The facts about cannabis vs. alcohol and what you should consider

cannabis leaf next to beer cannabis vs alcohol

Drinking alcohol socially or for relaxation is part of human culture. But the legalization of cannabis has presented a new alternative to alcohol, and people are curious. The cannabis renaissance is causing many to explore its benefits, primarily because of alcohol’s proven toxicity, the damage it can cause to the body, and the risk of severe addiction. 

Cannabis users claim to get a similar relaxing effect you can have from drinking alcohol, without the hangover. But, most intriguing are the compounds found in the cannabis plant and their connection to our body that have doctors of science looking at its possible health benefits.

Unfortunately, because marijuana is still federally illegal, obtaining the substance for medical research is challenging at the very least, and the little data that has been reported is conflicting.

Is cannabis a safer and healthier solution for “taking the edge off?”

Many agree both cannabis and alcohol are considered “drugs” and can negatively affect the brain with excessive or chronic use. This article compares the risks, benefits, and myths of indulging in either.

RELATED: Could cannabis aid addiction recovery?

Addiction vs. Dependency

Addiction refers to the biochemical change in the brain that causes destructive behavior in people who abuse substances and can’t resist the urge to over-consume regularly. It has caused millions to lose their jobs, ruin relationships, and act abusively toward others. 

Dependency is the physiological effect substance abuse can have on your body that will likely cause withdrawals to various degrees when you stop using it. 

Regular cannabis users often discuss the importance of taking “T breaks” to avoid dependency and tolerance build-up. Insomnia, restless sleep, and irritability are typical withdrawal symptoms someone may have when trying to break free from cannabis dependency.

Getting “hooked on alcohol” has a much worse outcome when someone becomes addicted and dependent. Addiction is described as having an invisible grip on your mind and body that overpowers your decision-making process and requires you to have more. It’s a battle millions suffer from and succumbs to.

The World Health Organization states, “Alcohol is a toxic and psychoactive substance with dependence-producing properties.” 

Drunk vs. High: The effects on someone’s personality vary drastically between alcohol and cannabis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes a correlation between excessive alcohol use and violence, whereas cannabis can have the opposite effect. Have you ever seen anyone initiate a brawl or act aggressively after consuming cannabis?

How Do These Substances Affect The Brain?

Both alcohol and cannabis are mind-altering substances that affect the brain’s frontal lobe, which results in impaired cognitive function and altered behavior. Although, the exact effects of alcohol and cannabis on the brain can vary depending on dose, frequency, duration of use, and a person’s sensitivity to these substances.

An article published by Harvard Medical School discusses a study by neuroscientist Staci Gruber, a Harvard Medical School associate professor of psychiatry. Dr. Gruber’s team led an investigation to study medical cannabis patients over a lengthy time. It documented its effects on cognition, brain structure, and function and found no change to white and gray matter in the brain.

Studies show that cannabis consumption under 25 is not recommended because the brain is still developing, and its effects have not been studied enough. 

Well-documented clinical trials confirm alcohol’s harmful damage to your body and brain. Scientists at the University of Colorado reviewed existing imaging data on the effects of alcohol vs. cannabis on the brain. Their findings linked alcohol consumption with long-term changes to the structure of white and gray matter in the brain. The use of marijuana, however, seemed to have no significant long-term effects on brain structure, according to this study.

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What About Overall Health?

Any doctor will tell you that eating healthy and exercising is the best medicine and everything else should be done in moderation.

Many claims have been made, including one from the Mayo Clinic, that alcohol consumption in small amounts may be good for stress and heart health. However, the National Library of Medicine warns that alcohol is ethanol, a toxic substance that, when ingested in large quantities, is clinically harmful and can cause death. The World Health Organization stated that “The harmful use of alcohol causes a high burden of disease and has significant social and economic consequences.”

As for cannabis, while the long-term effects of use need more research, the most promising scientific breakthrough came in 1992 with the discovery of the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). Here we learned that our body’s health and wellness depend on it.

Think of the endocannabinoid system as the body’s command center that keeps our body in homeostasis by regulating other systems like the nervous system, digestive tract, brain, hormones, immune system, bones & skin, liver, and heart. 

The most remarkable part of this discovery is how phyto-cannabinoids, which naturally occur in cannabis plants, also mimic the behavior of cannabinoid compounds found in the human endo-cannabinoid system! Miraculously, both human and plant-based cannabinoids function the same way and provide similar health benefits to the body! 

More research is needed to verify how cannabis consumption can boost our endocannabinoid system. As states legalize, more research and clinical trials will grow and become available. Universities nationwide are already implementing cannabis-specific medical research centers similar to the newly formed facility at the University of Utah

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Can Cannabis Cause Overdose or Death?

No one has reportedly died from a cannabis overdose, but it doesn’t mean you can’t overdo it. Start low and go slow are the recommended dosing guidelines for cannabis consumption. 

However, the statistics regarding alcohol are far more dire. According to The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 385 Americans die of excessive alcohol use every day! Alcohol causes 13.5% of deaths among 20- to 39-year-olds, but even worse, 10.2% of Americans aged 12 years and older had Alcohol Use Disorder in 2020.

Decades of research and clinical trials have proven the dangerous effects of too much alcohol. While more research is needed to determine the adverse health effects of cannabis, it’s worth noting that people have been smoking it for centuries without exhibiting overtly destructive behavior.

Is cannabis a better alternative to alcohol? It all depends.

This article was submitted by a guest contributor to GreenState. The statements within do not necessarily reflect the opinions of GreenState, Hearst, or its subsidiaries. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Pam Chmiel is a contract marketer, publicist, podcast host, and a published writer specializing in the cannabis industry. She is based in Manhattan, NY.