Study: Cannabis Abstinence Associated with Alcohol Substitution By Young People

Boston, MA: Cannabis abstinence in young people is associated with increased alcohol intake, according to data published in the journal Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry.

A team of investigators affiliated with Harvard Medical School, Loyola University, and the University of Miami assessed alcohol consumption patterns in a group of non-treatment seeking cannabis consumers between the ages of 14 and 25. All participants acknowledged having consumed alcohol in the month prior to their enrollment in the study. Study participants were randomly assigned to two groups – one that required cannabis abstinence for four weeks and one that did not.

Researchers reported that over 60 percent of those assigned to the abstinence group increased their frequency of alcohol consumption as well as the quantity consumed. Following their completion of the study, participants’ use of alcohol returned to pre-trial levels.

By contrast, those participants who were permitted to continue consuming cannabis did not increase their alcohol use over the length of the study.

Authors concluded: “This was the first study to our knowledge to evaluate patterns of drinking behavior across one month following an experimental manipulation of cannabis abstinence among non-treatment seeking youth engaged in a paid abstinence attempt. … On average, four weeks of incentivized (i.e., paid) cannabis abstinence among non-treatment seeking youth was associated with increased frequency and amount of alcohol use in week one that was sustained over four weeks and resolved with resumption of cannabis use. … Findings suggest that clinicians should monitor for increased alcohol use during attempts at abstinence for cannabis among youth.”

Prior research assessing whether alcohol and cannabis typically act as either compliments or substitutes has yielded mixed results, though some scientists have determined that marijuana meets many of the criteria necessary to qualify it as a potential substitute for alcohol.

Full text of the study, “Alcohol substitution during one month of cannabis abstinence among non-treatment seeking youth,” appears in Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry.