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Alcohol FAQs

What is alcohol?

Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is an intoxicating ingredient found in beer, wine, and liquor. Alcohol is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches.

How does alcohol affect a person?

Alcohol affects every organ in the body. It is a central nervous system depressant that is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver by enzymes; however, the liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time, leaving the excess alcohol to circulate throughout the body. The intensity of the effect of alcohol on the body is directly related to the amount consumed.

Why do some people react differently to alcohol than others?


Individual reactions to alcohol vary, and are influenced by many factors; such as:

  • Age.
  • Gender.
  • Race or ethnicity.
  • Physical condition (weight, fitness level, etc).
  • Amount of food consumed before drinking.
  • How quickly the alcohol was consumed.
  • Use of drugs or prescription medicines.
  • Family history of alcohol problems.

What is a standard drink in the United States?


A standard drink is equal to 14.0 grams (0.6 ounces) of pure alcohol. Generally, this amount of pure alcohol is found in

  • 12-ounces of beer (5% alcohol content).
  • 8-ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content).
  • 5-ounces of wine (12% alcohol content).
  • 1.5-ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey).

Is beer or wine safer to drink than liquor?

 No. One 12-ounce beer has about the same amount of alcohol as one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5-ounce shot of liquor. It is the amount of alcohol consumed that affects a person most, not the type of alcoholic drink.

Is it safe to drink alcohol and drive?

No. Alcohol use slows reaction time and impairs judgment and coordination, which are all skills needed to drive a car safely.2 The more alcohol consumed, the greater the impairment.

What does it mean to be above the legal limit for drinking?


The legal limit for drinking is the alcohol level above which an individual is subject to legal penalties (e.g., arrest or loss of a driver's license).

  • Legal limits are measured using either a blood alcohol test or a breathalyzer.
  • Legal limits are typically defined by state law, and may vary based on individual characteristics, such as age and occupation.

All states in the United States have adopted 0.08% (80 mg/dL) as the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle for drivers aged 21 years or older. However, drivers younger than 21 are not allowed to operate a motor vehicle with any level of alcohol in their system.

Note: Legal limits do not define a level below which it is safe to operate a vehicle or engage in some other activity. Impairment due to alcohol use begins to occur at levels well below the legal limit.

What is binge drinking?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism binge drinking is defined as a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.08% or more. This pattern of drinking usually corresponds to 5 or more drinks on a single occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on a single occasion for women, generally within about 2 hours

What does it mean to get drunk?


“Getting drunk” or intoxicated is the result of consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. Binge drinking typically results in acute intoxication.

Alcohol intoxication can be harmful for a variety of reasons, including—

  • Impaired brain function resulting in poor judgment, reduced reaction time, loss of balance and motor skills, or slurred speech.
  • Dilation of blood vessels causing a feeling of warmth but resulting in rapid loss of body heat.
  • Increased risk of certain cancers, stroke, and liver diseases (e.g., cirrhosis), particularly when excessive amounts of alcohol are consumed over extended periods of time.
  • Damage to a developing fetus if consumed by pregnant women.
  • Increased risk of motor-vehicle traffic crashes, violence, and other injuries.5

Coma and death can occur if alcohol is consumed rapidly and in large amounts.

What health problems are associated with excessive alcohol use?


Excessive drinking both in the form of heavy drinking or binge drinking, is associated with numerous health problems5, including—

  • Chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis (damage to liver cells); pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas); various cancers, including liver, mouth, throat, larynx (the voice box), and esophagus; high blood pressure; and psychological disorders.
  • Unintentional injuries, such as motor-vehicle traffic crashes, falls, drowning, burns and firearm injuries.
  • Violence, such as child maltreatment, homicide, and suicide.
  • Harm to a developing fetus if a woman drinks while pregnant, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
  • Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Alcohol abuse or dependence.

How do I know if I have a drinking problem?

 Drinking is a problem if it causes trouble in your relationships, in school, in social activities, or in how you think and feel. If you are concerned that either you or someone in your family might have a drinking problem, consult your personal health care provider.

Taken from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016)

Marijuana FAQs

How does marijuana work?

All forms of marijuana are mind altering (psychoactive). In other words, they change how the brain works. Marijuana contains more than 400 chemicals, including THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). Since THC is the main active chemical in marijuana, the amount of THC in marijuana determines its potency, or strength, and therefore its effects. The THC content of marijuana has been increasing over the past few decades (Mehmedic, 2010).

How long does marijuana stay in your body?

Organs in the body have fatty tissues that quickly absorb the THC in marijuana. In general, standard urine tests can detect traces of THC several days after use. In heavy marijuana users, however, urine tests can sometimes detect THC traces for weeks after use stops.

How is marijuana likely to affect you?


Learning: Marijuana’s effects on attention and memory make it difficult to learn something new or do complex tasks that require focus and concentration. 

Sports: Marijuana affects timing, movement, and coordination, which can harm athletic performance. 

Judgment: Marijuana, like most abused substances, can alter judgment. This can lead to risky behaviors that can expose the user to sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.

Isn’t marijuana generally harmless?

 No.  Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. The main active chemical in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly called THC.  THC acts upon specific sites in the brain, called cannabinoid receptors, starting off a series of cellular reactions that ultimately lead to the “high” that users experience when they smoke marijuana.  Some brain areas have many cannabinoid receptors; others have few or none.  The highest density of cannabinoid receptors are found in parts of the brain that influence pleasure, memory, thinking, concentrating, sensory and time perception, and coordinated movement.

 Is marijuana addictive?

Yes.  We know that marijuana use, particularly long-term, chronic use or use starting at a young age, can lead to dependence and addiction.  Long-term marijuana use can lead to compulsive drug seeking and abuse despite the known harmful effects upon functioning in the context of family, school, work, and recreational activities.

Research finds that approximately 9 percent (1 in 11) of marijuana users become dependent.  Research also indicates that the earlier young people start using marijuana, the more likely they are to become dependent on marijuana or other drugs later in life.

In 2011, approximately 4.2 million people met the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) diagnostic criteria for marijuana abuse or dependence.  This is more than pain relievers, cocaine, tranquilizers, hallucinogens, and heroin combined.  In 2011, approximately 872,000 Americans 12 or older reported receiving treatment for marijuana use, more than any other illicit drug.

The research is clear.  Marijuana users can become addicted to the drug.  It can lead to abuse and dependence, and other serious consequences.

Doesn’t everyone use marijuana?

The vast majority of Americans do not use marijuana.  While marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug in the United States, that does not mean everyone uses it.  In 2011, more than 18 million Americans aged 12 and older reported using the drug within the past month.  However, this is only 7.0 percent of the entire U.S. population 12 and older. 

Furthermore, a majority of Americans have never even tried marijuana.  The latest survey of drug use found that 58 percent of Americans 12 and older had never used marijuana

Common references and media discussions about marijuana issues may create a perception that marijuana use is common, but the data show a very different picture.

What are state laws pertaining to marijuana?

 Follow this link for a more detailed overview of state laws.

What is the difference between decriminalization, legalization, and medical marijuana?

There is significant public discussion around marijuana, much of which includes the terms legalization, decriminalization, and medical marijuana.  Below are very general definitions for these terms:

Marijuana Legalization– Laws or policies which make the possession and use of marijuana legal under state law.

Marijuana Decriminalization– Laws or policies adopted in a number of state and local jurisdictions which reduce the penalties for possession and use of small amounts of marijuana from criminal sanctions to fines or civil penalties. 

Medical Marijuana– State laws which allow an individual to defend him or herself against criminal charges of marijuana possession if the defendant can prove a medical need for marijuana under state law.

What impact does marijuana cultivation have on the environment?

Outdoor marijuana cultivation creates a host of negative environmental effects.  These grow sites affect wildlife, vegetation, water, soil, and other natural resources through the use of chemicals, fertilizers, terracing, and poaching.  Marijuana cultivation results in the chemical contamination and alteration of watersheds; diversion of natural water courses; elimination of native vegetation; wildfire hazards; poaching of wildlife; and disposal of garbage, non-biodegradable materials, and human waste.

Marijuana growers apply insecticides directly to plants to protect them from insect damage. Chemical repellants and poisons are applied at the base of the marijuana plants and around the perimeter of the grow site to ward off or kill rats, deer, and other animals that could cause crop damage. Toxic chemicals are applied to irrigation hoses to prevent damage by rodents. According to the National Park Service, “degradation to the landscape includes tree and vegetation clearing, use of various chemicals and fertilizers that pollute the land and contribute to food chain contamination, and construction of ditches and crude dams to divert streams and other water sources with irrigation equipment.”

Outdoor marijuana grow site workers can also create serious wildfire hazards by clearing land for planting (which results in piles of dried vegetation) and by using campfires for cooking, heat, and sterilizing water. In August 2009, growers destroyed more than 89,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California.  The massive La Brea wildfire began in the Los Padres National Forest within the San Rafael Wilderness area in Santa Barbara County, California, and subsequently spread to surrounding county and private lands.  According to United States Forest Service (USFS) reporting, the source of the fire was an illegal cooking fire at an extensive, recurring Drug Trafficking Organization-operated outdoor grow site where more than 20,000 marijuana plants were under cultivation.  According to the USFS, suppression and resource damage costs of the La Brea wildfire totaled nearly $35 million.

In addition to the environmental damage, the cost to rehabilitate the land damaged by illicit marijuana grows is prohibitive, creating an additional burden to public and tribal land agency budgets.  According to internal Park Service estimates, full cleanup and restoration costs range from $14,900 to $17,700 per acre.*  Total costs include removal and disposal of hazardous waste (pesticides, fuels, fertilizers, batteries) and removal of camp facilities, irrigation hoses, and garbage.  Full restoration includes re-contouring plant terraces, large tent pads, and cisterns/wells and re-vegetating clear-cut landscapes.

The United States has an abundance of public lands set aside by Congress for conservation, recreational use, and enjoyment of the citizens of this country and visitors from around the globe.  Unfortunately, criminal organizations are exploiting some of these public and tribal lands as grow sites for marijuana. 

During calendar year 2010, nearly 10 million plants were removed from nearly 24,000 illegal outdoor grow sites nationwide.  These numbers provide insight into the size and scale of the negative environmental impact that marijuana cultivation can have on our Nation’s public lands.

Couldn’t legalizing and taxing marijuana generate significant revenue?

While taxing marijuana could generate some revenues for state and local governments, research suggests that the economic costs associated with use of the drug could far outweigh any benefit gained from an increase in tax revenue. 

In the United States in 2007, illegal drugs cost $193 billion ($209 billion in 2011 dollars) in health care, lost productivity, crime, and other expenditures.  Optimistic evaluations of the potential financial savings from legalization and taxation are often flawed, and fail to account for the considerable economic and social costs of drug use and its consequences.

This issue is particularly relevant in the marijuana debate.  For example, the California Board of Equalization estimated that $1.4 billion of potential revenue could arise from legalization.  This assessment, according to the RAND Corporation is “based on a series of assumptions that are in some instances subject to tremendous uncertainty and in other cases not valid.”

Another recent report from RAND examines this issue in greater detail.  The report concludes that legalization and taxation of marijuana would lead to a decrease in the retail price of the drug, likely by more than 80 percent.  While this conclusion is subject to a number of uncertainties, including the effect of legalization on production costs and price and the Federal government’s response to the state’s legalization of a substance that would remain illegal under Federal law, it is fair to say that the price of marijuana would drop significantly.  And because drug use is sensitive to price, especially among young people, higher prices help keep use rates relatively low. 

The existing black market for marijuana will not simply disappear if the drug is legalized and taxed.  RAND also noted that “there is a tremendous profit motive for the existing black market providers to stay in the market, as they can still cover their costs of production and make a nice profit.”  Legalizing marijuana would also place a dual burden on the government of regulating a new legal market while continuing to pay for the negative side effects associated with an underground market, whose providers have little economic incentive to disappear.

Legalization means price comes down; the number of users goes up; the underground market adapts; and the revenue gained through a regulated market most likely will not keep pace with the financial and social cost of making this drug more accessible.

Consider the economic realities of other substances.  The tax revenue collected from alcohol pales in comparison to the costs associated with it.  Federal excise taxes collected on alcohol in 2009 totaled around $9.4 billion; state and local revenues from alcohol taxes totaled approximately $5.9 billion.  Taken together ($15.3 billion), this is just over six percent of the nearly $237.8 billion adjusted for 2009 inflation) in alcohol-related costs from health care, treatment services, lost productivity, and criminal justice.

While many levels of government and communities across the country are facing serious budget challenges, we must find innovative solutions to get us on a path to financial stability – it is clear that the social costs of legalizing marijuana would outweigh any possible tax that could be levied.


Taken from the Office of National Drug Control Policy: 

Taken from the National Institute on Drug Abuse: