(Il)legal Smiles: Are Marijuana Edibles Cheaper Than Alcohol?

With more and more states legalizing recreational and medical marijuana, it seems fair to challenge the bias against pot.  Pot is arguably three times less harmful to both individuals and society as a whole.  On top of that, it is cheaper, but not necessarily by leaps and bounds.

Having four edible pot candies a week versus having four beers per week saves more than $2,000 over ten years, but comparing pot to Trader Joe’s boxed wine, edibles only save about $150 over the same time period instead.  So even without switching to the pot, there are still gains to be had by drinking more economically.

lemon drops
Image by Brandon Dilbeck via Wikimedia

The real hidden gem here, in terms of saving on your weekend buzz, however, is drinking at bars less.  Substituting four drinks per week out for four drinks per week at home or at friends’ houses saves 13,000 every ten years!

All in all, between pot edibles, alcohol at home, and alcohol at bars, the biggest savings are had by not going out to bars as often.  After that, it is more marginal, but pot edibles will still save a few pennies over the long run…


This is a fun and lighthearted post about whether eating marijuana candy is a more cost-effective way to self-medicate than drinking alcohol, but I plan to dive into a few more substantive issues surrounding the pot vs. alcohol debate as well.

First off, it should be said that both pot and alcohol have the potential to be abused.  While most of my friends have never had problems with these substances, I have known people that let them become a serious problem in their life.  There is generally a right way and wrong way to do these kinds of things.  However, if done right, pot or alcohol can actually be pretty fun or just a nice way to relax after a long week of work.

Pot isn’t as widely accepted today as alcohol is, but, on the heels of two states legalizing marijuana (John Prine’s smile is now legal in Colorado and Washington), many state-approved medical marijuana programs, and certain metropolitan areas decriminalizing personal use (Brooklyn for example), public opinion appears to be slowly turning in marijuana’s favor.

Alcohol, on the other hand, has always been pretty broadly accepted.  Beer in particular could almost be considered a cornerstone of American culture, right up there with blue jeans and apple pie.  The ironic thing here is that, according to The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in the UK, alcohol is actually the most harmful drug when you combine harm to users and harm to others:


But I don’t want to get ahead of myself.  That is what the first part of this post will be about: some arguments in favor of marijuana as a substitute for alcohol.  Then we’ll move on to the more lighthearted and fun topic of saving a little money by eating marijuana edibles instead of drinking alcohol.

Arguments for More Marijuana and Less Alcohol (The Serious Part)

Almost all of what I want to say is covered in this Ezra Klein video from Vox.com, so if you want to watch it and then skip down to the fun part, feel free:

First things first, let’s talk about safety.  I’m talking about deaths directly attributable to alcohol and pot.  It is virtually impossible to die from a marijuana overdose while dying from an overdose of alcohol is as easy as ingesting about 10 times the standard effective dose, or about 20 drinks in one sitting (source).

Overall, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 25,000 people die each year in the U.S. directly from alcohol overdoses.  Pot on the other hand has no recorded overdose deaths on record.

Of course, lethal overdoses are just one of the risks associated with drug use.  There are also other long-term and/or indirect risks, such as increased traffic accidents.  I don’t drink (or have pot) and drive, but some people inevitably do.

According to a Columbia University study, the risk of getting in a fatal accident after drinking alcohol is almost 14 times higher than the normal sober risk.  Marijuana on the other hand only increased fatal traffic accident risk a little less than 2 times:

multiplied risk of fatal accident

Along the same lines, thinking about the long term health effects of marijuana vs. alcohol, alcohol use is associated with some pretty major problems later in life, such as liver failure and cancer, amongst other things.  However, there is also evidence that moderate alcohol use actually benefits long term health.  I think moderation is the key here.

Marijuana on the other hand, does appear to be a little less physically damaging, but a lifelong Reggie Miller smoker will probably have their fair share of health problems too.  Edibles, alternatively, promise a somewhat healthier THC delivery system and probably have a long-term physical health advantage over alcohol use.  To illustrate my point, pot smokers, for example, don’t really get hangovers.

marijuana plant

But that’s just the physical side.  Psychologically, pot can interfere with learning, and there are also some questionable links between marijuana use and disorders such as schizophrenia. Teens in particular are especially vulnerable to the psychological risks of pot as their brains are still developing.  Alcohol doesn’t get off easy here either though, as it is associated with depression and antisocial behavior later in life.

Speaking of antisocial behavior, it would appear that pot is a more antisocial drug than alcohol. This is one of the subjective reasons I will probably never completely abandon moderate alcohol consumption… I really like the social aspects of drinking.  Pot on the other hand can zap a person’s motivation (more so chronic users) and tends to make people a little more withdrawn.

beer bottles

The flip side of that outgoing/withdrawn dynamic for alcohol vs. marijuana, however, is that alcohol results in a lot more crime and violence than pot.  In this fantastic Wonkblog interview, Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor at UCLA, talks about the links between alcohol, violence, and crime.

One of Kleiman’s most eye-opening statistics is that 50% of the people in prison were drunk when they committed the crime that sent them there.  He also goes on to say that decreased heavy drinking would bring down domestic violence/battery cases quite a bit.  In fact, tripling the alcohol tax would actually decrease the homicide rate by 6% (heavy drinkers, hence, problem drinkers, are more responsive to price incentives).

All this to say that there are two sides to the high-energy, lower inhibition aspect of an alcohol buzz.  In this light, the passive and withdrawn marijuana high doesn’t seem so bad.  And looking again at the chart from The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs in the UK, which compares the total harm of different drugs, it actually shows that, of all the drugs, alcohol causes far more damage to society than any others:


Comparing pot to alcohol, you see that alcohol is 3.5 times as harmful overall, which also holds true for both harm to users and harm to society. This study is pretty comprehensive, incorporating things such as psychological harm and loss of relationships in conjunction with the more common measures of physical harm, addiction, and fatalities, basically covering many of the factors already mentioned above:

Screenshot 2014-07-20 at 9.16.55 AM

Okay, so the final thing I want to touch on is the war on drugs.  The war on drugs in the U.S. is often confused with our efforts to stop drugs from, say, Mexican cartels, from entering the United States, but this isn’t really complete.  The war on drugs more specifically refers to the hard-line stance on drug use here in the U.S., where Marijuana is a schedule 1 drug, deemed more dangerous (and more punishable) than meth, for example.

The societal costs of the war on drugs are huge.  We have a ton of non-violent offenders that are locked away in prison, costing taxpayers money, leaving behind broken and single-parent families.  And to make things worse, even though whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rates, the war on drugs disproportionately affects black Americans; a black marijuana user is three times more likely to be arrested for possession than a white user.  This is more of a political discussion, but to learn more, I definitely recommend this Sundance documentary, The House I Live In.


So what’s the final word?  Basically that on the whole, alcohol is a much bigger risk to society and individual users than marijuana, and if marijuana is less of a risk and if people might substitute marijuana for alcohol if it was legal too, it would probably be a good thing.

But for the casual/moderate user, the risks are probably a lot lower, hence less important, for both pot and alcohol.  The average American that has 4 drinks per week will likely be fine if they keep having those drinks or if they decide to switch to marijuana edibles instead.  It appears the real risk and harm is at the margin, with the heavy users and heavy-use incidents.

The ROI of Substituting Pot Candy for Alcoholic Drinks (The Fun Part)

There is a great chart over at Wonkblog called the beverage curve (how to get the most buzz for your buck), which basically inspired me to do this analysis.  They compared a bunch of beer, wine, and liquor on a cost per unit of alcohol basis to determine where a dollar went the farthest, and what they found was that liquor was the cheapest, then wine, then beer.

The problem, however, at least for me, was that looking exclusively at the low-cost options sort of meant drinking like a poor college kid (the equivalent of an off-brand ramen noodle diet).  I’m talking about Skol vodka, Carlo Rossi jug wines, and Busch beer (actually pretty good, IMO).

So anyway, for my version of the analysis, I chose more realistic drinks for what budget-minded people in their mid 20’s to mid-’30s might actually drink, people with a real income and a clean bathroom.  This means mostly middle shelf liquor, decent boxed wine, popular craft beer 12-packs, oh, and some legal pot candy from the MMJ weed dispensary in Boulder, CO (no association with My Morning Jacket).

After looking up prices for these various items, I was able to determine the cost per “drink” for each product:

cost per drink

I didn’t know it would work out this way, but the marijuana candy actually did end up being the cheapest of all, followed by Trader Joe’s boxed wine, Sobieski vodka, Very Old Barton 100-proof Bourbon, Bota Box wine, Lunazul tequila, and then Deschutes Mirror Pond 12-pack beer (Portland’s water, although I really like the Chainbreaker White IPA).

The questionable part of this analysis is how to determine what a “drink” of the pot is.  The approach I took was to look at the effective standard dose or the traditional amount of a drug used to achieve the desired effect.  For alcohol, that is two drinks.  For Bob Hope, that is about 10mg of THC or exactly the amount in one piece of weed candy at the MMJ shop (source: personal experience and this article).

So a “drink” is about half the standard dose.  Knowing that Americans drink about 4 drinks per week on average, I ran the numbers for how much a person would save by switching to marijuana edibles versus various alcoholic beverages over the course of 10 years:

click for link to live spreadsheet

The numbers aren’t particularly exciting in the long run because the most anybody is going to spend on drinks in this example is $5.00 per week (beer example), which just isn’t a large enough base to save additional money from in the long run.  But still, saving $2,200 real dollars over 10 years isn’t anything to blush at either.

Thinking about it a little bit more however, I decided the real money savings isn’t necessarily in switching between different kinds of drinks or pot edibles, but having those things at home instead of out at restaurants, bars, etc.  So I also did a quick ROI for deciding to imbibe at home or a friend’s house instead of paying extra for the ambiance of a bar:

click for link to live spreadsheet

This did yield a much more impressive figure of almost $13,000 over 10 years, or an average of $1,300 every year… not bad!  What drives the high ROI here is that I assumed bar drinks averaged $6 versus home “drinks” at an average of $1.00.  Obviously there is much more money to be saved this way, although sometimes a bar is a worthwhile expense if it means quality social time with close friends and family that wouldn’t happen otherwise (spending time with friend and family makes us happy).

Anyway, that’s the skinny on pot vs. alcohol vs. having these things out at retail prices. Whether you’re an Arizona Iced Tea-drinking, pot-dabbling hippy or a late-night partying, pickleback-drinking urbanite there’s always money to be saved 😉

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