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How Legal Marijuana Affects Alcohol Consumption

First Posted: Jan 02, 2016 09:05 AM EST
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Does legal marijuana cause users to consume more alcohol? Or do users prefer to just use marijuana instead of drinking? Scientists have taken a closer look to see which is the case.

Recreational marijuana use is now legal in four states. Medical marijuana use is legal in 23 states. Research on legalization policies has focused largely on how they impact marijuana access and use. In this case, though, the researchers wanted to know how legalization affects the use of alcohol.

The majority of adults in the U.S. imbibe to varying degrees. Alcohol abuse itself is actually the third lead preventable cause of death nationwide. Drinking accounts for almost one-third of driving fatalities annually, and excessive alcohol use cost $223.5 billion in 2006 alone.

Using previous studies, the researchers hypothesized that legalization of marijuana could result in either substitution or complementary effects. Marijuana and alcohol both provide users with similar "reward and sedation" effects, which could prompt users to substitute one for the other. But blood levels of THC increase with simultaneous alcohol use.

In all, the scientists reviewed more than 750 studies on marijuana and alcohol use, and focused on 15 that specifically addressed the links between alcohol and marijuana.

So what did they find? The studies varied, and the scientists concluded that there's evidence of marijuana and alcohol being both substitutes and complements. Given the rapidly evolving landscape of marijuana policy, further study will be important to understand how changes in marijuana laws impact the use of alcohol and other drugs.

The findings are published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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