Cannabis is often thought of as being safer and less addictive than alcohol. As an illustration, in a recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans, participants rated alcohol as "somewhat and moderately addictive" versus marijuana as "not very or somewhat addictive." Furthermore, respondents to the survey who did not use cannabis generally rated it as "not very dangerous to somewhat dangerous," compared to alcohol, which they thought was "moderately dangerous."
However, excluding popular belief, is there proof that one substance is more addictive or harmful than the other?
What are the similarities between weed and alcohol?
Numerous similarities exist between alcohol and marijuana. Both have the ability to reduce anxiety, calm the mind, and relax the body. Both marijuana and alcohol are depressants, and as such, both have these effects (although marijuana also fits into a number of other drug categories).
The brain's GABA neurotransmitter activity is elevated by depressants. The central nervous system's activity slows down as GABA activity increases, and messages are transmitted between the body and brain more slowly as well. Think of GABA as the brain's "brake pedal": When it is depressed, the brain becomes calmer.
There can, however, be too much of a good thing. Too much GABA activity from a depressant can lead to drowsiness, slow responses, sluggish coordination, and concentration problems. Slurred speech, early passing out, possibly stumbling over, and other similar symptoms are likely experienced by anyone who has consumed more weed or alcohol than perhaps they should have.
What distinguishes marijuana from alcohol?
According to Dr. Jordan Tishler, CEO/CMO of inhaleMD and President of the Association of Cannabinoid Specialists, cannabis differs from alcohol in a number of significant ways.
“Alcohol is a very simple, single molecule that is a product of yeast fermentation,” said Tishler. “Essentially, it’s yeast poop. Poop is generally a poison and humans have figured out that in small doses they like the effect this poison has on their brain. It really isn’t that good for you and has no medical use at present.”
The cannabis plant, on the other hand, contains hundreds of distinctive compounds, many of which have therapeutic advantages.
“We have just scratched the surface of knowing what they are and what these compounds do,” explained Tishler. “However, it is well proven that THC, and cannabis in general, have use in the treatment of pain, anxiety, insomnia, nausea and vomiting, and other illnesses.”
Simply put, cannabis has medical uses, whereas alcohol does not.
Is marijuana addictive?
Tishler emphasizes the complexity of understanding addiction and how separating it from dependence can be useful.
“Addictive is a complicated word,” said Tishler. “Addiction is a set of maladaptive behaviors, whereas dependence is a physiological condition leading to withdrawal and often continued use of a substance.”
Tishler thinks that cannabis dependence, which is formally recognized as cannabis use disorder, is much more widespread than addiction. “Cannabis can lead to a dependence rate of about 7%—less than half the alcohol rate—and an addiction rate that is very low but undefined,” explained Tishler.
According to research, THC's effects on the brain's dopamine system appear to be what cause cannabis to have an addictive potential. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made by the brain that affects how one feels pleasure and rewards.
Dopamine release is facilitated by THC, and the resulting feelings of pleasure may reinforce the cannabinoid's potentially addictive properties. The dopamine system in the body, however, can be blunted by prolonged heavy cannabis use. The dopamine system becomes dysfunctional if your dopamine levels remain high for an extended period of time, as might happen if you use cannabis frequently.
It may become more challenging to experience pleasure from things you would typically enjoy, such as savory food, a sense of accomplishment, or physical touch, due to impairments in the brain's reward circuitry. In order to get the high that used to come so easily, this lack of enjoyment may encourage even more chronic use.
Conversely, CBD does not seem to be addictive. Evidence suggests that this non-intoxicating cannabinoid may be able to treat addiction instead. According to a 2015 study, CBD may be helpful in treating addiction to opioids, cocaine, tobacco, and even cannabis.
It is critical to keep in mind that social and environmental factors play a role in the "addictiveness" of cannabis as well as brain chemistry. For instance, some groups seem to be more susceptible than others to developing a marijuana addiction, including perhaps teenagers, people with other substance use disorders, and people who have mental or mood disorders like schizophrenia.
Beyond this, other aspects of a person's life, including their lifestyle, the environments in which they live and work, and their socioeconomic status, may also have an impact on whether they find marijuana to be addictive or not.
How addictive is alcohol?
Similar to cannabis, dependence on alcohol is more common than addiction, according to Tishler. “With alcohol we see both addiction and dependence. The dependence rate is about 15%, and the addiction rate is significantly lower,” he said. “In higher doses, alcohol can be addictive, and has harmful effects on the brain, heart, liver, blood, and bone marrow.”
The various ways in which people can have unhealthy relationships with alcohol are also highlighted by recent studies. As an illustration, in 2019 approximately 29.7% of men and 22.2% of women who were 18 years of age and older binge drank. While binge drinking is not the same as alcohol addiction, it does represent a misuse of the substance that raises the possibility of developing an alcohol use disorder.
These figures undoubtedly imply that alcohol is more addictive or prone to misuse than cannabis, but why? There is no simple solution, but there are a number of contributing factors that merit investigation. Alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine just like cannabis does. Alcohol can also induce addiction through endorphins, a different neurochemical pathway.
In a 2012 study, scientists from the University of California discovered that alcohol causes endorphins to be released in two regions of the brain linked to reward processing. Endorphins are naturally occurring opioids made by the body that reduce pain, make you feel good, and give you a buzz. Additionally, the study found that heavy drinkers had a higher release of these feel-good chemicals, which further strengthened alcohol's addictive qualities.
Similar to cannabis, a variety of factors may make some people more susceptible to alcohol addiction than others. Increased risk factors for addiction include genetics, a family history of alcoholism, mental health conditions like depression or bipolar disorder, and traumatic experiences.
So which is more addictive?
Some have speculated that alcohol may be more addictive than cannabis because, quite simply, it’s more widely legal and readily available. According to recent studies, dependence rates have increased as cannabis use has become more legalized.
Cannabis and alcohol have been compared in a number of other studies, giving us helpful information about how they compare in terms of safety and other factors. An innovative 2015 study compared the overdose risk related to various addictive substances. Cannabis was the only substance that qualified as low risk, while alcohol consumption was classified as high risk. That is to say, it is virtually impossible to overdose on cannabis, whereas alcohol poisoning is much more likely to result in death.
There is evidence that cannabis poses fewer risks to one's health overall than alcohol does. In a study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, THC and alcohol were compared in terms of 13 topics that are frequently discussed in relation to substance use and health.
Alcohol was found to carry more risk than THC for these nine problems:
Death from overdose
Death from severe withdrawal
Aggressiveness during intoxication
Brain damage from chronic heavy use
Liver and other organ damage
Contributing to a psychotic condition
Causing major depression
Fetal brain damage
Cannabis and alcohol had comparable risks for the following three additional factors:
Irritability following withdrawal
Harm while driving intoxicated
There was only one issue where cannabis came out worse than alcohol: The plant is more likely to trigger anxiety during intoxication.
It is impossible to pinpoint a single factor that determines how addictive or harmful marijuana or alcohol is. Marijuana should not be used carelessly even though there is evidence that it is less addictive and harmful than alcohol.
Tishler contends that how we use substances, rather than which substance is more addictive, is a better question to ask. It is crucial to keep in mind that the risk connected to either substance depends on the amount you use; less is safer, he said. “While most people have a handle on how much is too much alcohol, many cannabis users use far too much, often without even realizing how much they’re taking and what a safe range would be.” Tishler notes that tolerance is frequently celebrated in cannabis culture as a badge of honor. However, in reality, tolerance can result in dependence and even addiction, so it might be advantageous to avoid becoming significantly tolerant to cannabis.
Our relationship with these two substances is influenced by a variety of variables, including our age, mental health, and personal circumstances. It is crucial to be aware of the risk factors that may increase your risk of addiction or harm and to take preventative measures to avoid undesirable outcomes.