This might seem like a ludicrous question to ask—which of the two, marijuana or alcohol, is a better choice? But to an adolescent growing up in the United States, it’s a perfectly legit inquiry. I will also add that this question deserves a well thought out answer, from a place of knowledge, immersed in fact as well as social consciousness.
Every Parent’s Silence Speaks Volumes to A Child
There are different ways of parenting that become the standard per each generation. Sometimes the style is restrictive, others are overly lax. But no matter the way you choose to parent, avoiding the conversation about marijuana or alcohol use can be equated to enabling addictive behavior.
Get a group of parents together and ask them if alcohol is a better choice than marijuana. Sit back and watch the fireworks explode. Some people think that just because alcohol use (over the age of 21) is legal, that implies that it is a healthier substance than weed. Depending on the social circles in which you travel, marijuana use is considered just as unacceptable as heroin. The stigmas may not be the same but they exist. So how do you really know if marijuana is less risky than alcohol or if it’s the other way around? Do you use your own experience as a guide? Do you follow what the law dictates?
Ask Me and I’ll Tell You
I’m cooking dinner for my kids a few years ago. My son comes up to me and says, “Mom, I need to ask you something but promise you won’t be mad.” (Don’t you love it when they do that?)
Apprehensively, I sigh, turn down the flame on the stove and say, “Okay, I’m not promising anything but tell me anyway.”
“You know how you always say that there’s going to be a day when I’m going to think about drinking a beer or trying weed…?” he cautiously throws it out there. Yeah, I’m quietly flipping out inside.
“Yes… is this the thinking stage or have you already done it?” (wait for it)
“Well my friends have been drinking and they’re getting high – not a lot – but like, on the weekends…” (I’m contemplating grounding him just to keep him away from everyone)
“So what are you really asking me…?”
“I guess I’m just telling you that I’m probably going to do one or the other… so I want to know which one you’d prefer I do…” (Yes, he jumped the conversation into reality mode. He has most likely already done something.)
Here comes the standard Mom answer, first. “As your mother, I would prefer you do neither.”
“But, if I had to choose, it would be marijuana.”
“Why?” he asked, relieved. (I’m sure that’s what he already tried)
The reasons I gave him, many years ago, still reign true today and then some. I’m not saying that I’m some genius. Part of me felt like I really rolled the dice on how I handled it. But I chose to be honest because I wanted him to come to me again and keep this conversation about drugs and drinking an open dialogue. Other parents may opt to say, “don’t indulge in anything”. Based on the statistics about drug use in this country, I didn’t believe abstinence was a word he would process well. I didn’t when I was his age. Did you?
Health Risks of Marijuana or Alcohol Assessed by Margin of Exposure
Over the years, medical practitioners and scientists have been attempting to accurately measure the risks associated with short- and long-term drug and alcohol use. You’d think it would be an easy task. Drinking and smoking weed affect people differently. There are also mitigating factors that change how the body and brain react to legal and illicit drugs. The length of use and volume of use (per instance) also plays a role in risk factors. Moreover, consideration must be made for each drug’s level of toxicity and the associated rate of addiction. It’s complicated.
To simplify how we gauge the risks of marijuana or alcohol and other substances, the Margin of Exposure “MOE” approach was ideated and is in use today.
MOE Approach for substance abuse risks looks at:
- Dose taken vs. amount people typically use
- Applied to heroin, cannabis (marijuana), alcohol,
amphetamine, MDMA (Molly, Ecstasy) and more
The results were based on individual use and greater population use.
MOE High Risk Drugs per Individual Use = Alcohol, Cocaine, Heroin and Nicotine
MOE High Risk Drugs per Population Use = Alcohol
More remarkable than this, the study indicated that marijuana posed a 114x less deadly risk compared to alcohol. Moreover, the only drug included in the study to show a low risk of death was weed.
These findings mirror what drug and health agencies recently report: Marijuana users age at similar rates to non-cannabis users. Alcohol-related deaths near 90,000 per year and fatalities related to marijuana use alone – zero.
The Laundry List of Risks from Drinking Is Long
There’s plenty of research that calls out the dangers of drinking: heavy drinking, binge drinking, long-term drinking, even moderate drinking. Although the findings may vary, there are consistencies in how it generates ill health.
Heavy alcohol use can generate a host of health issues:
- Weight gain
- Change in brain physiology
- Diminished brain cognition
- Increased risk for cancer
- Increased risk for diabetes
- Increased risk for stroke
- Increased risk for heart disease
- Liver damage and failure
- 50% of people with alcohol use disorder have mental illness
Marijuana May Be Less Risky Than Alcohol but Here’s What You Need to Know
As people and state governments are more accepting of marijuana use, recreationally and medicinally, an increase in use by the general population is likely. Whether the federal government removes cannabis’ current Schedule 1 rating as a drug is yet to be seen. How it’s rated won’t change the way it processes through the body and the brain, THC or CBD.
Here’s a quick reference of what marijuana use can do over time:
- Affects performance at work/school
- Compromises the ability to concentrate
- Makes learning difficult
- Lowers IQ in teens
- Hampers memory function
- Alters brain
- Increases heart rate
- Harms respiratory system (chronic cough, bronchitis, air ways)
- Increases incidence of anxiety and depressive disorders
Risky Behaviors: A Side by Side Comparison
The physical aspects of marijuana or alcohol use aren’t the only issues brought about my misuse. Each drug comes with its own set of behaviors that increase the risks to the person using and those around them.
Marijuana is known to increase sexual desire. But because alcohol will remove a person’s inhibitions, risky sexual encounters happen. Gambling also seems less invasive to a person’s wallet after a few cocktails. Conversely, marijuana use can create a paranoia in some while others generally become unmotivated, reducing personal productivity.
Is alcohol more addicting than marijuana? Decades ago, the thought was that alcohol is physically and psychologically addictive but marijuana has the risk of psychological dependence. More recent studies show that both drugs bear the same addictive qualities. Is the progression of the addictive nature of cannabis now related to changes in its strength, structure and how it’s dispensed? Could be.
Where Do We Go from Here? [H2]
Personal choice regarding alcohol and marijuana use is just that, personal, until it affects healthy livelihood in you or those you live with. Use the information that’s available. Take a long, hard, honest look at your own use; is it affecting your health or decision making? Is it affecting your finances or ability to succeed? Are you jeopardizing your relationships? Is there an issue about exercising limits or control of use?
If You Answer Yes to Any of the Above, Getting Help Isn’t Even a Question
Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Scottsdale Recovery Center holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2007. Call 1-888-NODRUGS
Authored by Melanie Stern, Content Director for Scottsdale Recovery Center, Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers and Cohn Media, LLC. Writer and broadcaster covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.