In US states where medical cannabis is legal, economists have reported a drastic reduction in alcohol sales, perhaps because people see cannabis as offering a safer alternative.
“Switching [from drinking] to cannabis has been great. It’s like a whole new hobby because there is so much to learn about,” says 55 year-old Phil from Ottawa, who asked that we do not share his last name. He switched from drinking to using cannabis a few months ago.
“I started drinking around 16,” Phil recalls. “I would binge drink on the weekends with my friends.”
Nineteen per cent of Canadians over 12 years old reported binge drinking in 2016. For men, this means more than five drinks in one occasion, and for women, more than four. Binge drinking is considered dangerous.
“As an adult I would still binge drink at parties and drink during the week a few times. I could go days without a drink but I found that when I was drinking daily, I wanted to drink daily,” he explains.
“I tried pot in high school and again in university, but never enjoyed the fact that it was illegal,” he continues. “When cannabis became legal in Canada, I decided to switch from drinking, and I haven’t looked back.”
“My friends and I like to get together and smoke cannabis and watch old TV shows on YouTube, things like I Dream of Jeannie and Hogan’s Heroes. It’s like binge drinking but with pot,” he laughs.
For Phil, switching from drinking to cannabis has been a success.
“I love that I can get quite stoned the night before but not have any type of hangover. I’ve noticed that I have much less of a desire to drink, and my friends feel the same way.”
Cannabis vs. alcohol: What do the experts say?
Dr. Jonathan Bertram is an addictions specialist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. He says he’s not surprised people are thinking about switching from alcohol to cannabis.
“I’ve seen this more and more in recent years as I treat people for alcoholism… they’re making an intentional switch to cannabis, or they use both at the same time and realize later on they were substituting cannabis for alcohol.”
When asked if this might be a healthier choice, Bertram said, “at the end of the day, it’s really about what their goals are — why did they want to change their alcohol use in the first place? Often it’s because of consequences of their drinking in their relationships, job, etc. If switching to cannabis reduces these negative impacts, it makes sense why they would do it.”
“Of course, from a risk standpoint, they might be exposing themselves to a whole different set of risks than they were while using alcohol.” These risks include dependency, psychosis, memory impairment, and mild lung problems if smoking is the chosen method of consumption.
Bertram stressed: “Cannabis has addictive potential, so your brain may just be being stimulated by something different, but it’s feeding the same addiction pathways. It’s important to appreciate that you may not be eliminating all risks [by switching].”
If you’re interested in switching so you can drive home from parties, think again. Both cannabis and alcohol are intoxicants, and driving under the influence of either is considered to be impaired driving.
When it comes to mixing cannabis and alcohol, Bertram advises against it.
“I generally would tell a person not to mix cannabis and alcohol, especially not in a typical party setting,” he explains. He says if someone does choose to mix the two, they should be attentive and start with small amounts of each substance.
Cannabis vs. alcohol: Comparisons
Cannabis and alcohol have different effects and different health and safety risks.
The rates of addiction for alcohol and cannabis appear to be similar, although cannabis addiction rates may be slightly lower.
A 1994 study found that just over nine per cent of those who had tried cannabis met criteria for cannabis use disorder. People who start using cannabis as teenagers are more likely to become dependent.
A 2017 study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that 12.7 per cent of American adults met criteria for alcohol use disorder.
It’s important to remember that these two statistics are difficult to compare: alcohol use is much more common than cannabis use, and the statistics for alcohol come from the general population, rather than just people who use alcohol.
Effects and dosing
The effects of cannabis and alcohol are different, too. Alcohol tends to produce euphoria and disinhibition, and it’s often used in social settings for this reason. The cannabis high is also described as euphoric, although more psychedelic and mind-altering. Both are described as relaxing.
The effects overindulging in cannabis are also different than those of overindulging in alcohol.
The symptoms of alcohol overindulgence can range from unpleasant to life-threatening. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, memory loss (“blacking out”), lethargy, etc. Symptoms of a potentially life-threatening overdose include “mental confusion, difficulty remaining conscious, vomiting, seizure, trouble breathing, slow heart rate, clammy skin, dulled responses such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking), and extremely low body temperature,” according to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Alcohol is responsiblefor as many hospitalizations per year as heart disease, and it was directly responsible for nearly two per cent of all deaths in Canada in 2002.
Unlike alcohol, it is not possible to take a lethal dose of cannabis, but you can take too high of a dose and experience unpleasant side-effects such as nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, hallucinations and slurred speech. Because of these differences, many people consider cannabis a safer option.
Alcohol overuse is linked to serious health problems. According to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking too much can have negative effects on the heart, the brain, the immune system and the liver, and it may contribute to cancer, pancreatic illness and liver disease.
Chronic cannabis use is also associated with health risks. Smoking cannabis may cause bronchitis, although it is not linked to an increase in lung cancer. This risk can be avoided by vaporizing or eating cannabis instead. In vulnerable individuals, cannabis use may precipitate symptoms of psychosis. Long-term cannabis use may also impair memory, concentration, and decision-making.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to avoid both alcohol and cannabis.
As cannabis becomes more accepted worldwide, some people are switching from drinking to using marijuana. The risks of chronic alcohol use and alcohol overindulgence appear to be more serious than those associated with comparable cannabis use. The growing public perception that cannabis is a safer alternative may be driving people away from alcohol and toward cannabis.
If you’re interested in exploring cannabis as a part of an exit-strategy for alcoholism or other addictions, including prescription drug dependencies, it’s advisable to work closely with a doctor or nurse practitioner. Contact us to learn more.