What’s More Dangerous: Marijuana or Alcohol? (Ep. 163)

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(Photo: Samantha Cohen)

(Photo: Samantha Cohen)

Imagine a fantasy world that’s exactly as the world is today except that two things are missing: alcohol and marijuana. And then imagine that tomorrow, both of them are discovered. What happens now? How are each of them used – and, perhaps more importantly, regulated? How would we weigh the relative benefits and costs of alcohol versus marijuana?

That’s the topic of our latest podcast, “What’s More Dangerous: Marijuana or Alcohol?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

As simple a question as this may be, it isn’t so easy to answer empirically. That’s because alcohol is legal, widely available, relatively cheap, and for the most part society smiles upon it — whereas marijuana is generally illegal, less easily available, and often frowned upon. This, of course, is changing, as more places are legalizing marijuana (Colorado and Washington State in the U.S.; Portugal, meanwhile, decriminalized many drugs not long ago.) That said, there is a lot more data on alcohol use than marijuana use, simply because of alcohol’s prevalence.

Working within these limitations, we do our best to address the question of whether alcohol or marijuana is “more dangerous.” Along the way, you’ll hear Steve Levitt‘s views on the relationship between alcohol and crime. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron tells us whether prohibition works, and whether the long-standing belief in marijuana as a gateway drug is legitimate. And you’ll hear from the British psychiatrist David Nutt, a one-time “drug czar” who was fired for criticizing the British government’s decision to reclassify marijuana as a more serious drug. Nutt had come to believe that alcohol (and cigarettes) are, on balance, more dangerous than marijuana and other drugs. He and his colleagues calculated the “harm score” of various drugs, taking into account everything from physical damage to lost productivity. As you can see here, alcohol came out at the very top — in large part, to be sure, because of its prevalence:


Nutt is, however, realistic about the everlasting appeal of alcohol:

NUTT: Most of my professional career, I have been trying to find ways of treating alcoholism and helping people deal with the problems of alcohol dependence and alcohol withdrawal, and trying to find an antidote to alcohol. And I realize now that’s impossible. And it occurred to me a while back that maybe we’re asking the wrong question — rather than try to solve the problem of alcohol, why don’t we find an alternative to alcohol which doesn’t cause problems. Find a safe alternative, a drug which makes you pleasantly intoxicated, but which does not cause addiction, does not rot your brain, your liver or your guts, etc.

That’s why Nutt and his colleagues have been working on a synthetic alcohol product, as well as an alcohol antidote, a “sober pill”:

NUTT: So the idea would be you would have this safe alcohol that you could drink and have fun. But you could also take an antidote that would block its effects. So you would sober up within half an hour if you took a pill. And that would mean that you were perfectly, absolutely normal and you could drive home quite safely.


What if alcohol, marijuana, and sugar were discovered at the same time?

Daniel R. Przybylski

I've heard that if coffee were discovered today, it would never be approved by the FDA. Apparently, there are so many different organic compounds in coffee that we really don't understand and only assume are save because of the fact people have been drinking it for centuries.

Richard Klein

Why do people always want to discuss the hazards of marijuana relative to alcohol? Why can't we consider it on it's own? Or compare it to something more closely related: tobacco?


I think that alcohol is "more closely related" to marijuana than tobacco is, if you remove the obvious connection of how they are imbibed.

Granted, the 'highs' of alcohol and marijuana are different -- but alcohol is the only drug I can think of that exists in the white market and is completely acceptable socially. How can you not compare them and their respective prohibitions when you consider the momentum that the legalization movement is generating?

Eric M. Jones

I want to suggest that if all the Freakonomic's blogs regarding this subject were compiled, it would make a great book.

greg f

Another argument for the discussion is in a "public usage" aspect.
You cannot get drunk sitting next to someone drinking shots.


Neither can you get high from sitting next to someone smoking cannabis. Smoking anything next to somebody else who isn't is pretty rude, but the fears of the "contact high" are overblown. I'd say the ediquite in this case is just like cigarettes; if you're in a public place or business, do it outside in a designated area, keep kids away from it, properly dispose of your butts.


There is a fundamental fault in the assumptions here. People who use alcohol most commonly take a very small dose, a serving with dinner say. Alcohol is quite satisfying to take in quantities well below intoxication. I've never taken cannabis but from what I've seen the minimum dose people like to take is at least mild intoxication, the equivalent of say four servings of alcohol. It's like there is no point in doing less. This is true of most of the other drugs on the danger chart as well.

The concern I would have over cannabis is if it is decriminalized what would stop people from putting the active agent in all sorts of easily accessed and concealed forms?


On the contrary, cannabis can be similarly consumed in low quantities for enjoyment, it depends on the consumer and their immediate desires, just like alcohol. You're right that alcohol and cannabis habits and intoxication are not quite the same thing, but this particular example is an inaccurate generalization.

You're right that people can put the active agents in tinctures, edibles, etc. and people need to be responsible with these delivery methods with respect to children, pets, unsuspecting adults. The same could be said about guns, or rat poison, or alcohol; if the supposedly responsible adult doesn't take measures to prevent their accidental use, they're guilty of negligence and endangerment. In terms of concealment, many of these products can be easily detected by drug sniffing dogs, or even people; If you've ever smelled a pot brownie, it still has a strong cannabis smell.

Dan Palmer

Our brains love being relaxed and uninhibited not one delivery system over another.

Just like has been pointed out over and over in this podcast, the assumption of alcohol's popularity with people (if not their brains...wha?!) is mostly based on its wide availability and relatively fast rate of metabolism.

BTW, there are groups of cannabinoid receptors in the brain...maybe it does have preferences!


I can only speak for myself. I have no idea what the statistics are but living in an area with an abundance of medical available mary jane and knowing it's use is widely available. I would say that pleanty of people are not smoking to get high, but to just remove stress,etc as one does when one unwines with a glass of wine with dinner. This is based on my daily interactions with the people in my area who are not high but surprisingly relaxed when you think about how stressful our daily lives are in the east bay area, come to think about it. ;)


Guys, you gotta do better than this. I know you are both pro-pot, but c'mon, this was crazy one sided.

First, you can't have a pro pot guy like Nutt, without having a counter.

You can't just say stuff based on your gut, and what you saw on "Cops" last night, as facts. If I want that, I'll tune in FoxNews. I listen to Freak to get fact based info.

You can't just go on arguments and "studies" put out there by the Pot Industry trying to legalize pot and assume they are correct. Just recently it was shown the effect pot has physically on the brain. Please dig a littler deeper. You guys phoned this one in using talking points from people trying to mass market pot.

You can't say we are going to act like both of these just were just invented and then point to car accident data from the past (when booze is legal and pot isn't - of course there will be more drunk data) as the only data point. I really thought you where going to show some data based on the substance, not the history (as to your premise, the history doesn't exist yet)

And finally, you can't do a show like this and spend all the time on just how bad booze is, as the reason why pot is good. I kept on waiting for all the downsides of pot and got nothing. It sounded like any advertisement for "switch to pot - its good for you!" (Plus everyone knows that a guy smoking pot is more often than not, the guy also pounding beers - there is no "switch to pot, leave booze behind")

I know there is a huge amount of money trying to push pot into our society as no big deal, but please, shows like yours have to do a little bit more homework on this complicated issue, and not be swayed by the mass marketing points from the guys trying to make a buck on profiting from the abuse.

The basic fact is pot is anything but harmless, especially for young brains, and you are definitely part of the drug problem when you devote a whole show to "booze is bad" "pot is good". Crazy.

It was telling when at least you admitted that you'd rather have your kids drink a beer or glass of wine, rather than dive into pot. I think deep down, you know pot is far worse than booze.

It would have been an interesting show if you tried to find out why. Because there is a reason.



"First, you can’t have a pro pot guy like Nutt, without having a counter."

First, but it's their program: they can do anything they like.

Second, you would seem to be arguing that 'Cosmos' needs a few flat-Earthers & 'Creation Scientists' as counters.


Honestly, I'm flabbergasted that anyone could even ask this question nowadays, any more than they could ask whether the Earth is round or flat.

But there are some interesting questions that could be asked, as for instance those around David Nutt's suggestion of "a drug which makes you pleasantly intoxicated". Why on Earth do some people think intoxication is pleasant? Sure, alcohol tastes good, at least in some forms such as wine or cider, and a small dose can be relaxing (and have other positive health effects). But to consume it to the point of intoxication is, at least for me, quite an unpleasant experience.

That leads into the question of why only a minority of people ever become addicted to alcohol, or consume enough of it over a long enough period to cause health problems. Then there's the whole "The dose makes the poison" thing. Like many another substance, alcohol has beneficial effects when consumed in small amounts, but becomes toxic at higher doses. So how do we measure the cost of something that is beneficial to most people, but which a minority chooses to use in such a was as to harm themselves?


Brian Z

As far as destroying your future? Marijuana!!!!


There was too much focus on the comparison of a legal "drug" with one that is illegal in most cases. Even comparing it to cigarettes one cannot get high sitting next to a chain smoker. There is no comparison between weed and the drink.

I would have compared it directly to other illegal drugs. Compare dope to say...acid. What is the end result taking both separately in small quantities? Explain the difference and back up the assertion it should be legal.

joyce m

Three things. One, in determining the cost to society for marijuana, there is not a conclusive roadside test for marijuana use like there is for alcohol. So, how are the costs of accidents caused driving while high determined? Although the roadside testing done on small amounts of marijuana use showed an impairment unlikely to cause harm, the larger amounts of use did produce a dangerous driver. Two, on the negative effects of marijuana, I spoke with a therapist who does a significant amount of addiction work and he noted that the largest effect of marijuana use is what is not done. More so than most drugs, marijuana can relieve anxiety. But, what if that mild anxiety would have propelled you to do more with you life? He notes he sees people who have lost 5 to 10 years of life by self-medicating with marijuana so that they never really did anything. Three, since the amount of THC in marijuana has gone up so rapidly, can previous testing on marijuana and its effects be considered relevant? At what inflection point would research on it be relevant to decisions on legalization being considered today?



Interestingly as per the "harm score" only alcohol & cannabis cause equal or more harm to others (as opposed to users). Alcohol not only harms 'others' more than 'users', the intensity of its harm in both cases top the chart.
Was just wondering, what harm does Cannabis cause to others, as per the study ? Are these "harms" common in all types of substances? or Does the study also take specific harms for specific substance or does it combine both?


Want to get into the discussion that pot has a very dark side- it's called psychosis. It is well established that modern pot, esp in Colorado is very capable of psychotic states. Pot industry here is working hard to deflect, but it's out there. We already have one psychotic induced suicide, and now a murder. Both occurred from edibles. The strength of thc grown in Colorado is supposedly over twice the limit allowed in Amsterdam.


I think a more interesting question is what causes more societal harm: cannabis prohibition, or cannabis legalization. Compare our current state of largely prohibited cannabis with a system where production, sale, and use are regulated, but not outright banned for adults, where resources aimed at dismantling the cannabis trade and incarcerating those involved are saved or redirected toward drug rehab, education, safe use. A system where overall, the trade, consumption, and culture of cannabis use is in the daylight where it can be accurately accounted for and analyzed.

That's the podcast I want to listen to.