Of all the vices a person can indulge in, which is the least bad for your health? According to a new survey from NBC News/The Wall Street Journal, Americans believe that marijuana is the most benign — in fact, many believe it’s even less harmful than sugar. Those surveyed were asked which substance “is the most harmful to a person’s overall health”: marijuana, sugar, tobacco or alcohol?
Forty-nine percent of respondents said that tobacco was the most dangerous. Alcohol came in at 24 percent, followed by sugar at 15 percent. Only 8 percent of those surveyed said marijuana was the most dangerous. High alcohol consumption is indeed linked with a number of grave health problems, including heart disease, liver disease, a weakened immune system and elevated risks of developing cancer. There are also about 88,000 deaths attributable to excessive alcohol use each year in the United States.
Similarly, there’s a laundry list of well-documented adverse health effects related to tobacco use, which harms nearly every organ in the body and causes the deaths of nearly 480,000 people in the U.S. annually. But perhaps what’s most surprising is that Americans think sugar poses a greater health risk than a drug that the federal government classifies among “the most dangerous” substances available, alongside heroin and LSD.
On the other hand, considering the health effects associated with, say, drinking a lot of soda — which can lead to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and ultimately heart disease, stroke and even death — Americans may be onto something here. Sugar, an additive to many kinds of food and drink, is difficult to avoid. The American Heart Association recommends that women get no more than 100 of their daily calories from added sugars, while for men the upper limit is 150 calories. However, for many people around the world, added sugars are contributing an additional 500 calories a day. Sugary sodas can be so dangerous, doctors say that soda intake should be limited to less than one can of soda per day.
And what about marijuana? The drug is not without some health risks. Excessive use can lead to respiratory discomfort (although the drug itself does not impair lung function). 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. It only takes 10 times the recommended serving of alcohol to lead to death, a recreational drug study from American Scientist found. By contrast, a marijuana smoker would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC in a joint in order to be at risk of dying, according to a 1988 ruling from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Meanwhile, a number of studies in recent years have demonstrated the medical potential of pot. Purified forms of cannabis can be effective at attacking some forms of aggressive cancer. Marijuana use has also been tied to better blood sugar control, and may help slow the spread of HIV. Legalization of the plant for medical purposes may even lead to lower suicide rates.
“Anyone who takes a truly objective look at the evidence surrounding these substances could not possibly arrive at any other conclusion,” Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told The Huffington Post. “The public’s understanding of marijuana is more in line with the facts than ever before. Marijuana is not entirely harmless, but there is no longer any doubt that it poses far less harm to the consumer than many of the legal products engrained in American culture.”
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