Cannabis is less dangerous than alcohol

A 2010 UK paper by The Lancet shows that marijuana is proven to be a less harmful substance than alcohol.

To understand the harm drugs can cause, we must consider two aspects: the risk to an individual, and the damage to society as a whole. If you want to compare two drugs, can you know which drug is worse? What if we could somehow measure the danger? That is what a 2010 UK paper by The Lancet tried to do.

Should you base your opinion on public perception, you would assume that marijuana would place much higher than alcohol. However, this is not the case, as The Lancet's study shows that marijuana is proven to be a less harmful substance than alcohol.

And no, this does not mean that you should now roll a joint with Spunt’s blessing. Let’s be clear: this study still acknowledges that marijuana is a harmful substance, especially when consumed in excess. However, it suggests that consuming marijuana is in fact less harmful when compared with alcohol.

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that alcohol is not only socially acceptable in Malta, but basically a part of our culture. For this reason, we sometimes seem to forget that alcohol is very harmful to our bodies. This is why we are exposed to educational campaigns about alcohol abuse from a very young age.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 5% of deaths in Malta (all age groups) are linked to alcohol consumption. In the EU, some 25% of deaths in the 15-29 age group are related to irresponsible drinking. Meanwhile, risks of overdose due to cannabis are near-zero.

A Columbia University study suggests that alcohol consumption can increase the risk of a fatal car accident 13-fold. On the other hand, being high on marijuana increases it twofold.

Needless to say, there are other, longer-term repercussions that are related to the use of alcohol.

On the other hand, the main risks tied to marijuana are more psychological, rather than physical. Like any other drug, consuming marijuana when the brain is still in the development phase can have serious consequences.

All types of addictions should be avoided. So should the opposition to marijuana be based on this argument?

Once again, to identify the threshold at which society considers a substance as ‘too addicting’, we have to look at existing legal substances for comparison. Studies show that 15% of those that consume alcohol can be considered alcoholics, and 32% of cigarette users eventually become regular smokers. Meanwhile, it is estimated that 9% of cannabis users become addicted to the substance.

Society acknowledges that alcohol affects your brain, damages your liver and can lead to cancer. Although governments generally consider this to be a legal substance, no government is suggesting that alcohol is harmless.

The more marijuana you consume and the stronger the dosage, the higher the risk of developing psychosis.

Legalisation is one way to control the market, something which could not be done with cannabis prior to the change in law. Making marijuana legal does not mean that the government fully endorses it, but rather that it is taking responsibility for the risks it poses. Simply prohibiting the substance can end up aggravating its effects, as there would be no controls whatsoever on the quality and authenticity of the product being shipped illegally.

The point of this article is to put all facts in perspective. There will always be questions for which we don’t have a clear-cut answer. We still need to understand if cannabis is likely to act as a substitute to alcohol, or if it complements drinking. If it turns out that it makes people drink more, then legalizing cannabis was a bad idea.

Whether this is the case or not is still unclear, as the legalization of marijuana for personal use is only a recent trend, with Malta being the first European country to do so. However, the studies that have been conducted seem to suggest that there is stronger support for substitution rather than complementarity.

Marijuana may be dangerous to those who make excess use of it. But one cannot exclude that the best way to control it is to legalize it.

And why not? The simple reality is that science suggests that it poses less risk than what we already accept in society.

At the end of the day, this is a case of having a right to choose our poison. If you like your glass of wine in the evening, or enjoy your cigarette break during a hard day’s work, on what basis can you exclude other people from their own harmful guilty pleasure?

For consistency purposes, there are only two ways to go about this issue: either by legalising marijuana, or by prohibiting alcohol and cigarettes.


The Atlantic, Olga Khazan, 2014
Columbia University, Guohua Li et al, 2013
University of Connecticut, Michele Baggio
Lancet, David J Nutt et al, 2010