Alcohol vs Weed: How do they work?

alcohol vs weed

When comparing alcohol vs weed, it’s a simple fact that marijuana — though not a harmless substance — is far less harmful to the brain and body than the old standby alcohol.

Study after medical study and court case after court case have shown the behavioral, addictive, toxic, neurodegenerative and carcinogenic effects of alcohol.

Studies of marijuana show a much more benign effect, though marijuana use is an extreme hazard for narrow cross sections of people — those who may be predisposed to schizophrenia, for instance, or those with heart conditions, among others.

alcohol vs weed usually ends up with alcohol creating sloppy drunks
Alcohol vs Weed : Alcohol has a high potential for abuse and inciting illicit societal behavior.

And despite the general consensus among recreational cannabis users, marijuana can be addictive. Chronic heavy, non-medical marijuana use can cause all sorts of social and psychological problems, as well as rewire the brain.

But overall marijuana is much safer than alcohol, both in its chemical effects on the body and its potential for causing destructive behavior, despite reactionary political and social factions that say it’s worse.

Alcohol vs Weed

Alcohol and the toxic substances that result when the body breaks it down assault many body systems. Researchers after tens of thousands of years of experience still can’t figure out exactly which neural systems alcohol targets to produce the drunk feeling of disinhibition, euphoria and loss of various functions.

On the other hand, scientist are pretty clear on the basic mechanism of action by which marijuana produces the characteristic “high.” Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) along with other less potent cannabinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors in the brain — activating them in a similar way to which the body’s natural neurotransmitters activate them.

(Less understood is how all the cannabinoids and other chemicals in cannabis interact in the body to modulate each other’s effects in an “entourage effect.” See our article on that phenomenon for more information.)

alcohol vs weed -- ethanol activates cannabinoid receptors

But research over the last 20 years has shown that ethanol — the chemical common to all hard drinks from Gin to beer to wine coolers — also activates cannabinoid receptors, along with dozens of other known neurological and organ systems.

How does alcohol get you drunk?

Alcohol metabolism, addiction, neurological effects, chronic use and other facets of this most ancient intoxicant have been targets of clinical research for as long as clinical research has been a thing, and even before.

We know a lot about ethanol’s different chemical states and how each affects your organ systems, how fast you can metabolize alcohol by weight and liver size, the genetic traits that make people more or less susceptible to alcohol abuse, and facts about dozens of different systems alcohol affects directly and indirectly.

But researchers still don’t have a satisfactory answer to one fundamental question: Why, exactly, does booze get you wasted?

“Determining the precise molecular target of a psychoactive drug is notoriously difficult and for few drugs has this been more challenging than for ethanol,” according to a 2007 study in the journal Alcohol. “Considering that ethanol is the most widely used drug in society and that ethanol abuse is by far the most common form of substance abuse, understanding where and how this compound acts in the brain is one of the key challenges of neuroscience.”

According to this study, one of the neurotransmitters alcohol affects is GABA, a chemical that stops signaling between body neurons and the brain. Necessary for a functioning brain at healthy levels, too little GABA can cause anxiety, sleep and mood problems. Ethanol appears to make GABA more effective, initially elevating mood, relieving stress, and causing other effects.

alcohol vs weed
Alcohol has long been associated with relaxation and stress relief. This could be mediated by GABA and endocannabinoids within the brain that mitigate anxiety.

But ethanol also activates the same receptors THC does, as well as five other known neurotransmitter systems, each of which has a cascade of secondary effects as their malfunction causes the malfunction of other systems that react to the faulty input of the ones ethanol directly scrambles.

And that’s just ethanol itself; these findings don’t address the effects of acetaldehyde, a toxic carcinogen that ethanol turns into as it metabolizes.

Add in the fact that your body can only metabolize a fixed amount per hour, depending on your liver size and body mass, booze is a recipe for an ugly night if you don’t keep an eye on how much you’re drinking.

How does marijuana get you high?

As mentioned before, the cannabinoids in marijuana interact with your body and brain’s cannabinoid receptors.

The main active ingredients in the cannabis sativa plant are THC and cannabidiol (CBD), however; there are dozens of cannabinoids in marijuana. THC fits in the cannabinoid receptors in a similar way to anandamide, the natural cannabinoid neurotransmitter your body produces. These receptors and transmitters work sort of like keys in locks.

But THC doesn’t quite stick in the opening right. This means it sort of performs the same function as anandamide, but not 100 percent. This means it’s a “partial agonist” to your cannabinoid receptors.

Because anadamide is crucial to regulating high-order brain function, and the THC hijacks some of its receptors, a person who consumes THC experiences a shift in his emotions, thoughts, appetite and perceptions.

alcohol vs weed
Anandamide (AEA) is a neurotransmitter found within the body and brain that regulates many processes (e.g. mood and appetite). THC acts on the same receptors as AEA and affects a lot of the same processes. Image: Nature Reviews Cancer

Cannabidol does not produce a high; it is a non-psychoactive phytocannabinoid. Cannabidol interacts with the immune system, pain receptors and other parts of the nervous and endocrine system by mechanisms not well understood.

In summary, it seems as though alcohol vs weed is far less understood and contains a much higher potential for abuse. However, both have their negatives and should be used appropriately. If you are considering mixing alcohol and cannabis, be sure to check out our article on “crossfading“.




Neuropharmacology of alcohol addiction
V Vengeliene et al

British Journal of Neuropharmacology

May 2008

Alcohol Alert: Update on Alcohol Metabolism

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse

July 2007

“Interaction of cannabidiol and alcohol in humans”
Consroe P, Carlini EA, Zwicker AP, Lacerda LA.

1979 Cannabis Adverse Effects and Drug Interactions_0.pdf

“Medical Cannabis: Adverse Effects and Drug Interaction”

Washington, DC Department of Health

“Mixing Marijuana with Other Substances”

Colorado State Government Website

“The Interrelationship Between the Use of Alcohol and Other Drugs: Overview for Drug Court Practitioners”

U.S. Department of Justice

Aug. 1999

About Adam Townsend 16 Articles
Adam Maxwell Townsend has been a journalist for 15 years. His reporting has covered science, technology and medicine. Currently, he edits and writes medical and pharmaceutical articles for consumer websites, including WoahStork.

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