Cannabis shown to reduce risky binge drinking

A new study by researchers at Oregon State University suggests that legalizing marijuana has opened up alternatives to young people who might otherwise engage in unsafe drinking behaviour.

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It’s a question that has occupied policy-makers, beer barons and public health departments: can cannabis change the way people drink?

A new study by researchers at Oregon State University suggests that legalizing marijuana has opened up alternatives to those who might otherwise engage in riskier drinking behaviour. It found that the prevalence of binge drinking among college students over 21 (the legal drinking age in the U.S.) has decreased by nearly 10 per cent post-legalization compared to states that have not legalized cannabis.

“The odds of someone having engaged in a binge-drinking episode somewhat decrease following recreational marijuana use,” Zoe Alley, a PhD student and the lead author of the paper, says in an interview.

Alley, a psychology researcher, was quick to point out that the findings do not suggest a causation – they don’t know why someone is less likely to binge drink. Nor is it as simple as saying that more people are replacing Jägerbombs with bong rips.

But Alley, whose work has focused on adolescent behaviours around substance use, was able to explain what researchers believe is the “theoretical background” to what’s going on. It’s that young people “may be less likely to substitute alcohol use for pre-existing marijuana use” once they’re of legal age.

“Substance use tends to increase as you approach that legal drinking age,” she says. “Then you turn 21 and a barrier to using marijuana is gone.”

What Alley is getting at is that college kids are creatures of convenience: alcohol is harder to get when you’re underage, so you might smoke pot at a party instead. Legalization, Alley theorizes, might encourage you to stick to pot instead of switching back to booze.

Looking beyond college students in the United States, this theory appears to hold. In Canada, beer sales dipped three per cent among young people over the first year of cannabis legalization, according to data provided to Bloomberg News by Beer Canada. That doesn’t necessarily mean that binge drinking is decreasing, but it does suggest that cannabis is cannibalizing some of the alcohol market.

Findings like Alley’s don’t offer clear policy prescriptions – it’s not as simple as saying people will “smoke more, drink less” (as Bloomberg put it).

There are signs that legalization may indeed lead to less alcohol consumption – or, that drinkers hope it will. Last year, 45 per cent of Canadians polled by Ipsos said that pot legalization will lead them to drink less.

These findings add an important dimension to the public health debate around legalization. While alcohol sales have seen only marginal dips, the research suggests that it has a greater impact on problem drinking.

Alley was careful to note, however, that her findings are only one study. And that binge drinking is associated with lots of other kinds of problems, like drunk driving, sexual assault and violence. A lot more work needs to be done to untangle the relationship between legalization, binge drinking and public health.

“It’s unclear whether our findings are going to be consistent across time, or consistent in other locations if they do decide to legalize,” Alley says.


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