As anxiety over the pandemic rose, so did alcohol and marijuana sales across the country. That’s not exactly surprising. One piece of this trend that is worth taking a beat with is that parents are increasingly choosing weed over booze, by wide margins.
Of parents who have tried pot, 52 percent increased their consumption during the pandemic compared to 33 percent of adults without young kids. And while many parents are also drinking, 57 percent said they stopped or decreased their alcohol consumption in exchange for weed, according to a survey of nearly 2,000 adults by Harris Poll, conducted on behalf of cannabis manufacturer and retailer Curaleaf.
Although abstinence is (unfortunately) the healthiest choice, marijuana is probably the least damaging if you are going to indulge. But making that comparison is tricky. Many studies have investigated all the good and bad alcohol can do to your body and your life. There’s been much less research on cannabis. The data that does exist suggests marijuana is safer in terms of physical and mental health, addiction, and family life. “Alcohol is a more dangerous substance. Period,” says Meenakshi Subbaraman, the director of statistical and data services at the Alcohol Research Group. Why? Here’s the breakdown.
Effects of Marijuana and Alcohol on Physical Health
In terms of physical health, weed is the clear winner. In the very short term, alcohol is more likely than marijuana to leave you reeling the day after. Longer-lasting effects also skew toward cannabis as the lesser of two evils. Alcohol can increase risk of several types of cancer and can weaken the immune system, in addition to these effects, according to Healthline:
- Liver disease
- Heart damage
- Stomach and digestive issues
- Central nervous system damage
- Erectile dysfunction
The physical effects of marijuana vary depending on how you use it. Smoking has more associated health consequences than, say, eating pot brownies. Smoking pot can cause lung damage and increase the risk of developing a cough or bronchitis. Several studies have found a link between smoking marijuana and heart issues, but it’s unclear if that’s due to the cannabis itself or the smoking. And although many people use marijuana for sleep, the evidence is mixed about whether it helps catch z’s.
One clear physical effect of heavy weed use is cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome, which is characterized by nausea, vomiting, and dehydration. However, the syndrome is uncommon — far more so than alcoholism — and only occurs in people who use weed almost every day over the course of several years.
If you’re worried about your physical health, your best bet based on the information available is to opt for moderate weed use over moderate alcohol use — with a preference towards edible marijuana.
Effects of Marijuana and Alcohol on Mental Health
Comparing the risks of alcohol and marijuana gets murkier when it comes to the brain and mental health. The clear worry here is addiction. In 2019, more than 14 million adults in the U.S. met the criteria for alcohol use disorder, otherwise known as alcoholism. In comparison, about four million had marijuana use disorder in 2015. However, the language around weed and addiction is fuzzy, and not all of those with marijuana use disorder have an addiction.
More people drink alcohol than smoke weed, so the above numbers don’t give the full picture. Instead, experts look at how likely each substance is to cause addiction. Many people who smoke pot don’t think it’s addictive, but 10 percent of people who try marijuana develop an addiction, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, addiction to cannabis is less of an issue. “The addiction potential is higher for alcohol,” Subbaraman says. “It’s more likely to lead to addiction among people who use it.”
Some experts recommend that people grappling with an alcohol addiction move to marijuana as a substitute. The same is not true the other way around. “I have never heard anyone suggest that alcohol might be a substitute medication for another drug,” Subbaraman says.
Drinking, especially long-term or heavy drinking, can mess with the brain, leading to learning and memory problems and increase the risk of anxiety and depression. Heavy drinking may cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a brain disorder with symptoms such as amnesia, confusion, and hallucinations. Alcohol can also directly damage brain cells, but most resulting cognitive impairments are reversible after a year of sobriety.
Once again, the data regarding your brain on weed is lacking. There is some evidence that cannabis can trigger the onset of schizophrenia in some people, especially those with a family history of the condition. Using marijuana near-daily and in high doses occasionally leads to anxiety and paranoia, according to the CDC. People who use weed long-term are also more likely to develop social anxiety than those who abstain. Whether weed changes the brain itself — and whether that has any effect on day-to-day life — is understudied, and results are conflicting for adults.
Effects of Marijuana and Alcohol on Mortality
If you’re hitting the bottle hard, overdosing is a real concern. Hitting the vape pen hard? Not so much. Alcohol kills 88,000 people each year, and marijuana kills near zero, according to the American Addiction Centers. To get a lethal dose of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, you would need to smoke between 238 and 1,113 joints in one day.
But overdosing is not the only way that drugs increase the risk of death. In 2010, 1.5 million people died worldwide from alcohol-attributable cancer, liver cirrhosis, and injury, according to a 2014 study. Nearly 1.2 million of those deaths were among men. That said, how much you drink matters. Light and moderate drinking have a reduced risk of death from all causes, whereas heavy drinking increases risk of all-cause mortality, according to a study of more than 330,000 people. (Although this is a large and rigorous study, long-term mortality for moderate use of alcohol is difficult to pin down and there are a number of quality studies that flip this finding). The jury is out on whether cannabis increases the risk of death.
Effects of Marijuana and Alcohol on Child Development
The presence of both alcohol and weed in a household isn’t great for child development. In every two out of three published associations, parents’ drinking is linked to a negative outcome in their children, according to a review study. One of the main negative outcomes is that kids with parents who consume alcohol are more likely to drink as an adolescent. Kids of parents who smoke weed are similarly more likely to use weed and alcohol themselves. But when comparing the two, alcohol again comes out as worse. “The prevalence of harms to others with alcohol use is a lot higher,” Subbaraman says. Alcohol use is about three times more likely to result in harassment, vandalism, or family problems compared to marijuana use, according to recent surveys.
In one important way, parents’ marijuana use may be worse on kids’ health. The main reason why is that pot use can affect kids in a way alcohol can’t: secondhand smoke. The cannabinoids that cause weed’s high can get into kids’ bodies through secondhand smoke, and evidence suggests this could have permanent effects on IQ, memory, and executive function. Some doctors say there’s no reason to think that marijuana secondhand smoke is safer for kids than tobacco secondhand smoke, but there’s not enough evidence to be certain either way. This is yet another reason to stick to edible marijuana if you are partaking. And, of course, direct ingestion of marijuana is exceedingly dangerous for kids, so always store marijuana safely and away from kids.
Although both cannabis and alcohol can negatively impact children, anecdotal evidence suggests weed may be better for engaging parents in play with their kids. Alcohol tends to disconnect parents, but dads who use weed during playtime often report more relaxation and engagement. But, as parents who smoke weed and play with their kids told Fatherly, never try anything new with marijuana while playing with your kids, and only take a small hit. Make sure you’re in a safe environment, and it’s probably best to have a sober adult around in case anything goes sideways.