Is Marijuana Safer than Alcohol?

July 25, 2023

Many people are familiar with both marijuana and alcohol, and you might have wondered which one is riskier when you're under their influence.

There's an ongoing debate about Marijuana versus Alcohol, and it's getting a lot of attention, especially because some people want to make medical and recreational marijuana legal. Because of this, many different institutions have done a lot of research in a clear and open way. This research has shown that some old studies and misunderstandings about marijuana, like the "reefer madness" idea, were not true.

Even though more than 60% of Americans support making marijuana legal and acknowledge its medical benefits, it's still considered a very controlled drug (Schedule I). But alcohol is allowed for people who are 21 years or older to drink.

For a long time, cannabis enthusiasts have been discussing whether marijuana is safer than alcohol. Maybe now is a good time to put this argument to the test!

Related article: 7 Key Tips to Break the 'Irresponsible Stoner' Stereotype.

Alcohol vs. Cannabis

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, it's essential to understand the difficulty of comparing alcohol to marijuana right now. The reason is that marijuana isn't fully legal across the entire country yet, and because of old laws, both at the federal and state levels, there are limitations on conducting direct research and making direct comparisons. This makes it challenging to get all the information we need.


1. Addiction & Withdrawal Symptoms 

Over the years, a lot of information has been gathered about alcohol and its potential for dependency. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) tells us that alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States. About 17.6 million adults, which is one in every 12, struggle with alcohol abuse or dependency.

In contrast, when it comes to marijuana versus alcohol, we don't have as clear of a picture about marijuana's addictive properties. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 9% of cannabis users can become addicted to it, while alcohol addiction affects around 15% of alcohol users.

When heavy alcohol drinkers suddenly stop, they may experience anxiety, irritability, agitation, tremors, seizures, and something called Delirium tremens (DTs).On the other hand, marijuana withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, depression, mood changes, irritability, stomach pains, loss of appetite, nausea, and trouble sleeping. Some of these symptoms are similar to alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can happen when people stop using a substance they are dependent on.

In fact, withdrawal from anything your body craves, like food when you're hungry, can lead to mood changes, irritability, and stomach pains, to some extent. It's essential to recognize that different substances can have varying effects on individuals and their well-being.

2. Overdose & Death

For most people, drinking alcohol is not deadly, but we're talking about overdosing here. When someone drinks too much alcohol, it can lead to something called alcohol poisoning, and that can be life-threatening. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use caused around 88,000 deaths each year in the United States from 2006 to 2010. Those who died lost an average of 30 years from their lives. Shockingly, excessive drinking was responsible for 1 out of 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20 to 64 years.

Now, let's compare marijuana to alcohol in terms of overdosing. The quick answer is that there has never been a reported fatal overdose from marijuana. Period. End of the discussion. The National Cancer Institution says that marijuana's receptors in our body are different from those for opioids, which means that lethal overdoses from marijuana just don't happen.

Sure, some people have experienced what could be called overconsumption of marijuana and ended up in emergency rooms. This often happened in states where marijuana was recently legalized. Usually, these cases involved new users who didn't know what to expect or accidentally took too much. In all these cases, the symptoms were similar to a panic attack, which isn't pleasant but also not life-threatening. 

3. Crime Rates

Let's talk about alcohol and marijuana from a societal perspective. According to a report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there's a strong link between alcohol and violent crimes in the U.S. The study suggests that alcohol is associated with about 25 - 30% of violent crimes. On the other hand, research has indicated that marijuana may reduce the likelihood of violence during intoxication.

Now, let's look at some numbers. Since marijuana was legalized for adult use in Washington in 2012, a report by shows that the violent crime rate has gone down, and overall crime rates have remained at a historic low for the past 40 years. Data collected by the National Incident-Based Reporting System also indicates that violent crime has been decreasing in Washington and across the country.

Another study from the University of Texas at Dallas looked into the debate around medical marijuana legalization from 1990 to 2006. It found that medical marijuana laws didn't make crime worse; instead, they were linked to a reduction in homicides and assaults.

Lastly, in a book called "Marijuana Legalization - What Everyone Needs to Know," it's mentioned that the main psychoactive element in marijuana, THC, might even decrease aggressive and violent behavior in chronic users, as found in a study by the National Academy of Sciences.

So, when it comes to violence and crime, there seems to be some evidence that marijuana could have a different impact compared to alcohol.

4. Driving

Stoned drivers appear to be safer than drunk drivers, according to new federal data. Some people worry about the dangers of driving under the influence of marijuana, but recent studies suggest it might not be as risky as driving drunk.

The newest study found that drivers who had recently smoked marijuana were 1.2 to 1.4 times more likely to crash, while drunk drivers were 4 times more likely to crash. The researchers in this study found that previous studies made mistakes in their methods and didn't consider factors like age and gender.

Another study showed that marijuana was the second most commonly detected drug in drivers involved in car accidents, after alcohol. However, having marijuana in someone's system doesn't necessarily mean they were impaired by it at the time of the crash. Unlike alcohol, marijuana can stay in the body for a while after use.

It's important to note that driving under the influence of marijuana can still be dangerous, as it can impair reaction time and other driving skills. But compared to driving drunk, driving stoned seems to be less risky.

Researchers are working on developing tests to determine if someone is too impaired from marijuana to drive. Legalization of marijuana will lead to more research, which can help improve these tests in the future.

To be clear, we're not saying it's okay to get stoned and drive. Both marijuana and alcohol can be dangerous when driving. The point is that recent studies suggest driving stoned might be safer than driving drunk, but it's still essential to avoid any form of impaired driving. Always prioritize safety on the road

5. Learning and Memory

Remember those college days when you or your friends would go out to bars, have a great time drinking, but the next day, you'd be unsure if you did anything silly or embarrassing? That's what we call an alcohol blackout, and it can be a scary and dangerous experience.

Research from Harvard CAS (College Alcohol Study) shows that college students who frequently binge drink (three or more times in a 2-week period) are at high risk of negative alcohol-related consequences. They are twice as likely to have alcohol-induced memory losses compared to those who binge drink only once or twice in a 2-week period. So, drinking heavily multiple times within a short time can lead to those blackout moments that you might not remember later. It's essential to be cautious about how much alcohol you consume to avoid these risky situations.

This is really eye-opening. A new study surveyed 772 college students through email to understand their experiences with blackouts. Blackouts are times when people drink so much that they can't remember what happened later. The study found that about 50% of students who reported drinking alcohol had experienced a blackout at some point in their lives. In the year before the survey, 40% had one blackout, and 10% had a blackout just two weeks before the survey.

What's concerning is that many students said they found out later that they had done risky things during their blackout. Some of them vandalized property, drove a car, had sex, or engaged in other dangerous behaviors without even remembering it. This shows how serious blackouts can be and why it's essential to be responsible when it comes to alcohol to avoid such situations.

Let's discuss marijuana and its effects on the brain. According to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine, our brains continue to develop actively until around the age of 21. During these growing years, the brain is more sensitive to the long-term effects of THC, which is the main active ingredient in marijuana. So, it's important to be cautious about using marijuana during this critical period of brain development.

Let's look at how marijuana can affect the brain, especially during adolescence. Adults who used marijuana regularly during their teenage years might have "fewer fibers" in certain brain areas compared to those who didn't use it. This decrease in fibers could lead to a significant decline in IQ. However, research shows that the frequency and severity of marijuana use, especially when starting at a younger age, play a significant role in these effects.

The good news is that many of these cognitive effects can improve with longer-term abstinence from marijuana. Similar conclusions were reached by The American Medical Association in their study. So, it's crucial to be aware of the potential impact of marijuana on the developing brain, especially during adolescence.


So, which is less dangerous, marijuana or alcohol? To be honest, there's not enough definite proof to say that cannabis is entirely safe for long-term human use. However, many studies show that alcohol can be very dangerous if not consumed responsibly. When it comes to marijuana, current research hasn't found anything that clearly says it's unsafe. So, we can't say a definite yes, but we can't say it's not safe either.

Considering the dangers of alcohol abuse, like dependence, overconsumption leading to regrettable situations, and its effects on the body, it seems that marijuana is, in fact, safer than alcohol. Many people who have tried both would probably agree with that statement. While being high, people might do things like eating too much, but it's less likely to lead to harmful consequences compared to excessive alcohol use.

As our country legalizes marijuana more, there will be more and better studies conducted to understand its effects. For now, the key is to consume anything responsibly and safely, whatever you choose.