FEATURE | Posted March 23, 2016

Is cannabis “safer” than alcohol?

Not from an economic or social point-of-view, UC Davis study finds

Image of cannabis smokers © iStockphoto
Heavy cannabis use linked to downward social class mobility, antisocial behaviors in the workplace and relationship conflict.

It’s often said that marijuana is “safer” than alcohol, in terms of fewer deaths from overdoses, traffic accidents and health-care costs, but a study by UC Davis and Duke researchers has found that from a financial and social point-of-view, there’s nothing safe about heavy cannabis use.

“People who smoked cannabis four or more days of the week over many years ended up in a lower social class than their parents, with lower-paying, less skilled and less prestigious jobs than those who were not regular cannabis smokers,” said Magdalena Cerdá, an epidemiologist at the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. “These regular and persistent users also experienced more financial, work-related and relationship difficulties, which worsened as the number of years of regular cannabis use progressed.”

Cerdá is lead author of a research study with colleagues at Duke University that has been following a group of children born in 1972-1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand, from birth to age 38 to assess changes in health over a lifetime. The research team recently published a study on the impact of heavy and persistent cannabis use among these research participants.

The team found that regular cannabis users experienced downward social mobility and more financial problems such as troubles with debt and cash flow than those who did not report such persistent use. They also had more antisocial behaviors at work, such as stealing money or lying to get a job, and experienced more relationship problems, such as intimate partner violence and controlling abuse.

Photograph of researcher Magadalena Cerda © UC Regents“Regardless of how we looked at the relationship between persistent, regular cannabis use and economic and social problems, we got the same results.”
— Madgalena Cerdá

“Regardless of how we looked at the relationship between persistent, regular cannabis use and economic and social problems, we got the same results,” Cerdá said.

The authors accounted for an array of potential differences between regular cannabis users and other study participants, including socioeconomic problems in childhood, lower IQ, antisocial behavior and depression in adolescence, higher levels of impulsivity, lower motivation to achieve, criminal conviction of cannabis users, and abuse of alcohol and hard drugs.

“These findings did not arise because cannabis users were prosecuted and had a criminal record,” said Avshalom Caspi, a psychologist with dual appointments at Duke University and the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London. “Even among cannabis users who were never convicted for a cannabis offense, we found that persistent and regular cannabis use was linked to economic and social problems.”

The study only addressed the economic and social consequences of cannabis use. In this domain, they found that cannabis did not appear to be safe and may be just as harmful as alcohol.

“Cannabis may be safer than alcohol for your health, but not for your finances,” said Terrie Moffitt, a study co-author and psychologist with dual appointments at Duke University and the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

Image of APS Cannabis study © APS

Citation: “Persistent cannabis dependence and alcohol dependence represent risks for midlife economic and social problems: A longitudinal cohort study,” Magdalena Cerdá, et al. Clinical Psychological Science, online, March 23.

Alcohol vs. cannabis use

With regard to downward social class mobility, antisocial behaviors in the workplace and relationship conflict, the researchers found that cannabis dependence was worse than alcohol dependence in the case of financial difficulties, such as troubles with debt and cash flow, and food insecurity.

“This is an important finding, given the common conception that cannabis is safer than alcohol,” Cerdá said. “Alcohol is still a bigger problem than cannabis because alcohol use is more prevalent than cannabis use. But, as the legalization of cannabis increases around the world, the economic and social burden posed by regular cannabis use could increase as well.”

Cerdá says that the research is not intended to support arguments for or against cannabis legalization, but it does show that cannabis was not safe for the long-term users tracked in the study. It also raises awareness of the consequences that persistent cannabis use poses to families, communities and national social welfare systems.

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