The deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy admitted on Tuesday that alcohol poses a greater public health risk than marijuana.
Deputy drug czar Michael Botticelli made the reluctant admission during a somewhat aggressive line of questioning by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) at a congressional hearing on federal marijuana policy.
"How many people die from marijuana overdoses every year?" Connolly asked Botticelli at the hearing.
"I don't know that. I know that it's very rare for someone to die," Botticelli responded.
"Now contrast that. Prescription drugs. Unintentional deaths from prescription drugs. One American dies every 19 minutes. Nothing comparable to marijuana. Is that correct?" the congressman continued.
"Correct," Botticelli affirmed.
"Alcohol. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from alcohol-related deaths," Connolly carried on. "Is that correct?"
"I think the way you have to look at this is, the totality of harm associated with a substance," Botticelli said, evidently anticipating where Connolly's questioning was headed. "And to basically say that because marijuana doesn't have the lethality or the overdose potential that heroin or alcohol does, diminishes I think the significant health consequences that are associated with the drug."
But Connolly would not be swayed.
"Is it not a scientific fact that there is nothing comparable with marijuana?" he persisted. "And I'm not saying whether it's good or bad. But when we look at deaths or illnesses, alcohol or other drugs are certainly -- even prescription drugs -- are a threat to public health in a way that isolated marijuana is not. Isn't that a scientific fact? Or do you dispute that fact?"
"No, no, no," Botticelli responded. "I don't dispute that fact."
Watch video of their exchange, above.
The drug official's admission echoes recent remarks by President Barack Obama, who said in a recent interview that he doesn't think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol. (Obama went on to say, however, that weed is "not very healthy" and a "waste of time.")
Meanwhile, the drug czar himself has said legalization won't change his office's mission to fight drugs, and that the idea that marijuana has medical uses is a "bad message" for the nation's teenagers.
The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who famously refused to say whether heroin is worse for your health than pot, reportedly slammed Obama for his recent remarks comparing pot to alcohol, saying his administration doesn't have the science to make those claims.
Marijuana is classified by the DEA as a Schedule I drug, along with meth and heroin, for having "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse."