Marijuana and Alcohol Essay
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that alcohol and marijuana comprise the two most commonly abused drugs by young adults in America. But while many would ask why young adults use these drugs, it’s more important to understand how these drugs affect the body. What exactly do these drugs do to the body and how does the body process them? Are the effects always negative? Does the amount consumed make a significant difference?
First I will give a brief history of each drug, followed by the physiological processes of digesting each drug in the body, and I will conclude by examining the short and long-term effects of prolonged use of each substance. My goal is to give honest explanations about the effects of each drug using the most recent and accurate scientific data and statistics. To understand these drugs more effectively, it is important to give a brief history of each. Marijuana use has been documented as early as 2737 B. C. in ancient China.
It spread through India, North Africa, and Europe as an “agent for achieving euphoria” and as a medicine for a variety of illnesses (“History of Marijuana”). It was first introduced in America in 1611 in Jamestown, Virginia. Up until the 20th century, it was never made illegal in the United States because the users didn’t seem to cause harm to themselves or others while on the drug. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that legislation was introduced to portray marijuana as a dangerous, addictive drug that would lead to narcotic addiction.
40 years later, in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana was legally classified as a Category 1 drug (the same category as LSD and heroin). During the Reagan administration, very strict marijuana laws were passed in attempt to further discourage teenagers from using the drug. The end result was a decrease in usage in the short term, but there has been a steady upward trend of usage since the early 1990’s (“History of Marijuana”). The history of alcohol also dates back thousands of years. Fermented grain, fruits, and honey have been used for alcohol production since 7000 BC.
Again, the first documented use is in China. Gradually, the use of alcohol spread through India, Babylon, and Europe. By the 16th century, the British government actually encouraged alcohol use for “medicinal purposes” (“Alcohol: A Short History”). Not coincidentally, alcoholism became a widespread problem for Great Britain during that time period. But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that attitudes around the world starting changing in regards to alcohol. A movement for prohibition was rising and by 1920, the United States had outlawed production and distribution of alcohol.
13 years later, in response to an enormously uncontrollable black market for alcohol that the government indirectly created, Congress repealed the law. Today, alcohol is widely used by not just those legal to buy it, but also by teenagers and young adults. An estimated 15 million Americans (all ages) suffer from alcoholism and 40% of all deaths due to car accidents involve alcohol. (“Alcohol: A Short History”) It is important now to focus on the physiological process of digesting marijuana in the body. An article titled “How Marijuana Works”, written by Kevin Bosner gives extensive detail on how the body processes the drug.
Marijuana is most commonly ingested through smoke. The strongest chemical in marijuana is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannnabinol), which gives a “high” feeling to users. When smoke from marijuana is inhaled, THC goes into the lungs and is exposed to millions of tiny sacks called alveoli. The alveoli are responsible for the gas exchange between capillaries and lungs. THC enters the alveoli where it is transferred to the blood stream, which then brings the compound into major organs like the brain. Typically, THC reaches the brain within seconds after it is inhaled.
After THC reaches the brain, it affects the neurotransmitters in the brain by mimicking and blocking the actions of the neurotransmitters. When neurotransmitters are blocked, the transfer of neurons across the synapse is hindered. This slows down reaction times and cognitive ability. It is also important to note that the brain does have cannabinoid receptors, which process THC, a cannabis chemical. The cannabinoid receptors when activated can have an effect on short-term memory, coordination, learning, and problem solving.
The cannabinoid receptors are normally activated by a neurotransmitter called anandamide. THC mimics the actions of anandamide and therefore can bind to cannabinoid receptors, activate neurons, and affect the body and mind. Cannabinoid receptors exist in seven different places in the brain: hippocampus, cerebellum, basal ganglia, amygdala, hypothalamus, neocortex, and brain stem. Each place in the brain controls different functions in the body and each is affected in a different way by the cannabinoid receptors. When THC binds with receptors in the hippocampus, it affects the short-term memory.
When THC binds with receptors in the cerebellum, it can affect one’s coordination. THC can affect unconscious muscle movements when its binds to receptors in the basal ganglia leading to a loss of motor coordination skills. People also feel anxious and nervous when ingesting marijuana due to the effect THC has on the amygdala, which is responsible for anxiety, emotion, and fear. When THC binds to receptors in the hypothalamus, it affects one’s appetite, which explains why people tend to get hungry when they feel high.
THC impairs problem-solving abilities when THC binds to receptors in the neocortex, which is primarily responsible for “higher cognitive functions and the integration of sensory information” (“How Marijuana Works”). Lastly, the effect it has on the brain stem can reduce the sensation of pain. Alcohol, on the other hand, is processed in a different way than marijuana. Alcohol can only be ingested orally, usually in a liquid form that goes straight down the mouth through the esophagus and into the stomach.
The Brown University Health Center gives an in-depth discussion of the digestion process of alcohol in an article titled “Alcohol and Your Body. ” Once in the stomach, the alcohol flows through the walls of the stomach into the bloodstream and on to the small intestine. From there it flows into the liver. In the liver, a compound called gastric alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) metabolizes the alcohol. The amount of ADH a person has will determine how well the body can process the alcohol. The more ADH the body has, the better it can process the alcohol. A normal, healthy liver can process about half an ounce of pure alcohol every hour.
If the rate of alcohol ingested exceeds 1 pure ounce every hour (about 1 standard drink per hour), the rest of the alcohol continues through the blood stream and flows to the heart. When it enters the heart, alcohol reduces the heart rate, which lowers the amount of blood being pumped through the body. This lets the capillaries relax and as a result, blood pressure goes down. The heart rate will return to normal shortly after the alcohol passes through the heart, but the blood pressure could remain low for up to a half hour after the alcohol goes through the heart.
After passing through the heart, alcohol flows through the pulmonary artery into the lungs. After the gas exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide, the blood, which is now oxygenated but still contains alcohol, flows back to the heart through the pulmonary vein, and then out of the heart through the aorta to the rest of the body. It then reaches the brain and retards the transmission between nerve cells that control the ability to think and move. This causes many of the side effects associated with being drunk: fuzzy thinking, impaired judgment, blurred vision, and rubbery muscles.
Alcohol also reduces the production of antidiuretic hormones. These hormones prevent the body from making too much urine. A loss of these hormones results in too much urine. Too much urine causes lower levels of liquid, vitamins, and minerals in the body, which is why many people feel so thirsty when they drink and especially the day after they drink. The flow of alcohol throughout the body will continue until the liver can produce enough ADH to metabolize all the alcohol. Obviously, the more alcohol consumed, the more intense the side effects of drunkenness will become (“Alcohol and Your Body”).
Now that the physiological process of alcohol and marijuana is clear, it is necessary to compare the effects of each substance. “Marijuana vs. Alcohol”, an article published on saferchoice. org, outlines both the short and long-term effects. Beginning with the short-term effects (effects felt immediately within minutes of consuming either drug), both drugs impede brain function and cause some similar side effects. However, there are some key differences between the two drugs that must be addressed. First, an excess of alcohol consumption in one sitting can lead to death. If the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) gets too high, (usually .
4% or above) it can slow down the heart to the point where the contractions stop all together causing cardiac arrest. It can impede brain function to the point where unconscious breathing no longer continues resulting in death. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 37,000 people are killed annually in the United States from alcohol abuse (“Marijuana vs. Alcohol”). The CDC does not even have a category for people killed from marijuana use. There has never been a case of an individual dying from a marijuana overdose. Another differing effect is the impact each drug has on brain cells.
It has been well documented that alcohol kills brain cells, but marijuana has not been proven to kill brain cells and in fact, a growing number of studies in the medical community indicate that marijuana has properties that protect brain cells (“Marijuana vs. Alcohol”). Alcohol can also have damaging effects in its behavioral components. According to “Drugs of Abuse and The Elicitation of Aggressive Behavior”, an article written by Peter Hoaken, “alcohol is the drug with the most evidence to support a direct intoxication-violence relationship. ” On the other hand, marijuana was shown to reduce the likelihood of violence during intoxication.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also reports 25-30% of violent crimes in the United States have a link to the use of alcohol (“Marijuana vs. Alcohol”). There is no comparable statistic for violent crimes with a link to marijuana because the government doesn’t track violent crimes related to marijuana use. It is a rare occurrence. Alcohol use has also been shown to contribute to domestic abuse and sexual assault. Obviously, alcohol does not directly cause this problem but those are who more prone to that kind of behavior will likely act on it during alcohol intoxication.
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) declared alcohol to be the most commonly used chemical in sexual assault crimes. Interestingly, RAINN’s website gives information about all drugs that are linked to sexual violence and marijuana does not even have a category on their website because it has never been associated with sexual assault crimes (“Marijuana vs. Alcohol”). Clearly, in the short term, the effects of marijuana are less dangerous than alcohol when both substances are used to get intoxicated.
But there is another component to the discussion: alcohol is not necessarily used for intoxication. Most adults drink a beer, or a glass of wine with dinner. The drink or two does not cause any of the serious effects associated with “drunkenness”, but rather might relax the individual by slightly lowering heart rate and blood pressure. While there are a small minority of people of who use marijuana in this way, (perhaps a small dosage before a meal to improve the taste) it is in no way as widely used in this manner as alcohol. Most people smoke marijuana with the sole purpose of intoxication.
So it begs the question, can a drink or two daily be good for the human body? There have been a number of studies in the last decade to suggest that it is indeed beneficial to have a drink or two daily. According to an article “Alcohol is Good For You? ” in the New York Times, there is general consensus in the scientific community that a couple drinks a day ward off diabetes, dementia, and even lowers the risk of heart attacks. The article goes on to say though that a growing number of scientists are starting to question whether this is causation or correlation.
Many scientists believe that moderate drinking is not something healthy to do, but rather something that healthy people tend to do. That being said, there are certain factors that lead scientists to the belief that a low amount of alcohol consumed daily can be beneficial: alcohol increases HDL cholesterol which has anticlotting effects and alcohol also reduces the heart rate and blood pressure lowering stress on the body. All in all, more studies are being conducted to determine whether or not there is true causation between moderate drinking and marginal health benefits.
However, even the largest proponents of moderate drinking acknowledge the limitations in truly proving causation. The study would be costly and in order to avoid bias and controversy, the study would have to be financed by the government and the government would likely avoid the issue because it is controversial. In terms of marijuana though, there is no group of respected scientists that recommend smoking a joint daily for health benefits. There have been studies showing that smoking moderate amounts of weed may not be as harmful as was originally thought, at least to some parts of the body.
But again, it still isn’t recommended. According to an article in Scientific American called “Casual Marijuana Smoking Not Harmful to Lungs”, smoking one joint per day over long periods of time does not decrease lung function. The study compared the effects of cigarette and marijuana smoke on the lungs over twenty years. Obviously, tobacco was revealed to have negative effects on the lungs, but with pot-smokers, lung capacity was not affected at all and even in some cases seen to have mild improvement.
Scientists believe though that this may the effect of the “deep breathing” that marijuana users often do to sustain a better “high. ” Also, the typical marijuana smoker might smoke one joint per day while the typical cigarette smoker ingests between half a pack and two packs per day. Although the study shows some neutral and slightly positive effects of marijuana on the lungs, they also go on to say that chronic moderate marijuana use, meaning those who smoke up to a joint per day for years, has also been associated with anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and depression.
Again, it is hard to prove direct causation between marijuana and mental illnesses, but there certainly is a correlation. The article also says that marijuana affects learning and memory, as well as everyday functioning and alertness. These long-term effects are not necessarily shocking, but depending on the age of the marijuana user, the long-term effects can be extremely detrimental. According to “Adolescent Pot Use Leaves Lasting Mental Deficits…” an article in Science Daily, marijuana use has much more serious effects on adolescents.
The study followed a group of teenagers, documenting their IQ at age 13 and age 38. There was an average decrease of 8 points in those who started using pot chronically (at least once a week for a few years) before 18 years old. There was not a similar decline in those who started using the drug after 18. Worst of all, the damage was irreversible. Many of the ones who lost IQ points stopped smoking marijuana after age 18, but never recovered the cognitive ability they lost due to marijuana.
Those who smoked chronically before age 18 were also more likely to suffer from mental illnesses at some point in their life. Many of the same losses in cognitive functioning are associated with underage drinking as well. One of the main reasons the drinking age in the United States is 21 is because it has been proven in numerous studies that alcohol abuse as an adolescent impairs cognitive ability and hinders brain function. Generally speaking for drinkers of all ages, one of the largest long-term effects of chronic alcohol abuse is a wide variety of cancers.
Alcohol abuse can cause cancer of the stomach, esophagus, colon, pancreas, liver, and even the prostate (“Marijuana vs. Alcohol”). In comparison, marijuana has not been associated with any forms of cancer. There is another alarmingly serious consequence associated with alcohol abuse that has not been found with marijuana abuse: addiction. Alcohol is a very addictive substance. It is not uncommon for the body to go through alcohol withdrawals after continuous drinking over even a short period of time.
Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, twitchiness, sweating of the palms, and headaches. Marijuana has not been shown to cause any physical withdrawal side effects. There might be a psychological addiction, but no physical symptoms of withdrawal in the body (“Marijuana vs. Alcohol”). In conclusion, neither drug is recommended in large amounts over a long time period or any time period for that matter. Clearly though, in the short-term, the effects are far less grave and dangerous with marijuana. Alcohol overdoses are deadly.
Marijuana “overdoses” will cause to you to pass out at worst, but will not kill you. Alcohol in large quantities makes people more violent, and can often to lead to sexual assault. Marijuana does neither. Prolonged abuse of either substance though leads to declining cognitive function. Excessive marijuana abuse leads to depression, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses. Excessive alcohol abuse can lead to liver failure, cancer, sometimes depression, and many other diseases. Most importantly, both drugs are especially damaging to adolescents because they affect the development of the brain.
Overall, these two drugs, when used in moderation, won’t kill you, and might even have some beneficial effects. For example, marijuana is often used as a medicine: many people recovering from chemotherapy use it to relieve nausea and increase the appetite. One or two drinks of alcohol per day can lower the risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, and stroke. The big difference between the two is that alcohol has been studied for decades now. The consensus on alcohol is clear: too much is bad and it is acceptable in moderation.
Marijuana has not been studied as extensively and more research will need to be done to determine concrete side effects or benefits associated with long-term usage. Obviously, it is not as harmful as originally thought when it was first made illegal in 1970 and classified as a Category 1 drug. Nobody today thinks marijuana is as dangerous as LSD and heroin. That being said, many more studies need to be done before the scientific community can come up with a general consensus about the long-term effects of habitual usage of the drug.
“Adolescent Pot Use Leaves Lasting Mental Deficits; Developing Brain Susceptible to Lasting Damage from Exposure to Marijuana. ” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 Aug. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.
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