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Is Cannabis Healthier than Alcohol?

Is Cannabis Healthier than Alcohol?

Cannabis vs. alcohol: which one is healthier? There’s certainly reason to compare the two: both cause short and long term effects (some positive, some negative), have the potential for substance abuse, and may impact long-time users’ physical and mental health.

But despite these similarities, cannabis and alcohol are very different substances. While both are sometimes used to achieve a recreational “buzz”, their effects (both short-term and long-term, desirable and unintended) are very different. The phrase “comparing apples and oranges” might rightly spring to mind.

Today we’ll be breaking down the impact of cannabis vs. alcohol (both hemp and marijuana) in a side-by-side comparison. While different users will react differently to both substances (as a result of their tolerance or unique biochemistry), research has uncovered several underlying trends that can help us finally answer the question, “is cannabis healthier than alcohol?”

Not all Cannabis is Created Equal!

Cannabis” is a broad term used to refer to several different plants with very different effects.  To discuss the short- and long-term effects of alcohol consumption and cannabis use, we have to narrow down our terms a bit. Specifically, we need to clarify the difference between marijuana and hemp, the two strains of cannabis.

Marijuanais the most famous form of cannabis.

  • Like alcohol, marijuana is often used recreationally.
  • Marijuana contains very high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an intoxicating compound (more on its effects below).
  • Marijuana (like the THC it contains) does have some legitimate medical uses.

Hemp is the other form of cannabis, from which most CBD oils and other products are derived.

  • Unlike alcohol and marijuana, hemp has little potential for recreational (ab)use.
  • Hemp naturally contains very low concentrations of THC ⁠— far too low to cause any intoxication.
  • The primary compound in hemp is cannabidiol (CBD); while CBD also appears in marijuana, it is naturally found in only very small concentrations.
  • Hemp, and CBD products derived from it, are almost exclusively used for therapeutic purposes.

When comparing alcohol and cannabis, it’s vital to keep in mind which form of cannabis you’re discussing. As we’ll see below, marijuana and hemp have very different health effects.

Short-Term Effects of Cannabis vs. Alcohol

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol consumption causes a form of intoxication that is often referred to as “being drunk”. Different users react to alcohol differently; some become euphoric, others anxious or morose. However, common effects of alcohol include:

  • Reduced reaction speed and coordination
  • Impaired cognitive skills and judgment
  • Giddiness
  • Drowsiness
  • Reduced attention span
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • A “hangover” following use, which may include:
    • Headache
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Dehydration
  • At high doses, alcohol can cause alcohol poisoning, which can lead to death even with only short-term use. The lethal dose is dependent on users’ BMI, and binge drinking leads to 6 deaths per day in the US

Short-Term Effects of Marijuana (High-THC Low-CBD Cannabis)

As with alcohol, different users will react to marijuana differently. However, the most common short-term effects include:

  • Reduced reaction speed and coordination
  • Altered perception of time
  • Relaxation or reduced anxiety (though some users have the opposite experience, where marijuana actually increases anxiety)
  • Increased heart rate
  • Paranoia, especially at high doses of THC
  • Giddiness
  • Drowsiness
  • Reduced nausea
  • Pain relief
  • Dry mouth
  • Red eyes
  • Greatly increased appetite (often referred to as “the munchies”)
  • After “coming down” from a THC high, users may experience:
    • Headache
    • Drowsiness
    • Reduced cognitive function or “brain fog”
  • While there is theoretically a lethal dose of THC, it is virtually impossible to ingest enough to kill you. Users would simply fall asleep long before reaching that point.

Short-Term Effects of Hemp (Low-THC High-CBD Cannabis)

As above, different users will react to hemp and CBD somewhat differently. Again, hemp does not cause intoxication, and most of its effects are quite subtle. The most common short-term effects of hemp and CBD include:

  • Pain relief
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Increased sense of calm
  • Reduction in seizures and other symptoms of epilepsy
  • Drowsiness (usually only at high doses)
  • At very high doses, some users report experiencing diarrhea
  • CBD does not have a noticeable hangover

Short-Term Effects of Cannabis vs. Alcohol: The Verdict

In the short-term, both alcohol and high-THC marijuana can cause an enjoyable “buzz”, though the intoxicating effects differ significantly. They also can cause adverse effects in the short-term, leading to a “hangover” or crash following the comedown. High-CBD hemp, on the other hand, does not cause intoxication, and its negative short-term effects (potential for drowsiness and, at very high doses, diarrhea) are more manageable.

Verdict: Cannabis is undoubtedly safer than alcohol for short-term use, and alcohol bears significantly higher risk. Of the two strains of cannabis, marijuana/THC has more negative effects, and marijuana users absolutely should not drive under the influence. Hemp/CBD has remarkably fewer adverse effects, with the only common negative side effect being drowsiness. As such, new users should not drive under the influence of CBD until they have determined how it affects them; while driving on CBD is legal, the potential for drowsiness may put you and others at risk.

Long-Term Effects of Cannabis vs. Alcohol

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

Following heavy use or moderate use over a long period, alcohol can cause significant long-term health effects, including the following:

  • Liver disease or failure
  • Pancreatitis
  • Damage to the heart and cardiovascular system
  • Erectile Dysfunction
  • Infertility
  • Digestive issues, including:
    • Ulcers
    • Pain
    • Bloating
    • Irritation
  • Damage to the central nervous system, including:
    • Numbness or tingling in the limbs
    • Uncontrollable shaking, known as “delirium tremens”

Long-Term Effects of Marijuana (High-THC Low-CBD Cannabis)

Marijuana may also have some adverse long-term health effects. However, less clinical research has been done on marijuana’s long-term impact, and possible effects vary significantly depending on the ingestion method (smoking vs. edibles, for instance).

Long-Term Effects of Hemp (Low-THC High-CBD Cannabis)

Very little clinical study has been done on the long-term effects of hemp and CBD. Long-term smoking of hemp is likely to have similar effects to smoking marijuana, including:

  • Damage to the lungs
  • Damage to the heart and cardiovascular system

Again, these effects are only relevant to long-term hemp smokers. When hemp or CBD is taken in the form of liquid tinctures, capsules, or other (non-inhalable) products, no long-term health effects are currently known.

Long-Term Effects of Cannabis vs. Alcohol: The Verdict

In the long-term, both alcohol and cannabis can cause adverse health effects. However, the severity of alcohol’s effects is far more significant, and cannabis’s long-term effects are specific to only one ingestion method (smoking) or affect only particular groups.

Verdict: As in the short-term, cannabis is the clear winner, with alcohol presenting a significantly higher risk to users’ health. While smoking cannabis can cause damage to the heart and lungs, other ingestion methods may be entirely without long-term effects for the majority of users.

The Bottom Line on Cannabis vs. Alcohol

When it comes to cannabis vs. alcohol in terms of short- and long-term health effects, cannabis is the clear winner. Across the boards, alcohol consumption presents a significantly higher risk of death, organ damage, and negative impact on both physical and mental health.

Both inebriants have their share of adverse effects, and both alcohol and marijuana (but not hemp!) have the potential for substance abuse. However, alcohol’s negative health effects are far more severe, both in the short- and long-term, than those of either form of cannabis.

Alcohol can cause damage to a wide variety of important bodily systems. It is a strong inebriant that impacts cognition, judgment, and coordination. Even short-term use can, in the case of binge drinking, lead to death.

Cannabis, on the other hand, is a comparatively mild inebriant that affects far fewer bodily systems. Its short-term effects can cause significant impairment, and marijuana users absolutely should not drive under the influence. However, cannabis’s long-term health effects are far less impactful than those of alcohol; most adverse long-term effects can be avoided by choosing an ingestion method other than smoking.

Notably, hemp and the CBD products derived from it offer a low-to-no-risk alternative to traditional cannabis use. With regards to short-term effects, high-CBD hemp offers very little in the way of adverse side-effects. Moreover, even-long term use of non-inhalable CBD products (such as oils, capsules, or topicals), have no known long-term health risks. Of course, hemp and CBD are non-intoxicating, so recreational users may not see CBD as a viable alternative. But for those looking for stress-relief, pain relief, or other short-term therapeutic benefits associated with cannabis, CBD-rich products are a healthy alternative that offer significant benefits.

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