Research shows the relationship between cannabis and alcohol use grows with binge drinkers, but decreases overall.
Barrels of ink, analog and digital, have been spilled about the link between marijuana legalization and children discovering a latent cannabis habit. (TL;DR — there doesn’t appear to be one; youth use rates remained flat after legalization, according to recent data from both Colorado and Washington.)
But what about adults? What about adults with developing brains in an environment where marijuana use has long been tolerated, an environment where ritualized alcohol use is also part of the landscape?
This magical place is called college, of course, and it does appear that marijuana-policy reform meant more college students will try cannabis (or at least cop to using it on surveys from which these data are gleaned). But the innovation in question was decriminalization and not legalization, which came after. That was one useful finding supported by research from two Colorado Mesa University psychologists, recently published in the journal Substance Abuse.
Another is that the nature of the substance user may be more important than the nature of the substance when predicting outcomes. Turns out that binge drinkers are also more likely to become heavy marijuana users and, in both cases, it’s the pattern of brief periods of heavy use that most harms academic outcomes. As for moderate regular users: they tend to do OK.
Jacob Jones and K. Nicole Jones, psychologists and professors at Colorado Mesa University looked at trends in Colorado and also consulted other researchers’ work from Oregon and Washington. For their work, they collected data via computer surveys from 1,413 participants over a 17-month span.
It does appear that college students, like baby boomers and anyone else who grasps the vast difference between alcohol and cannabis, are turning to marijuana as a safer and healthier alternative to drinking, which can leave the user with a day-wasting hangover even after light or moderate use. And “when you take a closer look at the benefits of using marijuana to achieve mild relaxation and happiness over alcohol, this becomes a likely scenario,” the researchers wrote.
Decriminalization and legalization have absolutely lowered barriers of inhibition that might have steered erstwhile users away. But there’s apparently something about the user’s habits that encourages use.
Jones and Jones also “found that participants in our study who reported binge drinking used cannabis at higher rates than other users of alcohol,” they wrote. The likelihood that someone who likes the sauce in this way would also use cannabis increased threefold from 2013 to 2015, according to their study. Significantly, quite the opposite happened with everyone else.
“[O]verall, the relationship between marijuana and alcohol use appears to decrease with recreational legalization,” they wrote. “Specifically, the relationship seems to become weaker for casual and/or moderate drinkers,” while heavy users of alcohol experienced something else.
Binge drinkers appear more likely to use cannabis than light drinkers for a variety of reasons, the researchers suggested. This could be because alcohol use lowers inhibitions, thus leading someone to try cannabis, and it could also be because cannabis does appear to be safer in almost every regard. And combining two legal drugs is a probably safer and wiser path towards the alteration of consciousness and “higher sense of euphoria” sought by substance users.
But what does this mean for the user — and what happens to them afterward?
“It seems that using marijuana in a pattern similar to binge drinking, few times a week at high levels but not every day, is the most detrimental to academic functioning,” Jones and Jones wrote. In this way, “the relationship between marijuana use and academic functioning is similar to the relationship between alcohol and marijuana.”
Which means maybe the comparison isn’t as bad or as stale as we thought. It may also mean that some of the shriller hysteria around legalization, already marginal, is even more unfounded than we thought. We have a prevalent legal toxin creating bigger trouble; ought we worry about that more and maybe even make this safer alternative available?
TELL US, do you use cannabis as a substitute for alcohol?