By a wide margin, Americans believe that alcohol is more dangerous to a person’s health and to society in general than marijuana, according to a Pew study released Wednesday. When asked whether marijuana or alcohol would be more harmful to personal health, if marijuana were as widely available as alcohol, 69 percent of Americans said alcohol is more dangerous, while only 15 percent said that marijuana is more dangerous. Fourteen percent said both or neither are more dangerous.
Respondents showed more trepidation when asked to consider marijuana’s potential effects on society as a whole, but a strong majority still believed that alcohol is the more harmful substance. Sixty-three percent of those polled said alcohol is more dangerous, with 23 percent saying marijuana is more dangerous and 11 percent responding that both or neither are more harmful.
From heart disease to liver disease to elevated cancer risks, excessive alcohol consumption can indeed be devastating to a person’s overall health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are roughly 88,000 deaths attributable to alcohol use each year in the United States. In 2006, the CDC reported that there were 1.2 million emergency room visits and 2.7 million physician office visits due to excessive alcohol use.
Studies have also shown cannabis to be far less addictive than alcohol, and even caffeine. That’s not to say that marijuana isn’t always habit-forming: Between four and nine percent of regular pot users can develop dependence on the drug, according to a frequently cited survey supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That’s compared to about 15 percent of drinkers who develop a dependence for alcohol.
At the same time, “not all abuse and dependency is created equal,” as the authors of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know write. The authors of the 2012 book point out that while some heavy marijuana users do experience symptoms of clinical dependency and feel discomfort or withdrawal when trying to quit, kicking a pot addiction doesn’t lead to the same type of intense, dangerous physical and psychological pain that often accompanies alcohol, nicotine or heroin dependency.
Alcohol has been found to be more lethal than many other commonly abused substances, according to a study from American Scientist. Just 10 times the recommended serving of alcohol can lead to death, while a marijuana user would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC in a joint in order to be at risk of a fatal dose, according to a 1988 ruling from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Of course, marijuana is not harmless. Excessive use can lead to respiratory discomfort, although the drug itself has not been linked to lung damage. And while smoking marijuana is a common way to ingest the drug, there are a number of other methods of delivery that allow users to minimize or avoid potential harm to the lungs, including consuming high-potency cannabis-infused edibles or using a vaporizer, which eliminates much of the heated marijuana smoke. Among people prone to the development of psychosis, research has shown that smoking pot can lead to an earlier onset of the disorder. And there’s understandable concern about adolescent marijuana use and its effects on the developing brain.
Still, in at least 10,000 years of human consumption, there have been no documented deaths as a result of marijuana overdose.
At the societal level, a report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism showed that alcohol is a much more significant factor when it comes to violent crime in the U.S., suggesting that 25 to 30 percent of violent crimes are linked to alcohol use. The journal Addictive Behaviors noted more than a decade ago that “alcohol is clearly the drug with the most evidence to support a direct intoxication-violence relationship,” and that “cannabis reduces likelihood of violence during intoxication.” THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis associated with the “high” sensation, may even decrease “aggressive and violent behavior” in chronic users, a study from the National Academy of Sciences found.
A recent study from researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas looked at states that have legalized medical marijuana and found that not only does legalization for medical use cause no increase in crime, it may actually reduce the incidence of some violent crimes, including homicide.
Public opinion on marijuana, and much scientific research, could not be further from the federal government’s opinion on the plant. Official federal policy still considers cannabis to be among “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological and physical dependence,” alongside substances like heroin and LSD.
“At this point, it’s astonishing that anyone still thinks marijuana is more harmful than alcohol,” Mason Tvert, communications director for marijuana policy reform group the Marijuana Policy Project, told The Huffington Post. “Only on a flat earth experiencing no climate change is alcohol the safer substance. The folks working to maintain marijuana prohibition need to take a good, hard look at the evidence surrounding these two products and ask themselves why they prefer adults use the one that causes far more damage to the consumer and society.”
“If the goal is to maximize public health and safety, why would anyone want to prohibit adults from making the safer choice?” Tvert went on. “It would be like an environmentalist fighting to prevent the proliferation of electric cars.”
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