Booze or Pot? No Question Which Substance Is More Harmful to Health

2014 910 harm fw(Image: Sebastian Surendar, Torben Hansen)

Pot and booze both have their aficionados – and their detractors. But an objective assessment of these two substances’ impact upon health yields only one conclusion: that marijuana is far safer than alcohol. Here’s why.

Alcohol, unlike cannabis, is a central nervous system depressant that possesses an affinity to the brain’s opioid receptors. This is why the consumption of alcohol depresses the brain’s inhibitory control mechanisms, and why the over-consumption of alcohol may cause respiratory failure, coma and death. By contrast, consuming cannabis, regardless of quantity, is incapable of causing lethal overdose.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, about 15 percent of those who experiment with alcohol become dependent upon it. (For cannabis, this percentage is estimated to be 9 percent.) Moreover, ceasing one’s alcohol consumption after prolonged usage can trigger significant feelings of craving as well as physical withdrawal and even death. Manifestations of physical withdrawal from cannabis have also been observed, though these symptoms have been described by the National Academy of Sciences and others as “mild” compared to those of alcohol, opiates or nicotine.

It is well established that alcohol consumption is associated with adverse effects on the body and on behavior. Reports by the World Health Organization and others link alcohol consumption with increased odds of intimate partner violence. The use of cannabis is inversely associated with such violent outbursts. Victim survey data analyzed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that just over a quarter of all violent crimes are committed by an offender who had recently been drinking. Cannabis, by contrast, does not typically stimulate reckless or aggressive behavior nor is its use associated with an increased risk of hospitalization.

The toxic effects of alcohol on the body can cause significant long-term health damage. Drinking alcohol over time is associated with inflammation, scarring and cirrhosis of the liver. Excessive alcohol consumption is estimated to account for one out of every 15 cancer deaths in the United States. In women, about 15 percent of breast cancer deaths are linked to alcohol consumption. Not so with cannabis. Even subjects who regularly inhale cannabis smoke possess no greater risk of contracting cancer than do those who consume it occasionally or not at all, according to a 2013 UCLA analysis of six case-control studies, conducted between 1999 and 2012, involving over 5,000 subjects.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Globally, the World Health Organization reported that booze is responsible for a staggering 4 percent of all deaths worldwide, more than AIDS, tuberculosis or violence. No similar statistics have ever been compiled for cannabis.

Of course, none of these facts are meant to imply that cannabis is innocuous. However, it is self-evident that cannabis’ associated risks are not so great as to warrant the continued arrest of some 700,000 Americans annually for possessing it, nor do they justify the plant’s present status as a schedule I controlled substance – a classification that equates the purported dangers of pot to be equal to those of heroin. (Alcohol, despite its litany of adverse effects, is unscheduled under federal law, as is tobacco.)

The continued criminalization of cannabis and its consumers is a disproportionate response to what is, at worst, a public health concern. In an environment that celebrates and regulates booze, it makes no sense to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate those who choose to responsibly consume an objectively safer alternative.