Quality & Science

Is Marijuana Safer Than Alcohol?

by Richard G. Soper, MD, FASAM, DABAM | February 13, 2014

Are we talking about direct effects of alcohol vs. marijuana? Are we talking about alcohol-associated diseases vs. marijuana-associated disease? Are we talking about auto injuries and fatalities associated with driving under the influence of either drug? Are we talking about short-term or infrequent use relative to long-term use? Are we talking about how use of either drug leads to incarceration, and how race is superimposed by law enforcement?

Is marijuana safe? No, there’s no such thing as absolute safety. And we’ll definitely be learning more as Colorado and Washington conduct their experiments with lawful sales of recreational marijuana. NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) cites a published survey study that found that, “6.8 percent of drivers, mostly under age 35, who were involved in accidents tested positive for THC; alcohol levels above the legal limit were found in 21 percent of such drivers.”

Excessive alcohol use was responsible for 88,000 U.S. deaths every year between 2006 and 2010, costing the economy $224 billion according to a January 10, 2014 report in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). That’s up from 75,766 alcohol-attributed deaths in 2001.  

Eighty. Eight. Thousand. People. That’s the equivalent of half of the citizens of Providence, Rhode Island being wiped out each year. That information was just from the first sentence of the MMWR report. The primary purpose of the study was to discuss the trends in health professional counseling of patients about their alcohol use. Nationwide, only 1 in 6 patients reported such an experience, even though Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention (ASBI) had been recommended by public health officials since 2004. Increased application of this program, whose costs are now to be covered under the Affordable Care Act, is expected to improve treatment of alcohol-related illnesses.

Richard G. Soper,MD, FASAM

ASAM Weekly Editor-in-Chief