Cannabis Use Disorder vs. Alcohol Use Disorder – Comparing Mechanisms

A lot of people experiment with alcohol and marijuana. While trying new things is common for adults, these substances can lead to addiction. Alcohol addiction and cannabis use disorder impact millions of Americans. In 2017, over 14 million adults battled alcohol use disorder. That same year, 4 million adults struggled with marijuana addiction. It may be possible to prevent substance use disorders by being aware of how drugs affect the brain.

THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and alcohol both have an impact on the brain’s reward system. This framework encourages beneficial actions. However, substances chemically take over this circuitry and rewire the brain to prefer drug cravings above rewards from nature. Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex-controlled processes of learning and decision-making are disrupted by both drugs.

Let us contrast the mechanics underlying cannabis and alcohol addiction in this article. You can gain a better understanding of the science of addiction by looking at the effects that each substance has on brain chemistry and functioning. Those who are battling drug and alcohol use issues could find this knowledge useful.
Cannabis and Alcohol Addiction

Is Alcohol Addictive? Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol addiction, also called alcohol use disorder or alcoholism, affects over 14 million adults in the United States. It occurs when an individual continues excessive drinking despite negative effects on their health, work, or relationships.

What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

Brain Chemistry Changes

Alcohol triggers the brain’s reward system by increasing dopamine levels, which reinforces drinking behaviors. It also disrupts neurotransmitters like GABA and glutamate, which regulate mood, cognition, and motivation. Over time, the brain adapts to the presence of alcohol by reducing the number of neurotransmitter receptors. This leads to tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when alcohol intake stops.

Genetic and Environmental Factors

Genetic factors account for 50-60% of alcohol addiction risk. Children of individuals with alcoholism are more likely to develop addiction due to both genetic predisposition and learned behaviors. Environmental factors like high-stress levels, trauma, or peer pressure also contribute to addiction risk, especially during adolescence.

Psychological Factors

Underlying mental health conditions often co-occur with alcohol addiction, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and antisocial personality disorder. Self-medication with alcohol to relieve unpleasant psychological symptoms reinforces addictive drinking patterns over time.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction


  • Tremors, sweating, nausea, and vomiting upon reducing alcohol intake
  • Sleep disturbances, appetite changes
  • Liver disease, heart disease, cancer, and cognitive deficits


  • Obsessive cravings and inability to control alcohol intake
  • Hiding drinking habits, defensiveness, irritation
  • Depression, anxiety, and irritability when not drinking


  • Frequently drinking alone
  • Neglecting professional, academic, or family responsibilities
  • Multiple failed attempts to cut back on alcohol

Consequences of Alcohol Addiction

Long-term alcohol addiction can severely damage physical and mental health, impair judgment and functioning, destroy relationships, and lead to legal, employment, or financial trouble. The good news is that, with proper treatment and support, individuals can achieve recovery and prevent these detrimental effects.

Is Weed Addictive? Understanding Marijuana Addiction

Marijuana addiction, also called cannabis use disorder, refers to compulsive, out-of-control marijuana use that leads to significant impairment and distress. About 30% of marijuana users develop an addiction, and up to 50% of daily users become addicted. This rate is lower than addictions to opioids, alcohol, cocaine, and other substances.

Debunking Common Misconceptions

Despite the popular belief that marijuana is harmless, it can be psychologically and physically addictive for some people. However, it is less addictive than many other legal and illegal drugs. Some common marijuana addiction myths include:

  • Myth: Marijuana is not addictive since there are no intense physical withdrawals.
    Fact: Over 9% of marijuana users develop addiction, and withdrawal symptoms include irritability, sleep difficulties, cravings, and restlessness.
  • Myth: Only long-term, heavy users become addicted.
    Fact: While addiction risks increase with higher doses and frequency, even occasional marijuana use can trigger addiction in some people due to genetic, mental health and environmental factors.
  • Myth: Marijuana addiction is rare since most users stop as they mature.
    Fact: Teen marijuana addiction rates are around 17%. Some users do quit due to lower motivation, legal issues, and responsibilities. However, others switch to highly potent products and continue chronic marijuana use into adulthood.

Mechanisms of Marijuana Addiction

Why does marijuana become addictive? Key scientific explanations include:

  1. Marijuana triggers dopamine release and stimulates cannabinoid receptors involved in pleasure, relaxation, coordination, and memory formation. Chronic overstimulation of these pathways leads to decreases in receptors, making the brain less responsive without marijuana. This causes tolerance, withdrawal, and more compulsive use.
  2. Genetic factors like variations in addiction-related genes make some people more prone to dependence. Also, trauma, chronic stress, mood disorders, and sleep disorders may increase risks.
  3. Psychological and social factors like peer pressure, underlying mental health issues, and lack of outside interests can contribute to problematic marijuana use. Using marijuana to cope rather than fix problems also leads to addiction.

Signs and Symptoms of Drug Addiction

Warning signs of drug addiction include:

Physical Symptoms

  • Strong marijuana cravings
  • Needing more marijuana to get high (tolerance)
  • Mild withdrawal symptoms like irritability, sleep difficulties, sweating, and restlessness

Psychological Symptoms

  • Unsuccessful efforts to cut down marijuana use
  • Spending excessive time seeking out, using, or recovering from marijuana
  • Strong urges and marijuana cravings that feel out of control

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Relationship problems and social isolation over marijuana use
  • Giving up important activities and responsibilities to use marijuana
  • Risky marijuana use, such as driving intoxicated

Getting treatment early for marijuana addiction improves outcomes. Quitting often requires lifestyle changes, therapy, social support, and sometimes medications. The good news is that recovery is possible, preventing long-term effects on health, motivation, education, careers, and relationships.

Weed vs Alcohol – Explaining Addiction Mechanisms

Altered brain chemistry can lead to the development of alcohol and marijuana addictions. Lifestyle and genetic factors also affect the risk of addiction development.

Similar Addiction Mechanisms

  • Neurochemical Changes. Repeated use changes dopamine levels, a chemical that controls pleasure and motivation. This causes the user to crave the drug to try to restore normal dopamine function.
  • Environmental and genetic factors. Genes drastically impact the addiction’s personal development and perception. Peer pressure and such common environmental factors as physical traumas also matter at this point. Stress exposure and genetic predispositions both raise the risk of addiction development.

Differences in Addiction Mechanisms

Alcohol and marijuana both affect the human brain negatively but in different ways. This is how it happens:

  • Alcohol immediately enhances GABA and inhibits glutamate neurotransmitter signaling. In its turn, cannabis activates the endocannabinoid system.
  • Alcohol withdrawal can involve life-threatening seizures, but cannabis withdrawal causes less dangerous irritability, sleep disruption, and appetite changes.

Drug Addiction vs Alcohol Addiction

Drug % Who Become Addicted
Alcohol 20%
Marijuana 10%

Statistically, those people who use both alcohol and marijuana regularly have higher addiction rates than single substance users. Abusing these substances together can be especially risky for developing addiction.

Beating Addiction – How to Get Help

Any addiction treatment is highly individualized. Specialists start with identifying the root causes of substance use by questioning the patient about their personal experiences. This method helps to develop customized strategies for craving management and withdrawal.

Weed Addiction Help

  1. Behavioral treatment plans include regular counseling sessions. This approach can change the beliefs and behaviors of the patients so they can improve their quality of life and find effective coping mechanisms.
  2. Drugs can lessen the symptoms of cravings and withdrawal. As a result, it’s simpler to concentrate on treatment.
  3. Support groups and aftercare help people in recovery create social networks and get ongoing therapy, which prevents relapses.

Alcohol Addiction Help

  1. Medically-assisted detox helps ease the body off alcohol safely. This alleviates harmful withdrawal symptoms.
  2. Behavioral treatment, like cognitive therapy groups or 12-step programs, creates new coping skills. This empowers long-term recovery.
  3. Medications reduce cravings and encourage sobriety. For example, naltrexone reduces relapse, and acamprosate prevents cravings.

In addition, since mental health disorders like depression and PTSD frequently coexist with addiction, it is imperative to treat these conditions. In general, comprehensive and compassionate treatment of drug use disorders is necessary for rehabilitation. With the correct assistance, everyone can unleash a bright and healthy future.

Last Remarks

In conclusion, prolonged exposure to both alcohol and marijuana can result in addiction, despite their differing effects on the brain. Alcohol affects GABA receptors, which control neuron firing, while THC in marijuana activates cannabinoid receptors involved in pleasure and memory. Their addictive potential results from gradually altering reward pathways and functioning over time with sustained use. Understanding the brain changes involved can help guide treatment and prevention methods tailored to each substance. More research on the long-term effects of marijuana is still needed. Overall, though, both alcohol and marijuana change how the brain works in ways that promote compulsive seeking of the drug.

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