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Marijuana and alcohol are two of the most commonly used drugs in the United States. While many people prefer to use them separately, there are many situations in which they both end up being consumed simultaneously, whether on purpose or accidentally. However, mixing the two can have many serious and unexpected consequences, including decreased judgement, increased overdosing potential, and increased susceptibility to the effects of THC. In this post we will go over a quick summary of how marijuana and alcohol affects the body, what can happen when you consume too much, and what can happen when they are consumed at the same time.
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How Alcohol and Marijuana Work on the Body
Alcohol is a psychoactive chemical that produces a variety of effects. It is one of the most common recreational drugs and works by suppressing the central nervous system. Although generally considered a depressant, the amount of alcohol consumed can change the effects on the body. For example, if you were to drink a glass of wine, you would experience the stimulating effects of alcohol, such as feeling more social or energized. After a few more glasses of wine, you would experience the sedating effects, such as slurred speech and difficulty walking. By binding to certain receptors in the brain, alcohol can affect short-term memory, heart rate, and impair other senses.
Similarly to alcohol, marijuana binds to the brain to produce many effects. Unlike alcohol, some of these receptors are specific to some of the chemicals found in marijuana. These receptors, called cannabinoid receptors, are found throughout the body. Other chemicals found in marijuana can also bind to serotonin and other neurotransmitter receptors. Another similarity to alcohol is the ability of marijuana to be both a stimulant and a depressant (Murray, 1986). This means that it can both increase heart rate and elevate mood, while causing dizziness and short-term memory loss.
What Happens if Too Much Alcohol or Marijuana is Consumed
Everybody is familiar with hangovers. Hangovers are the short-term consequences of drinking too much alcohol in a certain amount of time. They are also a result of many of the effects that alcohol has on the body. For example, alcohol is a diuretic, causing the kidneys to reabsorb less water, leading to dehydration. Alcohol also prevents deep sleep, which can lead to a difficult morning.
Consuming too much marijuana at one time also can lead to its own set of problems. Commonly called “greening out”, overdosing of marijuana can lead to feelings of panic, impaired motor skills, and nausea among other symptoms. Some people have also claimed to get marijuana hangovers after using too much and describe it as waking up groggy, nauseous, and achy.
The cause of greening out and a marijuana hangover both seem to be THC. THC, also known as Tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical in marijuana responsible for the high feeling certain strains produce. THC binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and body, and at high enough concentrations, causes overstimulation.
What Happens When Marijuana and Alcohol are Mixed
Now that marijuana is becoming legal in more states, co-consumption of marijuana and alcohol is becoming more common, and, as with most drugs, mixing marijuana and alcohol can have unexpected results. Some recreational users seek this out purposefully, and claim using both marijuana and alcohol can have fun side effects. They call it “cross-faded”, and Scientific American claims that those who use both marijuana and alcohol are twice as likely to use both at the same time.
This is usually so they can feel the effects of marijuana quicker, and that is very likely to happen. After consuming alcohol, higher levels of THC from smoked marijuana are found in blood plasma compared to those who did not drink (Lukas, 2001). This heightened THC level likely means that alcohol increases the rate of absorption and magnifies the effects of THC. Those who both smoked marijuana and drank alcohol claimed to have felt the effects of marijuana sooner and rated their high “better”.
This may also be due to alcohol induced blood vessel dilation, which is also the reason people report feeling warmer when drinking. In moderate amounts, alcohol causes blood vessels to expand. Combine increased blood flow with higher levels of THC, and odds are your brain is getting much more THC than if you were only using marijuana. Because of this, you are at a higher risk of suffering from some of the more dangerous effects of marijuana.
When combining marijuana and alcohol, you are also more likely to overdose from either one. While overdosing on marijuana hasn’t proven fatal, it can lead to injury due to loss of balance, memory, and other risky behaviors. Overdosing on alcohol, however, has proven fatal. Some research also suggests that those who use both marijuana and alcohol are five times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder (Columbia.edu). Of those who already had an alcohol use disorder, those who did not use marijuana were much more likely to recover.
Both marijuana and alcohol have profound effects on the mind and body. When combining the two substances, these effects can become unpredictable and much stronger. Because of the increased strength of the drugs, injuries and overdoses become more likely and can lead to much more long-term problems including alcohol use disorder. Combining these drugs, especially if marijuana is being used for a medical purpose, is not recommended and can be very dangerous.
Lukas, S. E., & Orozco, S. (2001). Ethanol increases plasma Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels and subjective effects after marihuana smoking in human volunteers. Drug and Alcohol Dependence,64(2), 143-149. doi:10.1016/s0376-8716(01)00118-1
Marijuana Smokers Five Times More Likely to Develop an Alcohol Problem. (n.d.). Retrieved May 3, 2019, from https://www.mailman.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/marijuana-smokers-five-times-more-likely-develop-alcohol-problem
Murray, J. B. (1986). Marijuanas Effects on Human Cognitive Functions, Psychomotor Functions, and Personality. The Journal of General Psychology,113(1), 23-55. doi:10.1080/00221309.1986.9710540