(Last Updated On: April 18, 2015)

President Barack Obama has brought the marijuana debate to a new high.

In an interview with The New Yorker  magazine January this year, President Obama said that he does not think marijuana “is more dangerous than alcohol.” When asked if marijuana is less dangerous, the U.S. President said “in terms of its impact on the individual consumer.”

The deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy seemed to agree with President Obama, admitting that alcohol poses a greater public health risk than marijuana. Deputy drug Czar Michael Botticelli made the reluctant admission at a congressional hearing on federal marijuana policy almost a month after Obama’s New Yorker interview.

Obama on Marijuana

What Americans think:

It turns out that both President Obama and deputy drug czar Botticelli share the same sentiments with most Americans.  According to a Pew Research Center study released in April this year, by a wide margin, Americans believe that alcohol is more dangerous to a person’s health and to society in general than marijuana.

When asked whether marijuana or alcohol would be more harmful to a person’s health, if marijuana were as widely available as alcohol, 69 percent of Americans said alcohol is more dangerous, with only 15 percent saying that marijuana is more dangerous. Fourteen percent said neither or both are more dangerous.

The study’s participants showed more apprehension when asked to reflect on marijuana’s potential effects on society as a whole; however, a strong majority still believed that alcohol is the more harmful substance. Sixty-three percent of Americans said alcohol is more dangerous, while 23 percent said that marijuana is more dangerous. Eleven percent said that neither or both are more harmful.

Marijuana vs. alcohol

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States. Alcohol is legal for Americans 21 years and older. Only about 22 percent of adult women and 11 percent of adult men are lifetime alcohol abstainers.

Meanwhile, the Drug Enforcement Agency classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, belonging to the same category as LSD, heroin, and Ecstacy. Marijuana is illegal in almost all states for recreational use.

Excessive alcohol consumption can be devastating to a person’s overall health – from heart disease to liver disease to elevated cancer risks. Roughly 88,000 deaths are attributable to alcohol use each year in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2006, CDC reported that 1.2 million emergency room visits and 2.7 million physician office visits were due to excessive alcohol use.

Studies have shown that marijuana is far less addictive than alcohol and even caffeine. Marijuana is the least likely to cause dependence among commonly used drugs. Based on a survey from the early 1990s supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between four and nine percent of regular marijuana smokers can develop dependence on the drug. That is compared with 15 percent of drinkers who develop dependence for alcohol.

According to a study from American Scientist, alcohol is more lethal than many other commonly abused substances. Just 10 times the recommended serving of alcohol can lead to death, while a marijuana user would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC in a joint to be at risk of a fatal dose, based on a 1988 ruling from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Of course, marijuana is not totally harmless. Excessive use can lead to respiratory discomfort, although marijuana itself has not been linked to lung damage. While smoking marijuana is a common way to ingest the drug, a number of methods of delivery allow users to minimize or avoid potential harm to the lungs, including using a vaporizer.

Still, in at least 10,000 years of human consumption, no deaths have been documented as a result of marijuana overdose.

At the societal level, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (link to: reported that alcohol is a much more significant factor when it comes to violent crimes in the U.S. Alcohol use is associated with 25 to 30 percent of violent crimes.

More than a decade ago, the journal Addictive Behaviors (link to: noted that “alcohol is clearly the drug with the most evidence to support a direct intoxication-violence relationship,” and that “cannabis reduces likelihood of violence during intoxication.” According to a study from the National Academy of Sciences (link to:, THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana associated with the “high” sensation, may even decrease “aggressive and violent behavior” in chronic users.

A long session

President Obama went on to say that marijuana is not something he encourages, and that he has told his daughters that he thinks marijuana “is a bad idea, a waste of time, not very healthy.”

Now, this may not be the green light that marijuana supporters have been waiting for yet. However, the U.S. President saying that marijuana is not more (or even less) dangerous than alcohol could just be the start of a long session.

Written by Donald Evans