As the legalization of marijuana continues to spread, so does the discussion of its potential benefits. Already, medical marijuana has shown some use in treating pain and nausea in cancer patients, and appears to help with anxiety and insomnia in some individuals. But can marijuana help with alcohol withdrawal? And can it be a safer substitute for alcohol?
Below, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of “marijuana maintenance,” what we know about alcohol and marijuana, and whether or not you should consider marijuana to help with alcohol addiction.
How Does Marijuana Work?
To begin with, marijuana is well known as a recreational drug, and was illegal throughout the U.S. for some time. People can have varying reactions to it, and its effect also varies depending on quantity, strain, and method of consumption (smoking, edibles, etc.). Part of the reason for this variety of effects is the existence of dozens of different chemical compounds within the plant, known as cannabinoids.
The most prominent cannabinoid is a compound known as THC, which works by binding to cannabis receptors (CB1) in the brain. These receptors affect appetite, perception of pain, mood, and memory. It’s because of these receptors that people high on cannabis products tend to get the “munchies”—or sudden, intense hunger. This is also one of the main reasons marijuana can be used as a moderate painkiller.
Another well-known cannabinoid is CBD, now legally sold as an extract in many states. Unlike THC, CBD generally does not get you “high.” CBD has been approved by the FDA for use as an anti-epilepsy drug, and is under research to treat schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease, among other illnesses.
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Is Marijuana or Alcohol Worse For You?
This question is hard to answer with certainty—and one of the biggest reasons is that marijuana has been illegal for several decades. We have tons of research on the effects of alcohol on the human body. But we know relatively little from a research perspective on the long-term effects of marijuana consumption.
One thing that does seem likely is that marijuana is less addictive than alcohol, and this is one possible benefit. However, dependence on marijuana can also exist, and excessive consumption can still cause significant impairment, making it dangerous to drive a motor vehicle.
Some studies also suggest that chronic marijuana use can cause a decline in memory and attention span later in life (although this may only happen if you begin smoking during adolescence). And although evidence is mostly anecdotal, many people report that chronic use of marijuana reduces their motivation and causes interpersonal problems.
So, overall, it’s quite possible that marijuana use is less dangerous than alcohol. But it can still cause problems in your life. And since there isn’t enough research, we cannot be absolutely certain that marijuana is safer than alcohol.
Can Marijuana Help With Alcohol Withdrawal?
Withdrawal from alcohol can be a very difficult, and even dangerous process. People experience everything from mild symptoms (like anxiety, shakiness, and headaches), to severe symptoms (racing pulse, fever, and hallucinations). In extreme cases, death is even possible.
To cope with these symptoms, some people use marijuana during detox. Since marijuana may ease anxiety in some people, there is some logic behind this. However, marijuana can have the opposite effect for others, and there is not enough research on the topic. As of this moment, we cannot safely recommend marijuana for alcohol withdrawal.
If you plan on going through detox for alcohol addiction, speak to a doctor first. There are several medications that are shown to be effective in easing symptoms. A medical professional can also help you plan things out to ensure your safety.
Marijuana As a Substitute For Alcohol
What about the long term? Can marijuana help you avoid relapsing if you’ve quit drinking alcohol?
Once again, there is not enough research, but there are some promising studies. A survey of 92 patients in the early 2000s by psychiatrist Tod Mikuriya suggested that marijuana played a useful role in long-term recovery from alcohol addiction. Other studies suggest that CBD might reduce a person’s motivation to drink, and help prevent liver and brain damage from alcohol, although further trials are needed.
However, since marijuana is still a potentially addictive substance, using it to “replace” alcohol is essentially a harm-reduction approach. This means that it may be less dangerous than drinking for some—but it isn’t without its own risks. And any benefit of this approach may vary greatly depending on the person.
So, Should I Use Marijuana Instead of Drinking?
In summary, at this time we do not recommend replacing alcohol with marijuana. There is still too little known about marijuana’s long-term effects—not to mention that it remains illegal in many parts of the United States. With more time, more evidence, and wider legality, this may change. But at the moment, it’s hard to know if the negatives outweigh the positives.
However, if you are quitting or cutting back on alcohol, there are already some safer alternatives. Prescription medications like naltrexone and acamprosate can help you control your alcohol cravings, and both are shown to be non-addictive.
Best of all, it’s now possible to access these prescriptions—as well as coaching, medical support, and digital tools—through a smartphone app.
Learn more about how it works, or get in touch with a member of our team today
- American Cancer Society. Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Marijuana and Cancer. Accessed January 25, 2021.
- Stoner S A. Effects of Marijuana on Mental Health: Anxiety Disorders. Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, University of Washington. Accessed January 25, 2021.
- Babson K A et al. Cannabis, Cannabinoids, and Sleep: a Review of the Literature. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017 Apr; 19(4): 23. Accessed January 25, 2021.
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- Jafari S, Tang T. Diagnosis and treatment of marijuana dependence. BCMJ. 2016 Jul; 58(6): 315-317. Accessed January 25, 2021.
- Meier M H et al. Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife. PNAS 2012. Accessed January 25, 2021.
- Mikuriya T H. Cannabis as a Substitute for Alcohol: A Harm-Reduction Approach. Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics. 2004; 4(1): 79-93. Accessed January 25, 2021.
- De Ternay J et al. Therapeutic Prospects of Cannabidiol for Alcohol Use Disorder and Alcohol-Related Damages on the Liver and the Brain. Front. Pharmacol. 2019 May. Accessed January 25, 2021.