Could UK adults swap out booze for recreational cannabis in the near future?

December 10, 2021

The end of 2021 has seen the German coalition government vote in favour of making cannabis legal. This means that adults in Germany will soon be able to legally buy, sell and consume recreational cannabis.

Germany is not the only European country to move in the direction of legalisation and/or decriminalisation of weed. Earlier this year, Luxembourg became the first country in Europe to legalise recreational cannabis. Switzerland, The Netherlands and Portugal are all set to follow suit.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the US is moving in the direction of legalising cannabis at a federal – rather than state – level, with recreational cannabis already being legal in 18 of its 50 states.

What does this mean for the UK?

This leads us on to the question of when (not if) the UK will be swept up by the green tide? And how will it affect our social lives when it does?

Brits love to drink. There’s no getting around this. The pub is a culturally-rooted establishment and getting together over a drink is often the default social interaction for many people. 

Although there does appear to be a trend of young people drinking less than the older generations, with as many as one in four young adults reporting to be tee-total

We are, however, still a nation of drinkers.

Why do we drink?

Of course, this is a complex question. Alcohol dependency and addiction are a serious societal ill which needs to be taken seriously and is often a result of a myriad of different socio-economic factors.

However, we do need to understand why people choose to drink in the first place if we are to make any predictions about recreational cannabis.

Most often, alcohol acts as a social lubricant, and it is able to provide short-term anxiety relief for some people. Also, getting altered is fun and human and there is no point denying this.

Ultimately, it boils down to the question of whether alcohol and cannabis are substitutes, i.e. does the increase in the consumption of one lead to a decrease in the consumption of the other? Can recreational cannabis provide a comparative, or even superior, experience to alcohol in social settings or will people simply consume the two together?

There have been several studies conducted in an attempt to answer his question, with somewhat conflicting results. On the whole,  largely based on data from the US, it appears that alcohol and cannabis are substitutes, at least to some extent.

For example, one study showed that, out of the 350 patients surveyed, 40% said they had replaced their alcohol consumption with cannabis. Another study, found that there was an average of a 15% reduction in alcohol sales post-legalisation.

This makes sense, not least because smoking too much weed doesn’t result in the same violent hangover that often comes after a few too many glasses of wine the night before. At least not to the same extent.

Going ‘Cali-sober’ 

Outside of social settings, the cannabis vs alcohol debate is also taking place in addiction spaces, with plenty of anecdotal evidence of people with opiate or alcohol addictions using cannabis to ‘wean’ themselves off the original substance.

The most common treatment option for those with alcohol use disorder is currently attending AA meetings, which promote an abstinence only-model. However, attempting to completely quit alcohol cold-turkey has shown to have a success rate of just 5-8%, says Gabrielle Glaser, the author of ‘Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — And How They Can Regain Control’.

This has led to some seeking out alternative treatment options, one of which has been dubbed ‘Cali sober’ (also sometimes referred to as ‘marijuana maintenance’), which involves cutting out all substances except for cannabis (and, in some cases, psychedelics). Celebs, including Demi Lovato, are included in the list of this lifestyle’s proponents.

Why does this matter? According to the latest NHS data, over 7.5 million people in the UK show signs of alcohol dependence. At least some of those 7.5 million people will find that the ‘Cali sober’ approach works for them.

One cannabis user, who asked to remain anonymous, noticed her drinking increasing drastically during lockdown. Both in frequency and quantities consumed.

“I just remember sitting in my living room, with nothing to do, so I’d just pour myself a glass of wine,” she told leafie.

“Eventually it turned into a worrying habit. My husband had to sit me down and stage a small intervention at one point, after a particularly embarrassing night.”

She’s one of the people who discovered that cannabis was a vital part of her journey to sobriety. 

“I truly don’t think I would have been able to stay sober without it.”

Critics claim that it is not a real solution, as individuals are simply substituting one substance for another. However, with cannabis reportedly being 114 times safer than alcohol, this seems like a harm-reduction idea worth backing.

What do the experts say?

Professor David Nutt, who specialises in researching the ways in which drugs affect our brains, estimates that if legal cannabis cafes are allowed to open in the UK, alcohol consumption could drop by as much as 25%.

For many years I have given talks on UK drug policy as part of the Sceptics in the Pub network,” Professor Nutt told leafie.

“At the end of most of these, I ask the audience how many would switch to cannabis instead of alcohol if we had a legal Dutch coffee-shop type market. In general about one-quarter of the audience put up their hands.”

This opinion is echoed by the president of CLEAR and cannabis expert Peter Reynolds: “I don’t think there can be any doubt that legalisation would reduce alcohol consumption, eliminate ‘spice’, reduce contaminated products, and enable easier medical access. 

“So it’s bound to be a gain for public health.”

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of people completely swapping out alcohol for weed, or at least drastically reducing their alcohol consumption when they use recreational cannabis. 

And since any amount of alcohol is bad for you, this can only be a good thing. 

It seems that, when cannabis becomes decriminalised in the UK, it may become a popular alternative to alcohol for social drinkers and problem drinkers alike. 

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