RegulationsThe medical bias against cannabis vs. alcohol

The medical bias against cannabis vs. alcohol


Cannabis is just one member of the family, Cannabaceae (can-uh-BAY-see-ay), a collection of plants that range from compact shrubs to 80-ft-tall trees. Some species in this group are known for their medicinal or industrial uses, while others, like cannabis are now surrounded by fear and harsh stigmas due to a lack of understanding. Unfortunately, in the United States, this has led to an enormous medical bias against cannabis.

Dr. Codi Peterson weighs in on why cannabis might be treated differently than its relative, hops (particularly, in the form of alcohol), in science and the effects of the damaging biases. 

The (apparently) acceptable dangers of alcohol

Ask anybody about the dangers of drinking and driving, and they’ll probably all have an answer or two for you. For example, in 2018 alone, more than 10,500 people died in collisions with drunk drivers. This accounted for one-third of all crashes that year, taking one life every 50 minutes. 

Yet, the substance that directly contributed to these fatalities is still a part of most people’s everyday lives. In a survey by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), nearly 86% of people aged 18 and older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lives, about 55% of which stated they had an alcoholic drink in the past month. 

In 2019, 14.5 million people aged 12 and older had alcohol use disorder (AUD). Only about 7% of them received treatment in the past year. 

The American public is well aware of the risks of alcohol. Yet, it is still a welcome product in grocery stores, liquor stores, and gas station shops nationwide, with numerous recreational activities, tourist attractions, and retail storefronts centered on the substance entirely.

Since cannabis’s close relative, hops (the plant used to create alcoholic beverages like beer), isn’t hidden behind the same heavy federal restrictions, researchers have had many more opportunities to study it. Naturally, since they have a better scientific understanding of how it interacts with the body, they accept its use in people’s everyday lives more readily. 

You can see this as plain as day when your doctor asks how much you have to drink weekly versus when you reveal your regular cannabis consumption. Upon this revelation, patients suddenly receive an onslaught of warnings about how unprescribed substances can interfere with their medication. 

Of course, cannabis and alcohol consumption are both habits that should be done only in moderation. Yet, in clinical settings, it is clear that many are more apprehensive of cannabis’s potential harm than alcohol’s actual harm. 

Some experts, such as Dr. Codi Peterson, believe that this bias against cannabis is, in part, due to medical professionals’ relatively weak understanding of this herb compared to hops and other Cannabaceae plants. 

Why is cannabis treated differently than alcohol? 

It is abundantly clear that alcohol and cannabis behave differently in the human body. Yet, it is this very difference in behavior that leads to partiality toward alcohol versus cannabis. 

Peterson reflected, “… I am intrigued and sort of awestruck that cannabis can bring such a pharmacologic soup to the table. And historically, we’ve always considered that very bad.” 

The pediatric pharmacologist and scientific advisor to the platform, The Cannigma, explained that prescription drugs are usually intended to target one receptor, ideally in only one type of bodily tissue. The fact that cannabinoids interact with numerous ECS receptors makes them far less predictable than other drugs that behave according to human design. 

“Selectivity was something that was taught to me as a highly desirable trait, and really the ideal for medicine. Now… I look at cannabis and we have something that’s completely different, right?” he proposed. Peterson presented THC as an example, describing it as “pretty selective” for a cannabinoid. 

“It has at least four different targets. It’s got CB1, CB2, that everyone knows about. But then it also interacts with some TRPs and some other unknown receptors called GPRS that we’re not even ready to account for in Western science.”

Peterson’s mention of the framework of Western science and its influence on scientists’ approach to cannabis research is critical. Westerners, both in scientific ventures and in daily life, display a strong need for control over the natural elements surrounding them. 

“You know, there’s a lot of truth to Eastern medicine that we’ve sort of shunned away as ‘not modernized,’ but in reality, it could be just more complicated than we’ve given credit [for]… [W]ith new technology and biology and looking at receptor interactions, [there’s] a lot of potential to relook at plants, and see how they might be able to help us in our health in the future.”

Cannabis’s unpredictability in its interaction with human and non-human bodies reduces the extent to which humans can control this plant’s chemical behavior as a medicinal or recreational drug. This trait alone increases the likelihood that cannabis will remain in the federal government’s grasp until scientists uncover more of its complex nature. 

Cannabis’s unpredictability in its interaction with human and non-human bodies reduces the extent to which humans can control this plant’s chemical behavior as a medicinal or recreational drug. This trait alone increases the likelihood that cannabis will remain in the federal government’s grasp until scientists uncover more of its complex nature. 

Yet, the current state of the cannabis industry is doing little to help this expansion of knowledge. Specifically, cannabis cultivators tend to focus on two primary cannabinoids, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). 

Cannabis’s artificial breeding may hinder its efficiency 

Breeding techniques have led to this plant to be what Peterson referred to as a “mono-molecular drug,” containing unnaturally high levels of THC that undermine the entourage effect that makes cannabis so complex. 

“It does have this pharmacologic soup, because we’re not just talking about THC, although we are… this is one of my beefs with the current state of cannabis. And how we got here is we bred super-high THC… like this 32% of one type [of cannabinoid]. But wait a second, there’s [over 100] more cannabinoids…”

Peterson went on to speculate that the federal government’s enduring, targeted pressure on the cannabis plant might be responsible for the industry’s fixation on THC and CBD. Consequently, cultivators’ partiality toward these cannabinoids, to which delta-8 THC has recently been added, has skewed public and expert perception and understanding of the plant in its non-psychoactive and psychoactive forms. 

“That’s one of the reasons the bias exists, because we almost limited our pickings through prohibition… medicine doesn’t work as effectively as a mono-molecular as it might work as an entourage… cannabis did this naturally, you know, it started this pharmacologic treasure trove idea,” Peterson said, referring to cannabis’s ability to target various receptors in the human endocannabinoid system (ECS). 

“[I]t wasn’t until the 1990s that we really were able to say, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a whole system here built around how cannabis works!’… [I]f you go to a lot of the medicines that I use every day in the hospital, we have a number and we’re like, yep, that’s the absorption and we know it and it’s consistent. And cannabis, we haven’t really been able to achieve that, which presents another barrier to proving efficacy.”

Not all of cannabis’s active chemical compounds have psychoactive effects. Until recently, the cannabinoid of choice has been delta-9 THC, which is responsible for the classic “high” that most people associate with cannabis. 

Supposedly, this was also the compound that led to the sensationalist media craze that ultimately led to cannabis prohibition in the United States. 

Other compounds, such as CBD, cannabigerol (CBG), cannabinol (CBN), and delta-8 THC don’t have quite the same effects. Yet, when they all work together, they produce something known as the “entourage effect,” interacting with your ECS more holistically – and, quite possibly, more effectively – than a lone cannabinoid ever could. 

Referring to the norms in the pharmacology industry, Peterson stated, “[W]e’ve always said, ‘Here’s your one-size-fits-all solution. This medicine specifically targets this receptor in your body. And because you have this symptom, it’ll work. 

But it turns out symptoms can be from multiple factors…. So, targeting just one receptor tends not to be very effective. But when we use cannabis, the reason why so many people find it effective is because it does have these broad actions, right?”

What are the side effects of hops? 

Scientists clearly have a fairly solid understanding of how alcohol interacts with your body’s physiological systems. Because of this, they also maintain thorough knowledge about how it can negatively impact your health and safety. 

Peterson compared cannabis and alcohol while explaining why some researchers are wary of one Cannabaceae plant versus the other: 

“[A]lcohol is pretty easy to understand. Cannabis is a much more dynamic drug. I mean… if you drink enough of it, this is kind of how you feel. It does have some dynamic nature to it at low doses, it does different than high doses. But it certainly does not have the complexity to it of cannabis.”

What are the different effects of high and low doses of alcohol versus cannabis? For one, there is alcohol use disorder (AUD). This condition is known by many names, including “alcohol abuse” or “alcohol dependence.” People diagnosed with AUD are unable to control their drinking in various circumstances. 

Unfortunately, many people are at risk, as nearly 26% of Americans aged 18 and older said that they engaged in binge drinking at least once in the last month. Other side effects of alcohol include:

  • Reduced presence of grey and white matter in the brain
  • Stroke
  • Trouble learning
  • Irregular heartbeat and other heart problems
  • Liver problems, such as liver fibrosis and fatty liver (AKA, steatosis)
  • Hypothermia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures

Of course, there is no shortage of content out there telling people to drink wisely or not to drink at all. Yet, you’ll rarely see a margarita or a Long Island iced tea – a drink that indulges in as many alcohols as you can mix together and have it still taste good – treated with the same fear and criminality that a pre-roll would receive. 

Cannabis: target of bias in the family Cannabaceae

Cannabis is only one of ten plants in the family Cannabaceae. As one of the two most well-known species in the group, it gets its fair share of public attention, but not for the right reasons. 

None of this is to say that cannabis is a magical drug, entirely devoid of any potential to impact the consumer negatively. Instead, it is to say that, although those harms are not yet clearly defined, the plant is being treated as if they are, barring public access to what has been repeatedly proven to be a largely beneficial substance. 

Further, those who have obtained access by bypassing barriers to entry, such as expensive medical marijuana card evaluations or employment in a workplace that does not discriminate against cannabis use, face heavy stigmas, and worse, criminalization, even in states where cannabis is fully legal

With or without THC, cannabis has many benefits that scientists are still discovering with every passing day. For instance, the consumption of cannabis flower has been shown to have the following advantages:

  • Mitigates chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in cancer patients
  • Reduces chronic pain symptoms
  • Improves spasticity symptoms in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), fibromyalgia, endometriosis, and many other conditions associated with chronic pain
  • Combats insomnia
  • Helps manage tremors in Parkinson’s disease
  • Eases psychological symptoms associated with PTSD
  • Soothes stress in such conditions as social anxiety and schizophrenia

Does any of this make cannabis the wonder drug that many people claim it to be? Not exactly. It’s important to be realistic about the positive and negative effects of this plant on the human body. With that said, here’s a brief look at the harms you might experience with regular cannabis use. 

What are the side effects of cannabinoids? 

One of the main factors contributing to your likelihood of experiencing cannabis’s adverse effects is excessive indulgence or use at an early age. The brain’s stage of development is a primary determinant of how mind-altering substances, such as cannabis and alcohol, can affect cognition in the long and short term. 

For instance, recall that prolonged alcohol consumption can reduce the brain’s grey and white matter. Using cannabis can also affect your brain’s functionality too, with some effects on your learning and memory. However, with cannabis, it doesn’t happen to the same extent. 

In fact, a 2018 study involved scans from 853 adults’ and 439 teens’ brains and found that the cannabis users showed no signs of grey or white matter deterioration whatsoever. 

However, other studies have shown cannabis’s dark side just as clearly:

  • Slower reaction times
  • Reduced coordination
  • When pregnant or nursing mothers use cannabis, the fetus may experience restricted or premature birth, brain development issues, or stillbirth
  • Although no evidence yet exists showing cannabis to be the causative factor of these symptoms, some individuals who use cannabis show increased rates of depression, anxiety, suicide planning, and psychotic episodes

Peterson urges the cannabis community to exercise objectivity in popular comparisons between alcohol and cannabis. Although societal, political, and medical biases against the herb are rampant, fair discussion of both substance’s strengths and weaknesses is essential to scientific progress. 

This is part of what his and the team’s work at The Cannigma, a “science-forward cannabis media company,” as Peterson described it. He lamented many websites’ practice of “parroting” one another’s content in the online cannabis space, failing to provide fresh, fact-based information to the cannabis community. 

“A lot of it is anecdotal, which, as a pharmacist, I can appreciate to some extent, anecdotal reports, but I cannot apply them blanketly because they’re not [applicable as blanket statements]. This endocannabinoid system that you and I and every animal has is unique,” he said. 

“There’s not a lot of science-forward media there… The Cannigma and outlets like it are going to be imperative to the normalization and destigmatization [of cannabis]. We need to start talking about cannabis, not as if it’s a miracle and not as if it’s the devil, but rather, as a plant that grows, that has all of these different uses, and does have some psychoactive properties that we can use in this way… We have to address these from an objective perspective, but also, we can’t tell people what to do.” 

What plants are in the Cannabaceae family? 

The Cannabaceae family is an intriguing group of plants, nearly all having unique capabilities to impact the minds and bodies of their human consumers. 

Of course, the most popular plants that many people will recognize from this group are hops and cannabis, known for making people inebriated or loopy, depending on the extent of consumption and the individual’s physicality, and their experience with the substance. 

Like many other evolutionary roadmaps of related living things, taxonomists (scientists who study the evolutionary relationships between organisms) make adjustments and updates to the organisms that are considered a part of Cannabaceae. Further, the precise connections between each member of this family have been expanded upon in recent years. 

The average person will likely know little about the other members of the Cannabaceae family, especially if the plant’s home range does not overlap with their own. Yet, scientists’ knowledge of many of cannabis’s relative is extensive, as they are not met with the same societal and political apprehension, making research access, and thus, social and political acceptance, much easier. 

With that said, the plants that fall under the Cannabaceae umbrella are described below.


Plants in this genus are more commonly known as cannabis or hemp, annual herbs that produce strong fiber and flowers. These flowers contain psychoactive chemical compounds that interact with organisms’ ECS. 

Cannabis plants have numerous applications as a recreational substance and medicinal product, along with industrial applications, such as its use as a biofuel. 

(“Cannabis” and “cannabis” refer to the same plant. The former is the scientific name, whereas the latter is the common name. In casual conversation, the common name is typically the alternative name to “marijuana,” a term that emerged out of racial prejudice before the “Reefer Madness” era. Plants with less than 0.3% THC are typically known as “hemp.”)


You might better recognize this group by the name “hops.” This genus contains a small group of flowering plants that are most popularly used for brewing alcoholic beverages, namely beer. 

Interestingly, hops also has a history of use as an herbal medicine. People have historically used hops for treating:

  • Anxiety
  • Sleep disorders
  • Attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Various menopause symptoms
  • Inflammation

Today, you can find recipes for hops as a medical supplement in the form of a tincture. Unfortunately, when consumed in the form of alcohol, the hops plant doesn’t provide these same benefits and can be pretty harmful to your health when used excessively. 

Other Cannabaceae relatives

Cannabaceae is a family of plants that are all marked by distinct fruit, product derivatives, and psychoactive capabilities, for some. They grow all over the world, from North America to East Asia. Here’s a brief overview of the plants that make up this enigmatic plant group. 

  • Celtis: Like Cannabis, Celtis’s scientific and common names are the same. The group is comprised of hardwood trees and shrubs that grow between 35-80 ft tall. In some rare instances, they might reach 130 ft tall.  These trees are best known for the fruit they produce, named “hackberry.” 
  • Pteroceltis: The Pteroceltis (ter-oh-SEL-tiss), better known as the Blue Sandlewood, is the only species in this genus. These massive trees, which normally grow between 30-45 ft tall, are native to China, where they are primarily used to make Xuan paper. 
  • Aphananthe: This is a type of deciduous tree that naturally grows in East Asia, specifically China, Japan, and Korea. If you’re up for some landscaping, you can also cultivate these trees in United States hardiness zones 6-9. These trees grow edible fruit, and some even use its leaves for sanding wood. 
  • Chaetachme: This is another group that’s a party to one, the flowering plant, Chaetachme aristata, or, more informally, the thorny elm in English or muyuyu in Kikuyu, a language spoken in Kenya. Usually, these grow up to roughly 30 feet in height. You can find this tree growing in its native range, ranging in various locations across the African continent and in Madagascar. 
  • Gironniera: Six plant species comprise this genus. Generally, they’re recorded to have a native range extending throughout tropical and subtropical Asia. These evergreen trees typically grow between 30 to 60 ft fall, with the occasional outlier reaching heights of 120 ft. The most common applications for Gironniera trees in its native range throughout East Asia are medicinal and timber. 
  • Lozanella: Species in this genus grow throughout Central and South America. Very little publicly accessible information is available on this tree species.  
  • Trema: Plant species in this genus are known by many names, some of which are not as formal as you might expect. For instance, one funny name in this group is “pain-in-the-back,” for unknown reasons. This specific Trema plant can be found in South Florida and the West Indies, while its relatives are generally confined to South Florida. 
  • Parasponia: These plants are often referred to as “nonlegumes,” meaning they don’t produce pod-like fruits like peas and beans. These plants lack specific components in their root systems, leading them to deplete the soil in which they grow. This has made them the only nonlegume to form symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationships with certain types of bacteria.

These names only reflect the genera (the plural form of “genus,” which is the official categorization one step above species level) in the Cannabaceae family. When you dig deeper into the species themselves, the group is home to roughly 170 species in total. 

Scientists still have so much to learn about Cannabis and its relatives. For instance, researchers still have no solid idea of where or when the plant may have evolved. Analysis of molecular data from the plant’s chloroplast DNA (DNA in the plant cell that holds chlorophyll, the pigment that captures sunlight for photosynthesis), suggests that Cannabis and Humulus emerged as far back as 27.8 million years ago.

Studies have even illustrated that Cannabis may have had another plant relative that died out entirely about 20 million years ago. Yet, because of the scarcity of print fossils for this plant, scientists face significant challenges in expanding their knowledge about this plant. 

The lack of substantial knowledge on the cannabis plant undoubtedly contributes to scientists’ fragmented knowledge of how it works, mainly how its psychoactive compounds influence the brain and body. 

Conclusion: The medical bias against cannabis

The family, Cannabaceae, is a dynamic collection of plants that are each intriguing and beautiful in their own right. Yet, the most commonly known species in this group are cannabis and hops, each receiving dramatically differing treatment in the public eye. 

Despite the clear bias against cannabis, the discrepancy in the stigmatization of one plant versus all others in Cannabaceae is not as simple as you might imagine. Western scientists’ unwillingness to accept its interaction with multiple receptors and the inability to predict cannabis’s interaction with individual ECSs is just one factor that contributes to the differences in treatment between cannabis and its relatives. 

The key to dispelling the myths surrounding cannabis use, especially in comparison to alcohol, is critical to moving forward with fair access to this healing plant. Those in political, medical, and societal spheres must discuss the two plants objectively and thoroughly to expand scientists’ knowledge on the entire Cannabaceae group. 

Jazmin Murphy
Jazmin Murphy is a trained science writer & reporter who has covered a breadth of topics. She is also a strong supporter and advocate of cannabis for recreational, wellness, and medical purposes.


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