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Comparing the Effects and Differences of Alcohol and Marijuana – Type of Euphoria, Perceptual Impact, and Duration of Action

Two of the most widely used recreational drugs in the world, alcohol and marijuana, have been used by people for thousands of years. Both have the ability to make consumers feel relaxed and euphoric. They differ significantly from one another, though, in terms of their chemical makeup, how they function in the body and brain, how long they last, how they affect cognition and health, whether or not they can become addictive, how they are regulated legally, and who uses them and why.

This article seeks to present a summary that contrasts and compares alcohol and marijuana in a number of areas, including the various euphoric states that they can produce, the effects they have on perception, consciousness, and behavior, the length of their effects, and their effects on cognition and motor function.

Go on reading to find out more on this complex issue.

Alcohol Marijuana Comparison

Types of Euphoria

Alcohol and marijuana produce different types of euphoria and intoxication due to differences in their chemical structures and pharmacological mechanisms. There are such differences in the types of the euphoria produced:

Alcohol Euphoria

  • Typically described as more stimulating, frenzied, or aggressive
  • Involves release of serotonin, dopamine, endorphins
  • Lower doses induce sociability and talkativeness
  • Higher doses associated with emotional volatility, aggression

Marijuana Euphoria

  • Often described as relaxing, dreamlike, introspective
  • Due to activation of the endocannabinoid system
  • Associated with sensory enhancement, creativity, philosophical thinking
  • Much less linked to aggressive or violent behavior

These differing euphoria profiles contribute to some of alcohol and marijuana’s diverging patterns of usage. Alcohol’s disinhibiting effects make it popular in social gatherings, whereas marijuana’s calmer high makes it preferred in more casual, small group settings.

Comparing the Effects of Alcohol and Marijuana

When it comes to alcohol and marijuana, there are some notable differences in the effects they have. Let’s take a look how these substances compare:

Perceptual Effects

Alcohol and marijuana impact perception in distinct ways:


Can cause blurred vision, loss of coordination, and slowed reaction times due to its influence on the cerebellum and vestibular system


  • Enhances sensory perception, especially vision, hearing, and taste due to activation of cannabinoid receptors in sensory areas of the brain
  • Can distort spatial perception and time estimation

Impacts on Cognition and Behavior

Studies assessing and comparing the cognitive and behavioral impacts of alcohol and cannabis intoxication have found:

Alcohol has more global impairing effects on cognition and behavior than marijuana at comparable levels of intoxication. Specifically, alcohol tends to more negatively impact:

  • Judgment
  • Decision-making
  • Concentration
  • Short-term memory formation and retention

Both substances can reduce concentration and impair the ability to form new memories during states of intoxication

Marijuana seems to have less of an impact than alcohol on:

  • Behavioral inhibitors
  • Reaction times at recreational doses

Combining both substances can dramatically amplify impairment

In summary, while both substances affect cognition and behavior, alcohol appears to do so more profoundly compared to marijuana alone.

Motor Impairment

The most notable difference between alcohol and marijuana relates to their effects on motor function:

  • Numerous studies have found alcohol has a much more severe impact on movement coordination, balance, reaction times and other psychomotor skills
  • These alcohol-related motor control issues are a major contributor to the high rate of alcohol-related accidents, injuries and deaths relative to marijuana
  • Combining marijuana with even small amounts of alcohol can dramatically compound the impact on motor skills and cognition
  • In factors like automobile crashes, alcohol is simply a much more dangerous substance due to its greater potential to substantially impair motor function at recreational doses

Duration of Effects

In addition to differences in the type of high and perceptual effects, alcohol and marijuana differ significantly in how long their effects last:

  • Alcohol: Effects typically peak within 30-90 minutes after the final drink is consumed and mostly clear in 3-5 hours depending on the amount ingested.
  • Marijuana: Effects come on slower, peak at 2-3 hours after consumption, and can last up to 12 hours depending on potency and method of ingestion.

This longer duration of impairment from marijuana needs to be accounted for by users who plan to engage in activities like driving the next day.

Toxicity and Long-Term Health Effects

When it comes to toxicity and long-term health impacts, alcohol and marijuana have very different risk profiles:

  • Alcohol: Chronic excessive drinking can lead to liver disease, high blood pressure, strokes, heart disease and multiple types of cancer in the long run. Binge drinking elevates risks for accidents and alcohol poisoning. Withdrawals are quite severe.
  • Marijuana: No clear links exist between moderate marijuana use in adults and any severe long-term physical health effects. Risks like lung disease are lower than tobacco. Withdrawal symptoms are more mild.

However, marijuana use does carry some risks like triggering psychiatric conditions in those predisposed. Frequent use by adolescents can negatively impact brain development. More research is still needed, but current evidence suggests marijuana’s toxicity and long-term health impacts among adults are lower compared to alcohol when not accounting for risks associated with methods of ingestion or intoxicated behavior.

Addiction Potential

Marijuana dependence occurs in about 9% of users compared to 15% for alcohol, suggesting it carries lower addiction potential. Withdrawal severity also differs:

  • As it was mentioned above, alcohol withdrawal symptoms are quite serious. They can be even life-threatening due to seizures, delirium tremens and other issues. Only 5-10% of people going through alcohol withdrawal do so without complications.
  • Marijuana withdrawal is relatively mild, characterized mostly by temporary sleep disturbances, anxiety and irritability.

Additionally, while both substances activate the brain’s reward system, some research suggests marijuana may have a “ceiling effect” that limits the reward potential from very high doses, essentially self-regulating use. More human studies are still needed in this emerging area of research.

Legal Status

The legal status of marijuana and alcohol differs greatly around the world. Most countries allow alcohol sales and consumption for adults, while marijuana remains globally illegal except for recent legalization moves in Uruguay, Canada and 15 US states. However, policies are rapidly shifting toward regulation and legalization of marijuana in North and South America, reflecting changing societal attitudes.

Usage Demographics

While both substances enjoy widespread use, their consumption patterns differ among demographic groups. Key trends include:

  • Alcohol consumption is more equally distributed across different age groups, while marijuana use is more concentrated among adolescents, young adults and those below age 50.
  • Men consume more alcohol than women across most age groups except the oldest cohorts. This gender gap is narrower for marijuana.
  • Youth consumption of alcohol has declined substantially over past decades, while youth marijuana use has increased or stabilized as perceptions of risk have fallen.

In summary, marijuana use remains more an issue among youth populations, while alcohol consumption permeates across all demographics. Both substances remain widely used despite their differing legal status.


While alcohol and marijuana share some general properties as intoxicants, they have distinct differences in multiple domains – from their type of euphoria and high to their adverse effects and legal status. Understanding these differences allows the unique risks of each substance to be more accurately assessed and addressed on both an individual and societal level.