08 May Do Abstaining Cannabis Users Increase Their Alcohol and Cigarette Intake?
Cannabis (the common term for both marijuana and hashish products) is one of the most commonly used recreational substances in America. Up to one-half of all people who use this drug every day will eventually merit a diagnosis for cannabis addiction or medically serious cannabis abuse. In a study published in May 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from five Australian institutions investigated the changes in other forms of substance intake that occur when cannabis users halt their intake of the drug. Specifically, the researchers looked at changes in the rate of alcohol consumption and cigarette use.
Alcohol, nicotine-containing cigarettes and THC-containing marijuana are the three most popular recreational substances among people in the U.S. over the age of 11. According to figures compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 52 percent of all Americans in this vast portion of the population drink alcohol at least once a month, with the highest rates of use clustered among people ranging in age from 21 to 64. Roughly 22 percent of all American adults and adolescents smoke cigarettes at least once a month, with the highest rates of use among people ranging in age from 18 to 59. Nearly 19 million American teens and adults smoke marijuana at least once a month; again the peak rates of use occur among a broad range of younger and older adults. Marijuana use is far more common than the use of any other illegal/illicit drug or medication.
Public health officials are well aware that the use of marijuana and other illicit drugs is statistically linked to both cigarette use and excessive alcohol consumption. For example, figures compiled by SAMHSA for the year 2012 show that fully 31 percent of all U.S. teens and adults classified as heavy drinkers also use marijuana or some other illegal/illicit substance. Illegal/illicit substance use is also more likely to occur in people who participate in the dangerous practice of binge drinking. Over half (53.4 percent) of all American adults and adolescents who drink heavily smoke cigarettes. This percentage is far higher than the rate of cigarette use in people who don’t drink heavily, don’t participate in binge drinking or don’t drink alcohol at all.
Do Abstaining Cannabis Users Increase Their Intake?
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of Sydney and four other Australian institutions looked at what happens to alcohol and cigarette intake patterns in cannabis users who abstain from the drug. They conducted this investigation with the help of 45 active cannabis users who agreed to suspend their drug intake for a period of two weeks. None of these individuals was currently receiving or hoping to receive treatment for cannabis addiction or serious, non-addicted cannabis abuse (the two frequently overlapping conditions known collectively as cannabis use disorder). The researchers used both self-reports and drug testing to track substance intake during the two-week period of cannabis abstinence; they also conducted follow-up testing a month after the abstinence period came to an end.
The researchers concluded that, while abstaining from cannabis use, the study participants increased their alcohol consumption by an average of eight drinks a week. The participants also increased their smoking rate by an average of 14 cigarettes a week. The vast majority (87 percent) of the study participants had resumed cannabis use at the time of the one-month follow-up. Among these individuals, weekly alcohol consumption fell off by an average of close to five drinks, but did not drop all the way back to the rate maintained before abstaining from cannabis. Weekly cigarette intake fell by 13 cigarettes, just one cigarette more than the rate maintained before cannabis abstinence. Critically, the 13 percent of participants who were still cannabis-free at the one-month follow-up did not experience an increase in either their alcohol consumption or their cigarette use.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence concluded that an increase in cigarette use during cannabis abstinence was related to the presence of symptoms of cannabis withdrawal such as restlessness and sleeplessness. They also concluded that cigarette use rates did not rise in the study participants who remained relatively unaffected by the impact of cannabis withdrawal. The study’s authors specifically call for future research on the ways in which people seeking treatment for cannabis-related problems may use alcohol, cigarettes or other substitute substances.
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