Why people need to stop comparing weed to alcohol and cigarettes

Cannabis / Legalization

A look at the data, hopefully, once and for all.

Steve Elliott
Jan 13, 2018

The claim that marijuana is significantly safer than alcohol and nicotine is hardly new. Anecdotally, anyone who’s experienced a brutal hangover after a night of drinking knows this on a cellular level. But with the growing legalization of cannabis, the comparison keeps coming up. Let’s review the science.

Weed vs. Alcohol vs. Nicotine

In 2015, scientists used a novel method to measure the risk of death from 10 common legal and illegal substancesThe report compared cannabis, alcohol, tobacco, heroin, cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy), methamphetamine, diazepam, amphetamine and methadone. The study found that booze presents the highest risk of death, followed by nicotine, cocaine and heroin. Cannabis was found to be, by far, the safest substance on the list, even when compared to alcohol and tobacco.

The findings, according to lead author Dick Lachenmeier, “confirm earlier results of other study groups [but] with completely different methodology.”

The study used a new risk assessment technique called the “Margin of Exposure” (MOE) method. This method, in essence, looks at the ratio between the dose which characterizes bad effects and the amount that people typically use.

According to the researchers, the hazards of cannabis “may have been overestimated in the past” while the risk of alcohol has been “commonly underestimated,” reports NBC News. They found alcohol is 114 times more deadly than cannabis.

Alcohol is responsible for 1 in 10 adult deaths.

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Photo by Justin Case/ via Getty Images

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an incredible one in 10 deaths among working-age adults in the U.S. can be attributed to excessive alcohol use. Alcohol has been linked to everything from heart disease to cancer. Alcohol “poisonings” (i.e. overdoses) account for about 2000 deaths per year.

Meanwhile, any reputable expert who’s acquainted with the facts will tell you there’s never been a documented overdose death from cannabis, in history, in someone without an underlying condition.

“You just see life after life swallowed up by alcohol,” said Dr. Peter Grinspoon, who practices primary care at Mass General Hospital, reports WBUR. “You just see alcohol tearing families apart. And you don’t have to walk very far to see lives destroyed by tobacco. I’ve never in 20 years as a primary care doctor seen a single life taken away by marijuana.”

Tobacco is considered the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S.

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Photo by Erik Jonsson / EyeEm/ via Getty Images

Research suggests that tobacco is far more harmful to the lungs than cannabis. Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S., including more than 41,000 deaths from secondhand smoke exposure, according to the CDC. That’s about 1,300 deaths a day.

Tobacco smokers die an average of 10 years earlier than nonsmokers.

While inhaling any kind of smoke can cause damage to airways, and may cause bronchitis symptoms, marijuana smoke’s cannabinoids apparently play an ameliorating effect, lessening the damage.

Studies have failed to find a correlation between modern marijuana use and lung cancer, head cancer, or neck cancers.

Cannabis doesn’t seem to impair lung function—at least not in the doses inhaled by most users, according to the largest and longest study of its kind ever, reports TIME. Researchers found that while tobacco smokers showed the expected drop in lung function over time, cannabis smoke had unexpected and “apparently positive” effects.

Low to moderate cannabis users actually showed increased lung capacity compared to nonsmokers on two tests. With one of the tests, even the longest term, heaviest cannabis users scored higher than nonsmokers.

Steve Elliott
Jan 13, 2018