Jun 1, 2016 9:20 AM

Cannabis vs. Coffee: Science Behind Two Drugs

Due to the rapid boost of the popularity of cannabis, people want to know more about the “dark and light sides” of cannabis use.

Marijuana legalization spreads every day. There are many cannabis proponents who talk about its positive health consequences. But how does it compare with another popular legal drug? And will cannabis become the new coffee?

Let us compare and contrast these two drugs in terms of popularity, effects, and risks for health.

What Is More Used?

The answer is coffee.

Caffeine is the most widely used legal psychoactive substance in the world. According to the Food and Drug Administration report, more than 80 percent of Americans consume coffee regularly, and the global consumption is estimated at 120,000 tons per year. That is equal to one cup of the beverage for every person on the planet every day.

In many ways, coffee is a work drug, claims Dr. Stephen Braun, a medical writer and author of Buss: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine. Just a tablespoon of caffeine may kill you, but most people feel like dead without it. They cannot work, feel tired, sleepy, and angry.

In its turn, according to the World Health Organization, cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug: nearly 147 million people (2,5 percent of the world population) consume marijuana. The number of cannabis lovers has grown rapidly for the past ten years, more than the number of users of any other drug. However, the number of cannalovers remains relatively small compared to the number of coffee maniacs.

What Is More Beneficial?

A cup of steaming black beverage in the morning can make you feel great: sharper, less tired, and even stronger. But did you know that your morning coffee can also have significant health benefits? A 2001 study showed that coffee might help prevent diseases like stroke and certain cancers. A professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard, Alberto Ascherio, claims that drinking 4-5 cups of coffee daily may cut risks of Parkinson's disease nearly in half compared to drinking little or no coffee.

The health consequences of drinking coffee vary from protecting against cardiovascular ailments and type 2 diabetes to decreasing risks of depression and other, more severe, mental disorders. The study also revealed that coffee consumption lowered the levels of liver enzymes and protected the liver against cirrhosis and cancer. Furthermore, regular coffee drinking was linked to a lower risk of a deadly form of prostate cancer. A 2013 Harvard study found that coffee drinking reduced the risk of suicide by about half.

Along with all these positive effects of coffee, there are also a number of downsides. Caffeine is an addictive substance, and frequent users may become dependent on it. In high doses, it can trigger pounding headaches and fatigue, as well as lead to sleep deprivation and a tendency to disregard normal warning signals. Scientists researching the effects of caffeine during pregnancy found a connection between high doses of the substance (more than 12 oz of coffee daily) and an increased rate of miscarriages and low birth weights.

As for marijuana, it has been used for tens of thousands of years not just as a psychoactive substance but also as a potent medicine. Although the scientific evidence is not sufficient for the plant to gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, medical cannabis can provide lots of health benefits, especially if it is not consumed by smoking but by vaping or ingesting: it may help control seizures, improve metabolism, relieve pain, inhibit Alzheimer's disease, reduce symptoms of multiple sclerosis, ease inflammation, and so on.

On the other hand, there are some nasty side-effects of cannabis use, particularly the THC-rich marijuana products. THC may lower the reaction time, alter perception, decrease short-term memory, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Although the relationship between cannabis use and mental problems is poorly studied, some scientists claim that marijuana may cause psychosis, depression, and even schizophrenia.

What Is More Addictive?

Again, coffee. In 2013, caffeine addiction was classified as a mental disorder. Of course, the mechanism of action of the substance is somewhat different from that of other drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines, and caffeine dependence is many times milder than cocaine dependence, but symptoms that people may experience during the withdrawal from coffee are excruciating.

According to a report of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, caffeine withdrawal symptoms include irritability, headaches, nausea, increased blood pressure, and palpitation.

Among typical cannabis withdrawal symptoms, there are irritability and mild insomnia, craving, and decreased appetite. Most of the symptoms last up to three weeks.

These symptoms are considered mild compared to heroin and severe alcohol withdrawal syndromes. However, when you use cannabis for medicinal purposes and then quit, those symptoms can return and can be mistaken for withdrawal symptoms.

Yet despite that, most users are perfectly able to manage the consumption and keep it within reasonable limits.

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