Study: Marijuana 114 Times Less Deadly Than Alcohol

Image Via Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley,


by Owen Poindexter

on February 26, 2015

Basic facts imply that alcohol is far more dangerous than cannabis — and now there is statistical research to back that up. A study published by Scientific Reports looked into the toxicity of alcohol, marijuana, heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, nicotine, amphetamines and a handful of other substances, and the quantities in which they are typically used. Out of every substance studied, alcohol was the most dangerous on a population level, while cannabis was the only one classified as “low risk” — as the Independent reported it proved statistically to be a staggering 114 times less deadly than alcohol.

The study, conducted by Dirk Lachenmeier and Jurgen Rehm, assessed the practical risk levels for each sunstance in a way that allows for a side-by-side comparison. After determining a toxicity benchmark for each compound using animal studies, the researchers looked at consumption on an individual and population-wide level. For individual users, alcohol, heroin, nicotine and cocaine all hit the “high-risk” threshold determined by the researchers. Alcohol and nicotine generally have less dramatic results than heroin or cocaine for a particular incidence of use, but the frequency of their use brings the two legal substances up to the same high tier. Every other substance other than marijuana was classified as “risk” — with cannabis being the lone occupant of the “low-risk” category.

On the population level, alcohol ranked unambiguously as the most dangerous substance, with nicotine second. Cannabis, despite its popularity, was the least dangerous by a wide margin.

The researchers noted that previous studies had generally produced similar rankings, but probably failed to show the degree of separation between rankings.

“Our MOE [margin of exposure] results confirm previous drug rankings based on other approaches,” they write. “Specifically, the results confirm that the risk of cannabis may have been overestimated in the past. At least for the endpoint of mortality, the MOE for THC/cannabis in both individual and population-based assessments would be above safety thresholds.…In contrast, the risk of alcohol may have been commonly underestimated.”

The authors go on to point out that previous analyses compared THC to other chemicals on a linear scale, and thus probably made them look too similar. In reality, cannabis is exponentially safer than other substances with which it is often compared.

Though the authors provide extensive caveats about the limits and interpretation of their research, they do not shy away from one basic conclusion with regards to policy: cannabis criminalization does not make sense:

“Currently, the MOE results point to risk management prioritization towards alcohol and tobacco rather than illicit substances. The high MOE values of cannabis, which are in a low-risk range, suggest a strict legal regulatory approach rather than the current prohibition approach.”

The study is merely the latest addition to a mountain of evidence that alcohol, which is addictive, associated with violence and potentially fatal in high doses, is more harmful than cannabis, which is none of those things. This research provides numerical backing to common-sense reasoning.