Guest Column: Marijuana is far safer than alcohol
April 9, 2014
EDITOR'S NOTE: Incline resident Andy Whyman, MD, is a former opinion columnist for the Bonanza. Over the next several months, he will author columns pertaining to drugs, mental health and substance abuse in an effort to raise better awareness. The columns will be featured on a periodic basis in both the Bonanza and Sierra Sun.
Some weeks ago I read about the results of an informal survey conducted in Colorado before the passage of its new law legalizing marijuana.
In that survey, one-third of respondents believed marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, one-third believed it is as dangerous as alcohol, and one-third believed it less dangerous than alcohol.
I decided to conduct an entirely unscientific survey on the same issue in Incline Village. The results were the same. So, let's talk facts and see where they lead.
“Turning to the literature on the long term health effects of alcohol and marijuana, recent research concluded that excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for an average of 79,000 premature U.S. deaths per year. By contrast, no study has identified a link between long-term marijuana use and increased mortality.”
First, the pharmacology. Physical addiction is generally measured in two ways: One, you need more of the drug to achieve a similar effect, and two, stopping the drug leads to a distinct set of withdrawal symptoms.
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Using this metric, alcohol is moderately addictive, much like tranquilizers such as Valium, or stimulants like methamphetamines. Marijuana is low in addictive potential, in the same range as caffeine. At the extreme end of alcohol withdrawal, alcohol can cause delirium tremens, a psychotic agitated condition, and death. Marijuana withdrawal is at worst mild and subtle.
Turning to the literature on the long term health effects of alcohol and marijuana, recent research concluded that excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for an average of 79,000 premature U.S. deaths per year. By contrast, no study has identified a link between long-term marijuana use and increased mortality.
Looking at the same issue through the lens of overdose fatalities, there are many thousands of overdose deaths from alcohol in the U.S. each year. There are no recorded cases of overdose fatalities attributed to cannabis.
Internationally, alcohol is responsible for 4 percent of world wide deaths, more than AIDS, tuberculosis, or violence. In males aged 15-59, alcohol is the number one risk factor for death. In the U.S. alcohol is the third leading cause of death after tobacco and poor diet.
Looking at injury risk, there were 10,000 drunk driving deaths in 2010. Drugged driving deaths due to marijuana are few. Indeed, in one study cannabis smoking is associated with an increased risk of accident comparable to antihistamines and penicillin.
None of the data implies that marijuana makes you a safe driver, and there are a few studies suggesting a positive association between recent cannabis use and an increased risk of vehicular accident. Said risk, however, is not remotely comparable to the risk of consuming even small amounts of alcohol.
In comparing the effects of alcohol and cannabis on potentiating violent behavior, alcohol, because of its disinhibiting effects, fuels aggression. Alcohol contributes to 25-30 percent of violent crime. Forty percent of jailed or imprisoned murderers were drinking at the time of their crime. Men are eight times more likely to be abusive when consuming alcohol. Cannabis, by contrast, is not associated with any increase in violent behavior.
What about college life and substance abuse? Alcohol use by college students makes even food and beverage executives blush. A Harvard study concluded that 80 percent of college students drink alcohol, and that a remarkable 44 percent engaged in "binge drinking," defined as four drinks for women and five for men in a short time span, during the prior two weeks.
The social consequences of this level of alcohol intake are staggering. There are an estimated 1,700 alcohol related unintentional deaths per year in the college age population, while approximately 160,000 students per year are unintentionally injured while under the influence of alcohol.
Some 70,000 students are assaulted by students who have been drinking and 10,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
There are no comparable data about marijuana on campus, but virtually all credible research indicates that cannabis is not a measurable factor associated with violence, aggression, or other delinquent behavior.
In fact, National Commissions in the U.S., Canada and Great Britain all found that cannabis is not associated with an increase in "risk taking behavior."
So, staring these facts in the face, hands down, no contest. Marijuana is far safer than alcohol in all respects. It's safer for the individual, it's safer for others, and by extension it's safer for society.
Somewhere, the politicians and the criminal justice system got their wires crossed on this issue. The safer substance, cannabis, is illegal while the more dangerous one, alcohol is entirely legal.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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