Why replacing alcohol with weed is a growing trend in the US

(CNN) — 
It’s a true blessing to have great friends who frequently get together. At times, however, those blessings may overflow, according to “B,” a 43-year-old Atlantan who CNN is not identifying for privacy reasons.

“I love Champagne bubbles and having Champagne on a patio on Sunday with friends  —  it’s an ideal day,” B said. “But my friends hang out all the time, and even on a weeknight, it would end up being bottles of wine. I felt like I should have invested in box wine, especially during the pandemic.”

Today, B has given up alcohol, turning instead to marijuana gummies when she wants a buzz.

The use of weed to replace alcohol is a growing trend in the United States. In fact, a recent study found — for the first time ever — the daily use of cannabis of any kind among Americans surpassed the daily use of alcohol.

In sheer numbers, of course, many more people still drink alcohol on occasion than use marijuana, which is now legal for recreational use in 24 states and Washington, DC, and for medical use in 38 states and DC.

Still, nearly 18 million people age 12 and older reported using marijuana daily or near daily in 2022, compared with about 15 million who said they used alcohol with the same frequency, according to the study’s analysis of the most recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual government survey.

‘My heart was racing’

For B, giving up alcohol was a necessity. Her periodic binge drinking with friends was taking a toll. Hangovers and an increasing sense of anxiety on the mornings after affected her work performance and her ability to exercise, an enjoyable part of her life.

“I’m really healthy, I eat clean and work out all the time, and I just was not feeling good anymore,” B said. “Then one day I was laying on my couch, and my heart was racing like it was coming out of my chest.”

Both alcoholism and heart disease ran in B’s family: “I’ve had relatives that have dropped dead of a heart attack in their driveway.”

Simply drinking less wasn’t an option for her.

“I’ve tried to moderate in the past, but it’s hard to do that when you’re around people who are drinking,” B said. “So I decided to quit alcohol completely. My friends were really supportive, and it was easier than I thought it would be.”

After a few months of total sobriety, however, B began to experiment with cannabis gummies and found them easy to incorporate with a nonalcoholic drink or two.

“I don’t like getting super high,” B said. “I’ll just cut off a fourth of a gummy to take the edge off after a long day at work. If I’m with friends at a party where I know I’ll be there awhile, I might take a half or even a whole one.”

Weed or alcohol: Which is better?

Is replacing alcohol with weed a healthier option? It depends, experts say.

“Questioning one’s relationship with alcohol is a very healthy trend,” said Carol Boyd, founding director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She was not involved in the analysis.

“We know that moderate alcohol consumption has health risks, and risk increases as alcohol consumption increases,” Boyd said in an email.

Just one drink a day can raise blood pressure, trigger a dangerous irregular heartbeat or even shrink your brain, studies have found. Those are just a few of the many pitfalls of alcohol use, including the risk of cancer.

Binge drinking, defined as consuming four or more drinks in two hours for women (five or more for men) was on the rise during the pandemic. Binging was higher in women, sending twice as many to the emergency room during the pandemic than before. In fact, the alcohol-induced death rate for both sexes jumped 26% between 2019 and 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

At first glance, the harms of marijuana appear equally worrisome. By using cannabis before the age of 25, young people can permanently damage their brains, wreaking havoc with their ability to learn, remember, solve problems and pay attention, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Any level of marijuana use raises the risk of stroke by 42% and heart attack by 25%, even if there is no prior history of heart disease and the person has never smoked or vaped tobacco, according to a February 2024 study.

Weed has also been linked to cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation; myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart muscle; spasms of the heart’s arteries and a higher risk of heart failure.

However, many participants in those cardiovascular studies are smoking or vaping marijuana instead of ingesting it, said Dr. Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician and cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who authored “Seeing  Through the Smoke: A Cannabis Specialist Untangles the Truth About Marijuana.”

“No doctor recommends smoking marijuana, unless someone is in acute pain or has cancer and is on chemotherapy, when they might want the faster pain relief that comes from inhaling,” Grinspoon said.

Burning anything, whether it is tobacco or cannabis, creates toxic compounds that are harmful to health when inhaled, said marijuana reseracher Dr. Beth Cohen, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Cannabis smoke contains toxins, carcinogens, and particulate matter that have been linked to cancer, lung damage, and cardiovascular disease,” Cohen said in an email. “With potential harms for any substance, we would expect to see a dose response. So, I’m particularly concerned about the increases in daily or near daily use of cannabis.”

In fact, marijuana smoke may even be more harmful than tobacco because users hold the hot smoke in their lungs longer to maximize their high. A March 2021 study by Boyd found teens twice as likely to report “wheezing or whistling” in the chest after vaping marijuana than after smoking cigarettes or using e-cigarettes.

“New data is beginning to show that secondhand marijuana smoke may be just as dangerous as the primary smoke,” Robert Page II, a professor of clinical pharmacy and physical medicine at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Aurora, told CNN in a prior interview.

However, there are many other options than inhaling marijuana smoke, Grinspoon said, including “using topicals like oils, lotions or a skin patch, or a suppository, or a tincture put under the tongue or in tea, or an edible. You don’t have to smoke the cannabis.”

There is a problem, however. Research on edibles, such as baked goods, candies and beverages, and other methods of using cannabis is in its infancy. Whether there are longer-term impacts on human health than ingesting too much at one sitting and getting an uncomfortable high are unknown.

“We do not yet know risks of daily use of edibles — thus, I cannot say whether the trend will end up as a healthy one,” Boyd said in email. “Regulation is uneven, products vary, and use is still illegal under federal law. We need better data!”

‘Like the Wild West’

B lives in Georgia, a state where only medical marijuana is allowed. Therefore, B began using hemp-based gummies laced with delta-9, the most abundant form of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the part of the cannabis plant that creates a high. The synthetic form used in edibles is called delta-9 THC-O acetate.

With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed the hemp plant from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s schedule of controlled substances, B can buy numerous brands of hemp gummies nearly everywhere, including her local gas station.

“First, I want to commend her for giving up alcohol,” said Grinspoon, who is on the board of the advocacy group Doctors for Drug Policy Reform, which addresses cannabis, psychedelic and drug regulation in general.

“But the hemp products she buys at the gas station or liquor store or the like are completely unregulated, sprayed with synthetic cannabinoids like delta-8delta-9 and delta 10 that are pretty cheap to make.

“That’s really dangerous for a million reasons,” he said. “We don’t know what’s in these new synthetic cannabinoids. You can get all kinds of industrial byproducts, a mixture of all kinds of synthetics, or an extremely high or low dose of the synthetic. It’s like the Wild West out there.”

“Potentially harmful chemicals “are needed to convert cannabinoids in hemp into synthetic products like delta 8, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, while manufacturing may “occur in uncontrolled or unsanitary settings.”

Of the nearly 2,400 calls about delta 8 to the National Poison Center in one year from 2021 to 2022, 70% required a doctor’s care and 8% were admitted, the FDA said. One child died.

June 2018 review of existing literature on synthetic versions of cannabis found they may cause more severe adverse effects, which could include breathing problems, a spike in blood pressure, chest pain and a rapidly beating heart, cognitive impairment. anxiety, agitation, suicidal ideation, and even death.

“In and of itself, it’s not good that more people are using cannabis,” Grinspoon said.

However, If they are going to use it to replace alcohol, he added, “people should be buying marijuana and hemp cannabis products at a legal, regulated dispensary in a state where the product is tracked from beginning to end and tested along the way.”

If a person chooses to buy weed or hemp online or at a smoke shop, be sure to choose a product with a label that shows they have paid an independent outside company to assure the purity of their products, he said.

“My other advice for people who want to use weed is to get educated,” he said. “Don’t smoke it. Start at a very low dose and go slow. Don’t use it before driving. And get it from a medical marijuana dispensary or well-regulated legal shop, as that is much safer than these hemp-derived products that are unregulated.”