Which is Worse? Alcohol or Marijuana?

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Questions: I have hearing a lot about marijuana with the possibility of a shop opening in Bethel. I keep hearing that marijuana is a lot better for a person than alcohol. Is that true?

Answer: I can certainly find many reasons not to use either. Frequently, when people state that it was proven that marijuana is better for you than alcohol, they reference the Shafer Commission report that concluded cannabis is not physically addictive, a gateway drug, or proven harmful in any physical or physiological way. I believe today any addiction specialist will disagree with that report and state that marijuana is addictive. Further, it is a gateway drug.

I have been practicing as a psychologist in Bethel for more than 25 years and many who have either continued to use in increasing amounts or have moved on to harder drugs will tell you their drug addiction began with marijuana. It is common today when I do a Clinical Interview with young adults that they tell me they began using marijuana at 8 to 10 years of age. They often stole it from parents who left it in accessible places. Further, those addicted to marijuana report similar symptoms to alcohol when they cannot access the drug. They spend inordinate amounts of time searching for weed if it is not readily available. They report feeling irritable and often become angry. They may be docile when stoned, but not when they are withdrawing.

If the Shafer Commission report was correct that marijuana was not addicting, it may have been the difference in potency. According to the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington, “The marijuana used today is stronger than it used to be, but not as strong as has been written in some media reports (claiming marijuana is 30 times stronger today than during the 1970s). Depending on how [the] analysis was conducted and the sample analyzed, marijuana strength has increased by 2 to 7 times since the 1970s, measured by THC levels.” And those in the industry are continually looking for ways to increase the potency through hybridization.

Those who promote the legalization and use of marijuana will argue (one of the symptoms of heavy pot use) that there are no physiological effects of marijuana. However, with the advent of legal recreational marijuana use a physiological syndrome has been recognized—Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. This condition is characterized by recurrent nausea, vomiting and cramp-like abdominal pain.These symptoms have been found to subside temporarily by taking a hot shower or bath and more fully by stopping the use of marijuana.

It is recommended that if these symptoms are present that medical practitioners explore the possibility that the patient is using marijuana. Research conducted at the Mayo Clinic suggested, “Cannabinoid hyperemesis should be considered (as a possible diagnosis) in younger patients with long-term cannabis use and recurrent nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.”

Even though recreational marijuana use has been purported by some as having no long-term, or permanent negative effects on the user, for years, marijuana users have reported experiencing psychotic symptoms when using it heavily. The most common feature has been paranoia. Some patients have told me that they quit using for that very reason. Others found they could not quit, even though the paranoia was very uncomfortable.

An article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2004 found that marijuana-using patients were significantly younger at the onset of psychotic symptoms than were patients who did not use marijuana. On average, male marijuana users were 6.9 years younger at the onset of Schizophrenia than nonusers. That same year research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry reported that marijuana resulted in a twofold increase in the risk for schizophrenia later in life. The researchers predicted that elimination of marijuana use would reduce the incidence of schizophrenia by approximately 8%. Marijuana use appears to be one of several factors leading to the onset of Schizophrenia. They concluded, “Cases of psychotic disorder could be prevented by discouraging cannabis (marijuana) use among vulnerable youths.”

And for those who claim marijuana use helps them think better, research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry last October on 3,826 students followed over four years, found the following: “Cannabis causes cognitive impairment and delayed cognitive development in adolescents,” Patricia Conrod, the lead author and professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, told NBC News. “This study focuses on the neuropsychological effects of cannabis. We think it’s important because it is linked to how someone functions in life.”

This study is important because it gets to the crux of the question that prompted this response because it compared marijuana use with alcohol use. A summary of the findings in the January 2019 Monitor on Psychology are as follows: “Researchers followed 3,826 students in Montreal for four years, beginning when they were age 12 or 13. Each year, the students took a battery of cognitive tests measuring memory, reasoning and inhibitory control and filled out confidential surveys on their alcohol and marijuana use. On average, adolescents who increased their marijuana use in one year performed worse than expected on tests of memory and inhibitory control, both that year and the following year. The researchers did not find the same association between changes in alcohol use and cognitive performance.”

So, when teachers and parents of yesteryear told students and teens that “marijuana makes you dumb,” maybe they were correct after all.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]

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