Since Prohibition ended in the 1930s, alcohol has become widely available and socially accepted by the masses, whereas cannabis has remained mainly illegal and somewhat stigmatized. Although these attitudes are gradually beginning to change, there are still many people who believe that marijuana is more harmful than alcohol.
Most cannabis smokers would disagree passionately with this view, but is their opinion justified? Let’s check out some stats and see whether cannabis smokers are really less of a threat than drunks.
How Popular is Cannabis Compared to Alcohol?
Alcohol is by far the most readily available mind-altering substance on the market. Anybody over the legal drinking age can walk into a store and buy enough alcohol to get completely trashed, or walk into a bar and rack up a hefty tab without question.
Cannabis is far more difficult to come by. In many places it is still illegal, meaning that the only way to find it is on the black market. Even in the many states where weed is legal, there may be restrictions on how much you can buy, not to mention the fact that high-quality bud can be prohibitively expensive!
Although this has not affected marijuana’s popularity, and more people are using it now than ever before, it still comes nowhere close to alcohol in terms of who partakes and how often.
According to the 2015 Survey on Drug Use, a massive 86.4% of adults aged over 18 years had tried alcohol at least once, with 7% admitting to being heavy drinkers. In comparison, a poll carried out by Marist College Institute for Public Opinion found that just 52% of adults had tried marijuana at least once, and 14% reported that they used cannabis regularly, with regular use defined as at least once or twice a month.
Are Cannabis Smokers Less of a Threat than Drunks?
Anybody who has ever spent any time in a bar will have seen first-hand the effects that binge drinking can have on a person, with individuals who are usually reserved and polite becoming loud, incoherent, and even aggressive.
Now visualize the average cannabis smoker, and you will likely be greeted with a far more chilled out mental image. Based on this, it would be easy to assume that stoners are less of a threat than drunks, but is this really the case?
In fact, both cannabis smokers and drunks can pose a threat to themselves and others. Both substances can cause impaired thinking, coordination, judgment, and reaction times, leading to an increase in accidents, especially once they get into a car.
In 2014, 9,967 people died in traffic accidents involving alcohol, a figure which makes up 31% of all driving-related fatalities in the United States.
Traffic accidents are also more prevalent in marijuana users than the general population. However, the exact figures are unclear for two reasons. Firstly, THC can remain detectable in your system for several days after intoxication, meaning that you can test positive for weed long after you have sobered up. Secondly, when marijuana is detected after an accident, it is often found in combination with other substances, including alcohol. This fact makes it very difficult to get precise data on exactly how many traffic accidents are caused by marijuana alone.
It is estimated that smoking marijuana could increase your chances of a fatal crash by as much as 83%. However, this is a modest amount compared to alcohol, which could increase the risk by an unbelievable 2,200%!
As well as being a hazard on the roads, heavy drinkers also pose a substantial threat to their own health in general. As well as an increased risk of injuries, those who drink heavily on a regular basis are increasing their risk of serious diseases such as liver cirrhosis and some forms of cancer.
Alcohol is also highly addictive, and as many as 15.1 million people (6.2% of the population) are classed as having an alcohol use disorder, meaning that they regularly abuse or are dependent on alcohol. In comparison, around 4 million Americans are thought to suffer from some degree of marijuana use disorder, although this lower figure could be due to more limited access as much as anything else.
Furthermore, an estimated 88,000 people in the United States die every year from alcohol-related causes including diseases and accidents. This figure makes it the third most common preventable cause of death, trailing only behind tobacco and poor diet combined with lack of exercise. Alcohol is the biggest killer for 15–49-year-olds, and accounts for a staggering 25% of deaths in those aged 20–39.
In contrast, deaths directly related to marijuana are practically non-existent. The lethal dose of THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, is estimated to be somewhere between 15g and 70g, meaning that to overdose you would need to smoke far more weed than is possible – even by a heavy smoker’s standards.
So it appears that smoking cannabis is safer than drinking in terms of health, but how about other factors such as crime?
Cannabis, Alcohol, and Crime
Crime is another area where alcohol appears to pose a far greater threat to public safety than marijuana. Violent crimes often involve alcohol as an aggravating factor, and of the 11.1 million victims of violent crime every year, 2.7 million report that their attacker was under the influence of alcohol. That means that alcohol was involved in around 1 in 4 cases of violent crime.
This figure increases for violent crimes carried out against an intimate partner or former partner to as many as 2 in 3 cases, and 67% of incidences of domestic violence have been linked to alcohol abuse.
In cannabis users, the opposite appears to be true. One study on couples’ marijuana use found that in couples who both used cannabis, the incidence of intimate violence was decreased significantly over the first nine years of marriage. These results suggest that on the whole, cannabis users pose far less of a threat to their loved ones than heavy drinkers.
Another crime commonly associated with alcohol abuse is rape or sexual assault. Around 37% of these crimes are thought to be alcohol-related, and in 2015, there were 97,000 reports of rape or sexual assault related to alcohol among college students alone. It is also believed that alcohol could increase the likelihood of committing homicide, although the exact data on this is unclear.
These facts seem to support the stereotypical view of a placid stoner compared with a violent drunk. However, there are always going to be a few exceptions to the rule. One study on drug use and crime in young, inner-city adults found that those who frequently used marijuana were more likely to commit weapons offenses, attempted homicide, and reckless endangerment than those who abstained from the drug.
Cannabis and Alcohol: Which is Most Harmful Overall?
If you are looking for concrete evidence as to which drug is the most harmful, the answers may lie within a 2010 study entitled Drug Harms in the UK. The study looked at a total of 20 different drugs and scored each one out of 100 depending on criteria such as mortality, damage to health, injuries, dependence, impaired mental function, economic cost, crime, and loss (for example, income, work, or relationships).
The three drugs found to be most harmful to other people were heroin, alcohol, and crack cocaine, while those most harmful to the user themselves were heroin, crack, and methamphetamine.
The drug found to be most harmful overall was alcohol, which scored 72/100 on the researchers’ scale. This figure could come as a shock to some people, especially when compared to the next most harmful drug, heroin, which scored just 55/100.
Cannabis rated much lower on the scale, with an overall harm score of 20/100. Taking the above criteria into account, the researchers deemed it to be slightly more harmful to the users themselves than it is to others. And just in case you’re wondering, the least dangerous drug was found to be mushrooms, with an overall harm score of just 6/100 and the associated risks being to the user alone.
Final Thoughts: Are Cannabis Smokers Less of a Threat than Drunks?
Although neither cannabis nor alcohol is entirely harmless, the statistics suggest that smokers pose far less of a threat than drunks. Although both drugs can seriously impair your judgment, for a pot-smoker this is more likely to result in finishing an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s than starting a fight or drunk dialing your ex, thank goodness.
The biggest threat that cannabis smokers pose to public safety is the increased risk of fatal traffic accidents after smoking, although the risk is undoubtedly higher if they have been drinking too. So whether you are a cannabis smoker, a drinker, or both, the message is the same. Know your limits, be responsible, and if you’re intoxicated, please don’t get behind the wheel, for the sake yourself and everyone else on the road.