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Which Is Worse for Brain; Alcohol or Marijuana?

Ms. Fariha Naz

2 min read

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After a slew of scientific discoveries that place marijuana in a positive light, this largely banned recreational drug is successfully being pushed for medicinal approval.

However, many are still hesitant over the drug’s negative effects on the brain. Here we compare the most common global intoxicant with one of the world’s most widely used illegal drugs, and see which is worse for the brain: alcohol or marijuana.


Grey matter comprises 40% of the brain and is responsible for controlling and regulating numerous physical and emotional body functions, while white matter lies in the center of the brain and connects gray matter to the rest of the body. Therefore, any reduction in the size or health of either of these substances can lead to major brain impairment.

Researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder undertook a study in 2016 with 853 adults between 18-55 and 439 teenagers between 14-18, all with a history of alcohol and marijuana use, to understand the effects of both substances on grey and white matter.

According to the results, adults who were habitual drinkers of alcohol for many years showed a significant reduction in grey matter volume and quality of white matter. On the other hand, long-term marijuana use had no impact on the brain structure of both adults and teenagers.

2-Violence and Aggression:

While it may be difficult to assume that marijuana or alcohol use induces violence, a 2018 study published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience studied the negative emotional impact of alcohol and marijuana.

Upon conducting fMRI scans of 50 healthy adult males after drinking alcohol, results revealed reduced functioning in the prefrontal cortex; the area of the brain responsible for regulating social behavior, including aggressiveness.

With marijuana/cannabis, however, no such effect was recorded. In fact, the findings of another study even suggest that marijuana users are much less likely to commit violence against their partners as compared to a non-user.

3-Memory and Learning:

While alcohol has a greater likelihood of increasing violent behavior and altering brain structure, both alcohol and marijuana impair memory and learning to a different degree. Drinking alcohol induces blackouts that leave the brain temporarily incapable of forming memories.

Long-term effects include reduction in memory, attention, and planning skills, all of which persist even after years of halting alcohol consumption. On the other hand, daily marijuana use results in poor verbal memory, i.e. memory of words and different languages.

It must be noted, however, that these effects are most prominent in people who use either substance on a daily basis, or infrequently take large doses in one sitting. Those who start using marijuana and/or alcohol from their teenage years are also more likely to develop cognitive issues as compared to casual users and those who start much late in life.

Although alcohol causes more damage to brain health than marijuana, there is a major gap in marijuana-related research due to its previous status as an illegal drug. As a result, it may be premature to call marijuana safe. So while medicinal marijuana may have been approved for controlled prescriptions, recreational use can still have negative social and physical health impacts.

If you have problems with alcohol or marijuana use, consult with your doctor or book an appointment with a top psychologist in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad through oladoc.com, or call our helpline at 042 3890 0939 for assistance to find the RIGHT Doctor for your substance-related concerns.

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are intended to raise awareness about common health issues and should not be viewed as sound medical advice for your specific condition. You should always consult with a licensed medical practitioner prior to following any suggestions outlined in this article or adopting any treatment protocol based on the contents of this article.

Ms. Fariha Naz - Author Miss. Fariha Naz is a Psychologist practicing in Lahore. Miss. Fariha Naz has the following degree: MS (Clinical & Counseling Psychology) and has 5 years of experience. She thinks awareness is the key in handling any mental health problem and thus loves to write about it. You can book an appointment with her by pressing the "Book appointment" button.
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