The modern science clearly shows that cannabis is healthier than alcohol, however the public is still undecided on this question.
The general hatred towards cannabis that plagued our society up until recently didn’t happen all by itself. In fact, it was a direct result propagated by the American government, which had a forceful anti-marijuana campaign during the 1930s.
Prior to that, there were numerous cannabis-infused remedies available in pharmacies across America, but a combination of a large-scale Mexican immigration and the government’s requirement for a common enemy to unite the people (especially after the Great Depression and the Prohibition), resulted in an unfair oppression of cannabis.
On the other side, the history of alcoholic beverages goes like this:
From ancient Egypt, China, India and Babylon, the use of fermented fruits, honey, rice and corn to create alcoholic drinks was a really popular way to “have some fun”.
During the 1500s alcohol was almost entirely used for medical reasons, and somewhere at the start of the eighteenth century, the British parliament passed a law which allowed using grain for the production of alcoholic spirits.
This turned into quite a trend, and widespread alcoholism became a real problem in the United Kingdom. Because of this, there was a decline in alcohol consumption in the entire Western world during the 19th century, followed by a total alcohol prohibition in the US in 1920.
This didn’t last long because the illegal manufacturing and distribution skyrocketed. This prompted the American government to call off the prohibition in 1933.
How does alcohol work?
The most important part in all alcoholic beverages is ethanol.
This chemical compound (also known as just alcohol, ethyl alcohol or drinking alcohol) is responsible for the number of reactions in the brain and body which we call getting drunk.
Once alcohol enters our stomach, our digestive system spreads ethanol through our bloodstream, entering the heart, brain and other important parts of our organism.
What goes on in the brain is particularly crucial for the buzz we feel.
Ethanol acts as a depressant of our central nervous system, connecting with a neurotransmitter called glutamate, which is normally in charge of exciting neurons, but in this case, the ethanol slows down its function, causing us to react more slowly to any outside stimulant.
Glutamate is also responsible for the release of dopamine, which is an organic compound in charge of reward-motivated behaviour.
When we get drunk, the elevated secretion of dopamine makes us feel happy and confident.
The connection between GABA receptors and ethanol is also quite important for the complete understanding of how drinking affects our behaviour and sensations.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors make us feel drowsy and calm, and because ethanol additionally activates them so are the feelings of calmness and serenity magnified.
How does cannabis work?
The active chemical compounds found in cannabis are called cannabinoids, and they engage with the endocannabinoid system—basically a very large network of cellular activators and receptors located in many different parts of our body.
THC is the main psychoactive (and intoxicating) compound in marijuana, and is responsible for some unordinary thought patterns, because its presence in our body shortens the time between breaks of neural transmissions of information, and by doing so it makes our thoughts became more easy flowing and generally more spontaneous.
THC is also responsible for the added secretion of dopamine (just like alcohol), which makes us feel euphoric, confident and laid back.
But, unlike alcohol which can be beneficial for our health only in very small amounts, cannabis can be responsible for a truly wide array of medical benefits, ranging from regulation of appetite, mood disorders like depression and anxiety, stress, appetite regulation and much much more.
What can be said about the long-term effects of these substances to our own psychical and mental health?
Let’s find out.
Long-term effects of consuming alcohol
Consuming alcohol regularly over an extensive period of time can cause serious health issues, the first one being the death of brain cells, which may lower mental and physical functions.
Another terrible aspect of frequent drinking is the alcoholic liver disease, which occurs in some long-term binge drinkers.
Pancreatitis is also very common, which is basically a very damaging inflammation of the pancreas, and is life-threatening if not treated.
Increased tolerance is another high-risk issue with alcohol, where the person cannot sense the short-term effects like hangovers and headaches because of the elongated consumption.
This causes the user to feel like alcohol isn’t causing so much harm to them, but in fact, they just cannot sense the havoc that alcohol is wreaking to their system.
Once the user reaches the dependence level, commonly known as alcoholism, things become really serious.
When our brain becomes so used to alcohol, the neural transmitters start to malfunction without the constant presence of alcohol in it.
In this phase, it’s excruciatingly difficult to stop drinking without any professional help, because the body becomes so used to ethanol, and stops functioning properly without it.
Over-indulgence of alcohol is responsible for a large number of health issues, the main ones being high blood pressure, increased risk of stroke and other serious heart related problems, liver disease, irreversible neural and brain damage, troubles with the libido and loss of sexual appetite, the risk of poisoning, ulcers, gastritis and malnutrition.
All of these issues make alcohol a substance that should be taken quite seriously, and consumed very responsibly.
Long-term effects of using cannabis
Dependable clinical research on the long-term effects of cannabis is still very limited, and the end result of the studies that are available currently often deliver conflicted results.
This comes to show that science still needs to pick up the pace regarding cannabis, in order for us to have a clearer picture with what really goes on with our bodies and minds after decades of pot consumption.
Nonetheless, here’s what we know so far.
Cannabis may cause cognitive issues in adolescents
There is a current ongoing debate if cannabis is responsible for causing long-term cognitive issues in adolescents. Two studies from 2016 showed that teenage pot consumption isn’t connected with any kind of IQ lessening. (1)
They used identical twins to determine if environmental factors are more important than genetics. In this study, there was a decline in IQ in both twins and the study concluded that an environmental factor was responsible for this fall of cognitive function for both twins.
Another study from 2014 shows that frequent teen users had a change in the brain’s white matter, which caused issues with impulse control and attention span deficits. (2)
This was only evident in subjects who started using pot before the age of 16, but the study had some serious failings in showing that marijuana was solely responsible for this negative trend of the IQ, it just offered a suggestion that these two phenomena are possibly connected.
Increased tolerance to cannabinoids
The problem of increased tolerance can’t really be described as a long-term effect, but it does happen after a significantly long period of weed consumption.
Tolerance happens because cells become resilient to THC and other cannabinoids in a process called down-regulation.
This is the body’s own defense mechanism when cannabinoid receptors are over-stimulated: If you keep sending more and more THC into your body, your body will start reducing the receptors THC attaches to.
Because of this, you will have to increase the amount of cannabis you take to feel the desired effects, but luckily this tolerance is only temporary, as this study shows. Fortunately, the CB receptors grow back once you stop consuming cannabis for several weeks. (3)
Possible problems for people struggling with psychiatric disorders
This is a delicate issue, but some clinical studies show that individuals who have a predisposition for specific mental illnesses are better off without cannabis. (4)
However, I have to add that thousands of people are using cannabis for mild to moderate psychiatric disorders, however, the trick there is finding the right dosage. You can use this dosage guide to figure out the optimal therapeutic THC and CBD levels.
- Jackson NJ, Isen JD, Khoddam R, Irons D, Tuvblad C, Iacono WG, McGue M, Raine A, Baker LA; Impact of adolescent marijuana use on intelligence: Results from two longitudinal twin studies; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; February 2016; 113(5):E500-508
- Gruber SA, Dahlgren MK, Sagar KA, Gönenç A, Lukas SE; Worth the wait: effects of age of onset of marijuana use on white matter and impulsivity; Psychopharmacology; April 2014; 231(8):1455-1465
- D’Souza DC, Cortes-Briones JA, Ranganathan M, Thurnauer H, Creatura G, Surti T, Planeta B, Neumeister A, Pittman B, Normandin M, Kapinos M, Ropchan J, Huang Y, Carson RE, Skosnik PD; Rapid Changes in CB1 Receptor Availability in Cannabis Dependent Males after Abstinence from Cannabis; Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging; January 2016; 1(1):60-67
- The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana: An Evidence Review and Research Agenda; Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); January 2017
- Bagot KS, Milin R, Kaminer Y; Adolescent Initiation of Cannabis Use and Early-Onset Psychosis; Substance Abuse; 2015; 36(4):524-533