Report: Alcohol Worse for the Brain than Cannabis

Medical Marijuana

What substance is worse for its user: alcohol or cannabis?

It’s a topic now in the public light as support for legal cannabis increasingly gathers momentum throughout the country. Regulators already overseeing the alcohol industry are typically tasked with tackling public pot laws as well. So what is the comparison in terms of dangers posed by the two substances?

Alcohol does more damage to the brain than alcohol, according to a new report. Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder published their findings in the journal Addiction, which includes the conclusion that pot does not negatively affect white or gray matter in the brain.

White matter is what oversees communication between nerve clusters, while gray matter allows the brain to work. Those two critical components of the brain are not even affected by years of cannabis use, the report claims.

Alcohol use, however, will reduce gray matter, especially in adults. White matter was also damaged by alcohol, though only in adults. The study found a correlation in these effects with subjects who reported a long history of drinking.

The researchers looked at 853 people who were between 18 and 55 years old, as well as 439 teenagers. Altogether the subjects represented a wide range of alcohol and cannabis use. All these people underwent MRI scans as part of the study, which focused specifically on their past 30 days of use.

“While marijuana may also have some negative consequences, it definitely is nowhere near the negative consequences of alcohol,” Kent Hutchison, a co-author of the study, told Medical News Today.

Still, the researchers cautioned that this study does not imply a total lack of danger in cannabis use. “Particularly with marijuana use, there is still so much that we don’t know about how it impacts the brain,” said the study’s lead author, Rachel Thayer.

And it’s important to recall that studies have found negative affects of cannabis on the developing brain.

In a document released in 2013, The American Psychiatric Association stated that pot use among adolescents “significantly decreased academic achievement, including increased rates of school dropout, failure to enter higher education or attain higher degrees,” while pointing out the “link between marijuana use and mood, anxiety and psychotic disorders among adolescents.”

The APA also claimed that “there is currently no scientific evidence to support the use of marijuana as an effective treatment for any psychiatric illness. Several studies have shown that cannabis use may in fact exacerbate or hasten the onset of psychiatric illnesses.” Though the organization also acknowledged that “among those with a predisposition to psychotic disorders, cannabis may hasten the emergence of both positive and negative psychotic symptoms”

University of Colorado Boulder researchers said they were motivated in part to address the lack of coherent evidence regarding cannabis and the brain.

“When you look at these studies going back years, you see that one study will report that marijuana use is related to a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus,” Hutchison reportedly said. “The next study then comes around, and they say that marijuana use is related to changes in the cerebellum.

“The point is that there’s no consistency across all of these studies in terms of the actual brain structures,” he added.

Kyle Swartz is editor of Cannabis Regulator. Reach him at Reach his recent piece: Is Vermont’s New Law the Future of Cannabis?