Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 5, 2023

The legalization of cannabis may have changed on a state level, but, apart from hemp, marijuana still remains illegal under federal law. Alcohol, on the other hand, is fully legal to drink and buy for persons over 21. Knowing the positive and negative sides of both substances, many have been baffled about why alcohol use is legal while weed is not.

While it’s true that the medicinal use of cannabis has been increasingly recognized in the last decade (mostly due to CBD) and the recreational use is slowly being destigmatized, weed is still classified as a Schedule I drug. So, what gives?

In this article, we’ll give you an overview of the legality of cannabis through the years as well as review and compare the effects of both cannabis and alcohol use in an attempt to get some insight into this question.

When Did Cannabis Use Become Illegal?

To make a short historical recap (you can find the longer version here), cannabis is one of the oldest crops that have been cultivated in human history. It was used for medicinal, religious, recreational, and industrial purposes by many ancient civilizations. It came to North America in the 17th century during the colonial period and it was mostly used in medicine.

In fact, during this time, marijuana was enjoying mainstream popularity as it was widely cultivated for medical use. Marijuana tinctures were commonly prescribed for a variety of ailments. The recreational use of marijuana started to increase in the early 20th century, especially during the alcohol prohibition period, which is when things started changing.

The Marijuana Tax Act and The War on Drugs

Little by little, the policies around the cultivation and use of cannabis started to radically change. Even though marijuana use in medicine was still on, federal government officials were opposing the use of weed (including hemp) altogether. Among them, Harry J. Anslinger was the one who imposed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 in order to regulate marijuana production and use. 

During this time, propaganda was being spread by those who were against marijuana use, warning young people that marijuana can cause insanity, among many other things. 

The most well-known cannabis regulation, though, was President Nixon’s campaign against illegal drugs colloquially known as “the war on drugs.” He enforced the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 which classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, as we know it to this day.

The Legality of Cannabis Today

For the first time after a century, the drug policies regarding cannabis have been changing. The first step was making hemp federally legal in 2018. Apart from that, medical marijuana is becoming legal in an increasing number of states, while recreational marijuana is legal only in some states. Due to the state laws changing, there are now dispensaries where marijuana users can freely buy a variety of cannabis products.

The Effects of Alcohol Consumption Compared to Marijuana Use

Comparing the effects of drinking alcohol to weed consumption can be unfair because of the difference in the information we have available. Alcohol has been well researched for a long time now, while weed hasn’t due to its legal state. However, we still know some key things about both substances so we can at least put them equally side by side. 

A Gateway Drug

Marijuana was often advertised as a gateway drug in the past, meaning that using marijuana will ultimately lead to the abuse of other substances. 

However, there is little evidence to back this. While it’s true that some marijuana users will start using other substances after marijuana, it’s not entirely true that marijuana was the cause of that reaction.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances. Also, cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs.”


Marijuana can lead to dependence in some users, causing the so-called marijuana use disorder that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes as “associated with dependence — in which a person feels withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug.” They further add that “marijuana use disorder becomes an addiction when the person cannot stop using the drug even though it interferes with many aspects of his or her life.”

In line with this, it appears that alcohol is more addictive than marijuana and with stronger withdrawal symptoms

A 2012 research paper published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings has examined previous studies on the addictive properties of marijuana and other substances like alcohol, nicotine, heroin, and cocaine. 

According to the paper, 9% of the people who use marijuana will become addicted to it, while 15% of the people who drink alcohol will develop alcoholism. The percentage of lifetime addiction risk was the highest for nicotine (32%), followed by heroin (23%) and cocaine (17%), respectively.

They also state that while the average age of first-time marijuana and alcohol use is typically the same, alcohol users are more likely to transition from just drinking alcohol socially to becoming dependent on it.

Fatal Overdose

Marijuana is known to cause some unpleasant side effects, mostly due to the psychoactive cannabinoid THC, only in large concentrations or high doses. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a fatal marijuana overdose is “highly unlikely” to happen. Additionally, so far, there haven’t been any reports of fatalities due to marijuana use alone.

Alcohol, on the other hand, is a different story. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 3 million deaths every year are directly tied to alcohol abuse. What’s more, alcohol is strongly tied to over 200 diseases and injuries.

While having a glass of wine a few days a week can be beneficial for your health, binge drinking and going overboard with it can be fatal. Alcohol overdose is real and the increased amount of alcohol impedes basic body functions.

Mental Health 

Both drinking alcohol and consuming marijuana can impact your mental health in different ways. Marijuana use is tied to an increased risk of developing psychosis and schizophrenia, mostly for individuals who are prone to it, while alcohol use is tied to depression

On the other hand, medical marijuana and CBD products, in general, are known to have some antidepressant and anxiolytic properties, as well as anti-inflammatory, to name a few. 

Then, Why Is Alcohol Legal and Not Weed?

In today’s world, marijuana is used in a manner that’s very similar to alcohol – most often to relax after a tiring day, or as a social activity when you want to have some fun. Marijuana for medical use, on the other hand, is also prescribed for treating symptoms of a variety of conditions. 

Substance abuse will inevitably lead to negative effects, no matter what the substance is. However, from what we gather it seems like substances are not classified as illegal based on scientific studies on their potential for causing harm. It could be said that it’s a complicated topic because many factors come into play. 

Truth is, like any other substance, marijuana isn’t entirely harmless, but it’s nowhere near as harmful as it’s made out to be by being classified as a Schedule I drug, nor does it have the potential to cause damage with overuse like alcohol and other substances do.

The best step forward would be to continue exploring its medicinal and recreational potential so that we can fill in the gaps that have been present for decades.

Final Thoughts – It’s a Complicated Question Worth Pondering

Considering that cannabis has been illegal for such a short amount of time when we take into consideration how long it has actually been used throughout human history, says a lot. The cannabis plant is still not fully understood because it has been illegal for a number of decades. 

However, from what we have managed to learn so far, it has many beneficial properties. Alcohol, on the other hand, can have some positive effects, but its abuse can lead to serious consequences.

Thankfully, though, the legal policies around weed have been progressing, and that’s one thing to look forward to.

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


The information presented on this page is provided as a public service to aid in education and is derived from sources believed to be reliable. Readers are responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed here. In no event shall Leaf Nation be held reliable for any injury, loss or damage that could happen if using or abusing drugs.