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The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington has had what some might describe as a ‘gray-scaling’ of our nation, with proponents and opponents alike finding themselves stuck in a “sifting” of the times as cannabis’ green tape is pulled ever more taut. While many of us in the treatment industry have a very firm stance on where we stand with regard to legalization, there are those who use such arguments as “cannabis doesn’t affect my life the way alcohol does”, or “it’s not as addicting as meth or cocaine” to bypass the very real financial, personal, and legal consequences that will and does take place in state others than Colorado and Washington.

Answering these questions in a sort of domino effect is a recent study conducted by researchers affiliated with New York University (published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse), stepping up to the plate to determine which is worse between alcohol and marijuana. The results might surprise you.

Analyzing data from a nationally representative sample of 7,437 high school seniors (modal age: 18) from 2007-2011, the students were asked to indicate the various adverse psychosocial outcomes resulting from use of each substance. Many actually might find it surprising to know that there is actually very little evidence on the psychosocial outcomes that directly result from alcohol and marijuana use.

According to an article recently released on PsychCentral, Joseph J. Palamar, Ph.D., M.P.H., speaking on the study, reveals:

The most alarming finding was that alcohol use was highly associated with unsafe driving, especially among frequent drinkers. Compared to non-drinkers, frequent drinkers were over 13 times more likely to report that their alcohol use has led to unsafe driving. Marijuana users, compared to non-users, were three times more likely to report unsafe driving as a direct result of use.”

The report also revealed that alcohol was more likely to compromise relationships with friends and significant others, while marijuana on the other hand was detrimental to relationships with teachers or supervisors, resulted in less energy or interest, and in lower school or job performance. Between the two, however, females were more apt to report engaging in behaviors they regretted after using alcohol.

On an interesting (but perhaps unsurprising) note, the researchers did not find any significant difference between alcohol and marijuana use with regard to general lifetime use and trouble with police. This, in spite of the fact that, compared to alcohol, frequent marijuana users (determined as having used more than forty times during their lifetime) were 23 times more likely to report getting in trouble with the police.

Palamar comments:

As a controlled substance, mere possession of marijuana may increase the risk of significant legal consequences compared to an age-restricted legal substance such as alcohol, so this was not unexpected. Smoking marijuana also tends to leave a strong odor, which can easily draw attention from authorities.”

With regards to differing experiences between races, their respective marijuana usage, and trouble with the police, the team found none. The team also acknowledges that outcomes differing by sex and race or ethnicity, and perception or experience of adverse outcomes may also be related to legal status and associated stigma. Focusing on older individuals, or only those residing in big cities, could also have led to varying results.

We don’t know about you, but the facts here (for teens, at least) seem pretty self-evident: both have slightly different, but similarly affecting consequences. Do yourself a favor and avoid the headache that comes with underage drinking and illegal abuse of marijuana.

Visit Psych Central for a more comprehensive list of the study’s results.

What do you think?