Marijuana and Alcoholism: Cannabis Use Up, Beer Sales Down! 

By  Lanny Swerdlow

marijuana and alcohlism

Using marijuana to mitigate the side-effects of withdrawal from alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamines and other drugs is part of humanity’s historical usage of folk medicines, but the first printed recognition of marijuana’s use to treat alcoholism and drug addiction was published over a century ago in 1902 by Thomas Davison Crothers in his treatise Morphinism and Narcomanias

Commenting on the book, famed medical cannabis researcher Dr. Ethan Russo noted, that Narcomania “described all of the addictive substances, from cocaine to caffeine, morphine to nicotine. The only context in which cannabis was mentioned was as a treatment for addiction to other drugs."

In 2003 medical marijuana pioneer Dr. Todd Mikiyuria published a study in the medical marijuana journal O'Shaughnessy's documenting ninety-two Northern Californians who obtained a medical marijuana recommendation principally to use cannabis to treat their alcoholism. Dr. Mikiyuria reported that “All patients reported benefit, indicating that for at least a subset of alcoholics, cannabis use is associated with reduced drinking.”

Since 1995 when I first became actively involved in proselytizing for medical marijuana and ending marijuana prohibition, I was astounded by the number of people I met who had used marijuana to cure their alcoholism. In almost every case, marijuana wasn’t something they used to get off alcohol and then stopped using, but continued to use marijuana for what were essentially the same reasons they used alcohol but without any of alcohol’s deleterious side effects while at the same time being able to lead a normal, productive and healthy life.

I approached more than a dozen drug and alcohol counselors with the novel idea that they should be encouraging their clients to use marijuana as a substitute for alcohol and to continue its use after their addiction had been overcome. Most times I was politely told that my idea was impractical, illegal and would be just substituting one debilitating drug for another. Sometimes I was told that in terms that were not quite so polite.

Marijuana and Alcoholism: One RN's Perspective

I have always maintained and have been publicly speaking and writing for years that as a nurse I always considered the most important medical use of cannabis was as an alcohol substitute. Yes it is most excellent for insomnia, cancer, depression, pain and on and on and on, but when I was working as a RN, I don't think I ever had a single shift where at least one of the patients I was taking care of was in that hospital bed, if not totally at least partially, due to their use of alcohol.

I became a vocal advocate for the use of marijuana not just to treat addictions, but as a substitute for alcohol in all its traditional socially acceptable forms whether that be at a wedding or other celebration, communally enjoying with friends and family or as a safe and effective means of altering one’s consciousness.

I was certainly not the only voice in the woods espousing this idea, but even in marijuana and drug law reform groups, this idea was rejected and not promulgated preferring to publicly espouse the relatively benign nature of marijuana rather than what many of us considered the real reason the recreational adult-use of marijuana needed to be legalized.

Alcohol Use and Marijuana, What to the Statistics Say?

The meme that if marijuana was easily and widely available that alcohol sales would decrease has been floating around for some time, but little research had been done to confirm it. The earliest research that I am aware of occurred with the publication of Medical Marijuana Laws, Traffic Fatalities and Alcohol Consumption in November 2011 by Mark Anderson and Daniel Reese.

Studying the effects of medical marijuana legalization in Montana, the authors found that among 18- through 25-year-olds marijuana use had increased by an average mean of 19% from the pre-legalization average mean. The authors then found that “The legalization of medical marijuana is associated with a 5.3 percent reduction in beer sales, the most popular beverage among 18-through 29-year-olds during the period under study.”

That this reduction in alcohol use and increase in marijuana use was of significant benefit was their finding “that traffic fatalities fall by nearly 9 percent after the legalization of medical marijuana.”

Based on multiple factors, the authors concluded that “The negative relationship between legalization of medical marijuana and traffic fatalities involving alcohol is consistent with the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes.”

Marijuana Use Up, Beer Sales Down

That marijuana is a substitute for alcohol is borne out by new studies released last December by Cowen and Company. Founded in 1918, this respected financial advisory and asset management firm provides research for a broad swath of industries from chemicals to technology and has conducted and released research reports for the alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries.

Managing Director and Senior Research Analyst, Vivien Azer reported that in the past two years, beer markets in three states that have legalized the adult-use of marijuana, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, have “collectively underperformed,” and “the magnitude of the underperformance has increased notably.” She reported that the beer sales in these states have fallen by more than two percent in 2016 when compared to the rest of the country.

Explaining why and how this decrease came about, Azer said  “While [marijuana] retail sales opened up in these markets at different points of time, with all three of these states now having fully implemented a retail infrastructure, the underperformance of beer in these markets has worsened over the course of 2016.”

Azer went on to elucidate, “This is perhaps not surprising, given that U.S. government data for the states of Colorado, Oregon and Washington all show consistent growth in cannabis incidence among 18-25 year olds coupled with declines in alcohol incidence (in terms of past month use).”

These declines were evident in reports showing sales of brews like Coors Light and Bud Light dropping by 4.4%, while standard versions of beers like Budweiser and Coors dipped by 2.4%. Denver, arguably one of the most marijuana friendly cities’ in the nation with its decision in 2016 to allow venues with on-site marijuana consumption, has experienced a 6.4% decline in total beer consumption.

Surprised? Well beer company executives weren’t as they have known for a long time that marijuana availability is not good for their bottom line. It wasn’t because of their concern of increased traffic fatalities or an increase in teen use, they knew that was nonsense. It was their fear of plummeting sales that triggered the California Beer and Beverage Distributors in 2010 to become one of the biggest contributors to the anti-Prop. 19 campaign.

The same held true in 2016 with alcohol producers and distributors providing funds to most of the opposition campaigns in the four states with marijuana legalization initiatives up for a vote. Although legalized marijuana is a threat to big pharma, it is even more of a threat to big beer. 

Tobacco company executives were well aware of the dangers of tobacco use, but suppressed the information and lied to the American public about the dangers of tobacco smoke. Equally culpable are the beer distributors and manufacturers as they too are well aware of the dangers to health of the consumers of their product and the dangers to the community from the actions of the consumers of their products.

Those dangers have never been a concern to them which explains their continued opposition, both with their actions and money, to the legalization of marijuana that will reduce the horrors caused by alcohol consumption while providing for the safe, reliable, local and affordable distribution of marijuana across a vast consortium of businesses both big and small.

Tobacco company executives made billions selling their lethal product and were never jailed for lying to the America people about the dangers of tobacco thereby facilitating the death of over 400,000 Americans every year for the last half-century. The Wall Street and big banking tycoons made billions at the expense of tens of millions of Americans robbing them of their homes, pensions and life savings and, other than some slap on the wrist fines, not one of them went to jail.

It’s long past the time that we stop letting corporate crooks and criminals get away with robbing and killing us. The moguls of the alcohol industries who have made billions destroying our health, breaking up our families and terrorizing our communities, while killing off 80,000 people a year, would be a good place to start.

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