We compared the health benefits of cannabis to those of alcohol to determine which (mostly) legal high comes out on top
Medical or recreational marijuana is now legal in 23 states, plus Washington D.C. That means a lot more people can now swap their nightly glass of wine for a joint without worrying about being fined or, worse, jailed. But is it really safe for your health to do so? Many experts seem to think so. And even President Barack Obama now-famously said in January of this year that MJ is no more dangerous—health-wise—than alcohol. So we investigated the latest research to weigh the pros and cons of both smoking and drinking. Here’s what we found.
Positive: It Boosts Your Brain
Think pot smoking makes you slow? Maybe not. THC (the ingredient in marijuana that makes you feel high) prevents the build-up of amyloid-beta peptides in the brain, a main cause of Alzheimer’s disease, better than the currently approved Alzheimer’s drugs, according to a study from the Scripps Research Institute. (Learn more about Your Brain On Marijuana here.)
Negative: It Can Hurt Your Brain Too
Picking up a pot habit in your early or mid-teen years can harm the developing brain—even causing you to lose eight IQ points, according to findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And while reefer madness is probably a myth, other research has linked smoking the drug to an increased risk of psychosis, adds Jack Stein, Ph.D., director of the Office of Science Policy and Communications at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Positive: It Might Aid Your Lungs
While you’d think smoking pot would hurt your lungs, UCLA researchers found that moderate toking (two or three times a month) can actually increase lung capacity. The reason? Pot smokers tend to breathe in deeply and hold the smoke in as long as possible (unlike the quicker, shallower inhale-exhale practiced by cigarette smokers), which may be like “exercise” you’re your lungs. (Then use those fit lungs to Breathe Your Way to a Fitter Body.)
Negative: It Harms the Heart
“Marijuana can raise heart rate by 20 to 100 percent shortly after smoking,” says Stein. “This effect can last up to three hours, which can be an issue for older smokers, or those with preexisting heart conditions.”
Positive: It Could Slow Cancer Growth
Cannabidiol, a compound found in marijuana, blocks the expression of a gene that encourages the spread of breast cancer, researchers from the California Pacific Medical Center report.
Negative: Heavy Use Can Increase Stress
The compounds in MJ interact with receptors on the amygdala, the area of the brain that controls your fight-or-flight response, according to research from Vanderbilt University. But chronic use can actually increase anxiety by making these receptors less sensitive. (Try these 5 Ways to Stop Stress in Under 5 Minutes instead.)
Positive: It Soothes Pain
Marijuana can help relieve nerve pain, according to research in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. That makes it a boon for people with conditions like multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, or certain types of injuries. It can also ease the symptoms of GI issues like Crohn’s and chemo-induced nausea.
Negative: It’s Addictive
Just because it grows from the ground doesn’t mean weed can’t be habit-forming. “Estimates from research suggest that nine percent of marijuana users become addicted,” says Stein. Those who started using it as adolescents and daily smokers are more at risk.
Positive: It Might Keep You Slim
Pot smokers tend to have smaller waists, and are less likely to be obese than non-smokers. Researchers don’t know why. And neither do we—isn’t pot supposed to make you hungry? (Read about another Surprising Factor That May Curb Weight Gain.)
Go on to the next page to see how alcohol stacks up!
Positive: It Boosts Creativity
Okay, not all ideas we have while drinking are great—but booze can get the creative juices flowing. In a small study from the University of Illinois at Chicago, people who were slightly tipsy (a blood alcohol content of 0.075, just under the legal driving limit) performed better on a creative problem-solving task than their sober peers. That’s extra-good news, given that Creativity Can Make Us Happier.
Negative: It’s Also Addictive
Stein says that 15 percent of drinkers eventually become alcoholics, and a recent study found that nearly one-third of adults have abused alcohol or been addicted to it at some point in our lives.
Positive: It Helps Your Heart: This is the one you’re likely most familiar with. Study after study has confirmed that moderate drinking can protect against heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. It’s thought that alcohol works in part by making blood less “sticky” and dilating blood vessels, thereby reducing your risk of clots. (What you eat—like these Top 20 Artery-Cleansing Foods—can be a benefit for cardiovascular system too.)
Positive: It Could Prevent Diabetes
Compared to non-drinkers, adults who indulged in a drink or two a day (sensing a theme yet?) were 30 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, according to a study in Diabetes Care. Alcohol may encourage your cells to absorb sugar from the blood.
Negative: It’s Caloric
Even if you stick to the Best Low-Calorie Cocktails out there, most drinks wind up adding at least 100 to 200 calories onto your day. Plus, drinking makes it really hard to ignore those pizza cravings, and really messes with your fitness goal.
Positive: It Could Help You Live Longer
Abstainers were more than twice as likely as moderate drinkers to die over a 20-year follow up period, according to research in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Negative: A Lot Is Terrible
All of the benefits of alcohol are associated with moderate drinking—for women, that’s up to three drinks a day, topping out at seven drinks a week. Knock back more and the above benefits start vanishing. Studies show that heavy drinking increases your risk of high blood pressure, cancer, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, and more. There are short-term risks too, like alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.
Positive: It Builds Your Bones: A small study in the journal Menopause found that moderate (there’s that word again) alcohol consumption may slow your rate of bone loss, which could help you retain your skeletal strength as you grow older. (Another drink that can help: bone broth. Read about that and 7 other Reasons to Try Bone Broth.)