Both alcohol and cannabis can damage your brain – but which drug is really the most dangerous? Does legalizing cannabis lead to greater harm to society?
“I do not think it is more dangerous than alcohol,” said US President Barack Obama in an interview earlier this year.
The statement came shortly after the state of Colorado became the first in the world to release marijuana into the community, creating a heated debate over the comparison between cannabis and alcohol.
But are there any scientific comparisons between the two drugs at all?
In fact, there is research that indicates that cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol – both for one’s own health and for the environment. But these studies have received harsh criticism.
Alcohol most dangerous to society
A couple of years ago, an article was published in the magazine the Lancet that compared the harmful effects of various drugs, including cannabis and alcohol.
The conclusions that would serve as a basis for future drug policy and regulations in the UK, showed that alcohol was far more dangerous than cannabis both in terms of harm to others and to the user himself. The combined harmful effects of alcohol were even greater than heroin and cocaine.
Cannabis, on the other hand, according to the study had a lower harmful effect on both users and the environment than both tobacco and alcohol. Previous studies by the same researchers also showed how tobacco and alcohol were more addictive than cannabis.
Lack of research
But many other researchers are strongly critical of the comparative studies, partly because the combined information about the effects of alcohol on the individual and society is much greater than for cannabis.
According to some professors, there are not enough studies and evidence about cannabis to be able to make cool comparisons.
Of course, alcohol harvests more victims, but it has to do with the frequency of use, many more people use alcohol. With this in mind, much more research has been done on alcohol in this respect in order to come to more grounded conclusions.
Another objection to the British comparative studies is that they are based on collected information from the 1980s-90s when cannabis had a significantly lower concentration of the chemical substance that constitutes the cannabis drug Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Since the 1990s, the THC content has doubled as the drug has been refined.
It is also only in recent years that new research technologies, such as magnetic camera technology, have made it possible to study in depth the real effects of cannabis.
Marijuana research has not come as far as alcohol research for obvious reasons, and more studies will be performed in the future.
The health effects
The negative effects of alcohol on health after long-term and excessive drinking include impaired thinking and the risk of liver cancer. Millions of people die every year from alcohol-related diseases such as alcohol poisoning.
Prolonged cannabis use can also lead to reduced intelligence, but also impaired memory, lower ability to concentrate, and increased risk of suffering from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, according to some studies.
Until recently, smoking marijuana was not considered to cause any direct deaths due to overdose – but in early 2014 came the first scientific study that showed that two people actually died of a heart attack due to excessive levels of cannabis in the blood.
For both cannabis and alcohol, research has shown that it is mainly younger people who are harmed by the use.
It’s a difficult comparison
But according to some researchers, it is not really possible to make direct comparisons between cannabis and alcohol because they behave differently when they enter the body. It’s like comparing apples to pears:
Alcohol goes via our endorphins to the brain, cannabis goes directly to the brain. Moderate amounts of alcohol provide a reward effect that, although more pronounced, is more similar to the natural reward effect we get from good food, sex and physical activity. Regardless of the effect, one gram of THC is significantly stronger than one gram of alcohol.
Split opinions until more research is done
It’s safe to say that the comparison between alcohol and cannabis is a topic that splits opinions. Even amongst researches and professors.
Many people believe that legalizing cannabis around the world would be a good thing. They argue that it would reduce freedom costs for individuals and societal costs such as prison space and police work:
It is however, clear that we should leave the moralistic attitude and instead ask ourselves how we can minimize costs.
It is uninteresting whether alcohol or cannabis is most dangerous, both are dangerous in case of overconsumption, but zero tolerance and criminalization are fundamentally wrong:
People have the right to do what they want with their bodies. We allow tobacco and alcohol, many argue.
The counter-argument to this normally goes something like this:
“A person who abuses harms not only himself but also others”.
But this argument fails when things like cigarettes and alcohol are widespread and completely illegal in society.
Many people, however, argue that the benefits of legalization far outweigh the disadvantages because most people do not smoke marijuana daily and do not abuse or adversely affect their surroundings at all.
Increased supply equals increased consumption
Many professors agreed with Barack Obama when he said that cannabis is no more dangerous than alcohol – but it is often argued that legalization will lead to increased consumption. Most studies indicate that there is a clear link between increased supply and increased use of cannabis.
In that, it is also argued that is problematic with increased consumption of cannabis because it also leads to increased use of other drugs.
European studies have, among other things, shown that 75 percent of everyone who smokes cannabis mixes it with ordinary tobacco.
There are also no guarantees that problematic alcohol consumption would decrease because we legalize cannabis, but it would for a fact stop other problems in society like smuggling, and financing criminal gangs. It would also reduce costs of cannabis-related issues like police resources, trial costs, prisons, and much more.
The bottom line is, more studies need to be done in order to be able to come to a conclusion of which of these are more harmful. It is, however, very clear that alcohol has great consequences, both in society as a whole and for the individual. Cannabis has so far certainly not shown the same widespread issues that alcohol has in society, but more research needs to be done. In particular on its health effects on the individuals.