Safety of Alcohol vs Marijuana Consumption

The debate about whether marijuana is “safer” than other substances, such as alcohol, has growing public interest. President Obama publically stated that he is not convinced that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol. This illustrates the recent shift toward the acceptance of marijuana legalization or decriminalization as public opinion about marijuana changes. However, even as public attitudes toward marijuana use are changing, a growing concern is the experimental use of marijuana by adolescents, including the short and the long-term effects on developing brains and other risky actions made while under the influence.

Researchers affiliated with New York University’s Center for Drug Use and HIV Research (CDUHR) published a study in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. The recent study compared alcohol to marijuana consumption from a nationally representative sample of 7,437 high school seniors. The scientists analyzed data from cohorts assessed from 2007 through 2011.

Joseph J. Palamar, PhD, MPH, a CDUHR affiliated researcher and an assistant professor of population health at NYU Langone Medical Center (NYULMC) said,

“Nearly half of high school seniors have used marijuana in their lifetime and over two-thirds have used alcohol. The most alarming finding was that alcohol use was highly associated with unsafe driving, especially among frequent drinkers. Compared to non-drinkers, frequent drinkers were over 13 times more likely to report that their alcohol use has led to unsafe driving. Marijuana users, compared to non-users, were three times more likely to report unsafe driving as a direct result of use.”

The study found that alcohol consumption among teens led to unsafe driving as well as to compromised relationships with friends and significant others. Females were more likely to report engaging in behaviors they regretted after using alcohol. They also reported feeling less emotionally stable and not being able to think as clearly after alcohol use.

Marijuana users reported more compromised relationships with parents, teachers, supervisors and authority figures. Common effects reported were less energy or interest in many things, with the results of lower academic or job performance. The researchers found that marijuana users are more likely than those who drink alcohol to face negative perceptions, possibly due to disapproval by peers or the stigma associated with marijuana use.

Researchers did not find significant differences between the two (alcohol and marijuana) with regard to general lifetime use, although not surprisingly, frequent marijuana users were 23 times more likely to report getting into trouble with the police. Alcohol seems to continue to be more socially acceptable than marijuana, but again, this is changing.

Alcohol and marijuana are the two most common psychoactive substances used by adolescents and should be a topic of public health concern. They are both associated with unique adverse psychosocial outcomes. The perception that these substances are not harmful is misleading. Both substances have proven short and long term negative health and social effects. Marijuana in particular has negative impacts on the developing brain. Make wise choices about what substances you use, where and when.


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