Throughout the past decade, the phrase “Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol” has become the official slogan for why the average stoner should damn well be able to appreciate the same freedom as those who enjoy a stiff drink. After all, pot is arguably less risky than the sauce Americans pour down their gullets during sporting events, weekends, or any other day where it becomes absolutely imperative to either celebrate the good times or drown out the bad. But no matter how tightly the bottle is woven into the puke-stained fabric of civil society, alcohol remains one of the most savage serial killers of any inebriating substance, legal or not.
The nation’s affinity for all things beer, wine, and spirits snuffs out roughly 95,000 diehard drinkers from ills such as liver failure and cancer every year. Meanwhile, the most horrendous consequence that the average cannabis fan might endure, at least as far as we can tell, is perhaps putting on a few extra pounds after stuffing their face with everything in the kitchen once the munchies kick in. But we digress. Considering what we know about both substances, the plant does appear to be a safer alternative to alcoholic beverages. A legion of advocates even claim that legalization may assist in pulling the great, slobbering drunkard out of the nation’s gutter of destitution and despair, ultimately putting them on the path of the straight and narrow.
Fast forward some years, and cannabis legalization for adults 21 and older has taken hold across more of the country. Yet, alcohol-related harms continue to increase. In Colorado, one of the first states to legalize the leaf in a manner similar to alcohol, booze continues to wreak havoc.
A recent study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) finds that alcohol-related deaths increased by nearly 30% in the Centennial State during 2020. Despite having the option of using cannabis as opposed to alcohol for the past eight years, Colorado residents are evidently still drinking themselves to death at alarming numbers. Liver disease, alcohol poisoning, unsafe behavior under the influence, mental health conditions, and alcohol-induced damage to other organs are turning up on coroner’s reports like wildfire. This uptick in booze-related death isn’t just happening in Colorado either. In other legal states, the statistics are similar. Overall, with or without pot, people are still drinking in excess and paying the price.
Nevertheless, some cannabis supporters still believe that legal weed could be a saving grace for an inebriated nation. “That’s the whole reason the alcohol companies have fought so hard all these years to stop marijuana from going legal,” Logan, a 34-year-old from Houston, Texas, tells High Times. “They know they’d lose billions of dollars.” Logan is one of the many pot purists on the cannabis scene who believes the green is an exit drug, and it’s one that he thinks will secure more fanfare than alcohol ever has. “I know several people who were on their third or fourth DUI and nearly homeless that have gotten sober because they switched to cannabis,” he declared.
Logan may be onto something.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of this controversy, High Times reached out to the scientific minds connected to the NIAAA alcohol study to see if they had any idea why alcohol-related harms are still on the rise in states where cannabis is legal. But not even Uncle Sam’s health cronies understand how cannabis legalization is affecting the sudsy minds of the great American lush.
“We simply don’t have a clear picture yet of how marijuana legalization impacts alcohol consumption and related harms,” George F. Koob, Ph.D. and Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, tells High Times. The most the agency’s research has uncovered so far, Koob asserts, is mounting proof that the consumption of both cannabis and alcohol simultaneously is leading to more roadway hazards. “There is building evidence of increased harm associated with driving under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol,” he added.
It is crucial to point out that the NIAAA study did not, in any way, compare alcohol consumption rates to cannabis use. It merely reveals the savage nature of alcohol abuse in this country. Equally important, the study shows there were just as many alcohol-related deaths in states where pot is still considered an outlaw drug. Alcohol-related harms are on the rise in every state. What’s disheartening, however, is there’s no reported decrease in states with legal weed. And that’s the point of this article. Cannabis might be safer than alcohol. Being high could be a solid alternative to drunkenness. But most people who enjoy a drink now and again, which were not cannabis users to begin with, are probably not going to make the switch.
There may have been some reductions in alcohol consumption in states that have legalized (meaning that some people were likely successful at either cutting back or quitting entirely based on having access to legal weed). Those people, presumably the silent success stories, simply got lost in a significant uptick in alcohol-related harm. More research is required on this subject before the tale of the toker getting sober is properly told. With that said, however, some studies do, in fact, show that the concept of cannabis as a replacement for booze is tenable.
In 2009, researchers at the University of California in Berkeley polled hundreds of medical cannabis patients and found that most of them used cannabis as an alternative to alcohol. Other studies have uncovered similar results. “Across the sample, individuals drank approximately 29 percent fewer drinks and were 2.06 times less likely to have a binge-drinking episode on days that cannabis was used compared with days cannabis was not used. These patterns were observed in males, females, and the infrequent and frequent cannabis use groups,” reports a team of scientists at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Colorado State University.
The medical professionals we spoke to say cannabis can absolutely help those ravaged by alcohol find some peace from beyond the bottle. The caveat is that the desire to give up drinking is essential, and the results are not absolute. “For people who want to cut down or stop alcohol, cannabis can be a viable substitute,” Dr. Jordan Tishler, CEO of InhaleMD and Instructor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, tells High Times. The problem is many people use cannabis and alcohol together. “Use of cannabis will not, on its own, lead to less alcohol use,” he said.
Dr. Tishler doesn’t provide medical cannabis recommendations for patients trying to curb their alcohol use, but he admits that many still report less alcohol consumption. “I have many patients who report using less or stopping alcohol use,” the good doctor said. “However, for most patients, this seems incidental to their care (or maybe a side benefit). I believe it really comes down to whether they are looking to cut back the alcohol and whether they are motivated to do so. Overall, I think cannabis can be helpful in the context of intentional cutting down of alcohol but is not going to cause cutting down on alcohol just because cannabis is being used.”
While weed is likely a healthier choice than alcohol, it doesn’t appear that legalization is helping to dry up an unsober nation. And that’s okay. The cannabis plant doesn’t have to cure the sick, raise the dead or perform any other miracles for the downtrodden of mankind to be deserving of legal status. More to the point, cannabis users shouldn’t be considered any less civilized and law-abiding because their drug of choice isn’t healing the ills of an alcoholic society.
If you ask Dr. Tishler, a longtime proponent of pot for medicinal purposes, the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol spiel should be permanently canned for the well-being of the nation. Although the slogan builds a solid case in favor of legalization, it does nothing to benefit the health and safety of the population as cannabis consumption becomes more prevalent nationwide.
“There are good data to support the idea that head-to-head cannabis is safer than alcohol, but in reality, neither is entirely safe,” Dr. Tishler said. “Saying that cannabis is safer than alcohol sounds like a good argument for legalizing cannabis, but it really just overlooks the risks of cannabis for political gain.”