Learn / Alcohol vs. Marijuana: Is One Safer Than the Other?

Alcohol vs. Marijuana: Is One Safer Than the Other?

Hannah Friedman
 June 26th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • Alcohol is more addictive than marijuana, with worse withdrawal symptoms.
  • Marijuana has fewer health risks than alcohol, but can still be addictive.
  • If you're concerned about your use of either, treatment options are available.

Alcohol and marijuana use are both socially acceptable, and they can both be dangerous. But is one safer than the other? That’s a complicated question—partly because “safety” means something different for everyone. No matter how safe a substance seems, addiction is always possible.

Alcohol Use 

It may feel like almost everyone you know drinks alcohol. Around the world, this is one of the most socially acceptable substances. In 2021, more than 78% of Americans aged 12 and older reported using alcohol at least once in their lifetime.

How Addictive Is Alcohol?

Alcohol addiction is more common2 than other drug addictions in the U.S. There’s no fixed timeline for how quickly or easily this condition develops. Depending on your genetics, your drinking habits, and other factors, it could take several years or just a few months for you to need treatment.

Several factors can give you a greater risk of addiction. For one thing, it depends on how long alcohol stays in your system. Some people get drunk faster than others, or have a naturally low tolerance to alcohol. If you keep drinking regularly, your tolerance will go up. That means you’ll have to drink more and more to feel the same effects. This cycle can quickly lead to addiction.

Binge and heavy drinking also play a significant role in developing alcohol use disorder. For many people, it’s perfectly safe to have a drink or 2 with friends on occasion. But if you’re getting drunk every day, or blacking out every time you go to the bar, you may be more vulnerable to addiction.

Risk Factors of Alcohol Use Disorder 

It’s easy to overlook the short and long-term consequences of excessive drinking.3 Alcohol abuse impairs your judgment, and it can lead to impulsive decisions. Experts note a few common short-term risks of heavy drinking:

  • Injuries like car crashes, burns, and falls are common when you’ve been drinking. In the U.S., 1 person dies in an alcohol-related car accident4 every 45 minutes.
  • Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency5 that can cause vomiting or seizures, and even be life-threatening. 
  • Risky sexual behavior may result in accidental pregnancy. It can also expose you to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), like herpes or HIV.

With ongoing alcohol abuse, you’ll also face certain long-term risks:6

  • Health conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, digestive problems, stroke, and liver disease
  • Cancer, including breast, throat, esophageal, and colon cancer
  • Mental illness such as depression and anxiety
  • Weakening of the immune system, which increases your likelihood of getting sick and makes it harder to heal from any illness
  • Memory and learning problems, which can cause problems at school or work
  • Relationship problems with loved ones, colleagues, and your wider community

When to Seek Help for Excessive Drinking 

Alcohol affects everyone differently. It might be hard to notice when your drinking becomes a problem. So how do you know when you cross the line?

This question is very personal. Drinking might not cause any major problems in your life at first, or ever. But if you’re wondering whether you need help, you might be onto something. In a sober moment, you can take an inventory of your behavior by answering a few questions:

  • Do you usually drink more than you planned? 
  • Can you go a whole day without drinking alcohol?
  • Do you drink at inappropriate times (at work, first thing in the morning, etc.)? 
  • Does drinking interfere with important parts of your life? 
  • Do you hide your drinking from other people?
  • Do you often make poor decisions when you drink?  
  • Are your loved ones concerned about your drinking habits?
  • Do you think you have an alcohol addiction?

With a clearer sense of your own drinking habits, you can decide on next steps. However, only a professional can diagnose you with alcohol use disorder. If you think you need help, you can contact a rehab or share your thoughts with a specialist.

Explore Alcohol Treatment Centers

Marijuana Use 

Between alcohol and cannabis, many people see marijuana as the lesser evil. You might not even know that weed is addictive.7 As legalization becomes more widespread in the U.S., so do studies shedding light on cannabis use, weed’s potential risks and benefits,8 and addiction.

Medicinal Benefits of Marijuana

When you use it safely, marijuana has many medicinal benefits.9 It’s especially helpful for people with chronic pain. Some see cannabis as a safer alternative to prescription opioids and other narcotics. Natural chemicals like THC and CBD, which appear in most strains of marijuana, also have several other effects.

For example, CBD oil can help with anxiety10 and depression. It can also protect against neurological issues like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and multiple sclerosis. 

There’s no doubt marijuana can help people. But it’s up to you to decide if marijuana products will benefit you in the long run. Thinking about your relationship with substances is always a great place to start.

Is Marijuana More Addictive Than Alcohol? 

Whether marijuana is more addictive than alcohol is a complex question, and there’s no simple answer. On the surface, cannabis might seem like a medicine that does more good than harm. But just about any substance can be addictive11—even seemingly harmless ones like caffeine or ibuprofen. And marijuana is no exception. 

The health effects of marijuana use, however, are generally less risky than those of alcohol. Many studies suggest cannabis has a lower risk for health-related harms12 like cancer, death from severe withdrawal, and liver damage. And one study found that marijuana has a much lower risk of overdose than alcohol. Still, we need more data on weed and addiction.

Effects of Excessive Marijuana Use 

Abusing marijuana has both short and long-term impacts13 on your health. Some of its short-term effects might be enjoyable, but others are dangerous:

  • Enhanced sensory perception and euphoria: You may feel happy, and sights and sounds may become more profound.
  • Drowsiness and relaxation: Some strains of marijuana have more powerful sedative effects than others.
  • Slowed reaction times: Marijuana makes activities like driving more dangerous.
  • Problems with balance and coordination: Marijuana can make you feel dizzy or lightheaded.
  • Anxiety: Marijuana can increase anxiety levels over time—not just while you’re using it.

Continuing marijuana use over time also has long-term effects:

  • Chronic cough and frequent respiratory infections: The more you smoke marijuana, the more harmful toxins go into your lungs. Over time, this can lead to serious physical problems.
  • Learning and memory problems: Studies show regular marijuana use alters memory,14 learning, and impulse control. 
  • Mental health issues: Excessive ongoing marijuana use can lead to anxiety,15 depression, and psychosis.

When to Seek Help for Marijuana Abuse 

It can be even harder to recognize marijuana addiction than alcohol abuse. If you think you might need help, you can start by answering these questions:

  • Do you usually use high doses of marijuana?
  • Is it hard to go a day without using marijuana? 
  • Do you use marijuana at work or school?
  • Is marijuana use causing problems in your life? 
  • Are you detaching from the people closest to you or spending most of your time with other friends who use marijuana?
  • Have you ever had a relapse after trying to stop using marijuana? 
  • Do you drive while high?
  • Are your loved ones concerned about your marijuana use?
  • Do you think you have a marijuana addiction?

If you answered yes to some or all of these questions, you might want to share your responses with a clinical expert. They’ll be able to give you a proper diagnosis and help you plan for the future.

Treatment Options for Marijuana Abuse

Treatment for marijuana abuse16 normally includes a combination of therapies. Depending on where you go to rehab, you may have access to a variety of options: 

It’s important to find a program that can support your personal goals for recovery. If you need help with marijuana addiction, learn more about treatment at marijuana rehabs.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse 

When you start treatment for alcohol addiction, you’ll probably need to attend detox first. Without proper medical care, alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous or even fatal. Healthcare professionals can help you safely begin recovery.

Once you complete detox, your rehab may provide a variety of alcohol addiction treatment options:17

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy 
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
  • Family counseling
  • Medications
  • Peer support groups

Browse alcohol rehabs that offer these therapies and more.

Frequently Asked Questions About Alcohol vs. Marijuana

Is alcohol or marijuana safer to use?

Both alcohol and marijuana can be dangerous substances, and addiction is a potential risk regardless of perceived safety. It’s important to exercise caution and make informed decisions about substance use to minimize potential risks and harms.

How addictive is alcohol compared to marijuana?

Alcohol addiction is more common than marijuana addiction. The development of alcohol use disorder (AUD) depends on various factors like genetics, drinking habits, and individual traits. Marijuana, though generally considered less risky, can still be addictive (as any substance can be). Further research is needed to better understand the relationship between marijuana use and addiction.

When should I seek help for alcohol or marijuana abuse?

Recognizing when to seek help for marijuana or alcohol abuse can be challenging. If you find either substance interfering with your life, or if you find yourself questioning your substance use, talking to a professional can be helpful.

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