Round 1 of BATTLE OF THE BUZZ covered the personal health effects of marijuana vs. alcohol, and in Round 2 we discussed the impact on society. Today, in our series finale, we’ll be going over how each substance effects the economy.
Allow me to begin by stating that while doing this research, I really tried to find reasons why cannabis could have a negative impact on the economy, and I seriously couldn’t find any. Alcohol, on the other hand, is nearing the point of costing society more than it contributes. When factoring in the many financial losses, the profits from alcohol are around $21 billion, but the cannabis industry is expected to grow to that size within a couple of years, and soon surpass it, especially since legalization is shown to diminish the use of alcohol and other drugs.
Last year, legal cannabis had a total economic impact of $17 billion, which is due to a combination of tax revenue, health care savings, and job creation. In just one year, cannabis accounted for $6.7 billion in total sales, and the industry now employs around 150,000 Americans, plus jobs created indirectly such as contractors hired to revitalize potential dispensary spaces. In 2016, Colorado alone collected over $180 million in taxes from medical and recreational pot, and throughout the rest of the country, weed money has been saving small towns from inevitable bankruptcy.
But generating revenue isn’t the only way cannabis contributes to our economic infrastructure, it also saves money. In terms of cannabis and healthcare, the growth of medical programs is helping to cut down on pharmaceutical spending by reducing the amount of prescription pills patients need. A recent report from New Frontier Data concluded that Medicare patients saved their states an average of $165 million when switching to medical marijuana, an 11 percent reduction in costs. When accounting for every state with a medical program, the total healthcare savings were around $1.1 billion
So far, the only truly negative impact that cannabis has on the economy is – I’m sure you guessed it already – incarceration. A research team at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center calculated the total taxpayer cost for an inmate at a minimum security prison, where nearly 60 percent of all inmates are located, at $21,000 annually. There are currently 757,969 people in prison solely for cannabis related crimes. So at $21,006 per person, that’s a total of $15,921,896,814 to keep these people locked up for one year. But our math lesson isn’t quite over yet, because according to the United States Sentencing Commission, the average prison sentence for pot charges is just over three years. That brings our grand total to $47,765,690,442; the true cost of imprisoning stoners.
The American Beverage Licensees (ABL), the national association for bars, taverns, and package stores, estimates that the alcohol industry has a total economic impact of $245 billion dollars, which at face value, makes the cannabis industry’s revenue pale in comparison. But on the flip side, if weed were legal, there would be no economic downside, while alcohol has its own unique set of costs and financial burdens on society.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), excessive drinking costs the United States around $224 billion every year, which breaks down to nearly $2 per drink. Alcohol’s economic issues are far reaching and they break down into a few different categories. Out of that $224 billion, 72% is a loss of workplace productivity, 11% goes towards healthcare costs, legal expenses take up 9%, and the remaining 6% covers the costs of alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents.
Healthcare and accidents
The United States spends more on healthcare than any other industrialized nation in the world, and a lot of these expenses are alcohol related. The largest percentage of alcohol-related costs are medical. The health risks associated with alcohol are numerous: liver damage, brain damage, cancer, fetal alcohol syndrome, kidney damage, the list goes on. And overall, it’s a factor in nearly 60 percent of all emergency room admissions.
Based on the CDC stats, roughly $25 billion is needed to cover the medical bills incurred by, or indirectly caused by, excessive drinkers. This is not including motor vehicle accidents, which tacks on an additional $14 billion. Alcohol is also present in over 50 percent of all domestic violence cases and 15 percent of child abuse case. So not only are drunks hurting themselves, they’re physically attacking the people around them. When’s the last time you got stoned and assaulted someone who loves you? We’re guessing never.
It’s estimated that anywhere from 6 to 7 million employed Americans are alcoholics. No one wants an alcoholic employee, but a pot-smoking employee on the other hand, would probably go unnoticed unless they were forced to take a drug test. Just think of it this way, we frequently get resumes from people who end their cover letters with things like “stay high!” Can you imagine if someone applied for a job in the alcohol industry saying “stay drunk”? Yeah, me neither.
There’s the obvious fact that no one wants to worry about an employee drinking on the job and not performing well, but the issue is much more complex than that. Accidental injuries (themselves and others around them) are far more prevalent among alcoholic employees. Another issue is absenteeism, which is estimated to be 4 to 8 times higher among alcohol abusers. This is due to either being too drunk to do the job properly or go to work at all, or some kind of alcohol-related health issue that causes them to stay home. In all, alcoholism results in around $160 billion per year lost due to products, goods, and services that are never made or delivered.
Incarceration and treatment
That annual $15 billion it takes to keep potheads imprisoned seems like an exorbitant amount, but alcohol-related legal costs actually surpass that number. Taxpayers spend a staggering $20 billion every year to incarcerate people for crimes involving alcohol. Oddly enough, despite how widespread and dangerous drinking is, only a very small percentage of that $224 billion is spent on treatment and prevention, around $200 million, which sounds like a decent figure but it only amounts to less than 0.1 percent.
And the judges say…
So there you have it. The evidence is clear. The winner of our final round goes to cannabis once again. Hundreds of millions enjoy pot and alcohol, and no one should be able to tell another person they can’t use them. But to answer the question of which is less damaging to health, which is safer to society, and which has a positive impact on the economy – not negative – cannabis is the clear champion.