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Pot Parents: Smoking's Better Than Drinking!

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A controversial new movement promotes pot use instead of alcohol. These parents want to ban pot prohibition because they believe it will save lives.

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Gina Kaysen Fernandes: Alcohol and marijuana are the two most popular -- and easily accessible -- substances on college campuses, but they're not treated the same under the law. Possessing pot can land you in jail, but drinking too much at a keg party can kill you. "This highlights the absurdity in how we treat these two substances," said Mason Tvert, the co-founder and executive director of the group Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER. Mason has made it his personal mission to debunk the government's anti-marijuana message. "The fact that we have students drinking themselves to death made us realize we had to start some awareness on college campuses," says Mason.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20,000 Americans die every year as a result of drinking too much. It's a tragedy that Mason narrowly escaped. He nearly died from an alcohol overdose in the summer of 2000. The high school senior guzzled beer all day at a country music festival in Arizona. "Beer was widely available, and my friends gave it to me," recalls Mason. Paramedics rushed him to a nearby hospital, where doctors pumped his stomach. Mason's mother didn't know what happened to her son until the next day, because he was 18 years old and the hospital was not required to notify his parents. "He could have died -- I was so worried about that," said Diane Tvert. As a practicing physical therapist, Diane is supportive of her son's efforts to dispel marijuana myths. "I would so much rather he smoke pot than drink and get behind the wheel of a car," said Diane.

Many like-minded moms share her opinion. "I want my children to grow up to believe that laws are just and rational, and if there's injustice, they should fight it," said Jessica Peck Corry, a Denver-based Republican political strategist. Jessica, a former GOP candidate for state senate, is also a cannabis activist who campaigned for a ballot initiative that would decriminalize marijuana possession in Colorado. "We can no longer afford to wage war on a substance that people can grow in their backyard. It's a war we can't win," says Jessica. As a mother of two young children, Jessica says she plans to have an open dialogue with her kids about drug and alcohol use, even though, she says, "I want to place them in this bubble where I can protect them." Jessica believes that by arming her daughters with accurate information, "they will respect their bodies and make good decisions." These moms insist they're not pushing their kids to abuse drugs, but prefer they choose the lesser of two evils. "Things have gotten so skewed. People look at pot like it's the bogeyman. It's not going to kill you; alcohol can kill you," said Diane.

The statistics on the dangers of alcohol are staggering. Drinking on college campuses led to 1,400 deaths, 500,000 injuries, and 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape, according to a 2002 study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) task force.

The risks associated with getting stoned are fuzzier. No studies have found a direct link between marijuana overdose and death. There's no objective research that finds pot use contributes to violent or aggressive behavior. "They're correct. Typically people don't get violent; I'll be the first to admit that," said Ken Winters, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at the University of Minnesota-Fairview who specializes in adolescent substance abuse. "But there are plenty of issues with marijuana. It's not a healthy option," says Winters, who believes parents are fooling themselves if they think smoking pot has no long-term consequences. "Prolonged marijuana use appears to increase memory and learning problems," said Winters, who adds, "like tobacco, habitual pot smoking can also lead to cancer and respiratory diseases." Winters also warns there's new research emerging that suggests marijuana can effect your DNA, which has risky implications. He thinks that parents who rationalize marijuana use are being naïve. Instead, Winters recommends we teach our kids to drink responsibly by sticking to the two-drink rule. "It's no fun to be the 'no-fun police,' but that's what you got into, that's part of parenting."

The so-called "Marijuana is Safer" movement is gaining momentum among college students, but is facing a lot of resistance from campus officials. Mason believes the institutions are part of the problem. On one hand, school administrators are trying to promote responsible drinking, yet "universities are fostering this behavior," argues Mason, by allowing beer companies to sponsor campus events like fraternity parties.

A number of well-known party schools are starting to mellow out on pot penalties. Students are adopting SAFER measures at about a dozen college campuses nationwide, including Colorado State University, University of Colorado-Boulder, Florida State University, University of Maryland, University of Texas-Austin, University of Central Florida, and Ohio State University. Students on these campuses are working to make sure the school penalties for marijuana use are no greater than those for alcohol use.

Mason makes his case for SAFER Referendums in a new book hitting shelves this month, titled "Marijuana is Safer, So Why Are We Driving People to Drink?." Mason co-authored the book along with two other prominent legalization advocates, Steve Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project, and Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Marijuana is so easily accessible that one in three Americans have tried it at least once, including the three most recent U.S. presidents. The nation's marijuana business is estimated to rake in $113 billion in annual sales. That's not far behind the alcohol industry, which pockets $130 billion per year. For parents like Jessica, it's the fiscal concerns that make her blood boil. "It costs $30,000 a year to incarcerate a pot dealer, and we spend $10,000 a year to educate a child." Jessica thinks it's time that more mothers come forward "because for so long, others have been exploiting our children by perpetuating this war on drugs in the name of our children."

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