Neurochemical researchers understand that, for good or ill, the brain is especially receptive to certain drugs and not others. Neurotransmitters, which carry messages between brain cells, come in different shapes and act as keys searching out their matching keyholes. They include opioid receptors, which are quite similar to substances released by heroin, opium and other opiates. There are cannabinoid receptors, which match with the substances released into the brain by marijuana. There is no “alcoholoid” receptor. I believe it was Nora Volkow, longtime director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (and a ringer for Latka’s girlfriend in “Taxi,” which is neither here nor there) who explained at a conference on addiction I attended that that’s one reason alcohol is more physically destructive than marijuana and opioids.
That’s not the only difference. Here are a few more:
- About 37,000 Americans die each year from alcohol overdoses. I know of no reported deaths due to marijuana overdose alone.
- Alcohol abuse often brings out the violence within. Marijuana, if anything, seems to have the opposite effect. Brawls are for bars, not pot parties.
- A life of alcohol abuse can do terrible things for your liver, brain, heart and other organs, including links to cancer. Research on adult marijuana use may be incomplete, but it appears not to be physically damaging. While marijuana smoke has plenty of carcinogens, research indicates heavy pot smokers don’t get lung cancer at the rate heavy cigarette smokers get it. This and other research indicates THC may have some cancer-fighting qualities.
- Regular use of marijuana is not good for kids, whose brains are still developing. The same can be said about alcohol.
- Driving under the influence of alcohol is dangerous in all cases. Driving under the influence of pot is clearly dangerous for inexperienced users, but some evidence suggests the driving of more experienced users is not as dangerous.
- Depending on how they define addiction, people can argue that marijuana, like alcohol, can be addictive. But it is not equally addictive, judged by how easy it is to quit daily use and stay off, among other measures. Withdrawal from marijuana certainly doesn’t present the same physical characteristics as withdrawal from alcohol. There are no DTs with marijuana withdrawal.
President Obama is catching some criticism for telling David Remnick in a New Yorker interview that alcohol is more harmful than marijuana. One of the rules of the war on drugs is you’re not supposed to tell the truth about this stuff, a rule I’m glad to see is finally being broken.