Author: Charles Frank

Marijuana vs Alcohol: Which Is Really Worse for Your Health?

what is worse alcohol or weed

Marijuana smokers tend to smoke much less than cigarette smokers, as some may smoke one joint a few times a week. This may seem like a petty academic squabble, but it’s quite important as researchers and lawmakers try to advance more scientific approaches to drug policy. Finding the best method to evaluate the risks of drugs is much more complicated than assigning numeric rankings. Both weed and alcohol can carry a potential for misuse and addiction, but this appears to be more common with alcohol. The immediate effects of weed can vary quite a bit from person to person. The research shouldn’t be taken as the be-all and end-all in the great debate over whether cannabis is bad for the brain.

what is worse alcohol or weed

But alcohol’s crime risk is due to its tendency to make people more aggressive (and more prone to committing crime), while heroin’s crime risk is based on the massive criminal trafficking network behind it. Sian Ferguson is a freelance health and cannabis writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. She’s passionate about empowering readers to take care of their mental and physical health through science-based, empathetically delivered information. Weed seems to have fewer long-term risks than alcohol, but again, there’s a huge discrepancy in the amount of research on weed compared with alcohol.

Alcohol may take a greater toll on the brain than marijuana does, especially for teens, a new study finds. “Researchers are working around the clock to try to identify the ingredients in marijuana that have potential,” to benefit human health, Baler said. Cannabis addiction is surprisingly common, however, according to 2015 study. If you do get hungover, you might experience other effects, including headaches and diarrhea. Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association.

If heroin and crack were legal and more accessible, they would very likely rank higher than alcohol. The harm score for marijuana would also likely rise after legalization, but probably not too much since pot use is already widespread. There’s also some divergence within the specific categories of harm.

At first glance, it might seem that alcohol does the most damage to our brain health and general well-being because it is more widely used. Over 85% of American adults say they’ve consumed alcohol at some point in their lives, and nearly 70% say they’ve had a drink in the past year, as reported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Compare that to just 18% of Americans who said they used marijuana in 2019, according to the CDC. Although not as widespread, the harmful effects of marijuana on the brain may be greater. Let’s take a closer look at some of the worst consequences of drinking and marijuana.

And the illegality of marijuana has also limited research in this field. “Excess alcohol is going to lead to very severe consequences, and chronic excess alcohol is the most likely to lead to a lot of threatening issues,” Murray said. While both are intoxicants used recreationally, their legality, patterns of use and long-term effects on the body make the two drugs difficult to compare. Nutt acknowledges these problems, but argues that his analysis provides value to policymakers. “I believe we have provided the best currently available analysis of an extremely complex multifaceted data set.” The drug policy experts I talked to about Nutt’s study generally agreed that his style of analysis and ranking misses some of the nuance behind the harm of certain drugs.

Our experts continually monitor the health and wellness space, and we update our articles when new information becomes available. There are countless cannabis products on the market and a number of consumption options, from vaping to edibles.


That study has drawn widespread media attention, appearing in outlets like the Washington Post, the Guardian, the New Republic, and here at Vox. The way you consume weed can have a big impact on its short- and long-term effects. For example, smoking is rough on your lungs, but this risk doesn’t apply to edibles. But cigarette smoking plays a complicated role in studying the impact of marijuana smoke, Baler said.

  1. It’s possible to develop an emotional and/or physical dependence on both substances.
  2. Researchers will always need to balance making information simple and accessible for policymakers and the public with the inherent complexity of drugs and their effects.
  3. There are countless cannabis products on the market and a number of consumption options, from vaping to edibles.
  4. In addition, Hutchison told Live Science, there could be subtle brain changes that the study’s measurements could not capture.
  5. The year 2014 has brought with it the first legal sales of marijuana to people who aren’t using the drug for medical reasons in the United States since the 1930s, as voters in Colorado and Washington state brought about this policy change.

A lot of research has also linked adolescent marijuana use with a range of negative consequences, including cognitive deficiencies and worse educational outcomes. While it’s not clear whether marijuana’s role with these outcomes is cause-and-effect, experts generally agree that people younger than their mid-20s should avoid pot. “There’s always choices,” Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, explained. Perhaps the biggest supporting evidence for this point is a 2010 study published in The Lancet that ranked alcohol as the most dangerous drug in the United Kingdom, surpassing heroin, crack cocaine, and marijuana.

What other drug experts say about the UK study

But how much does all of this information really tell policymakers or the public? It would matter if marijuana ends up substituting alcohol once pot is legalized (since a safer substance would be replacing a more dangerous one), but the research on that is still early. And the argument that alcohol is more dangerous than illegal substances could be used as a basis for banning or strictly regulating alcohol just as easily as it could be used as a basis for legalizing or decriminalizing other drugs. Although drug policy experts generally don’t dispute the assertion that alcohol is more dangerous than pot, the study, led by British researcher David Nutt, is quite controversial. Experts see the rankings as deeply flawed, largely because they present the harms that come from drugs in a rather crude, one-dimensional manner.

The bottom line in terms of brain health and overall well-being is to eliminate or reduce the use of both these substances. The short-term effects of weed and alcohol differ from person to person. Unlike alcohol, Baler said, the effects of chronic marijuana use are not as well established. Animal studies have indicated some possible impact on reproduction. Additionally, there is evidence marijuana can worsen psychiatric issues for people who are predisposed to them, or bring them on at a younger age. Finally, Baler said, because the drug is typically smoked, it can bring on bronchitis, coughing and chronic inflammation of the air passages.

Short-term effects

“The main risk of cannabis is losing control of your cannabis intake,” Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at UCLA, said. “That’s going to have consequences in terms of the amount of time you spend not fully functional. When that’s hours per day times years, that’s bad.” Health risks are just one way to measure whether marijuana is safer than alcohol. While pot doesn’t seem to cause organ failure or fatal overdoses, alcohol kills more than 29,000 people each year due to liver disease and other forms of poisoning. Public health researchers have said studying rates of injuries, accidents, mental illness and teen use in the wake of the new laws will lead to a better understanding of marijuana’s public health effects.

In contrast, “we don’t see any statistically significant effects of cannabis on gray matter or white matter,” Hutchison said. As for marijuana, whose legalization for medical uses has been a matter of strong public policy debate for years, there is ample evidence that beneficial compounds can be found in the plant. Because marijuana can impair coordination and balance, there is the risk of hurting oneself, particularly if someone drives or chooses to have unprotected sex while their inhibitions are lowered, Baler said. These are two areas where people using marijuana could hurt themselves for the short and long term.

Alcohol or Marijuana: Which is Worse for Your Brain?

Although Nutt couldn’t get funding to do an analysis in the US or Canada, he said a similar study is being published later this year assessing drug use in several countries in Europe. The analysis may be flawed, but its simplicity and accessibility have won over many policy circles. Alcohol’s effects on behavior can also lead to more crime, while marijuana use appears to have little-to-no effect. Alcohol is a factor in 40 percent of violent crimes, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. But various studies found marijuana doesn’t make users more aggressive or lead to crime.

How Weed and Alcohol Stack Up Against Each Other

Both can also leave you feeling a bit worse for wear the next day, though this is more likely to happen with alcohol. While being intoxicated with weed feels different than being intoxicated with alcohol, the two have roughly the same effect on your cognitive abilities, reflexes, and judgment. Getting drunk or high can feel similar to some people, while others describe the sensations as very different. Of course, the way you feel when you’re intoxicated also depends on how much of the substance you consume. For example, one person may have a very low tolerance for weed but be able to tolerate alcohol well. Another person might not have any issues with misusing alcohol but still find it hard to function without weed.

And looking at deaths or other harms caused by certain drugs doesn’t always account for substances, such as prescription medications, that are often mixed with others, making them more deadly or harmful than they would be alone. Caulkins and Peter Reuter, a drug policy expert at the University of Maryland, suggested a model in which all the major risks of drugs are drawn out and each drug is ranked within those categories. So heroin would be at or near the top for mortality, alcohol would be at or near the top for cause of violent crime, and tobacco would be at the top for long-term health risks. The idea is lawmakers could look at this model to help decide on an individual basis which policies are better for each drug. Part of the problem is the challenge of untangling marijuana use from the use of other substances, especially alcohol, Hutchison said. Another problem is determining whether the drug actually causes the brain changes that are observed.