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Study: Alcohol causes more problems than marijuana for high school students

Customers shop for marijuana in Washington.
Customers shop for marijuana in Washington.
David Ryder

Teen marijuana users report fewer drug-induced problems than teen alcohol users, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

New York University researchers looked at high-school student surveys and found that alcohol, compared to marijuana, reportedly led to more unsafe driving, brought greater harm on relationships with friends and significant others, and caused more regrettable behavior. Marijuana, on the other hand, more often led to problems with authority figures, such as teachers, supervisors, and police; less energy; and less interest in other activities.

About 14 percent of marijuana users reported no problems, regardless of frequency of use. Roughly 14.1 percent of students who drank alcohol one to nine times claimed no issues, but the percentage who had no adverse affects from alcohol was significantly less — 7.7 percent — when it came to students who drank 40 or more times.

alcohol and marijuana effects teen users

Study author Joseph Palamar said the findings, which only speak to the two drugs' reported psychosocial effects, show alcohol poses more serious risks to teens just based on its physical and behavioral effects, while the biggest problem with marijuana seems to be the social and legal stigmas attached to it.

"When we think of alcohol intoxication, we think of people engaging in problematic behavior. Your inhibitions are decreased, and you're more likely to make bad decisions, get into a fight, maybe cheat on your boyfriend or girlfriend," Palamar said. "With marijuana, most of the adverse effects that we found were related to authority figures."

The study is based on student surveys, and the students' reports weren't verified by the researchers. It's possible, then, that students mischaracterized the effects of alcohol and marijuana in their lives.

But the findings are consistent with previous studies on marijuana and alcohol. A recent study found marijuana use correlates with lower rates of intimate partner violence, while alcohol use has been consistently linked to higher rates of domestic abuse. Another study found alcohol impairs drivers much more than marijuana. When researchers in the UK ranked the most dangerous drugs, alcohol topped the chart, while marijuana didn't make it into the top five.

These types of findings are why some drug policy experts argue marijuana legalization could be a public health win if it leads to more marijuana than alcohol use. Vox's Ezra Klein makes the case in this short video:

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