Pick your poison, pot or booze?
In a recent interview for New Yorker Magazine, President Barack Obama made what many believe to be a controversial statement: He doesn’t think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol.
While Obama’s statement reflects the changing perception of the drug and efforts to legalize it, the comparison between marijuana and alcohol does have people wondering just how each of the two substances affects users’ health.
“When we start using substances, any substances, before the age of 15, we increase the risk of having problems later on,” said Lynn Reyes, a counselor and alcohol and other drug specialist at Campus Health Service.
Northwestern Medicine researchers in Chicago recently discovered a correlation between memory and marijuana use. The study found that teenagers who regularly smoked marijuana performed poorly on memory tests. It was also discovered that using marijuana in your early 20s can affect brain development, possibly leading to the shrinking and collapse of memory-related structures in the brain.
Photo Illustration With marijuana now legal in Washington and Colorado, many people, including President Obama, are comparing the dangers of smoking pot to drinking.
In addition, there have been many studies investigating the effect alcohol has on the brain. Excessive drinking can have both short-term and long-term effects on the brain, according to the National Institute of Health’s Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
When people drink too much too quickly, they can black out and suffer from memory loss, which is meant to serve as a warning to slow down or stop drinking, Reyes said.
“Alcohol is considered in a different category of substance, in that we see deaths related to overdose,” Reyes said. “Marijuana doesn’t fall into the clinical category of addiction. Alcohol has a clear addiction pathology.”
Long-term effects of alcohol vary. Persistent drinkers often suffer from liver disease, which can lead to liver cancer, and they are also more prone to mouth, throat and esophageal cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although both alcohol and marijuana have a variety of physical effects on the body, they also affect the user’s mental state. Alcohol acts as a depressant, often causing feelings of sadness or anxiety, according to the CDC.
Many marijuana smokers mention feelings of paranoia or anxiety, similar to the symptoms of schizophrenia, that are due to psychoactive component of the drug tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, according to researchers from the University of Western Ontario. THC triggers parts of the brain known as cannabinoid receptors. The activation of these receptors causes the brain to react with fear in more situations than it would if the person had not ingested THC.
Although any drug can be dangerous when taken in excess, there are also some health benefits to drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana. Many studies have shown that moderate drinking — about one drink a day for women and two for men — can reduce the risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Mayo Clinic.
Marijuana is also used for health reasons. Although recreational marijuana is not legal in Arizona, it is available to people who possess a medical marijuana card, which allows them to purchase small amounts of the substance.
Many people who use the drug for medical purposes are looking for relief from health issues like cancer, Crohn’s disease, glaucoma or chronic, debilitating pain, said Jacob Schmidt, manager of NatureMed, a medical marijuana dispensary in Marana.
“Many patients come in for one reason, and they find that the medicine actually treats them for other ailments that are not on that list,” Schmidt said. “If someone comes in with a specific condition, say they can’t sleep at night, then we go into our inventory and look into what is most suitable for them.”
The company, which offers many different kinds of marijuana, also offers edibles and vaporizers, which are especially beneficial for patients undergoing chemotherapy because they help patients regain their appetite.
“Edibles are good for people going through chemotherapy, because they actually get into the fat cells and the metabolism and actually target the pain,” Schmidt said. “They take longer but are 100 percent non-harmful on the lungs.”
Although Obama’s statement may have been rooted in politics, having a president — who has confessed to using marijuana himself — compare the drug to alcohol does make people re-evaluate the risk associated with it.
“I think they are both dangerous if used in excessive amounts,” said Sean Campbell, a political science senior. “But used in moderation, I feel like they are both safe enough.”