Is Marijuana Safer Than Alcohol?

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I dread the day when one of my kids asks, “Is marijuana safer than alcohol?” Because the truth is no drug is truly “safe.” And yet, as far as harm caused, can one drug be safer than another? Certainly caffeine causes less harm than heroin, and yeah, you’re less likely to murder someone while using marijuana than smoking crack, but what do we mean by safer?

Another issue is that drugs affect people both similarly, and quite differently. Someone with a genetic predisposition toward alcohol addiction, though they may feel similar effects as their friend without this genetic predisposition, is at greater risk of long-term harm from alcohol. Similarly, someone seeking marijuana in a state where the drug is not legal, may face dangers in obtaining the drug, whereas alcohol is a legal and accessible drug.

Further consideration is the quantity used. If using equal amounts of marijuana or alcohol, what effects may be felt, and are there any immediate health risks or risk of harm to yourself or others?

In order to consider the question on the safety of one drug over another, we must consider a myriad of factors, including drug interactions, and even mood disorders that can alter the effects of the drugs.

Which is safer? Consider:

  • What is the addiction risk for either drug?
  • What are the short-term adverse health effects?
  • What are the long-term adverse health effects?
  • Do any pre-existing conditions exist that would exacerbate side effects?
  • Are there any prescribed medications that could exacerbate side effects?
  • Which drugs are more likely to cause aggression?
  • Which drugs are more likely to increase risk of accidental death?
  • How much of the drug must be used in order to increase these risks?

Addiction Risks For Marijuana And Alcohol

Marijuana today isn’t the stuff of the previous generation. The sought-after psychoactive compound found in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is now available in significantly higher concentrations than it was 20 years ago. And it may be smoked, or used in baked goods to increase effect. Others use hash oil, wax, or shatter, extracts of marijuana, containing 15 percent to 85 percent pure THC. Obviously, addiction risk depends on how much THC is being ingested.

Of those smoking marijuana, approximately 9 percent become addicted to the substance. This number climbs with THC potency. Unfortunately, for those trying to determine whether smoking marijuana is safer than consuming alcohol, the genetic factor can be problematic.

Researchers have found that the same genetic pairings increasing a person’s risk of addiction to alcohol, is the same as those pairings associated with addiction to marijuana.

More than 7 percent of those who have used alcohol in the last year will become addicted to the substance. While that number seems smaller in comparison, it represents a participant population far larger than those using marijuana. However, these numbers, close as they are when compared to use, indicate that the shared genetic links to addiction are, indeed, similar between alcohol and marijuana. Does one emerge safer in the end? Not if you have the genes for addiction.

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Short-term Health Risks Associated With Use Of Marijuana And Alcohol

Short-term risks of using either alcohol or marijuana are similar. Distortion of reality, loss of coordination and fine motor control, slowed reaction time, and drowsiness. Someone who consumes too much alcohol may experience additional symptoms including vomiting, loss of consciousness, and memory loss, though someone ingesting large amounts of THC may experience paranoia or anxiety, and psychotic episodes.

Long-term Health Risks Associated With Use Of Marijuana And Alcohol

Both marijuana and alcohol share some common long-term side effects of use, including reduced immunity, reduced cognitive functioning, memory loss, sexual dysfunction, apathy, mood changes, brain damage, and increased cancer risk. While marijuana affects the lungs, alcohol targets the liver. Alcohol carries a higher risk of death due to alcohol poisoning, liver disease, and cancer, over marijuana.

Other Risks Of Using Either Marijuana Or Alcohol

Really, some of the side effects from use of marijuana or alcohol come not from the direct physiological impact of the substances, but from changes in behaviors associated with use of the drugs. Someone using alcohol is far more likely to get into a fight, die in a car accident, or die from overdose, than someone using marijuana.

However, the myth that those who use marijuana are impervious to harm is shattered by similar risk-taking behaviors. Though the numbers are lower, someone using marijuana who gets behind the wheel of a car, is also a threat to themselves and others. In either case, risk-taking behaviors can lead to any number of unintended consequence including sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, assault, accidents, and death due to drug interactions, if the person is taking prescribed medicines, while using either marijuana or alcohol.

For those with co-occurring mental disorders, the risk of addiction, exacerbation of symptoms associated with the disorder, as well as suicidal tendencies increase.

Safety Is Relative

When it comes to looking at using one drug over another, the only sure thing that emerges is that safety is relative. How a person obtains a drug, where they choose to use the drug, and with whom, which activities they engage in following use of the drug, how long and at which quantities they use the drug, pre-existing medical conditions and medications, genetic predisposition toward addiction, and more all play a part in either increasing or decreasing safety of one drug over another. The fact is, no drug is truly safe. And the only safe option is to refrain from using at all.

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