Cannabis or Alcohol: Which is More Harmful?

Recently I saw a report from CNN that said the use of marijuana and hallucinogens were on the rise among young people, age 19-30. I read through the article, that was connected to a CNN segment with CNN anchor Dana Bash and Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA.

The reason the topic came up was because Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer put forth a bill to decriminalize marijuana. It’s a good idea.  I would also go so far as to legalize cannabis and all other mind-altering substances, for several reasons, not the least of which is that our war against the drug cartels isn’t working and has never worked. They can kill Pablo Escobar, but then the Cali Cartel picks up the slack, and does business with a Mexican drug lord, they get busted but the Mexican cartels get going, Sinaloa, Beltrán-Leyva, the Juarez and then the Tijuana cartels. There is a travel advisory issued by the state department telling travelers they should avoid going to Mexico because of the drug gang violence .

They can arrest El Chapo Guzman and put him in prison for life, but there are other cartel kingpins ready to pick up the slack. Here’s a “fast fact” from CNN: Mexican drug cartels make between 19-29 billion dollars per year, most of which comes from the United States. Here’s another fast fact: just in Ciudad Juarez over 3,000 people were murdered in the drug wars just in 2010. The bloodlust hasn’t abated very much since.

The way to stop or at least lower drug use in the United States is not to continue this failed “drug war,” but to put a lot more money into prevention — real, honest prevention that doesn’t rely on falsehoods — and enhancing substance abuse treatment to adequately have a bed for every drug addict and alcoholic that wants to get clean and sober.

But I digress.

President Joe Biden is against legalizing marijuana, but his surgeon general told Dana Bash, “… when it comes to decriminalization, I don’t think that there is value to individuals or to society to lock people up for marijuana use. I don’t think that serves anybody well.”

For Dr. Murthy, it’s about the science. He said to Bash, “Well, when it comes to marijuana, Dana, I think we have to let science guide us. And we know that the science tells us that there are some benefits to — from marijuana from a medical perspective. But there are also some harms that we have to consider. And we have to put those together as we think about the right policy. ”

So I had to Google “Harms of marijuana use.” Huh … According to the CDC 30% of regular cannabis users will suffer what’s called “Marijuana Use Disorder.” It says that this 30% of people that use cannabis the way I did back in the day will become addicted to pot. I knew that in 1984. I didn’t have any clinical studies to back me up, just my own experience.

The CDC also states, “Some people who have marijuana use disorder may need to use more and more marijuana or greater concentrations of marijuana over time to experience a ‘high.’ The greater the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana (in other words, the concentration or strength), the stronger the effects the marijuana may have on the brain. The amount of THC in marijuana has increased over the past few decades.”

On heart health the CDC writes, “Marijuana can make the heart beat faster and can make blood pressure higher immediately after use. It could also lead to increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and other vascular diseases. Most of the scientific studies linking marijuana to heart attacks and strokes are based on reports from people who smoked marijuana (as opposed to other methods of using it). Smoked marijuana delivers tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other cannabinoids to the body. Marijuana smoke also delivers many of the same substances researchers have found in tobacco smoke—these substances are harmful to the lungs and cardiovascular system.

“It is hard to separate the effects of marijuana chemicals on the cardiovascular system from those caused by the irritants and other chemicals that are present in the smoke. More research is needed to understand the full impact of marijuana use on the cardiovascular system to determine if marijuana use leads to higher risk of death.”

It’s very important for people that smoke or vape cannabis to read that last sentence. The CDC is saying they don’t have conclusive evidence that cannabis harms the heart or cardiovascular system.

On mental health the CDC says, “Marijuana use, especially frequently (daily or nearly daily) and in high doses, can cause disorientation and sometimes unpleasant thoughts or feelings of anxiety and paranoia.1

“People who use marijuana are more likely to develop temporary psychosis (not knowing what is real, hallucinations, and paranoia) and long-lasting mental disorders, including schizophrenia (a type of mental illness where people might see or hear things that are not really there). The association between marijuana and schizophrenia is stronger in people who start using marijuana at an earlier age and use marijuana more frequently.

“Marijuana use has also been linked to depression; social anxiety; and thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and suicide.”

The CDC has data on the effects of cannabis use in a variety od areas, not just the three I pointed out. Click the link to read the agency’s messages about marijuana use. They also list the footnotes for the information they use to put together these overviews of cannabis use.

Something else that caught my attention was that Bash didn’t ask Dr. Murthy how dangerous was cannabis compared to alcohol and tobacco, the two most widely used drugs. The CNN article does mention alcohol and tobacco, briefly: “Cigarette use among this age group also decreased. But binge drinking returned to pre-pandemic levels and high-intensity drinking also reached record highs in 2021, with more than one in eight young adults reporting having 10 or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks.”

Anecdotally I would say cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, but there is scientific evidence that supports my observation. Dirk Lachenmeier and Jurgen Rehm did research on comparative risk assessment of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other illicit drugs. But they do conclude that this assessment is “uncertain,” because it doesn’t take into account other risk factors, like harm done to others, through accidents, crime and other societal situations.

Personally, I quit using alcohol and street drugs, including cannabis, in 1984. I actually stopped using cocaine about eight months earlier and stopped using hallucinogens a couple years before that. I prefer experiencing life with a clear mind and at those moments when I am using an opiate for pain, I find it disorienting. And yes, I feel buzzed and become less inhibited with my words, but overall I prefer having the filter of a sober mind, although, to be honest, that doesn’t always work.

One thing I’ve noticed as a sober person is that some people — me — still say and do stupid things. As Morpheus said to Captain Niobe in The Matrix Reloaded, “There are some things in this world, Captain Niobe, that will never change …” they are interrupted by Commander Lock, then, “… Some things do change.”

There I go again, using a pop culture reference, but it’s true for many of us when we make big life changes — some things will change and some things won’t. Give credit to the Wachowskis for the dialogue and the actors, Laurence Fishburne, Jada Pinkett Smith and Harry Lennix.

Anyway, young people are using more cannabis and hallucinogens these days. Ahhh … I remember (somewhat) my first 100 or so acid trips. Well, not all of them, but the first acid trip started at Whitnall Park in Hales Corners, WI. This was about 50 years ago … 51 actually. A guy riding a horse came by us, in the little creek that runs through the park, and was talking to someone in our group. What I remember most was that the horse looked like it had twirling brown worms for a coat. It sort of freaked me out until I remembered I was tripping. All my senses were on high alert.

Another time I remember, I was in the U.S. Marines at the rifle range of MCAS Yuma, for qualification with the M16 assault rifle. My eyesight and control of my breathing were so acute I shot a 247 out of a possible 250. The range officer was impressed and suggested I should go into Recon. That wasn’t me. There is entirely too much work involved in Force Reconnaissance. That wasn’t even the weirdest part of the day at the rifle range. I wasn’t even a party to the weirdest thing .. well maybe a little. But a gunnery sergeant next to me had a good enough score to qualify for the expert badge so he took a shot at a Border Patrol plane that was flying overhead. I kid you not.

Another time I wasn’t quite done tripping, but I went scuba diving anyway. I remember the moray eel in the coral reef and the tiger shark swimming above us. That will make your anus pucker.

There’s no need to get deeper into my personal history. Some people might get the impression Marines are the last people that should be allowed to have and use firearms.

My experience and preferences are for me and I have no desire or intention of pushing my sober lifestyle onto those who would like to use recreational drugs. The war on drugs is a waste of our tax dollars. Here in California a person can smoke it, vape it or eat cannabis. There are at  least a half dozen dispensaries within five miles of my home and I’m okay with it. As Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, MD, MBA said, “when it comes to decriminalization, I don’t think that there is value to individuals or to society to lock people up for marijuana use. I don’t think that serves anybody well.”

Amen to that.