Marijuana Is Safer Than Formerly Thought, Researchers Say

Marijuana may be safer than previously thought when compared to other recreational drugs, alcohol included. Researchers may also be underrating the risks related to alcohol use.

Researchers Dirk W. Lachenmeier and Jürgen Rehm conducted a recent study that quantified the risk of death associated with the individual use of recreational drugs and alcohol. The results, which were reported in a blog by the Washington Post, were published in the journal Scientific Reports in January of this year. The findings revealed that marijuana is the recreational drug with the least amount of risk associated to it. The study found alcohol as the most lethal substance, just ahead of heroin and cocaine.

"The risk of cannabis may have been overestimated in the past," wrote Lachenmeier and Rehm. "In contrast, the risk of alcohol may have been commonly underestimated."

Source: "Comparative risk assessment of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other illicit drugs using the margin of exposure approach"

The authors calculated and compared the lethal doses of various substances to the amount a typical individual uses. The results show that alcohol was 114 times deadlier than marijuana, the only drug studied that had a low mortality risk.

"The risk of drugs varies extremely," wrote Lachenmeier and Rehm.

The new study confirms the preceding drug-safety rankings made in 2004 in a study done by Robert S. Gable. Although the methods used were different, the Scientific Reports study reaffirms the results made by Gable.

The authors identified the usefulness of accurate information on illicit substances as one of the main reasons for their vetted research. The study comes at a time where marijuana legalization is a topic of great national and international discussion. Marijuana usage is receiving greater acceptance in the United States. According to a Gallup poll conducted in October of last year, 51 percent of Americans favor the legalization of marijuana use; 17 percent higher than the percent that favored legalization in 2004.

Despite having less risks than alcohol, marijuana use still has potential risks that accompany it. Most of the risks involve mental health problems – which increase the earlier a person starts using and how often they use. However any substance, natural or not, with excessive use will lead to harmful side effects.

The conclusion of the study points to a risk management prioritization towards alcohol and tobacco instead of drugs.

"The high MOE values of cannabis, which are in a low-risk range, suggest a strict legal regulatory approach rather than the current prohibition approach," the researchers wrote.

Governments have "favoured more restrictive policies with respect to illicit drugs than for alcohol or tobacco," because they view illicit drug use as a considerably greater problem for society. Lachenmeier and Rehm suggested that legislative classifications of illicit drugs are not based on science and therefore they urged the importance for informed policymakers, including society as a whole to further comprehend the risks of illicit drugs and how outcomes may vary.

With Colorado and Washington legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes, the results of this study alongside public support may help the legalization spread nationwide.

[Image credited to David McNew via Getty Images]