Legal Medical Cannabis Displacing Alcohol Use?

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The impact of medical cannabis on prescription drug use is becoming well known. Research presented at the Eleventh National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics showed that the legal availability of medical cannabis has led many people to reduce their use of opioids and other prescribed medications, and also that the number of prescriptions being written for opioids, anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and some other medications appears to have declined in states with medical marijuana laws.

So what about the impact on the most widely used drug of all: alcohol? After all, alcohol is a social drug yet it’s also true that some people do use it to relieve anxiety, particularly social anxiety; to get to sleep; and to relieve pain. Also, some people use alcohol in combination with drugs they’ve been prescribed, in spite of blackbox warnings of severe, potentially fatal consequences. Sadly, as a result, alcohol-in-combination has been a major contributor to our current epidemic of overdose deaths.

People have long speculated about the impact on alcohol consumption of adult social use marijuana legalization. Yet, what about the impact of legal medical cannabis on alcohol? Researchers at Georgia State University have been taking a look at retail sales data to find out. According to the Georgia State University News Hub on Dec. 12, 2017:

The impact on sales was long-term, with reductions in alcohol consumption observed up to two years after the passage of the laws. The findings boost scientific evidence that legal access to marijuana reduces drinking.

The researchers analyzed beer, wine and alcohol sales for more than 2,000 U.S. counties over a 10-year period (2006 to 2015). [Professor Alberto] Chong and his collaborators used the Nielsen Retail Scanner database, which they note provides a more accurate measure of alcohol consumption than self-reported surveys, in which respondents are known to under-represent how much they drink.

They compared alcohol purchases between states that passed medical marijuana laws and states that didn’t, before and after the laws were implemented.

Alcohol purchases decreased by 15 percent in counties in states with medical marijuana laws, results showed. This was true even when correcting for demographic and economic factors known to influence alcohol consumption, such as sex, age, unemployment rate and median household income.

The study authors also looked at counties along state borders and found those with legal access to marijuana had 20 percent lower alcohol sales than those across the border in states without medical marijuana laws.

Helping Settle the Marijuana and Alcohol Debate: Evidence from Scanner Data
“We use data on purchases of alcoholic beverages in grocery, convenience, drug, or mass distribution stores in US counties for 2006-2015 to study the link between medical marijuana laws and alcohol consumption and focus on settling the debate between the substitutability or complementarity between marijuana and alcohol. To do this we exploit the differences in the timing of the of marijuana laws among states and find that these two substances are substitutes. Counties located in MML states reduced monthly alcohol sales by 13 percent. Our findings are robust to border counties analysis, a placebo effective dates for MMLs in the treated states, and falsification tests using sales of pens and pencils.”

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