Apples and oranges: the weed vs. alcohol debate

Weed and alcohol have a separate range of harms (though some overlap), so comparing them is about as useful as asking which is worse for you, heroin or crystal meth? Sugar or saturated fats? Each affects us in different ways, but both are still capable of causing harm

weed vs alcohol.jpg

In 2014, President Obama made headlines around the world when he said he believed marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. This statement has also been bandied about a lot in Australia, and it’s usually just taken as fact without any closer examination. Unfortunately, the comparison between cannabis and alcohol is not that simple, and the consequences of statements like ‘alcohol is legal and it’s more dangerous than cannabis’ can be damaging and unhelpful.

 It’s scientifically proven that both substances have their own set of harms that affect people in different ways.

First of all, we need to take a closer look at what we are comparing. Yes, alcohol has a range of harms associated with heavy use: it can lead to chronic diseases, a range of cancers, digestive problems and can also lead to addiction and mood disorders.

Cannabis also has a range of harms associated with heavy use: it can cause problems with brain development, affect mental health and trigger mental illnesses, cause lung disease, produce the same cancer-causing chemicals as cigarettes, it can lead to addiction and have detrimental effects on the health of unborn children. As with alcohol, cannabis use can have a negative impact on your ability to drive a car, and can lead to accidents and injury.

So, what are we really comparing?

Weed and alcohol have a separate range of harms (though some overlap), so comparing them is about as useful as asking which is worse for you, heroin or crystal meth? Sugar or saturated fats? Each affects us in different ways, but both are still capable of causing harm. Both sugar and saturated fats are bad for you, and any comparison between the two doesn’t make one a safer or healthier choice than the other. So the same logic can obviously be applied to comparisons between weed and alcohol – they are meaningless and potentially quite damaging as they imply that the so called ‘less dangerous’ of the two is not harmful at all.

As both substances are harmful, it’s unclear where this argument came from and why it continues to feature in the push for legalisation. Even if alcohol was actually more harmful, then surely adding another damaging drug to the mix isn’t going to improve health outcomes for society? Why is the argument never made the other way – alcohol is more harmful than cannabis, so let’s make it illegal? While NCPIC doesn’t have a stance on legalisation, the argument that we should make two harmful substances (regardless of what they are) more accessible to the public, instead of one, seems highly flawed.

‘No-one has ever overdosed on weed’

The weed vs alcohol debate continues to throw up the same tenuous arguments again and again. How many times have you heard the old ‘no one has ever overdosed on weed, but plenty of people have died from abusing alcohol’? At NCPIC, we get this one a lot, and it’s a shame many people still take such a simplistic view of drug use. No one has ever overdosed on cigarettes either, but it’s hardly a safe or healthy choice to make instead of alcohol.

And since when did death or overdose become the only measurements of harm? It’s not widely reported that people die from poison ivy, yet people aren’t encouraging others to line up to roll in it!

Dangerous and damaging

Sensationalist comparisons between weed and alcohol are damaging in two ways. Firstly, by saying alcohol is worse, it trivialises the issue, making cannabis seem like the ‘healthier’ or ‘safer’ option, and completely diminishes the very real harms associated with weed (for more on cannabis harms, check out our fast facts booklet).

Secondly, it belittles the experience of the more than 200,000 Australians who are currently battling with cannabis addiction, by implying that the drug they struggle with every day is actually completely harmless. How likely would you be to ask for help if someone told you your problem is really insignificant when compared with another problem that exists in society? It reminds us of the bad old days when those finding it tough to manage their alcohol or other drug use were considered to have a character deficit or weak will. As a community, we want to encourage anyone who is suffering to reach out for help, no matter what they are struggling with, without making them feel weak or small.

When Obama made the comparison between alcohol and cannabis, he wasn’t the first person to do so. He certainly isn’t going to be the last. He also said that smoking pot is a bad habit, much like smoking cigarettes, but somehow the context of his statement often gets lost in the hurry to make a favourable comparison.

-->