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Updated on July 20, 2023
4 min read

Which Has Greater Health Risks: Weed or Alcohol?

Alyssa Hill
Elena Borrelli M.S.PAC
Written by 
22 Sources Cited
Alyssa Hill
Written by 
22 Sources Cited

The Effects of Alcohol and Weed

Unlike alcohol and other drugs, marijuana has a more relaxing and relieving effect for pain and stress.1 Because of these calming effects, some people may prefer it over alcohol.

But while marijuana is generally safer to consume than alcohol, there are still risks associated with it.

Effects of Alcohol

Drinking alcohol is notorious for impairing thinking and coordination, but it can also directly impact the brain and body.

Prolonged alcohol use can lead to many problems, including:

  • Liver disease2
  • Cancer3
  • Violent behavior
  • Accidents caused by drunk driving
  • Memory and learning defects
  • Shortened lifespan4
  • Inflammation5
  • Dehydration6
  • Poor sleep7

Drinking Levels

How much alcohol you consume dictates your mortality risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are three categories of excessive drinking:

  • Binge drinking: 4 drinks for women, 5 for men (on a single occasion)
  • Heavy drinking: 8 drinks for women, 15 for men (per week)
  • Alcohol use disorder: daily drinking or the inability to halt drinking alcohol

Effects of Weed

Because of the lack of research and varying methods for marijuana use, the long-term effects of cannabis are not as tangible as alcohol’s. However, studies suggest potential connections between marijuana users and the following health conditions:

  • Schizophrenia: While still inconclusive, some experts believe regular cannabis use can trigger early-onset schizophrenia.8 This occurrence is widespread in people with a family history of schizophrenia.
  • Stunted brain development: Older studies have found later brain development issues when consuming cannabis as a teenager.9 However, the results could not conclude whether the issues were permanent.

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Weed vs. Alcohol: Which is More Detrimental to Health?

The answer as to whether alcohol or marijuana is more harmful to health ultimately depends on the likelihood of misuse and addiction. Both alcohol and marijuana use have consequences, and how dire these consequences are will depend on factors like:

  • Medical history
  • Lifestyle
  • Frequency of use
  • Delivery method

While cannabis appears safer than alcohol, research shows adverse short-term effects of marijuana addiction. Consider the following neurological consequences of alcohol and marijuana use.

Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain

Long-term studies show alcohol misuse is dangerous to brain functionality, disrupting neurotransmitters and communication systems. Drinking alcohol disrupts the brain’s communication pathways, impairing the following:

  • Balance
  • Memory
  • Speech
  • Judgment

When you consume alcohol, it enters the bloodstream swiftly, affecting the brain’s chemical messengers in the following ways:

  • Inhibits brain activity, leading to sedation10
  • Impedes the prefrontal cortex, reducing restraint and impulsivity11
  • Interferes with information transfer, leading to long-term effects on memory retention12
  • Affects the cerebellum, impacting coordination and movement13

Increased Risk of Alcohol Abuse on Teenagers

Adolescent brains are at higher risk of repercussions to their health because of their brain plasticity (the brain’s increased ability to adapt to experiences).14 

In addition, prolonged alcohol use can exacerbate existing mental health issues or even cause a person to develop one.

Does Alcohol Lower IQ?

Alcohol addiction is directly linked to cognitive impairments and potential declines in intellectual functioning. However, how alcohol consumption affects a person’s intelligence quotient depends on other environmental factors.

Marijuana’s Effects on the Brain

When consumed, the THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) component of marijuana can impair various psychological processes, affecting the brain in the following ways:

  • Disrupts the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, impairing sensory perception and processing15
  • Disrupts receptors that encode and retrieve new information, leading to memory impairment and shortened attention span16
  • Diminishes coordination, balance, and fine motor skills17

Behavioral and Societal Impacts of Marijuana and Alcohol

The immediate effects of marijuana and alcohol are typically behavioral. However, they can also have societal implications.

How Alcohol Affects Behavior

Because of its nature as a central nervous system depressant, alcohol can affect your behavior in the following ways:

  • Intensifies existing emotions, leading to mood swings or withdrawal18
  • Contributes to aggressive behavior, leading to intimate partner violence19
  • Increases impulsivity and lower inhibitions, causing risk-taking behavior20
  • Interferes with your memory and ability to think clearly

Over time, the consequences of moderate drinking can negatively impact your social and academic life. Because prolonged alcohol use leads to impaired judgment, you might fall behind on school or work. 

With increased aggression due to alcohol use, engaging in physical assault and violence could also incur jail time for the perpetrator.

How Weed Affects Behavior

Scientific research found an increased risk of developing mental health challenges with marijuana use. Cannabis users should be aware of the potential behavioral effects of marijuana consumption, including:

  • Temporary psychosis (the inability to distinguish reality from imagination, having visual and auditory hallucinations, and developing paranoia)21
  • Distortion of your perception of time22
  • A decrease in your motivation and productivity, making you feel lazy
  • A lack of desire to engage in social activities or environments

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Summary: Is Weed or Alcohol Worse? 

As far as the pressing question of whether marijuana or alcohol is worse goes, the answer isn’t as simple as you’d anticipate. Both alcohol and marijuana use have consequences, and how dire these consequences are will depend on different factors.

However, prolonged marijuana and alcohol use can have critical neurological, physical, and behavioral consequences, especially prominent in teens and college students.

Updated on July 20, 2023
22 sources cited
Updated on July 20, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Deshpande et al. “Efficacy and adverse effects of medical marijuana for chronic noncancer pain: Systematic review of randomized controlled trials.” Canadian Family Physician, 2015.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body..” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2017.
  3. National Institutes of Health. “Alcohol and Cancer Risk Fact Sheet.” National Cancer Institute, 2021.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Deaths from Excessive Alcohol Use in the United States.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.
  5. Bishehsari et al. “Alcohol and Gut-Derived Inflammation.” Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 2017.
  6. Klemm, W.R. “Dehydration: A new alcohol theory.” Alcohol, 1990.
  7. Chakravorty et al. “Alcohol Dependence and Its Relationship with Insomnia and Other Sleep Disorders.” Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2016.
  8. Deepak Cyril D'Souza, et al. “Cannabis and psychosis/schizophrenia: human studies.” European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 2009.
  9. Volkow et al. “Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use.” The New England Journal of Medicine, 2014.
  10. Weiss, M. “Alcohol as a Depressant in Psychological Conflict in Rats.” Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 2020.
  11. Abernathy et al. “Alcohol and the Prefrontal Cortex.” International Review of Neurobiology, 2010.
  12. White, A. “What Happened? Alcohol, Memory Blackouts, and the Brain.” Alcohol Research & Health, 2003.
  13. Sullivan et al. “Alcohol and the Cerebellum: Effects on Balance, Motor Coordination, and Cognition.” Alcohol Health and Research World, 1995.
  14. Kolb et al. “BRAIN PLASTICITY AND BEHAVIOR.” Annual Review of Psychology, 1998.
  15. Blanco-Hinojo et al. “Attenuated frontal and sensory inputs to the basal ganglia in cannabis users.” Addiction Biology, 2016.
  16. Solowij et al. “The Chronic Effects of Cannabis on Memory in Humans: A Review: Ingenta Connect.” Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 2008.
  17. Soltesz et al. “High times for memory: cannabis disrupts temporal coordination among hippocampal neurons.” Nature Neuroscience, 2006.
  18. Russell et al.“The Mediating Role of Emotions in Alcohol Use.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1975.
  19. Leonard, K. “Domestic violence and alcohol: what is known and what do we need to know to encourage environmental interventions?” Journal of Substance Use, 2001.
  20. Lejoyeux et al. “Study of Impulse-Control Disorders among Alcohol-Dependent Patients.” The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 1999.
  21. Murray et al. “Traditional marijuana, high-potency cannabis and synthetic cannabinoids: increasing risk for psychosis.” 2016.
  22. Tinklenberg et al. “Marijuana and ethanol: Differential effects on time perception, heart rate, and subjective response.” Psychopharmacology, 1976.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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