Will Legal Marijuana Decrease Alcohol Consumption?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 6 2014 @ 1:06pm

Oktoberfest 2008

One aspect of the debate that’s finally reaching the boomer elites is that although alcohol is widely understood to be much more harmful than cannabis, why add to the substances that could possibly make people happy/fucked up? The one possibility that those favoring continued Prohibition haven’t quite grasped is that more cannabis use could actually decrease alcohol consumption (which is one reason the beer and spirit companies remain opposed).

Now, we don’t have solid data on this, obviously, because we’ve only had a few days of seriously legal pot in Colorado. But we do have more than a decade of data from California where the medical marijuana law has made pot de facto legal for many people (excepting, of course, the black and the Hispanic). Nagourney noted the evidence a while back in the NYT:

Research suggests both that marijuana has become an alcohol substitute for younger people here and in other states that have legalized medical marijuana, and that while driving under the influence of any intoxicant is dangerous, driving after smoking marijuana is less dangerous than after drinking alcohol.

A paper (pdf) summarizes the research, which is not yet conclusive but highly suggestive. Money quote:

Studies based on clearly – defined natural experiments generally support the hypothesis that marijuana and alcohol are substitutes. For instance, DiNardo & Lemieux (2001) found that increasing the Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) from 18 to 21 encourages marijuana use. Using data from the NSDUH and a regression discontinuity design, Crost & Guerrero (2012) found a sharp decrease in marijuana use at 21 years of age, suggesting that young adults treat alcohol and marijuana as substitutes. Finally, Anderson, Hansen, & Rees (2013) examined the relationship between legalizing medical marijuana and drinking using data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

These authors found that legalization was associated with reductions in heavy drinking especially among 18 – through 29 – year – olds.

In addition, they found that legalization was associated with an almost 5 percent decrease in beer sales, the alcoholic beverage of choice among young adults (Jones, 2008). The results of DiNardo & Lemieux (2001), Crost & Guerrero (2012) and Anderson, Hansen, & Rees (201 3) suggest that, as marijuana becomes more available, young adults inColorado and Washington will respond by drinking less, not more. If non – medical marijuana states legalize the use of recreational marijuana, they should also experience reductions in drinking with the accompanying public health benefits.

So we could actually substitute one socially disruptive and dangerous drug for another, less personally harmful, less addictive and in many areas, medicinal substance that you could grow in your garden in a civilized society. I’m not sure how David Frum or David Brooks would respond to this data. But they should, don’t you think?

(Photo: Two men in Bavarian costume take a nap on the ground during day two of the Oktoberfest beer festival on September 21, 2008 in Munich, Germany. By Johannes Simon/Getty Images)