and racial minorities. White parents do not want their children to engage with a drug that’s commonly associated with “those people.”

Those who believe we live in a post-racial society today will shake their heads at this claim, but think about all of the comparisons I just pointed out between alcohol and marijuana. There is simply no reasonable justification to stigmatize smoking and condone drinking. The only factor that truly explains the stigma is the cultural stereotype that associates marijuana use with young people of color in undesirable neighborhoods. This stereotype is unfair and unreasonable; statistically, the rates of drug use are virtually equal across racial lines. Unfortunately, the War on Drugs has successfully infiltrated the minds of Americans and indoctrinated them with racist stereotypes that form a stigma around a commonly used, relatively harmless substance.

I personally am sick of having to feel ashamed of smoking weed recreationally and in moderation. I have never blinked an eye before submitting Nexus articles about controversial topics like pornography and abortion, but my hand hovered anxiously over the “Send” button for the first time recently when I went to turn in an article that discussed smoking weed.

My mind began to race, wondering what would happen if my relatives or potential employers clicked on this article. I was afraid of them finding out that I, a college student with a high GPA who participates in several extracurricular activities, take a few puffs of herb sometimes to unwind from the stress of school. I have no reservations about sharing stories with family and friends about drinking at I.V. parties, but I am always careful not to reveal my experiences with weed because I know it will damage the image they hold in their minds of me as a good student with respectable morals.

It’s about time that we acknowledge this unreasonable stigma and dismantle it so that the use of marijuana is just as socially acceptable as that of alcohol. When the facts about each substance are laid out, no reasonable person would come to the conclusion that marijuana is any more harmful or immoral than alcohol.

Laurel Rinehart thinks the American public needs to recognize that both substances are normal and common on college campuses and stop acting as if people are committing an immoral crime every time they puff, puff, pass.

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