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Medical marijuana legalization reduces alcohol consumption, suggests study

The substitutability or complementarity of alcohol and marijuana has been the subject of ongoing debates for several years. Results of various studies have been mixed, with some supporting substitutability, others supporting complementarity, and a few supporting neither or both. Findings have varied, based on alcohol and marijuana use among youth versus the general population, prompting researchers to recommend the need to collect granular longitudinal data in future studies, particularly in locations where marijuana legalization is likely.

Aiming to settle this debate, researchers from the University of Connecticut and Georgia State University recently undertook a study to provide a fresh perspective on the impact of medical marijuana laws (MMLs) on alcohol consumption. The results, published in the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), showed that monthly alcohol sales in counties located in MML states fell by 13-15 percent.

The researchers analyzed monthly alcohol sales data relating to the period 2006-2015, gathered from the Nielsen Retail Scanner database, which records sales data from 90 retail chains (including grocery, drug, convenience and mass distribution stores) across the United States. According to the researchers, using this method was superior to other ways of measuring alcohol consumption, like survey-based data, since usage levels were generally understated by respondents. Alcohol consumption data was adjusted for economic and demographic variables including age, income and race.

It was concluded that “marijuana and alcohol are strong substitutes.” According to the researchers, the reduction in alcohol sales in counties located in MML states was a “consistent finding across several empirical specifications.” Legalization of medical marijuana negatively impacted sales of beer and wine by 12 to 14 percent, respectively. An analysis of monthly alcohol sales in border counties in MML states also showed a reduction compared to counties across the border in non-MML states.

Relationship between alcohol and marijuana an important public health issue

The researchers said that the implications of their findings may make a valuable contribution to economic policy due to couple of reasons:

  • It helped settle the debate on alcohol versus marijuana.
  • More importantly, it helped address the concerns about the potential spillover effects of MMLs on other substance use which may lead to adverse health and social consequences, since the relationship between these substances is an important public health issue.

If the findings had indicated complementarity, it would signify that legalizing marijuana may worsen the health and social outcomes of alcohol consumption–an example of this would be increased road injuries and fatalities. Since the findings indicate substitutability, it may help in dispelling such concerns and redirecting the focus to the positive first-order effects of pushing for marijuana legalization.

Even under MMLs, only a limited number of individuals can legally access marijuana. A doctor’s recommendation is almost always required and most states stipulate only certain conditions which are eligible for treatment. This leads many to believe that the results of the study understate the impact of full marijuana legalization on the consumption of alcohol. Another limitation of the study is that it relies only on scanner data, despite the fact that not all alcohol is sold in retail stores.

Dealing with alcohol and marijuana abuse

Unlike alcohol, there are no known instances of fatalities from marijuana use, a fact acknowledged by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in its 2017 resource guide. However, marijuana use is associated with both short-term and long-term effects on the brain. A recent study found that using marijuana 2-3 times a week at age 17 can cause hypomania, experienced as a symptom of bipolar disorder, at age 22-23.

Consumption of alcohol results in a much higher likelihood of causing motor accidents. It also has a much closer association with violent and aggressive behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol consumption killed nearly 88,000 Americans every year between 2006 and 2010.

Misuse of any substance, whether alcohol or marijuana, can have serious health consequences. If you or a loved one is grappling with an addiction, contact the 24/7 Recovery Helpline. Our drug addiction help online and alcohol helpline experts can help you find the right treatment programs. Call at our 24/7 helpline number 855-441-4405 or chat online with our representatives for immediate resolution.

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