It’s an argument that has been made by cannabis advocates for decades, that the so-called evil weed is way less harmful than many other state sponsored drugs. There’s a commonly told story that the only way to die from cannabis is for a big enough bale of it to fall on your head… but what are the actual facts?
The range of legal and state sponsored drugs include alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and pharmaceutical opioids but for the purpose of this piece we are going to focus on the comparison with alcohol - probably the most widely used, most actively marketed and socially accepted intoxicant in modern society.
All the facts and figures in this article are from the World Health Organisation’s reports.
There are approximately 2.3 billion global alcohol consumers, which is around 48% of the adult population. In many parts of the world such as Western Europe and North America the percentage of drinkers is much higher.
Unsurprisingly, due to its legal status, there are far fewer global cannabis consumers at 147 million, or around 2.5% of the adult population. The nation with the highest use per capita is (quite surprisingly) Iceland followed by the United States, Nigeria and Canada.
There is a distinction to be made between cannabis and cannabinoids here though as THC and CBD - the two most prevalent and well known cannabinoids - are treated quite differently from a legal perspective and also differ greatly in their effect on the user.
CBD or Cannabidiol is the non-intoxicating compound in the cannabis plant so it won’t get you ‘high’ but it does have psychoactive effects - it has pain and stress relieving qualities as well as anti-inflammatory properties.
For our purposes here we’ll treat THC and CBD as one substance since the WHO reports referenced use cannabis, as opposed to the individual cannabinoids, in all their data.
In 2016 harmful use of alcohol was responsible for 3 million deaths while in the same year harmful use of cannabis was reportedly responsible for 0 deaths. Even when multiplied by the ratio of 40:1 (the ratio of alcohol to cannabis users) that is still 0 deaths from cannabis use. The reason for this is that cannabis has extremely low levels of toxicity in comparison with other recreational and pharmaceutical drugs.
If you are looking for a reason not to drink alcohol, or to reduce how much you drink, toxicity seems like a pretty good one.
There’s also a very simple measure of the toxicity of substances to consider which is how they make you feel the next day. Simple equation for this one is that alcohol = hangovers whereas cannabinoids = no hangover.
One of the most obviously negative side effects of alcohol, as evidenced by any hospital on a weekend, is that aggressive behaviour can be an outcome of its consumption. On the flip side, there's a very low chance that cannabis use in healthy people incites violence - despite what the front page of The Daily Mail might tell you!
Despite being marketed as a way to make you feel good alcohol is in fact a very effective depressant, as evidenced by the fact that people have an approximate 7 times increased risk of suicide after drinking alcohol, with this risk increasing to 37 times after heavy alcohol use.
Cannabis has also been historically associated with mental health issues, and it does have some history in being a trigger for psychological disorders in certain individuals, but, in the words of the WHO, ‘the vast majority of people who use cannabis will never develop a psychotic disorder, those who do are likely to have genetic vulnerability to cannabis induced psychosis’.
Drinking moderately isn't all bad and the loss of inhibition that it delivers can be good fun but it just doesn’t make any sense that a significantly less harmful substance, without the same dangers of abuse and addiction, is prohibited by law, while a genuinely harmful drug is openly marketed as a sophisticated, safe and aspirational product.
Fortunately forward thinking governments around the world are realising that the benefits of cannabis far outweigh the negatives and that responsible use of cannabinoids - including THC, CBD and the hundred or so others that are less well known or studied - offers a more healthy and sustainable way for human beings to relieve physical and mental stresses. Cannabis can treat everyday issues like back pain, sleep disorders and anxiety and alleviate the symptoms of more serious medical conditions including epilepsy, Parkinson’s and depression. Canada, Uruguay and many states in the US have lead the way in legalisation of this special plant for recreational use and legal medical cannabis markets are now commonplace across the globe. The tide is turning...
To quote Carl Sagan from back in 1969:
'The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilisation of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world'
Never felt more relevant than over half a century later....