Last week, John Mayer announced that he’s put down the bottle… and picked up a joint instead. “I put [marijuana] where drinking used to go,” the 39-year-old musician revealed to Rolling Stone. “The quality of life has gone up considerably. Drinking is a fucking con. It always felt wrong.”
Mayer isn’t the first person to consider switching out his vices: Anyone who’s been drinking regularly for a decade or more will admit that booze has its downsides — namely, that it’s unhealthy, fattening, expensive, addictive, and well, hangovers are an abomination.
But is Mayer actually better off replacing alcohol with marijuana, or is he just trading one unhealthy habit for another? We compared the major cons of each to find out.
It’s tough to compare the cost of alcohol to the cost of weed, because as we all know, some people can chug three six-packs and feel fine, but be under the table after two puffs of a joint, and vice versa. That said, estimates put the average amount Americans spend on booze each year to be somewhere between $454 on the low end and upwards of $5,000 on the higher (or as we shamefully admit, more realistic) end.
On the flip side, the average legal marijuana user spends $647 a year on weed, according to Bloomberg. But a colleague of mine who’s a self-proclaimed midnight toker claims she spends closer to $1,000 on weed annually. So evidently, whether you save money replacing booze with weed is really a matter of your personal spending habits — and more importantly, your tolerance.
We’re all familiar with the health risks associated with drinking too much: Shorter life expectancy; liver disease; nerve damage; ulcers; and decreased cognitive function are chief among them. These risks culminate in a shocking number of deaths every year: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive drinking led to approximately 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost in the U.S. between 2006 to 2010, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years.
Marijuana, meanwhile, isn’t directly killing anyone… as far as we know. To this day, the DEA’s drug sheet for marijuana reports that no deaths from marijuana overdoses have ever been recorded. That said, there are accidental deaths involving marijuana users who seemingly became out of touch with reality and took reckless actions — e.g., a report from 2015 detailed the case of a 19-year-old male who jumped off a balcony after consuming multiple servings of a marijuana cookie.
That’s not to say the only risk of smoking pot is getting too high to know what’s what. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine notes that, compared to unexposed controls, adults who smoked marijuana regularly during adolescence have impaired neural connectivity in specific brain regions, which may explain an association between frequent use of marijuana from adolescence into adulthood and significant declines in IQ. There is evidence, too, that smoking marijuana on a regular basis is associated with lung cancer, although the risk is far lower than that of smoking tobacco.
It also should be noted that the marijuana industry, being a more recent development, isn’t as heavily regulated as the alcohol industry, which can pose other dangers. “Product labels and safety concerns — like impurities — are virtually nonexistent in alcohol, while cannabis still has pesticides and mold due to that lack of oversight,” says Stephen Brenner, orthopedic surgeon and chairman of Diagnostic Lab Corporation, a cannabis and food safety company. This hasn’t become a significant health issue yet, however; overall, weed appears to be far less dangerous than alcohol.
There’s no doubt that alcohol is a drug that makes people sociable when consumed in moderation, and the same can go for marijuana — anyone who’s passed a joint around a circle knows that. There’s clear evidence, however, that heavy marijuana use can obliterate one’s social life. One compilation of studies highlights numerous ways heavy marijuana use (which is defined as smoking weed 27 out of every 30 days) can negatively affect one’s social skills:
- Potential link to depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.
- Decreases in the ability to learn and remember information, making it more likely to fall behind the norm on developing intellectual, job and social skills.
- Erosion of cognitive abilities, career status, social life and physical and mental health.
Again, though, these social drawbacks apply to heavy marijuana users. If you were to drink alcohol 27 out of every 30 days, it’s likely that your social and family would also be negatively affected.
It’s reasonable to think that ditching booze for weed will place you in a never-ending munchies loop, and cause you to pack on a few pounds. But one thing that many people don’t consider is that alcohol also causes the munchies, and scientists even know why: Drinking alcohol or eating fatty foods both cause the production of a brain chemical called galanin, which essentially causes you to crave more booze or more fatty foods. The booze craving generally takes precedence, but once your body decides you’ve had enough booze — say, as you drunkenly stumble by a pizza parlor at 2 a.m. — the craving for fatty foods will become more prominent.
On top of that, alcohol is packed with calories: A single Coors Light — a beer many of us think of as the caloric equivalent of a glass of water — contains just over 100 calories, and one shot of Absolut Vodka contains 97 calories. “Cannabis, however, has no calories,” Brenner explains. “Just make sure to eat healthy snacks when you get the munchies.”
And well, that’s where the theory falls down, because who the hell orders a salad when they’re high as balls?
It’s necessary to mention this right off the bat: “Alcoholism is about using alcohol to numb or deal with emotions, trauma or problems from childhood,” explains Carolyn Coker Ross, a board-certified physician in addiction medicine. “Substituting marijuana for alcohol just continues this same problem.” And contrary to popular opinion, marijuana can be addictive: Approximately 9 percent of those who experiment with marijuana will become addicted, according to a study published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal.
To expand on that: Yes, there is such a thing as marijuana addiction, although since it’s more psychological than physical, perhaps “dependence” might be a better word. “I can now admit that I’ve been psychologically addicted to weed for the past decade-plus,” confessed writer Kitty Gray in a story published on VICE. “If I need to eat, sleep, relax, be amused, calm down, forget a horrible experience, practice self-love, run errands of any kind, watch TV, or create something: I smoke.”
And quitting marijuana also appears to cause withdrawal symptoms in heavy users. In an article for Salon, writer M. Welch described his first week without marijuana after about a decade of daily use as one filled with sleepless nights and irritable days. “Then, on the fifth day, I began to calm. By the eighth day, the monkey vanished, and I haven’t seen him since,” Welch wrote.
This pales, however, compared to the nightmare of alcohol addiction.
Alcoholism has far more horrifying statistics than marijuana dependency in general, so it would be misleading to suggest that a few stoners who took it too far have it worse than the 88,000 people who die from alcohol and alcoholism each year.
We’re all familiar with the symptoms of an alcohol hangover: Headache, nausea, tiredness and anxiety. But weed hangovers are a real thing, too: According to a 1985 study performed by the National Institutes of Health on 13 male marijuana smokers, the symptoms of a weed hangover include headaches, brain fog, dehydration, dry eyes and fatigue.
That said, anyone who’s experienced both will tell you that not wanting to get out of bed the morning after a heavy smoke sesh is nothing compared to the horror that is waking up after a night spent pounding drinks. Yes, you will be groggy and confused and a little slow, but you’re unlikely to need to be within shouting distance of a toilet.
So while there’s no doubt that smoking weed has its downsides, they don’t stack up to the problems that come with booze. Just remember that moderation is the key to everything, and smoking every day is all but guaranteed to fuck you up in the long run — although admittedly without the gnarly hangover.