This Is The Difference Between Being High And Being Drunk

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This Is The Difference Between Being High And Being Drunk

Cannabis and alcohol are the subjects of many debates. The two substances differ greatly in many categories including effects, safety, and legal status.

The altered states of consciousness of being high and being drunk are very often compared on the grounds of psychological effects, physiological effects, long-term consequences, legality, and which state feels better and why.

It’s an intriguing association, especially given the fact that cannabis is more controversial due to its illegal status in certain regions of the world, whereas alcohol is largely legal. The comparison is the subject of many debates, with cannabis users regularly claiming that this legal stance is hypocritical and unscientific.

For the most part, both of these substances are taken on a recreational basis, meaning that people consume them to alter their state of consciousness for one reason or another. Both alcohol and cannabis are used frequently within social settings such as small gatherings, parties, and events. Although often used in similar environments, the effects of these two substances are extremely different.

Let’s explore the effects of both alcohol and cannabis, and see how they compare.


Alcohol is used in social settings as a social lubricant—a substance people choose to partake in to let their hair down and come out of their shell. However, it doesn’t take much before the line is crossed and one goes from being slightly laid back to out of control and potentially sick.

The active ingredient within alcoholic beverages is known as ethyl alcohol or ethanol. Although there are different types of alcohol, this is the most common. Modest amounts of alcohol can have somewhat of a stimulating effect, helping people boost their confidence and feel more at ease.

These sensations are usually felt after just a couple of beers or a full glass of wine. This amount of alcohol usually leads to feelings of warmth, sociability, and excitement. This is due to a mild blood alcohol content. As this content increases, the more sedating the effects will become.

Alcohol is, in fact, a central nervous system depressant, meaning that it acts to lower blood pressure, slow down brain function, and slow down nervous system activity. These depressant effects lend to the sensations felt after drinking a moderate amount of alcohol, often referred to as tipsiness. Users will usually experience changes in depth perception, stronger emotions, dull senses, pain reduction, and possible dizziness.


The potential for slurred speech and slowed movements are down to how alcohol acts in the brain. The substance interacts with receptor sites for neurotransmitters known as GABA and glutamate. Glutamate is the main excitatory neurotransmitter within the brain, whereas GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter. Alcohol acts as what is known as an indirect GABA agonist.

This means that alcohol mimics the effects of GABA within the brain, all the while inhibiting glutamate release. It's easy to see why alcohol has such a depressant effect on the brain. This neurochemical status lends to a mild buzz and slower reaction times, a factor that contributes towards drunk driving accidents, events that kill around 29 people each day in the United States alone.

GABA and glutamate are not the only neurochemicals that alcohol effects. The substances also boost the levels of dopamine, a feel-good chemical involved in the reward mechanisms of the brain. Dopamine is what makes small doses of alcohol feel enjoyable, and what boosts social feelings and behaviour. However, the activation of the reward system may be what causes some users to develop dependence and addiction.

Ironically, the feel-good aspects of alcohol may be what causes so much violent behaviour to occur while people are under its influence. When sober, anxiety occurs when we find ourselves in a potentially dangerous or threatening situation, assisting us in avoiding it. This rational thinking is impaired when drunk, making people see situations differently and potentially putting themselves at risk. Social cues may also be misread, causing people to become easily agitated or aggressive.


High doses of alcohol are what lead to some of the most well-known effects of the drug. When a person drinks too much alcohol, they may pass out, vomit, have difficulty breathing, and blackout. Excessive amounts of alcohol can even cause alcohol poisoning, which may result in vomiting, seizures, irregular breathing, hypothermia, and unconsciousness.

As far as toxicity goes, it may surprise some users to know that alcohol is one of the most toxic drugs available, despite its legal status. A scientific paper published within the journal Scientific Reports states that alcohol presents the highest risk of all drugs, even when compared to heroin. Cannabis, on the other hand, was found to be the safest.


The psychoactive effects of cannabis are catalysed by the cannabinoid THC. However, there have been over 100 cannabinoids identified within cannabis, and all of their effects are not yet know. Also, the presence of terpenes (aromatic compounds) within cannabis might also influence the high in one way or another, depending on the types and amounts consumed alongside THC. For simplicity’s sake, this article will focus purely on the psychoactive effects of THC.

THC achieves its effects by binding to receptors that belong to what is known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). THC has a high affinity for the CB1 receptor of this system, and fits there due to its structural similarity with the endocannabinoid known as anandamide. CB1 receptors are primarily found within the brain and central nervous system.

When people smoke weed, they often feel relaxed, calm, creative, inspired, hungry, sleepy, and possibly even panicked or overwhelmed if they ingest more than they can handle. Cannabis is divided into two main subspecies known as indica and sativa. Indica strains are recognised for inducing a more relaxing, stoned, physical high. On the other hand, sativa strains are known for offering a more energetic and creative head high.

Cannabis can be classified as either a depressant or a stimulant, depending upon the amount and strain ingested. Effects of depressants include low blood pressure, reduced motor coordination, muscle relaxation, sleepiness, and relaxation. Stimulant effects are quite the opposite, defined by elevated moods, increased heart rate, and possible anxiety in some users.


The effects of smoking weed are similar to other substances in that the effects are largely dose-dependent. A small dose is usually quite stimulating and only offers mild effects, whereas a large dose is more sedating and may overwhelm some. One’s tolerance will vary depending upon factors such as bodyweight and previous consumption.

After smoking a small amount of cannabis, say the “equivalent” to somebody drinking a single glass of wine, the user will probably feel a buzz, relaxation, and possible sensations of euphoria. The user will be able to function perfectly normally, and many cannabis smokers choose to ingest small amounts like this when working on tasks or creative projects.

After smoking slightly more, an amount that will vary from person to person, the user will start to feel some of the more sedating effects. They will still be very functional, but may feel slightly lazy or deeply relaxed. This is usually when deep conversations start to occur during a smoke session, along with giggles and munchies.

Smoking even more than this, say multiple joints to a single person, can have almost psychedelic effects. Thoughts may be a lot deeper than normal, heart palpitations may occur, along with dry mouth. Some users are prone to anxiety and panic at this stage.

If a user smokes far more than they can handle, this can sometimes result in vomiting, overwhelming lethargy, and panic attacks.

This Is The Difference Between Being High And Being Drunk


One effect that cannabis is recognised for is its ability to induce impaired memory. Cannabis doesn’t destroy memories, but may prevent the formation of new ones in the short-term. This may be due to THC acting upon cannabinoid receptors within the hippocampus.

Another one of THC’s famous affects is its ability to induce rampant hunger, otherwise known as the munchies. This is also due to cannabinoid receptor activation within the brain. When THC activates receptors in the hypothalamus, appetite-stimulating hormones leptin and neuropeptide Y are released.

The deep relaxation associated with smoking cannabis may have something to do with how the herb manages to ease feelings of anxiety, with a large majority of users reporting decreases in anxious feelings after smoking cannabis. THC binds to CB1 receptors in an area of the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala, part of the limbic system, is involved in emotions, emotional behaviour, and motivation. It’s also involved in the fear response and triggers the body’s fight or flight response.

Another common effect from smoking cannabis is pain-reduction, a factor that makes it appealing to many medicinal users. Weather used recreationally or medicinally, users may still have a temporary reduction in pain levels whether they realise it or not. Cannabinoid receptors are found in abundance throughout the nervous system and brain, as well as in nerve cells that carry pain signals.


So now we know some of the common effects of cannabis, as well as its general effects at different doses, but how does THC actually work to get us high?

THC works via interfacing with the endocannabinoid system, and is able to do so because of its molecular similarity with the endocannabinoid anandamide. Upon activating the CB1 receptors of the endocannabinoid system, THC has an impact upon the nervous system.

The cannabinoid alters the functioning of the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex, brain regions responsible for new memory formation and focus. THC also impacts the cerebellum and basal ganglia, areas that regulate balance and coordination.

THC also has an effect on the brain's reward system. Here, it stimulates neurons to release the feel-good chemical dopamine, contributing to some of the euphoria felt during the high.


Cannabis is known to be an extremely safe and natural plant. Referring back to the study mentioned above on drug toxicity, cannabis was ranked as the least harmful, and was recorded to be 114 times safer than alcohol.

Cannabis is tied to virtually zero deaths, even after being used throughout human cultures for thousands of years. A lethal cannabis overdose is seen as impossible, due to cannabinoid receptors not being located in brain regions that control breathing.

It appears the only deaths associated with cannabis occur as indirect incidents, where people have become injured as a result of being extremely high.

As with every substance a person consumes, the individual should do their research and make sure the drug in question is safe for them to consume. People with heart conditions should research carefully. Cannabis increases the risk of heart attack within the hours after consumption, due to elevating heart rate.


Either of these substances can be enjoyed safely and responsibly when moderation is applied. However, when it comes to the debate over safety, societal impact, and overall effects, cannabis is a clear victor.

Regarding safety, it is clear that cannabis is far less toxic than alcohol. Alcohol kills a huge number of people each year, despite being available in shops on almost every street. People are much more likely to encounter violent behaviour and be physically sick after consuming alcohol than they are cannabis.

When looking at the effects produced, laws really do need to be called into question. When it comes to a Friday night, the sheer number of deaths, fights, and criminal damage tied to alcohol is far more costly to taxpayers than the behaviour of those getting high, who are probably chilling at home or out with friends eating, talking, or sleeping.