Dry January and Cannabis: Can Weed Help Reduce Alcohol Intake?

Many people make resolutions to drink less (or not at all) as a healthy start to the new year, but many people struggle to achieve this. To help people stick to their resolutions, even if it’s only for a little while, campaigns like Dry January and Stoptober have been implemented in many countries across the world. Moreover, these campaigns are actually quite effective.

Dry January and Stoptober give people an achievable goal with a set date, and timing no-alcohol months for pre- and post- Christmas makes sense as most want to make up for a season of indulgence. The campaigns aren’t necessarily targeted at those who have dependency issues, either, but those who want to cut back on alcohol for health reasons. This is especially important nowadays, as people are suffering from more anxiety during these COVID-19 pandemic times, and retreating to alcohol use.

However, creating longer-term behavior changes is more difficult, and old habits can sometimes die hard. People like to let loose and have fun. But what if, after Dry January ends, people choose cannabis instead of alcohol? Would this help people stick to Dry January, and perhaps further? Let’s take a look at the science!

Cannabis and hops: a complex relationship

Research has shown that hops and cannabis are closely related. The two plants also share some of the same terpenes, most notably humulene (which makes beer bitter), myrcene (which contributes to beer’s and cannabis’ sleepy effects), limonene (which is lemony), and beta-pinene (which has a resinous aroma).

For those who are looking for something that can taste like beer, but isn’t beer, then cannabis is a good bet. Added to this is the fact that, unlike with alcohol, a deadly overdose on cannabis alone is almost impossible. Oh, and the hangovers are nowhere near as painful! With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that alcohol sales and binge drinking tend to decrease in states that have legalized recreational or medical cannabis use.

But let’s not jump the gun. In some states, like Oregon and Colorado, spirit sales went up, whilst overall sales of spirits, wine and beer were roughly flat between 2005 and 2016. A study into Dutch youths between 2005 and 2009 showed that a decrease in alcohol consumption also led to a decrease in cannabis consumption, which suggests that the use of the two is often concurrent but not necessarily related in all instances. A more tolerant approach to cannabis did not necessarily lead to decreased alcohol consumption in the Netherlands, either, which shows that there are certainly cultural differences between the two in terms of how, why and when they’re used.

Hops. Humulus lupulus.
Hop (Humulus lupulus): Umbel, Location: Hallertau. Author: LuckyStarr. From Wikipedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Can cannabis be used to reduce alcohol consumption?

Whilst the evidence goes both ways on the worldwide, social scale, there is some promising evidence that cannabis can be used to reduce alcohol consumption. Cannabidiol (CBD) has been shown to reduce ethanol intake in various animal studies. Moreover, CBD reduces alcohol-related liver inflammation and damage. A recent study from the International Journal of Drug Policy (Volume 86, December 2020, 102963) yields some positive results from a survey of 973 medical cannabis patients in Canada. To quote from the study:

“Overall, 419 (44%) participants reported decreases in alcohol usage frequency over 30 days, 323 (34%) decreased the number of standard drinks they had per week, and 76 (8%) reported no alcohol use at all in the 30 days prior to the survey.”

Beta-caryophyllene has also been shown to reduce alcohol intake in mice. Like CBD, beta-caryophyllene has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects that can help heal and protect a damaged liver. Although these are animal study models, combined with some of the data we have on alcohol and cannabis use in the US, it looks like the reasoning could apply to humans, too. That cannabis can have a hoppy taste adds to its promise of being a replacement for alcohol.

It takes more than just cannabis to stop or reduce alcohol consumption

It must be remembered that alcohol is far more widely available and socially acceptable to consume than cannabis is in most places. This makes it easier for a person to be drawn back into the fold. Therefore, you will need to assess the sorts of situations that trigger your alcohol consumption, and avoid those situations wherever possible.

Of course, not everyone is dependent on alcohol, and many find it to be enjoyable in moderation. One good tip to reduce alcohol consumption whilst still enjoying it is to keep to a small amount (e.g. 1 glass of wine) at meal times once or twice per week. Sometimes, being proselytizing to yourself can actually lead to worse binge-drinking down the road.

Another time-honored way of reducing alcohol consumption is to keep yourself busy. Find yourself some hobbies that don’t have to involve alcohol. Gaming, hiking, gardening … There are many things that can help keep your mind occupied and stop yourself from getting bored. If there’s a weekend activity that would be better done if you were sober the night before, then even better!

Those suffering from mental health problems such as depression, anxiety or PTSD are also more likely to abuse alcohol. Cannabis could certainly be a useful replacement in such instances, but it will also require the right therapy to ensure long-term success.

A cheers or salute being made with glasses of alcohol.
Alcohol is a far more socially acceptable drug. By Kaicho20. From Pixabay.

Is using cannabis during Dry January “cheating”?

Some people like to think that sobriety has to mean total sobriety, and that using one recreational subtance as a replacement for another is technically not “dry”. There is something to be said for this when it comes to recreational use of any substance, but there are some valid criticisms of this approach as well, including:

  • Using a safer, less addictive substance to replace another is a valid technique for harm reduction.
  • As an extension of the above, if you are more likely to complete something you set out to do, and you have something that can help you do so with relative safety, then why not do so?
  • Could using cannabis recreationally get people to drink less beyond just Dry January? There is a good amount of evidence that this could be the case!
  • Many people who use medical cannabis in particular do not use it to get “high”, but to manage their symptoms.

Can medical marijuana be used to treat alcoholism?

There is a difference between those wanting to reduce alcohol intake and those suffering from alcoholism, which is a state of psychological and/or physical dependency. For those who are alcohol-dependent and not just trying to reduce alcohol intake, proper treatment will need to be sought. This is because alcohol withdrawal can be deadly if not done under medical supervision – another fact that leads many to replace alcohol with cannabis. Therefore, although cannabis can be hugely useful in the treatment of alcoholism and some withdrawal symptoms (e.g. restless legs, insomnia, lack of appetite), it is not able to do so in and of itself.

Although some states have opioid use disorder (OUD) as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana, alcohol use disorder (AUD) is not. This is understandable as, despite the promising data so far, there is no clear evidence that cannabis is a suitable substitute therapy for alcoholism. However, there are a number of symptoms associated with AUD that may qualify a person for medical cannabis. If you are not necessarily an alcoholic, drinking too much can often be a sign of other underlying mental or physical health issues. If you wish to come up with a treatment plan to reduce your alcohol intake with the aid of medical cannabis and CBD, then speak to one of our doctors here at Leafwell today!

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Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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