As voters and legislators around the country debate legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, its safety is also being debated and often compared to alcohol, the universally-legal drug. Many supporters of legalized marijuana say that alcohol is the more dangerous drug. Research can give us some insights into the truths about alcohol, marijuana and which is worse for you.
Marijuana, Alcohol and Death
The main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis is a substance called THC. In alcohol, it is ethanol. Ethanol is known to be toxic and can kill in large amounts. THC, on the other hand, has never been shown to be toxic in the amounts consumed when a person smokes pot or consumes cannabis. According to the World Health Organization, 3.3 million people worldwide died in 2012 as a result of alcohol abuse. In a recent study, researchers concluded that alcohol is 114 times more deadly than cannabis.
Marijuana-related deaths are rare but headline-grabbing. A college student was killed when he jumped from a balcony after consuming a pot cookie with a high concentration of THC. Alcohol is clearly more likely to kill than marijuana, but that doesn’t mean either is safe to use. Here is a comparison of what each drug does to the mind and the body.
THC and other psychoactive compounds in marijuana are called cannabinoids and they interact with cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Most of these receptors are in the part of the brain related to memory, consciousness, emotions and thinking. The result is that marijuana impairs your memory, alters your consciousness, makes you hungry and can make you feel anxious or paranoid.
Research has found that smoking pot causes brain damage. With long-term use, it reduces white matter in the brain and increases the risk of developing schizophrenia and psychosis. We also know from research that heavy use of marijuana lowers IQ, especially in young people.
One major issue, in terms of health and safety, when it comes to the legalization of marijuana in several states is that new users may not be aware of how much THC is in a product. In the case of the man jumping to his death from his balcony, the cookie he ate contained 65 milligrams of THC, a higher concentration than the more potent strains of natural cannabis.
In the brain, alcohol affects the areas related to coordination, memory and emotion. When drunk, you stumble and lose muscle coordination, have memory impairment and experience emotional and mood alterations that can range from happy to sad to aggressive. Unlike marijuana, alcohol affects other organs too: the liver, heart and pancreas.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drinking too much alcohol can cause both short-term and long-term health effects. In the short term, drinking can cause injuries, (which can be fatal) violence, alcohol poisoning, risky behaviors and poor decision-making. Drinking excessively over the long term causes heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems, high blood pressure, memory problems, depression, anxiety and addiction, and also increases the risk of certain types of cancers.
Neither alcohol nor marijuana is good for your health. Both are risky and both can cause lasting mental and physical problems. While the legality of marijuana may be changing, some people are calling for a reevaluation of alcohol. Regardless of how the law changes, everyone has a choice, and often the best choice is to abstain.