Study Shows Marijuana Often Substituted for Alcohol and Other Drugs

Dec 14, 2012 , , , , , , ,


I remember one of the clients I had on internship. He’d been drinking a fifth of bourbon a day for years. As you’d guess, his liver was a mess, and his thinking was clearly impaired. I couldn’t help but wonder how much better his health would have been (and how much money he could have saved) if he’d used cannabis instead. Of course, if I’d suggested that he switch to a safer drug, my supervisor would have berated me so loudly that everyone in the clinic would have had to cover his ears. There was little evidence to support this practice, no matter how much I thought it might help.

Although the idea remains controversial, substituting cannabis for drugs that cause more harm has a ton of advantages. It can certainly be cheaper, easier on the body, and less impairing. Harvard professor Lester Grinspoon mentioned this idea decades ago. I must get two e-mails a week from people who swear by the practice, but individual cases hardly count as compelling evidence. Fortunately, real people with real problems do everything that they can to tackle their troubles, no matter what the published research might say.

Years after I left internship, Dr. Amanda Reiman showed that many patrons of the Berkeley Patients’ Group used the plant to decrease or stop their consumption of other substances. The obvious next step would be a randomized clinical trial. Folks with drug problems would be randomly assigned to receive treatment as usual or to use cannabis exclusively instead. We’d follow up with them later and see how they were doing. Then we’d know if the treatment was helpful. It would take some money to give them the treatment they needed, but no matter how the experiment turned out, we’d know something very valuable.

If I’d called the National Institute of Health to pitch this idea, they’d probably have laughed their heads off. They’d have said that everybody knows that you can’t treat alcoholism with cannabis. I’d have mentioned Dr. Reiman’s study. They would have said that it was just one sample, and they were all from the same place, so no dice.

For this reason, we wanted to know if more medical cannabis patients made comparable claims. My esteemed colleagues contacted over 400 medical cannabis patients who were patrons of four different dispensaries in British Columbia. (I was just the data monkey on this project. Once New York state becomes more enlightened about medical cannabis, I’ll be more help.) Over 75% of these folks said that they used cannabis in place of some other drug. Replacing prescription drugs was the most common practice (68%), but many used the plant instead of alcohol (41%) and illicit drugs (36%). (Participants could report more than one drug for substitution, so the totals don’t equal 100%.)

We now have literally hundreds of people reporting that they can use cannabis instead of drugs that cause more harm. People who use alcohol or other drugs problematically often balk at treatments that demand complete abstinence. Who might show up for treatment if patients knew that they could use cannabis as part of the program? Maybe they’d run into trouble with the plant. But maybe they’d have healthy, productive, fun lives. They’d certainly have fewer problems if they laid off stimulants, alcohol, or opiates. So, how about it? What will it take to get a harm reduction program going where folks can use cannabis instead of hard drugs? I hate to think that the world might never know.


25 responses to “Study Shows Marijuana Often Substituted for Alcohol and Other Drugs”

  1. I stopped useing a lot of hard drug and booze when i got sick with many medical problems and just use cannibas. It has been a true life saver. And i mean that literally.

  2. It has recently been proven that there are cannabinoids that reduce addiction withdrawal symptoms.

    I’ve always considered myself something of a drugged drug counselor. I’ve always been helping people get better or treat their addictions reasonably by falling back on the safest of drugs. Cannabis is the safest most therapeutic substance ever discovered by humans. It is my reverse gateway out of bad stuff whether it be other drugs, events, or just your own thoughts.

    As the old adage says: “A friend with weed, is a friend indeed”

  3. I am trying to garner some “crowdfunding” money to publish a quarterly-updated compendium of clinical studies and other papers dealing with alcohol and marijuana and their impact on specific areas of public safety such as highway fatalities, domestic violence, and child abuse. Can you please contact me?
    Lawyers for Public Safety is our new group that is spear-heading this.

  4. Yes, yes and of course. While touring Vietnam for almost two years and doing unimaginable things and seeing even worse I got to come home and be a civilian…all in a matter of one week. No counseling, a nation that was ashamed of us, the first war America had lost. Few people wanted to help us and frankly, I was told to lay low and don’t talk about Nam or risk getting everyone upset. Almost 43 years later I still struggle to fit in and I am not doing a very good job of it but one thing I do know is that if it wasn’t for cannabis I would be dead. The daily use of marijuana has allowed me to live with my past and still function. Life is a tough row for so many people and marijuana has the potential of easing that load without all the dibilitating side effects that other treatments offer. I have lived long enough to see medical marijuana become legal in my State and I am a registered user with my State. I fully expect to see marijuana become legal for recreational purposes too soon. As the legalization and the acceptance of marijuana increases it will be interesting to see if the use of alcohol and other damaging substances fall. I believe that legal marijuana has the potential of reducing the deaths from alcohol toxicity. I believe that legal marijuana can help people who are addicted to much more harmful substances give them up for good. I believe that someday we will be telling our children that alcohol can kill them and marijuana cannot. I tell my children that today. Let them decide. Give them a safer alternative and watch what smart kids do. Over 30 of our college kids died from alcohol use last year while at school. None died last year or any other year from marijuana use while at school. Alcohol is the #1 date rape drug, marijuana is not even on the list. Our government is killing and harming us by keeping marijuana illegal and not offering America an alternative to alcohol, a safer alternative.

  5. Years ago I realized I was an alcoholic.. I stopped drinking with the help of marijuana. If it weren’t for marijuana I’m sure I would be using alcohol and opiates.

  6. We would be much better off as a society if people did have marijuana as a substitute for far more damaging substances. It’s hardly a new discovery, as you noted, but one that our puritanical therapeutic society marginalizes.

    Youth with substance abuses problems are among the hardest groups to reach effectively. This is because of the legal onus associated with underage substance use, the fact that youth believe they’re bullet-proof and haven’t had the chance top understand the downsides, and the general rebelliousness that goes with youth itself.

    I was a military dependent in Germany in the early 1970s, so am very familiar with environments where young folks had ready access to a range of mind-altering substances. Alcohol? Not a problem in Germany. Cannabis/Hashish? Much preferred by many. Hallucinogenics? Sure. Narcotics? Cheap!

    So myself and all those I know could easily choose. Over and over again, the dissolution of drunkenness was readily apparent to us, even to those who engaged in srinking, by way of comparison to cannabis. Nevermind the finger-wagging, but I think we’d all be better off if we do have to enter adulthood with some sort of habit, we’d be much better off if it was the far more manageable preference for a taste of the bud than the far more stark dangers of tasting Bud.

  7. If you’ve been doing coke or crack for a day or 2 straight, the best way to come down is with some good weed. No doubt about it.
    Otherwise its going to be miserable.

  8. pot has helped me not to drink or do drugs! pot helps me with my road rage as well. pot helps my rage and anger. its a better life for me. it may not be for you,but it is for me.

  9. I stopped alchohol first with the help of cannabis years ago. I tried many times but would fall off the wagon after a year or so. with cannabis it would relax me and stop my hands from trembling from anxiety. then a couple years later I quit smoking by leaning on cannabis again. I would not be alive if it wasnt for the herb contrary to government propaganda!

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  13. @randy I can agree that cannabis have a positive effect, but do you really need to take that drug just to feel normal? Don’t you have a family who wants to be with you? Well a lot of people say that if cannabis were to be legalizing it will lessen the abuse of other drugs. Probably that’s true, however, it’s not the answer to all our problem abusing a drug then finding an alternative will just mean that you didn’t stop the addiction you just switched and still its addiction. The most problematic type is alcohol abuse because everyday millions of people in the planet drink alcohol, if you’re an early bird or going to wake up and watch the morning news first and the most common is all about drunk/reckless driving that result in the death of people. Alcohol recovery programs in Texas know this problem and want to help you or other people get clean and sober. Stop the unending cycle of substance abuse.

  14. A myth that quite many people believe is that marijuana causes sterility and lowers testosterone. A recent study by Dr. Robert Block has refuted earlier research suggesting that pot lowers testosterone or other sex hormones in men or women. In contrast, heavy alcohol drinking is known to lower testosterone levels and cause impotence

  15. I wish our government would wake to the people’s needs. My friend is an alcoholic in his 50’s and would rather smoke pot than drink alcohol, but since it’s not legal what do you do go government pill mills. He has relapsed so many times

  16. Is there such a thing as marijuana abuse?? Most people use it to a certain level, then there are some that smoke until their eyes are red rimmed and they are incoherent. That want to do nothing more than sit around and get totally burned out and do nothing..I’m just curious are there different tiers to smoking pot? As with alcohol you have your social smokers, weekend bingers, daily after work relaxation tokes and burnouts etc.. So seriously I’m talking about the three foot bongs and smoke so thick it burns your eyes..Just fried kinda folk..is there abuse?? I’m sure if it ever legalizes in the states they will have weed snobs, tasters, testers etc..Anyway does anyone have a answer?

    • I think you can abuse anything. Pot, however, does not physically kill you like alcohol. It has no appreciative effect on the liver, like alcohol and most other drugs or toxins. Addictive people may find relief in smoking pot and will have to adjust the amount to their lifestyle, but it’s not near as difficult, believe me.

  17. I’d be dead from alcohol if not for marijuana. I did almost die 3 years ago, which is why I stopped. But I would not have stayed away if not for pot. It has saved my life. I feel so bad for all the alcoholics that don’t know about this yet. I met another alcoholic, sober 30 years who smokes pot. This is not new, it is knowledge that needs to be available to all people who suffer from addiction.

  18. Cannabis substitution saved me from my substance dependence. I have been sober since 2012. I believe connection with others like you is important for your recovery, also. Marijuana Maintenance Recovery is a group of over 500 people who also are practicing marijuana maintenance. If you need support you should check them out.

  19. Do not hesitate..attempt this..Laugh I am just 90 day’s in after 30 years of drinking, was up to a fifth daily.
    I am still able to take my wife to the club Sat nights. No embarrassing AA meetings or support groups. Busch N/A is a very good product and one of my crutch’s along with maintenance pot. Listen…. God does answer prayer.

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