A Clear-Eyed Comparison of Alcohol vs Marijuana

Which is worse? Alcohol or marijuana?

It seems that for as long as we’ve been around, we’ve enjoyed losing control of our faculties and behavior for fun, at least temporarily. The means of transport for these little mind vacations may vary, but the two most popular are obviously alcoholic beverages and marijuana. Though it’s well-known that booze goes way back — each builder of the pyramids at Giza had a one-gallon per day beer ration — fewer realize just how long ago humans took their first toke: Marijuana was one of mankind’s earliest crops, dating back 12,000 years to areas in what are now Mongolia and southern Siberia. In the interim, drinking has become legal for adults in the U.S., while smoking or possessing grass continues to be illegal altogether in 21 U.S. states, and according to Federal law.

For those places where weed is legal (BRITESIDE)

There have been lots of crispy conversation of which one is better for you, or really, which one is worse, so let’s see what the statistics and the science say.

1. Risk of Death

(KICKI ZEILON)

Okay, let’s start with the biggest difference. Alcohol kills. Grass not so much. Actually not at all. The CDC says that from 2006-2010 — this is just four years — excessive alcohol use resulted in roughly 88,000 deaths, and 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year. This reflect long-term effects of drinking such as liver disease, heart disease, and breast cancer, liver disease, as well as short-term effects such as drunk-driving, violence, and alcohol poisoning, which is to say alcohol overdoses.

By contrast, the CDC’s Health Effect page for grass lists no fatality figures.

A far as overdoses go, while 10 times the normal amount of liquor can cause one, DrugAbuse.com estimates that you’d “have to smoke between 238 and 1,113 joints in a day to overdose on marijuana.”

2. Likelihood of Addiction

About 15% of people who drink get addicted to alcohol, which isn’t a lot, though it’s more than with grass. (Cigarette smoking, by the way, is more than twice as addictive as alcohol, at 32%.)

There’s some controversy about whether marijuana is addictive in the first place. The NIH estimates that about 9% of smokers develop a level of dependence, though that’s not the same as addiction — it’s somewhere between addiction and a bad habit. As far as withdrawal symptoms go, quitting grass apparently does not trigger them, though quitting drinking can.

3. Impaired Driving

(ABBY GONZALEZ)

The conventional wisdom is that drinkers drive too fast, and smokers drive too slow, but it’s safe to say one should not drive under the influence of either alcohol or marijuana. Smoking grass increases the odds of an accident by a 83%. If you think this is bad, alcohol’s even worse: A blood-alcohol level of 0.05% increases the odds of an accident by a stunning 575% Not shockingly, doing both together is an even worse idea — no, they do not cancel each other out.

4. Cancer Link

Alcohol consumption has been consistently linked to a greater chance of getting cancer — the US Department of Health, in fact, lists it as a carcinogen. The nation’s top cancer doctors recently issued a plea for people to drink less, saying even a single glass of wine or beer a day can cause problems. And the more you drink, the higher the chances of getting cancer.

The largest controlled study ever done on marijuana and cancer found that not only is there no link between smoking grass and getting cancer, it may actually result in a reduced chance of being stricken.

5. Cardiac Effects

While one glass of wine a day may have beneficial effects on one’s heart — but see above about cancer — heavy drinking is linked to heart attacks. As far as marijuana goes, a March 2017 report from the American College of Cardiology said that heavy weed smokers were at significantly higher risk for stroke and heart failure. A draw.

6. Spousal Abuse

(CMY KANE)

While studies show no direct link between alcohol and domestic abuse, it’s use is certainly present in many such cases. A study by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence found that “Two-thirds of victims who were attacked by an intimate (including a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend) reported that alcohol had been involved.” The National Survey on Drug Use and Health says, though, that most high-level drinkers do not abuse their partners.

On the other hand, one recent study found that for married couples, smoking weed may actually decrease the likelihood of violence.

7. Danger to Pregnancy

The effects of drinking during pregnancy are clear: According to the CDC: “There is no known safe amount of alcohol — even beer or wine — that is safe for a woman to drink at any stage of pregnancy.” During the first few weeks of pregnancy, especially, the CDC warns that consumption of alcohol can cause “lasting physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that can last for a child’s lifetime.” They estimate 3.3 million women continue to drink when not using birth control, effectively exposing their babies to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

With marijuana, more research is required, but a link has been found between smoking grass during pregnancy and low birth weight in babies, according to DrugAbuse.com.

8. Psychiatric Issues

Neither intoxicant gets a pass on this one. They’re both linked to mental disorders, though different ones:

9. Healthcare Costs

Alcohol puts seven times the amount of pressure on healthcare systems if a study released by British Columbia applies everywhere. Their calculations of the difference between healthcare costs for Canadian drinkers vs. weed smokers: $20.50 per year per toker vs $165.11 per drinker.

10. Learning and Memory

Many will tell you that drinking kills brain cells, but this isn’t quite true. Brain damage? That’s another story, and yes, drinking can damage your brain. As far as memory loss goes, though, that’s mostly about blackouts drinkers can experience after over-imbibing.

With grass, research suggests that people who smoke early in life are more likely to develop learning deficits. Likewise, it may be that serious toking can result in psychosis and other mental problems later on.

11. Weight Gain

(BRETT CHISUM)

You would think weed’s munchies would make grass worse for weight control, but it doesn’t shake out that way statistically. While smokers may consume an average of 600 calories while high, they’re less likely to be obese than drinkers. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that alcohol consumption was a greater predictor of weight gain.

12. Drug Interactions

Alcohol and pharmaceuticals may or may not mix, and when they don’t, it can be a lethal mismatch — we’ve lost more than a few celebrities this way. If you’re not sure about potential interactions with any of your prescriptions, it’s not a good idea not just guess. Either don’t drink, or do some serious research.

There are no definitive reports of deadly drug interaction with weed, but that doesn’t mean that grass won’t adversely affect the behavior of medicines. The truth is there hasn’t yet been enough research into marijuana/pharmaceutical interactions, according to the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy.


People’s subjective preference for alcohol or weed is obviously an issue of personal experience. While they both alter your ability to function — it’s fun to be dumb! — they feel quite different. Weed gets points for the lack of hangover — it also has been finding a role in our culture as an effective, benign palliative. On the other hand, alcohol is legal everywhere as long as you’re old enough, don’t create a nuisance, and you’re not driving.

It seems, for now, that marijuana is a less damaging intoxicant than alcohol, though there’s also been much less study, so far, of its effects. As weed becomes more and more legal and commonplace, we can expect that to change. Stay tuned.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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