One of the main arguments against the legalization of cannabis, broadly speaking, is that it is a dangerous substance. The reality, though, is that there are plenty of drugs widely accessible to the general public, such as opioids, that are far more dangerous than marijuana, including alcohol. The latest bit of research to compare the risks of alcoholic drinks against the dangers of cannabis has concluded that drinking liquor inflicts far more harm upon the human brain than marijuana.
Published last week in Addiction, the study set out to confirm the association between alcohol use and specific changes in the brain that occur indicating the detrimental effects of alcohol. Additionally, researchers went a step further and searched for links to brain changes following cannabis use. The study included data from substance use questionnaires and MRI scans from both adult and adolescent participants between the ages of 14 and 55.
Alcohol Associated with Detriments to the Brain
Alcohol use severity was associated with reductions in gray matter volume for participants of all ages, while adults also experienced declines in white matter integrity. The health of gray and white matter affects an individual’s cognitive performance across a broad range of variables.
In stark contrast, the authors could not tie medical cannabis use to any significant brain changes for either adults or adolescents, confirming the expectations that the researchers had formed based on previous studies. Even participants who reported using cannabis on at least a weekly basis did not experience any changes in gray matter volume or white matter integrity.
Driving Under the Influence
Alcohol is not only more dangerous to an individual than marijuana. It is also the more dangerous of the two substances in a broader, public sense. Consider the dangers of driving under the influence of a substance: while it’s true that being high can impair your driving skills when compared to driving completely sober, the risks of operating a motor vehicle drunk dwarf the dangers of driving while high.
One study found that driving while high makes it 1.65 times more likely that an individual will be responsible for a fatal automobile accident. While this is a significant increase in risk, it pales in comparison to the risk associated with drunk driving. Researchers associate driving while intoxicated with an eighteen-fold rise in the risk of causing a fatal accident. The researchers of the study noted that drivers who were high on pot tend to operate motor vehicles more cautiously than when sober, in contrast to drunk drivers who tend to drive faster and with more hubris.
Another study only attributed a five percent increase in car accident risk among drivers who test positive for THC, compared to a doubling of risk for drivers who had blood alcohol levels below the legal limit.
Benefits, not Deficits, Associated with Medical Marijuana
A separate study found that cannabis improved the brain function of certain individuals after just three months of use. Patients who had been treating their health conditions with prescriptions opioids and benzodiazepines exhibited favorable brain activation patterns and improvements in task performance following even heavy medical marijuana consumption, with their brain activation patterns closely matching those of healthy control subjects.
Another recent study found that cannabis had a protective effect on the liver for individuals who abused alcohol. In the study, marijuana users who were also alcoholics experienced a significant reduction in risk of several liver diseases, including liver cancer and cirrhosis. The more marijuana the patient used, the less likely they were to suffer from liver disease; heavy users were 40 to 50 percent less likely to be diagnosed with these diseases.
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