Americans’ Perceptions of Alcohol vs. Marijuana

3 min read · 9 sections

Where do people stand on alcohol and marijuana use? What are their perceptions, and how do they feel about legalization?

Recent changes in marijuana legalization may offer some insights. As of March 2024, 17 states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. Additionally, recreational use of marijuana is legal in 24 states plus Washington DC.

That said, the legal status of a substance doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, alcohol is legal in all 50 states for those 21 and older, but it’s linked to a host of short term risks (e.g., motor vehicle accidents, violence, overdose, risky sexual behaviors, and more) as well as long-term health risks (e.g., some cancers, alcohol dependence and use disorders, heart problems, learning and memory issues, etc.).

So how do people really feel about these substances?

To offer a public-opinion snapshot regarding alcohol and marijuana, American Addiction Centers surveyed more than 1,000 people about whether alcohol or marijuana is more dangerous and if either’s legal status should change. Read on as we explore their answers and attitudes toward these substances.

Putting a Stop to Substance Use?

More than half of people would choose marijuana over alcohol if only one could be legal.

Even if ingesting marijuana isn’t deadly, it still can be dangerous. The short-term effects of THC, one of the chemical compounds of marijuana, can lead to altered moods, impaired body movement, and hallucinations. Even more concerning, the long-term effects of marijuana use can include memory loss and cognitive decline. That said, nearly 2 in 3 people who used marijuana would choose to make it legal if given a chance.

Sixty-two percent of people who didn’t use marijuana would choose to make alcohol legal instead. Like using cannabis, drinking alcohol has dangerous short- and long-term effects. Studies have shown drinking too much, either in a single instance or consistently over time, can severely harm the brain, heart, liver, or pancreas, and can lead to several forms of cancer.

Next, we asked people to rank the level of danger associated with both substances. Most people opted to make marijuana legal if forced to pick between the two, and they considered alcohol a more dangerous substance on average. Alcohol was rated as being close to “moderately dangerous” compared to marijuana, which was somewhere between “not very dangerous” and “somewhat dangerous.” Comparatively, people who didn’t smoke or ingest marijuana believed alcohol was 25 percent more dangerous than cannabis.

Dangers of Dependency

While marijuana isn’t a lethal drug, it does share similar qualities with other illicit substances. Despite its growing popularity and increasing levels of legality, it still carries a risk of dependence. Research shows that marijuana use disorders are associated with dependence and withdrawal, which can make people feel irritable, tired, restless, and physically uncomfortable after discontinuing use.

However, alcohol was considered more addictive according to those surveyed. In fact, respondents rated alcohol between “somewhat” and “moderately addictive” compared to “not very” or “somewhat addictive” for marijuana. While the perception of alcohol dependency was higher among people who didn’t drink alcohol, even people who consumed both alcohol and marijuana believed the addictiveness of alcohol was greater than that of marijuana.

Substance Use Motivation

More than 37 percent of people said they used marijuana to help them sleep. Marijuana users were also more likely than alcohol drinkers to say they used marijuana when bored or needed to inspire creativity.

In contrast, alcohol was overwhelmingly linked to more social intentions. More than 3 in 4 people admitted to drinking when celebrating or socializing, and 62 percent said they drank to help make their experiences more fun. People were also more than 67 percent more likely to suggest alcohol was a better outlet than marijuana for relaxing after work. While alcohol may provide an immediate sense of anxiety or tension relief, there are serious dangers associated with self-medication. Drinking alcohol has been linked to increased social anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and general dependence and addiction.

Hidden Dangers

Alcohol consumption is linked to thousands of deaths every year, and marijuana and alcohol use can lead to harder and more deadly narcotics. But just how concerned are people when it comes to using either?

While men and women were more concerned with alcohol consumption in relation to addiction, appearance, or health, the most pressing concern was public behavior, which they were only somewhat concerned about. While excessive drinking has been somewhat pacified on social media or even in real-life social settings, drinking can be deceptively dangerous, and binge drinking is particularly troubling.

Actions Under the Influence

How appropriate do people think it is to do everyday activities while under the influence of either marijuana or alcohol?

Except for going out in public, people were much more inclined to carry on normally if they’d ingested marijuana compared to drinking alcohol. With 6 in 10 respondents willing to drive, people were slightly more likely to do so under the influence of marijuana. It’s also worth noting that field sobriety tests have a harder time picking up traces of marijuana and THC compared to alcohol.

Similarly, people were more likely to go to work after consuming marijuana compared to alcohol, and they were more likely to have sex under the same circumstances.

Perspectives on People

In most cases, the social stigma associated with marijuana was worse than with drinking alcohol.

The image associated with marijuana use is often of someone getting high and lounging around relaxed and happy. In reality, this impression can hurt people who use marijuana for medicinal purposes. With the exception of pregnant women, people admitted to having less respect for everyone from religious leaders to police officers and parents using marijuana compared to those who drank alcohol. Even though it’s not entirely unheard of, people were more than twice as likely to lose respect for a president who smoked marijuana in his or her free time as opposed to drinking alcohol.

What’s Really Worse?

When it comes to substances such as alcohol and marijuana, there’s often more to consider than statistics and research. Overwhelmingly, the attitude toward marijuana was worse among respondents. On the other hand, the same people admitted they were more concerned about the dangers of alcohol and far more troubled by its addictive properties.

When it comes to substance misuse and addiction, every person is different and so is their journey to recovery. American Addiction Centers offers a host of treatment options, from detox and inpatient rehab to intensive outpatient care and family interventions, that are designed to meet the unique needs of each individual.

Reach out today at to learn more about treatment options. Admissions navigators are available 24/7 for a free and confidential conversation. Plus, they can verify your insurance benefits, or you can do so yourself online. If you don’t feel like talking, you can sign up for text communications as well.

Help and hope are available today. Reach out to take your first steps toward recovery.


To collect the data for this study, we launched a survey on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. We had a total of 1,004 respondents, and 50.8% of participants were men and 49.2% were women. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 80 with a mean of 36.4 and a standard deviation of 11. No one was excluded from the survey.

The data we are presenting was collected via self-report. Self-reported data can be biased and have issues. Through careful design and application of the self-report measures, we have tried to mitigate those issues.

Fair Use Statement

Do your readers have an opinion on this ongoing substance debate? We welcome the reposting of our graphics and research for any noncommercial use with the inclusion of a link back to this page so that your audience has access to the full scope of our findings.

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