If someone says “smoking marijuana is not as bad as drinking alcohol” do you interpret this as them implying marijuana is bad? Or do you take it as them defending one thing by comparing it to something bad?
Can you also explain your reason.
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It is generally used to defend one thing by comparing it to the other. The specifics depend on context. One would need to either know what the comparison is from common use and knowledge of the situation, or it would need to be specifically explained in the essay.
For the example you ask about, in the USA the context is that alcohol is legal (with restrictions), generally socially acceptable for adults, and moderate use is displayed readily. I know this because I have heard the argument numerous times, and I am aware of the laws in the U.S. So the implication is:
[Marijuana should be legal because] smoking marijuana is not as bad as drinking alcohol [which is legal and ubiquitous].
Another connotation, still defending something because it is not as bad as something else would be to compare it to something that is not acceptable. In this case the idea is that the other thing is much worse, but the first thing should not be grouped with the second thing. So if someone said “Marijuana is not as bad as snorting cocaine,” the implication might be:
[Marijuana should not be illegal because] smoking marijuana is not as bad as snorting cocaine [which is illegal, but marijuana is not on that level.]
Either way it is defending A for not being as bad as B.