In the debate over the legalization of cannabis, pro-legalization forces have often drawn comparisons between cannabis and alcohol. This has made sense rhetorically, as few people think alcohol prohibition was a great model for public policy. And we won’t argue there are multiple points where they are similar; they’re both commonly used for their intoxicating effects, they’re represented in pop culture, and there’s few problems with adults using either, provided they act responsibly. But now that we’re on the right side of legalization here in California, it’s time for us to come clean. Cannabis is better than alcohol, in pretty much every way that matters.
Let’s start with their effects on the body. Both substances are absorbed into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body, causing differing effects. With alcohol, those effects are taxing to the liver, brain, heart, pancreas, and immune system. Cannabis can damage your lungs if you aren’t vaporizing or eating it, isn’t great for short-term memory while under the influence, and will temporarily raise your blood pressure. Overuse of cannabis can result in dizziness or feeling withdrawn and anxious. This can usually be cured by lying down with a blanket for a while. Overuse of alcohol often results in vomiting, and in extreme cases can require stomach pumping, with death as a real possibility, one that claims six lives a day in the US, as opposed to marijuana’s none. And we’d be remiss to not mention the day after. As we get older, the effects of a hangover get increasingly taxing. Headaches, nausea, fatigue, anxiety, trouble concentrating, and of course, more vomiting are par for the course. Meanwhile, the aftereffects of smoking or vaping cannabis tend to all revolve around dehydration or overeating. There’s not much a glass of water and a trip to the bathroom the morning after a night of cannabis overindulgence won’t fix. In short, if your body had a choice, it would choose cannabis every time.
To talk about behavior, let’s start with a question: if you had the choice between hosting five drunk people or five high people in your home, which group would you pick? If you picked the high people, congratulations for not finding anything broken. This is because cannabis tends not to make users aggressive or nearly as clumsy, nor does it provide that inflated sense of self-esteem that lets you believe you’re more charming, a better driver, or good at karaoke because of alcohol. The basic act of consuming these substances is fundamentally different. Getting drunk is often the extent of the plan; few people go to a bar with the intention of doing something else afterwards, drinking at the bar is the end goal. Cannabis however can flavor other experiences rather than being the total experience. Marijuana consumers often get high as a prelude to going to dinner or the movies. My parents enjoy edibles on their way to the opera or the symphony. Plenty of our customers use it to get into the zone for a workout. None of these activities work nearly as well after five or six beers.
Finally, if you look at the two from a public policy perspective, the contrast is even more stark. Alcohol is a factor in 27% of physical assaults, 37% of sexual assaults and rapes, 40% of murders, and approximately 10,000 DUIs a year. Numbers on cannabis are harder to come by, but that’s a good sign that they’re lower by a large factor. Additionally, Washington and Colorado have seen no increase in these crimes since the end of prohibition, making it difficult to blame the discrepancy on the legal status. Whether alcohol makes people more violent and irresponsible or whether violent and irresponsible people seek out alcohol, the numbers are clear; cannabis is not nearly as costly for society at large than alcohol is.
This is not to say that there’s no place for alcohol. Millions of Americans (myself included) consume beer, wine, and liquor responsibly, and suffer few negative effects from doing so. And of course, free people should have the right to choose what they do with their own bodies. But if you’re looking to alter your reality, cannabis is by far the safer, more healthful option that enables better behavior and is better for communities. So as you make plans for St. Paddy’s Day, maybe plan on partaking in a natural green rather than light beer and food coloring. Your body, friends, and neighbors might thank you.