On a night out, some college students may find themselves reaching for a blunt or some other way to smoke marijuana, rather than buying drinks at a bar.
Among Generation Z, marijuana outranks not only alcohol, but also tobacco for recreational use according to a study in New Frontier Data, a marijuana consumer research group. The study found that 69% of consumers aged 18-25 preferred cannabis products to alcohol.
But why might one be chosen over the other?
Alexander Wilson, a chemistry professor and co-director of Northern Michigan University’s medicinal plant chemistry program, said that a key difference between alcohol and cannabinoids is the ways in which they each affect the body and brain.
Wilson said that while ethanol, the main component of alcohol, is a depressant that stimulates dopamine activity and affects the brain, the compounds that make up marijuana products interact directly with the body’s endocannabinoid system, producing the effects of a “high.”
“They affect a different system in the body than alcohol would,” Wilson said. “So the mechanisms of action are quite different.”
These differences in what organs alcohol and marijuana interact with impact the outcomes people see when consuming them. Some people cite stress relief or the lack of a hangover as reasons to smoke instead of drink, and marijuana is considered far less risky in terms of addiction than alcohol.
Americans seem to have a rudimentary understanding of the differences between the two, and in turn form opinions about which is safer to consume.
A study from the American Addiction Centers showed that when it comes to picking what to consume, Americans tend to perceive alcohol as more dangerous than marijuana. Among survey respondents who didn’t smoke or ingest marijuana, people believed that alcohol was 25% more dangerous than marijuana.
People buying marijuana products at their local dispensary don’t always know what exactly goes into the item they’re consuming, though. Wilson said sometimes, retail branding can lead to people being misinformed about the ingredients of the cannabis products they’re purchasing and consuming.
“[Dispensaries] advertise names, which in the chemical literature we've found aren't really correlated that well with the chemistry of the plant,” Wilson said. “So, I think most people probably are not aware of this, because it's relatively rare to actually give a full description of the chemistry of the plant.”
While Wilson acknowledged there are sociological and cultural reasons someone might choose to smoke rather than drink, he said that science can also be a contributing factor, and while marijuana and alcohol can produce similar reactions in the body, they occur differently.
“You could get at certain doses and certain plants, similar effects,” Wilson said. “But those are going to be through different signaling pathways in the brain and in the body.”
But when it comes down to the basics, Wilson said people tend to choose whether to drink or smoke because they’re partial to the experience they’ll get from their particular choice.
“Why somebody would want to utilize one versus the other would be for what effects they were hoping to get out of the experience,” Wilson said.