This piece first appeared in Cannabis Now.
There is plenty of proof that alcohol use is much more dangerous than cannabis use. You can’t overdose on marijuana and it doesn’t cause direct death. On the other hand, alcohol is more addictive, can increase a person’s risk of injury, and is linked to cancer and brain damage. And the health costs associated with alcohol use are eight times higher than for cannabis use.
But a Clinical Psychological Science study released today claims that the results of heavy cannabis use on a person’s life are similar to alcohol abuse — and in some cases, it’s worse.
While marijuana use may not have the same physical consequences as alcohol, an international team of epidemiologists and psychologists found that it still affected the personal and professional lives of habitual users. They found that when users smoked cannabis four or more days of the week, they ended up with low-paying, low-skilled jobs more frequently, and it could also lead to “antisocial behaviors at work,” like stealing money and lying to get a job. At home, frequent cannabis use was often tied to physical and emotional abuse of the user’s partner.
These effects are similar to those found in people who abuse alcohol — except cannabis users were found to have more financial difficulties. And the longer they used cannabis at a steady rate, the worse their lives got.
While its results “[do] not support arguments for or against cannabis legalization,” according to Magdalena Cerdá, the epidemiologist at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program who led the study, “it does show that cannabis was not safe for the long-term users tracked in our study.”
The team of researchers included doctors at UC Davis, Duke University, Arizona State University, Kings College London, and the University of Otago in New Zealand. They followed about a thousand children from all socioeconomic groups born between 1972 and 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, following up every two to six years. Information was culled from questionnaires, as well as from credit ratings, court records and government social-welfare benefit records.
Of the participants, 18 percent were considered marijuana dependent at some point during the study. Another 140 were categorized as regular cannabis users at least once over the years.
“Alcohol is still a bigger problem than cannabis because alcohol use is more prevalent than cannabis use,” Cerdá said in a press release. “But, as the legalization of cannabis increases around the world, the economic and social burden posed by regular cannabis use could increase as well.”
While the breadth of the study is unprecedented, it’s important to note how New Zealand’s attitude toward marijuana differs greatly from that in the United States. Under the country’s Misuse of Drugs Act of 1975, possession of any amount of the drug is illegal. Supplying and manufacturing marijuana can bring a 14-year jail sentence, while planting and cultivating it can land you anywhere from two to seven years in prison. Even so, it’s the most widely used illegal drug in the country.
There has been a slow movement toward medicinal use in the country, but there’s been little research into its benefits.
Read the full study here.
Do you agree with the results of this study? Let us know in the comments section below.
Susan Cohen is a freelance print and multimedia journalist based in Oakland, Calif. A former staff writer for the Charleston City Paper, her work has also appeared in the East Bay Express, KQED, and more. She also produces a cannabis podcast called High Holidaze and recently launched Smoke Break, a bi-weekly weed culture newsletter that curates content for women.