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Get Fact: is marijuana no more dangerous than alcohol?

US President Barack Obama has said marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. Crikey intern David Ross takes a look at the figures in Australia to see if that’s true.

New Yorker magazine journalist David Remnick recently wrote a profile of United States President Barack Obama in which he asked the President his views on marijuana, which has been legalised in one US state (Colorado). Obama’s response made global headlines: 

As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

Is he right? Is marijuana, illegal in much of the world, no more dangerous than alcohol? We decided to take a look at the dangers and costs of cannabis in Australia, and how that compares with alcohol.

First, the social cost of both. One caveat: the figures are not exactly comparable, as there are many more users of alcohol. A 2004-05 report estimated alcohol had a total social cost of almost $15.3 billion in Australia, whereas illicit drugs had total costs of $8.2 billion. In the breakdown of illicit drugs, cannabis is given the rough cost of about $3 billion (due to 7287 days of lost productivity, and hospital visits). Of all the major substances used in Australia the study identified tobacco as having the highest social cost — almost $31 billion.

The report identified one death attributable to cannabis in 2004-05, while 3494 were attributable to alcohol. But definitions of directly attributable deaths vary, and a separate report from Drug Free Australia found 32 deaths in that same time period to be attributable to cannabis.

However, other reports list no “reported case of death in humans after isolated acute intoxication with cannabis”, which is to say while you can drink yourself to death in one sitting (and die of acute alcohol poisoning), it’s much harder to smoke yourself to death or develop cannabis poisoning.

Of course, direct poisoning is not the only danger posed by mood-altering substances. A 2013 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that between 1995 and 2005, some 813,000 Australians were hospitalised for injuries and diseases attributable to alcohol consumption while 32,700 Australians aged over 15 died as a result of “risky” or “high-risk” drinking. A separate report found 250 deaths between 1995-2005 were attributable to cannabis. By comparison, paracetamol was found to be responsible for 672 deaths.

A 1998 study of 1045 road fatalities found alcohol was present in 36% of cases while cannabis was present in 11%. The study also pointed out that THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, can remain in blood weeks after use, so it is difficult to determine whether the driver had used the drug directly prior to the crash. This study also examined the numbers of deaths throughout Australia attributable to alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug consumption and found that cannabis was attributable to no deaths while alcohol — which was also found to have positive lifetime health outcomes — was responsible for several thousand.

About one-third of Australians admit to having tried marijuana, down from about 39% in 1998. Some 80% of Australians over the age of 14 said they had tried alcohol, according to a 2010 study, with 12% saying they’d never touched it. “Recent” use of cannabis fell from 17.9% in 1998 to 9.1% in 2007, according to the 2010-2015 report.

The health effects of long-term cannabis use, according to the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre  —  run in co-operation with UNSW’s National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre  —  are:

  • Increased risk of respiratory diseases associated with smoking, including cancer;
  • Decreased memory and learning abilities; and
  • Decreased motivation in areas such as study, work or concentration.

In comparison, the long-term effects of alcohol include:

  • Cancer of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, lips, liver;
  • Brain injury loss of memory, confusion, hallucinations;
  • High blood pressure, irregular pulse, enlarged heart and changes in red blood cells;
  • Weakness and loss of muscle tissue;
  • Sweating, flushing and bruising of the skin;
  • Inflamed stomach lining, bleeding and stomach ulcers;
  • Increased risk of lung infections;
  • Severe swelling of the liver, hepatitis and cirrhosis;
  • Inflamed pancreas;
  • Tingling and loss of sensation in hands and feet;
  • For men, impotence, shrinking of testicles and damaged and reduced sperm; and
  • For women, greater risk of gynaecological problems.
So the evidence is in — we’re judging this one true.

Get Fact TRUE

15
  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm. This piece misses that there is increasing evidence long-term cannabis use increases the risk of mental illness including psychosis: betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Cannabis_marijuana?open

  • 2
    James Aspinall
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Cannabis is also legal in Washington State, not just Colorado.

  • 3
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Wotta surprise that Drug free Australia founds deaths “attributable” to cannabis. There is LD50 for cannabis, not even pure THC which existeth not outside government laboratories, despite the valiant efforts of amerikan authorities to discern its lethal nature.
    The best (sic! worst)that has been identified is cannabis in the form of hashish can kill if 100 gms per kilo of body weight is dropped on the subject’s skull from above the 10th floor.
    Please let us not have any nonsense about current strains of skunk/hydro being too strong. Hashish is generally between 20-40% THC content, skunk rarely over 15%.

  • 4
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    would be “there is NO LD50..”

  • 5
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    The whole comparison thing is so last century. Why not make dope smoking legal in Kings Cross/Fortitude Valley/Lygon Street etc. and see if that changes the nature of the place.

  • 6
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Links of cannabis use to mental illness will always suffer the chicken and egg problem, and no amount of research will be able to reliably clarify the extent to which cannabis causes mental illness, or mental illness leads to excessive cannabis use.

    So much of the rest of this, while worthy, is based on statistics that are so rubbery as to be useless. You just have to look at how car accidents are attributed to speed (the motion, not the drug) regardless of whether speed actually caused the accident or not. Describing something as a ‘factor’ is as useful as describing whether the person was breathing or not as a factor. (the vast majority of accidents are by people who were breathing prior to the accident, therefore it is clearly a ‘factor’.)

    The best view on cannabis versus alcohol is to look at the individual effects, which this has done to the extent that it can be, again with unreliable statistics, and then to look at the social costs.

    Cannabis is more likely to lead to withdrawn or dulled behaviour and limited ability to take offence or get especially riled, and in studies is shown as leading to very cautious, even if not particularly good driving.

    Alcohol is behind immense amounts of violence, domestic and otherwise, and dangerous behaviour on the roads. Huge social costs.

    If cannabis was legal, and alcohol illegal, there is reason to believe that our society would be very different indeed.

    We wouldn’t be talking about one-punch killings after bonging on all night, that’s for sure.

  • 7
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    In the Sydney Uni study done in 1984 comparing the effects on driving of alcohol & cannabis, (using US government supplied weed of calibrated potency)it was found that stoned drivers were orders of magnitude safer than drunken ones, not because they weren’t befuddled but because they KNEW it and took fewer, if any risks, whereas everyone knows that booze make one invulnerable and above the laws of physics.

  • 8
    Kevin Herbert
    Posted Thursday, 23 January 2014 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    My brother was posted to the Murray Valley region as a young Victorian copper, and noticed that once the police were asked to clamp down on cannabis smoking there in the early 1970’s, the violence rates rocketed upwards as the seasonal fruit pickers returned to alcohol as the only available legal drug.

    It’s a no-brainer really.

  • 9
    Rena Zurawel
    Posted Friday, 24 January 2014 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    hogwash.
    It is yet another international campaign against alcohol and for legalising marijuana.
    Very strange.
    At the same time nobody mentions cocaine and heroine.
    Very strange.
    Why nobody suggests delegalisation of both: alcohol and drugs plus gambling?
    Very strange.

  • 10
    Philip Bond
    Posted Monday, 27 January 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Protected consumption of alcohol denigrates brain function as indicated in the article affecting some far greater than others. Long term effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) the psychoactive constituent of cannabis are, in my opinion far more serious and debilitating to the consumer, especially the young. I’ve seen first hand the carnage reaped on the vulnerable through protracted cannabis consumption. Our lungs are for oxygenating the blood nor filtering harmful gasses (tobacco and Marijuana).

    Medicinal benefits aside, cannabidiol (CBD) are available in ‘pill’ form, long term consumption of cannabis will, again in my opinion, increase those in ‘care’ facilities due to greatly impaired cognitive ability. The real effects of THC, will reveal in generations to come as the science discipline Epigenetics will show.

    My question is, would you intentionally cause harm to your children’s children’s children?

  • 11
    AR
    Posted Monday, 27 January 2014 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    PhilB - and why exactly is your “opinion” is worth precisely a pinch of the proverbial?
    I agree that cannabis should not be smoked, for the lung function reason you mentioned, but it never was except by tantrics - another, too heavy for this site, discussion)prior to the introduction of tobacco - go figure.
    In the ME it was eaten as a sweet, majhoum and in the subcontinent it was drunk as “bhang”, - a mix of milk (fat content, crucial, pepper & sugar, aka ‘soma’ for the religiously deluded.

  • 12
    Stefan Sojka
    Posted Saturday, 8 February 2014 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Take away the risk of smoking cannabis by eating it, and you remove the number one risk of the three listed above by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, leaving “Decreased Memory and Learning Abilities” and “Decreased motivation and loss of concentration??

    Learning and memory are things that improve with exercise.
    Motivation and concentration is something you lose if you have an argument with your spouse.

    Moderate cannabis EATING ranks in importance as a health issue somewhere between daydreaming too much and not getting as much sleep as one would like. Now what about the benefits? Insight, creativity, enjoyment, focus, enhanced appreciation of music, art, films, humour…

    The mental health argument is a separate argument. Anyone with a mental health problem or risk, needs help. They will always find ways to self-medicate, usually with alcohol, and often with prescription drugs, recreational drugs or even no drugs.. just aberrant behaviours. Cannabis may be a factor for some people, but that does not excuse any government from taking away everyone else’s human right to ingest a plant.

    The real health, social, financial, political and moral cost of cannabis is and always has been its prohibition.

  • 13
    Maureen Walton
    Posted Saturday, 8 February 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I have seen the heart break affects of Marijuana and alcohol on young guys from both my side of family and my husbands. Incredibly sad young lives ruined with mental problems,illness,not able to even have a prober converstion as they think someone is trying to kill them or get information from them. They are not able to contribute to society as unable to work etc. And the terrible pain of the families who are respectable hardworking people..

  • 14
    AR
    Posted Saturday, 8 February 2014 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    MaureenW - if what you say is true you have my sympathy. Unfortunately your screed seems straight from the DFA (and thereby amerikan religious nuttery) script.

  • 15
    Shade64
    Posted Saturday, 8 February 2014 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1774264/

    Unfortunately this is a fact - I liked cannabis, but it doesn’t like me, and I was chronically ill from it, with migraines and vomiting for an entire year until I found this article, and haven’t had one single migraine or vomiting episode since. So, it is not completely harmless - people need to get their facts straight. This little known ‘cyclic vomiting syndrome’ from cannabis, costs many millions of dollars medically because people don’t know the thing they’re taking to fight the nausea ie., (pot) is actually causing the nausea.

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