Weed vs alcohol: which is more dangerous?

It's the age-old debate....

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In January this year, when US President Barack Obama apparently made the statement that he doesn’t believe cannabis is more dangerous than alcohol, he sent media into a spin – especially because the US at that time was heavily debating further legalisation of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes. Journalists typed furiously, sending the ‘cannabis is safer than alcohol’ story to the front page of newspapers and websites world-wide, angling for the debate to grow and those arguing for legalisation of cannabis to go head-to-head with those against legalisation of the drug for either purpose.

While healthy debate is always positive, and will often result in a more informed decision or outcome, the big question in this case is – does such a superficial comparison of weed and alcohol lead to vulnerable people failing to see the dangers of one or both of these substances?

Why ask the ‘weed vs alcohol’ question?

‘And as an expert in your field, would you say that alcohol or cannabis is more dangerous to people?’ We hear the question thrown around by journalists and pro-cannabis supporters frequently, and as experts in the field, have ourselves often been asked to undertake a weed vs alcohol comparison. But what are they really asking? Are they actually asking for a real answer, something with concrete evidence that compares the effects of cannabis and alcohol, or by suggesting a comparison of the two, are they simply aiming to demonise one and characterise the other as a ‘soft drug?’

The answer to this question – is alcohol more dangerous than cannabis – should be so simple and so obvious that asking it basically becomes redundant. Does comparing weed and alcohol and determining that one is better or worse than the other, based on their harms, make either of them ok? We’d never think to ask ourselves – is assault or armed robbery worse?  Is theft or vandalism worse? And the reason for not asking those questions is we know there’s no need to directly compare the two, as each has its own risks and consequences.

In reality, weed and alcohol can both be dangerous, both have effects that can impair people’s abilities, alter their moods and impact their short-and-long-term health. Both can change lives, lifestyles and relationships.  So why is it that this question continues to be asked?

With this question popping up so frequently, especially as the debate over the legalisation of cannabis gains ground locally, it is important as educators – whether  health workers, teachers, parents, community leaders or just one person with influence over another – that we think about the consequences of potentially belittling the very real side effects of either drug.

Young people, who are growing, learning and starting for the first time to make real decisions that will impact their lives, are highly impressionable. They are also glued to various media for as many hours as permitted every day, and have more access to news, discussions and world issues than any generation before them. Does it build anyone’s understanding or better inform their decisions, to suggest that cannabis is safer than alcohol for a person, or vice versa? Does it enable them to accurately weigh up the effects of either drug, or encourage them to consider family history and other personal circumstances in order to understand the magnitude of consequences that potentially go with use?

While comparison of two things can be useful, and can allow people to relate better or understand more, it can also have the opposite effect, unintentionally misinforming people or creating perceptions that are not based on the evidence.

How do we combat misinformation?

As educators, it is our job to continue to provide accurate information , especially to young people, so they understand the nature of each substance, in its own right.

While for some of us, it’s not our place to make the decision for another person as to what they use and what they avoid, we do have an influence over whether or not they make a well-informed decision, or one based on misinformation and incorrect perceptions. Building a knowledge of both the risks and effects of cannabis and alcohol can help young people make the right call as opposed to simply choosing to use a drug because they perceive it to be ‘softer’ or of less harm to them than another drug.

 

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