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Comparing Cannabis to Alcohol

Relaxing with a beer and unwinding with cannabis is no different at their core – when used responsibly, they can both help enjoy time with family and friends. As cannabis becomes more widely available across the U.S., many are trying out these products as another way to lay back and let loose. If you’re considering trying cannabis to unwind in place of your regular cocktail, here’s what you need to know.

How cannabis and alcohol affect your body

To better understand the many differences between alcohol and cannabis, it is helpful to examine ways they’re consumed and how your body metabolizes each one.


Alcohol is ingested orally and metabolized by your body. Once alcohol enters your stomach, it enters your bloodstream through stomach tissue and the small intestine1. Once circulating, alcohol will travel throughout all organs, including the brain. At this point it will begin to take effect, reaching its peak between 15 and 45 minutes after consumption2

Alcohol is considered a toxin and your body makes attempts to remove it. The liver does most of the work here, producing an enzyme which breaks down alcohol. This takes time, though, and results in the formation of harmful compounds that can damage cells and may cause long term health issues, including cancer and metabolism impairment. 

Alcohol also poses risks in the short term. On the milder end of the spectrum, you may feel “hungover” the day after consuming alcohol, accompanied by fatigue, nausea and a headache. If excessive consumption occurs, you might experience nausea and vomiting as your body attempts to expel the alcohol. Memory loss, often called a “blackout,” may also occur. In severe cases, someone can overdose on alcohol, also known as alcohol poisoning.

Most famously, alcohol impairs motor function3. Studies show that many drinkers perceive themselves as less intoxicated than their motor function indicates, suggesting that you may not be aware of precisely how impaired you are. This can make driving or operating heavy machinery a particularly dangerous prospect.

Alcohol can also interact with prescription medications, causing harmful effects or rendering medications ineffective. Follow the warnings on your pharmaceuticals; never mix a prescription medication with alcohol unless it is explicitly stated to be safe. 


While alcohol is always ingested orally, cannabis consumers have several more options. Cannabis can be inhaled, ingested orally, applied topically, or placed under your tongue and absorbed.

With each consumption method and product types, the exact process by which your body metabolizes phytocannabinoids varies. Here’s a brief overview of how some of the most common consumption methods work:

  • Inhalation: Phytocannabinoids enter your lungs when you inhale cannabis. There, they pass through membranes to enter the bloodstream4, skipping digestion and metabolization through your liver altogether. This process is why inhaling cannabis is fast-acting, within a few minutes.
  • Sublingual: The word sublingual means “under the tongue.” Through sublingual methods, phytocannabinoids directly enter the bloodstream through capillaries in your tongue and mouth tissues5, bypassing digestion and liver metabolization to exert fast-acting effects. Importantly, a little bit of sublingual product is often swallowed, resulting in a “biphasic” effect where some of the product will be metabolized through your liver. Tinctures, RSO, and lozenges are considered sublingual products.
  • Oral ingestion: Like alcohol, cannabis products you eat or drink are metabolized through your liver. Only after the product makes its way there do phytocannabinoids enter your bloodstream4. From there, the cannabinoids circulate throughout your body, touching everywhere in your body where endocannabinoid receptors can be found. While the edible is digested, cannabinoids continue to be released over time, leading to a slower onset but longer lasting effects. Cannabis edibles, capsules, and sometimes RSO are orally ingested.
  • Topical: Products applied directly to your skin provide localized relief to sore, itchy, burning, or painful areas. Unlike other consumption methods, topicals are not systemic, which means they do not enter your bloodstream and only affect the area to which they are applied. (One exception to this rule could be the transdermal patch, which is applied topically but then releases cannabinoids through your skin and into your bloodstream). Lotions, gels, and creams are all in the topicals family.

Unlike alcohol, cannabis is unlikely to cause a hangover. You may experience some fatigue or brain fog the day after consuming cannabis, but generally these anecdotes don’t rise to the level of alcohol-related hangovers6. Additionally, there are no known overdoses related to cannabis consumption.

While cannabis generally doesn’t carry the same risks as alcohol, it may interact with some prescription medications. Always consult with your doctor regarding the potential interactions between your medication and cannabis before consuming. 

Quick comparison: How alcohol and cannabis make you feel

Alcohol and cannabis differ significantly in their consumption experiences.

First, alcohol is a depressant, which means it is a drug that slows down your brain function7. This puts it in the same category as benzodiazepines and barbiturates. Cannabis is a bit more complex; depending on the cultivar and product type, it may act as a depressant, stimulant, or hallucinogen7

Second, alcohol is infamous for inducing nausea and vomiting when consumed in excess. On the flipside, cannabis excels at preventing nausea and vomiting. In fact, it’s so effective that a synthetic version of the phytocannabinoid Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), called dronabinol, is frequently prescribed to prevent chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in cancer patients8

Both cannabis and alcohol will affect your motor skills and reaction time, which is why it’s important to never operate a vehicle or heavy machinery under the influence of either. While your perception is impaired, either from alcohol or cannabis, your physical responses are less reliable and precise than they would be if you were sober. 

When it comes to the long-term effects of consumption on the brain, alcohol has a poor track record. Excessive consumption of alcohol over time can lead to severe brain disorders9, including Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Additionally, the condition is marked by learning and memory issues, both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, and even psychosis.

Cannabis does not carry these long-term mental health risks. In fact, research suggests that cannabis is neuroprotective10. This means it excels at repairing nerve damage and protecting nerves from future damage. Researchers suspect this could make cannabis effective at alleviating neuropathic pain, delaying neurodegeneration, and slowing cognitive decline.

Finally, you can compare alcohol and cannabis by their medical applications. Alcohol does not have a known medical value. Cannabis, however, is being researched for many medical applications ranging from chronic pain to anxiety to GI disorders.

Why might you choose cannabis over alcohol?

For some, the accessibility and social acceptance of alcohol do not outweigh feeling sick or hungover the day after. If you don’t enjoy alcohol because of these negatives, cannabis may be a great option that doesn’t carry a laundry list of downsides.

  • Offers a more mellow experience: For some, drinking alcohol can be intense. Cannabis consumption may be easier to regulate and the associated experience more mellow.
  • Doesn’t cause a hangover: There is no scientific evidence that a “weed hangover” exists, and anecdotal evidence about this phenomenon makes it clear that the experience is nowhere near as intense. Alcohol hangovers, on the other hand, can be physically debilitating.
  • Shorter duration of effects: If you consume cannabis at the start of a social gathering, within a few hours the effects will wane. If you were to drink throughout the social gathering, the effects would last much longer. For those who don’t want their party to turn into an all-day affair, cannabis – and particularly inhaled cannabis — is a way to clear your head before heading out.

Ways to try cannabis in a social setting

When consuming cannabis in a social setting, it is important to understand what to expect based on the product you’ve selected. For example, an edible product will have a delayed onset of effects. If you’re hoping for a more immediate effect, a vaporizer might be a better option for you.

Below are some of the various cannabis products you might choose to consume in a social setting, and what to expect:

  • Infused beverages: Perhaps a natural alternative to an alcoholic beverage is a cannabis-infused beverage. Until recently, most cannabis beverages were absorbed in the body like edibles, offering a delayed onset of effects and a potent dose per serving. Consumers drinking these infused beverages should mind the serving size and the cannabinoid content, as the effects will not be felt immediately.
  • Fast acting beverages, drink enhancers and edibles: Recent developments in nano technology and water soluble cannabinoid encapsulation are beginning to yield “fast acting” solutions. These beverages are infused with active cannabinoids and prompt effects much more quickly than traditional edible cannabis products. Look for products with “fast acting” technology on the label to achieve onset of effects that are more similar to the onset time of alcohol.
  • Edibles: Edibles take a long time to take effect, so they are best consumed about an hour before the desired experience. Edibles also have a long duration of effects, so one serving may be plenty for a social setting for most consumers. Give this Canna-Sangria a try! Always mind your dosage – start low and go slow! Edibles can be a great choice for the right social gathering, but it’s important to regulate your consumption.
    Similar to fast acting beverages, some edible products are now being produced with fast acting nano technology that bring on the effects much more quickly. Look for “fast acting” technology on the label to achieve effects in 15-30 minutes.
  • Vaporizers: Vaporizers are ideal for consumers who prefer fast-acting inhalation. Vapes are discreet; they leave no lingering odor and can easily fit into a pocket. It is also easy to regulate your consumption with a vaporizer, whereas drinking an infused beverage or consuming an edible is harder to control.
  • Cannabis flower: If you aren’t worried about discretion, cannabis flower is an old favorite. Flower can be smoked in a variety of ways, or it can be vaporized with a flower-compatible device. Flower is fast-acting and, depending on the strain you choose, offers a range of possible consumption experiences. You can gauge how a strain might affect you by examining its cannabinoid and terpene content, which is usually listed on the packaging.
  • Dab pens: Dab pens enable easy and discreet consumption of concentrates on the go. Much like any other electronic vaporizer, dab pens are designed specifically for concentrates like cannabis oil, crumble, budder, and shatter. A dab pen offers the potent, fast-acting consumption experience of concentrates without the messy, cumbersome process of using a dab rig and blowtorch.  

Finding the right option for you

Sometimes, you’re in the mood for a beer over bud – and that’s OK. There’s a right time and place for cannabis and alcohol in social settings, and what’s right for you is your decision to make. If you’re in the mood for cannabis, Ethos can help you navigate your options. Whether you’re looking for a long-lasting experience outdoors with an infused beverage or short duration while watching TV with a friend, an Ethos associate can help you learn more about your options so you can make the best choice for any occasion.



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