This article was originally published on Leafly and appears here with permission.
There’s a common perception that cannabis is safer and less addictive than alcohol. For example, in a recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans, respondents ranked alcohol as “somewhat and moderately addictive” compared to “not very or somewhat addictive” for marijuana.
Additionally, survey participants who didn’t consume cannabis generally believed alcohol was “moderately dangerous,” while cannabis was ranked as “not very dangerous to somewhat dangerous.”
But aside from general opinions, is there evidence that one substance is more addictive or harmful than the other?
What are the similarities between weed and alcohol?
Alcohol and cannabis share a bunch of features in common. Both can be used to help people mellow out, calm nerves, and relax muscles. These effects occur because both alcohol and weed belong to the depressant class of drugs (though weed falls into several other drug categories too).
Depressants increase the activity of GABA neurotransmitters in the brain. When GABA activity ramps up, activity in the central nervous system slows down, and the speed at which messages are passed between the body and brain also decreases. Imagine GABA as a brake pedal for the brain: When that brake is pressed, a calming effect ensues.
However, there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. Too much depressant equals too much GABA activity, which in turn can result in drowsiness, slow reactions, poor coordination, and impaired concentration. Anyone who’s had a little too much weed or alcohol can likely attest to slurred speech, passing out early, maybe stumbling over, and the like.
How are weed and alcohol different?
Cannabis differs from alcohol in several critical ways for Dr. Jordan Tishler, President of the Association of Cannabinoid Specialists, and CEO/CMO at inhaleMD.
“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.”
Cannabis, on the other hand, is a plant that contains hundreds of diverse compounds, many of which are therapeutically beneficial.
“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.”
In simple terms, cannabis has medicinal applications, and alcohol does not.
Is weed addictive?
Tishler emphasizes that understanding addiction is nuanced, and it can be helpful to distinguish addiction from dependence.
“Addictive is a complicated word,” said Tishler. “Addiction is a set of maladaptive behaviors, whereas …