It’s that time of year when gyms fill up, vegan food becomes scarce on supermarket shelves, and, inevitably, many of us will attempt to cut down on our alcohol consumption. After the merry festive season, reducing drinking habits is often high up on the list of resolutions for the year ahead. There is even a whole month dedicated to us meeting this goal, but how many of us have set out at the beginning of “Dry January” with the best intentions only to find ourselves with a pint or glass of wine in our hand come the end of the second week?
Perhaps help could come from an unlikely source: cannabis. Over the last few years, a number of studies have assessed the potential of cannabis in helping to reduce alcohol consumption. But could cannabis actually help you to cut back on alcohol? We’re taking a look at the evidence.
A worthy substitution?
You may well know someone who opts for a joint over a pint, and the chances are they swear by the positives of this substitution. A 2009 survey found that 40% of respondents (medical cannabis patients) had substituted cannabis for alcohol, 26% for illicit drugs, and 66% as a substitute for prescription drugs. Other studies have consistently reported that cannabis use is associated with a reduction in the consumption of opioids and other painkillers.
Furthermore, a survey conducted by The Harris Poll found that 18% of respondents in the US use cannabis as a substitute for other substances, including alcohol. Some data has even shown that alcohol sales have decreased in states where recreational cannabis has been legalised.
More than being a simple substitution, though, there are those that claim cannabis has specifically helped them to reduce the amount of alcohol they consume. These reports come at a time when research is increasingly assessing how cannabis and some psychedelic drugs could help to tackle addictions, from alcohol to gambling.
An aid for tackling addiction?
Alcohol might be fun in moderation, but most of us have experienced its downsides. Crossing the line from tipsy to completely smashed can easily ruin a night and don’t get us started on the hangovers, headaches and nausea that are certain to limit your productivity for the next day (or two). But alcohol consumption is also associated with much more serious effects.
According to recent data, alcohol misuse is the leading cause of death in working-age people in the UK. In fact, there were 8,974 deaths from alcohol-specific causes registered in the UK in 2020 alone. So, identifying effective methods of cutting back on alcohol could, in theory, be life-saving.
One study, at least, supports the theory that cannabis could indeed be useful in the treatment of alcohol-dependent individuals. The study, which assessed previous literature on the subject, aimed to assess the suitability of cannabis as a substitute medication for alcohol. The authors reported that “results imply that those using medical cannabis may have had better treatment completion, employment and alcohol use outcomes compared with their non-medical cannabis using counterparts.” However, it was concluded that the recommendation to prescribe cannabis to alcohol-dependent individuals to help reduce drinking is premature.
To help with a personal goal?
Thankfully, most of us are probably not at the point where we need to be seriously concerned about our health. Nonetheless, reducing alcohol consumption remains an extremely popular ambition.
It is important to note that ‘cannabis’ can mean many different things to many different people. From whole flower products to CBD extracts, cannabis is entering the mainstream in a way that hasn’t been seen for a long time. The success of the CBD industry has brought the potential benefits of cannabis to the masses in most countries around the world. Consumers claim that CBD products have helped with everything from stress and anxiety to – you guessed it – cutting back on the drinking.
While anecdotal reports can be found pretty easily, clinical evidence is much scarcer. However, a number of experimental studies, including animal models, have suggested a useful therapeutic benefit of CBD for reducing alcohol consumption. This was illustrated by the findings of a 2019 review. Having assessed the results of past studies on the topic, the authors of the review concluded that “CBD could directly reduce alcohol drinking in subjects with AUD. Any other applications warrant human trials in this population.”
What’s more, the same review found that, through this alcohol-reducing potential, CBD use may also be associated with reducing alcohol-related steatosis processes in the liver and alcohol-related brain damage. In turn, this could “improve both hepatic and neurocognitive outcomes in subjects with [alcohol use disorder].”
What’s the verdict?
While current evidence may suggest that cannabis or CBD use could be associated with reductions in alcohol consumption, clinical research remains in its infancy. As such, adopting cannabis use as a substitute or even an aid in reducing how much you drink should be approached with caution – not least because non-prescribed cannabis remains illegal in the UK.
Nonetheless, the legal availability of CBD products may offer an easy way to test this theory. Growing evidence suggests that CBD can help with the management of anxiety and stress – two things that often go hand-in-hand with drinking alcohol. This connection alone could be enough to suggest a potential benefit. Furthermore, CBD has been declared safe and well-tolerated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), so giving it a go to help with the progression of a New Year’s ‘no-drinking’ policy is a pretty low-risk option.