Health Effects of Alcohol vs Cannabis

Health Effects of Alcohol vs Cannabis

In the run-up to his historic victory in the American Presidential Elections, Barack Obama admitted to having smoked cannabis throughout his youth and up until his young adult years, famously claiming that it’s not more dangerous than alcohol. But did he mean that it was less dangerous than alcohol, or that the danger levels were similar?

With cannabis legalization on the horizon, we’re now expecting to see cannabis sitting on the shelf next to the other psychoactive drugs that we popularly consume in our culture – things like alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, and some pharmaceuticals, and while the risks and benefits of the legal psychoactive drugs have been known and clearly expressed through drug education for some time, it’s not always clear where cannabis falls into the equation.

This week’s article takes a comparative look at cannabis and alcohol. We’ll examine a few aspects of these two substances and how they affect human health, and we’ll hopefully determine whether cannabis is safer than alcohol, if it’s more dangerous, or if the risks are about the same.

Drug Safety and Risk of Overdose

The oldest adage about overdose is that the dose makes the poison of any substance ingested in sufficient quantity is going to kill you, even something that you need to live, such as water, has the potential to seriously disrupt your bodily functions if you have too much of it. In the case of water, it can take just 6L of water ingested over a period of a few hours to kill a person. Drinking a lot of water drastically lowers the concentration of salts in your blood, leading to a deadly condition called hyponatremia.

Alcohol is similarly toxic, we’ve all heard of folks who drink too much having their stomach pumped. In Canada, where the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) for drivers is 8 milligrams of alcohol per litre of blood, a BAC of above 25 milligrams is considered alcohol poisoning and a BAC of over 40 milligrams almost invariably results in the onset of coma and death due to respiratory failure. If you’ve seen folks on YouTube downing a full bottle of Vodka for a viral video, that’s the risk they’re taking.

By contrast, it’s virtually impossible to overdose on cannabis. Not only have there been zero overdoses ever, but experts estimate that it would take 20,000 times as much cannabis as is contained in a single joint to kill an adult human.

Intoxication Effects of Cannabis vs Alcohol

There’s no doubt that cannabis and alcohol both have strong intoxicating effects, but alcohol tends to be a bit stronger. That’s because alcohol suppresses the central nervous system, impairing basic brain functions that contribute to things like balance and forming speech. Drunk people often slur their words, have hazy vision, slowed reaction time, poor motor control, weakened muscles and foggy memory.

For cannabis, users report initial feelings of relaxation followed by haziness and light-headedness. Sensory amplification also occurs with the pupils dilating, which contributes to colours seeming brighter, and music may also sound louder and richer. Cannabis also inhibits reaction time and motor control, but to a lesser extent than alcohol.

DUI and Driving Impairment

Make no mistake about it, cannabis and alcohol both represent impairments to your ability to drive, and the effects are amplified when the drugs are combined. If used on their own however, alcohol is much more dangerous than cannabis if you’re getting behind the wheel.

A study found that when someone high on cannabis got behind the wheel of a car, the risk of a car accident occurring was increased by 83%, however a (legal) blood alcohol content of just 5 milligrams led to an increased risk to the tune of 575%! Although there have been various studies analyzing impaired driving under experimental conditions combining alcohol and cannabis use, all have found that alcohol is significantly more impairing.

Heart and Cancer Effects

One of the acute effects of cannabis is an increased heart rate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for your heart in the long run. Still, the American College of Cardiologists holds the position that cannabis users are significantly more likely to experience heart failure or stroke.

Early studies that attempted to establish a link between lung cancer and cannabis use were somewhat successful, but later evidence has caused scientists to rescind that conclusion. Cannabis is an anti-carcinogenic, so it’s possible that while smoking the substance negatively impacts the lungs, the chemical effects compensate for that by reducing the incidence of other cancers.

The outlook for chronic drinkers is much bleaker however, with alcohol abuse being linked to 88,000 deaths annually in the United States. Although some data has suggested that a single glass of wine or beer each day is good for you, this data may be misleading, and today’s doctors are warning against even a single drink per day. Alcohol has been identified as a cause of liver disease and liver failure, heart disease and breast cancer, along with its deadly acute effects like alcohol poisoning and drunk driving.

Alcohol and Cannabis Addiction

Despite what many people believe, cannabis dependency is a real thing, and it’s been reported that folks attempting to quit can experience many of the same symptoms as folks quitting harder drugs. The good news is that cannabis dependency is easily overcome and only initially affects around 9% of smokers. Remember, dependency is not the same as addiction it’s more like a bad habit.

Around 15% of people who ever try alcohol will become alcoholics, the number is twice as high for the highly addictive drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines. Cigarette smoking has an addition rate of 32% of users, and those dealing with chronic stress or with certain genetic markers are more vulnerable here.


Throughout history, humans have always had intoxicants. From the first cannabis users 12,000 years ago to the builders of the great pyramids who were permitted 1 gallon of beer per day, people are always going to desire a way to relieve stress and anxiety. Based on the risk profiles above (and the cost), we’re glad that cannabis will soon be a legal means of kicking back and relaxing at the end of your tough days.

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