The Science Behind Alcohol and Cannabis

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Alcohol and cannabis are tried and true experiences for human beings. Their dual name recognition is unparalleled, in part because they are (by far) the most ubiquitous and accessible of drugs. Pursuing the high that results from combining the two substances — known as a “crossfade”— isn’t uncommon. Researchers are still working out the science behind this blissed-out state of mind. Of course, this means that most people mixing the substances in social contexts aren’t really aware of how the two substances are interacting in their body.

Which begs the question: what are the positive and negative subjective effects you can expect when mixing these two powerful psychoactive substances together? Are there any potentials for serious harm; and if so, what are they?

In this article, we’ve compiled some of the evidence floating around which manages to address these questions. We also explore a few of the most common ways that cannabis and alcohol interact with each other.

As always, drink/smoke/vape responsibly!

The Subjective Effects of ‘Crossfading’

Should you drink alcohol with your cannabinoids? Well, in general, we at F.A.B advise against it. We also recognise that whether ‘crossfading’ is appropriate is more generally a matter of context that should be analysed on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, only you can decide what is best for your own wellbeing.

Conventional wisdom also tends to lean towards no, although the conventional wisdom is often misguided when it comes to cannabis. Little research has been done on combining alcohol and marijuana, but the indications are that there can be major risks.

Truth be told, the pairing of alcohol and cannabis (commonly known as ‘crossfading’) is somewhat legendary in its synergy.  While there is admittedly a lack of research on this topic, preliminary studies have shown that alcohol consumption appears to significantly increase the ability of the human body to absorb THC. For experienced recreational users, ‘crossfading’ is a way to reach new heights. [1]

How one chooses to combine alcohol with cannabis makes all the difference, not to mention the many options available. The variety and potency of your alcohol is also relevant, as well as the kind of cannabis used, both in terms of the strain and the content of THC/CBD. Many of these variables are left unknown in Australia – so, be careful.

Alcohol is a depressant. In low doses, it causes emotional release and lowers inhibitions. Marijuana is also known for its relaxing qualities; yet, cannabis also acts upon different systems in the body. It produces different effects depending on the strain and how much is consumed. It synergises with alcohol whilst maintaining its own distinct psychoactive effects. [2]

Scott Lukas, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, says that “not everyone responds to alcohol and marijuana the same [way].” Lukas would know: he’s now done two studies in which he got people high and observed their reactions. [2]

Lukas also says about crossfading that “if you’re sitting alone in your bedroom, and you’ve got pillows all around you, and you’re well hydrated, and the bed’s not too far off the ground, the risk is low.”

Set and setting are also very important to the outcome of the experience. Under certain circumstances, alcohol and cannabis can incite paranoia, causing people to make flawed or even fatal choices. The magnified effects of using these substances together can be very unpredictable, and may cause panic, anxiety, or terror.

The ‘Entourage Effect’

It’s well established (at least in folk understanding) that cannabis and alcohol are highly potent substances that only intensify one another. There’s an old saying that goes something along the lines of: “Beer before Grass, you’re on your ass; Grass before Beer, you’re in the clear.” There are many who think this to be something of a wives’ tale… but there may in fact be some evidence in favour of this hypothesis.

One of Lukas’ studies looked at how smoking weed affects the absorption of alcohol, and the other looked at how drinking alcohol affects the absorption of THC. It was found that smoking cannabis activates the body’s cannabinoid 2 receptors (CB2), which can affect how quickly it absorbs alcohol. [2]

“Marijuana does a unique thing to your small intestine that alters the motility [the way things move through your intestines] of your GI tract in such a way that it causes your blood alcohol levels to actually be lower than… if you had just consumed alcohol by itself,” Lukas says. [2]

But in the second study, Lukas found that alcohol actually has the inverse effect on THC: If you drink first and then smoke, it causes the levels of THC in your plasma to skyrocket, intensifying your high. That’s because alcohol opens up blood vessels in your digestive system, which helps THC get absorbed—a finding confirmed in a more recent study done in 2015. [2]

Drinking first may be more ‘synergistic’; that is, it may increase the body’s ability to absorb THC up to twice as quickly after drinking than without alcohol. In other words, you can potentially double the effects of THC in your system if you have a drink before you smoke. [1]

Whilst this may seem like a “budget” way to stretch the impact of your cannabis high, it’s advised you go slow. Keep in mind here that once the unusually high levels of THC reach your brain, your mental functions will have already taken a fair beating from the booze.

One of the primary dangers of drinking before smoking is severe illness, which is not the goal of any responsible cannabis user. [1] The conventional methods of ingesting cannabis, such as smoking, vaping, dabbing, and consumption through edibles, can still be quite risky in combination with alcoholic drinks.

Falling ill is more likely to occur if a person drinks alcohol before smoking. So, choof first if you don’t want to get wrecked!

‘Greening Out’

As we’ve already covered in this article, combining both cannabis and alcohol together can induce an elevated high. Overdo the mix, however, and it’s more than likely that you’ll experience the displeasure of greening out. This unfortunate fate may just mean throwing up, but it may also result in a long, drawn out nauseous sensation. [2] Dizziness, sweating, and other nasty symptoms may ensue. [1]

Indeed, cannabis and turps can prove to be quite a dangerous combination – especially if too much alcohol is consumed at once. Of course, it’s possible that you end up spewing your guts in someone’s front yard, but it’s also possible that the anti-emetic effects of cannabis help offset the upset stomach that accompany a night of drinking.

That sounds good, but it may actually be preferable for someone to throw up when too much alcohol has been consumed; a common occurrence in a night of binge drinking and drug use. Excessive cannabis and alcohol consumption can lead to death, as it is easier to drink excessively and risk alcohol poisoning. When it comes to alcohol poisoning, vomiting is the body’s best defence. While this aspect of the cannabis/alcohol interaction hasn’t been studied, common sense suggests that not throwing up could increase the chances of overdosing on alcohol. 

Cannabis Infused Beers, Wines and Spirits

It may surprise you to know that hops and cannabis are cousins in the plant world, and contain a great many similarities. Pairing cannabis and beer is becoming increasingly popular for this reason, particularly in Europe. This phenomenon has only been heightened by the advent of cannabis-infused beer. However, this kind of beer usually has trace elements of THC at best. The intoxicant here is the alcohol, for the most part. Cannabis-infused wine is another obvious idea. However, due to regulations of all kinds, there are very few places in the world where you can buy this commercially.

Infusing any kind of liquor with cannabis is one way to guarantee a drink that packs a significant punch of potency, if not flavour. There are no commercial varieties of a cannabis-infused spirit available anywhere right now, let alone Australia. With that said, making your own at home is very easy to do. Simply infuse your cannabis by soaking it in your favourite liquor. Marijuana margaritas are a popular choice. Any combination with fruit and alcohol is likely to be not only tasty, but highly intoxicating.

Beer and Cannabis

When deciding to smoke a THC-laden joint, beer can heighten the experience in a number of ways. The trick here is to pick the right kind of strain. Hybrids or sativas tend to go better with alcohol simply because it is a depressant. The couch-lock effect of a heavy indica might send you off to sleep with the first swig.

There are some beers with a low-alcohol volume that can perfectly complement such endeavours, however. Sour beers are a good choice, and can also reduce the feeling of cotton mouth.

Wine and Cannabis

Wine offers an intriguing, unique and fun experience when paired with cannabis. With that being said, the same rules concerning alcohol content still apply here.

Wine has a more complex molecular structure than cannabis. This is the scientific reason why there are more discernible aromas in wine. The tongue is also better suited to determine distinct tastes. Smoke, on the other hand, is discerned via the palate and respiratory system. When combined, however, the entire olfactory experience is elevated in the presence of both substances.

Lemon-y strains of cannabis go well with dry whites such as sauvignon, pinot, and chardonnay. Many smokers also prefer merlot, cabernet, and pinot noir because of the low tannins. Sparkling wines like Champagne or prosecco can aid as refreshing cleanse for a smokers’ dry mouth and throat.

Spirits and Cannabis

This may sound like throwing gasoline on a bonfire… and to be honest, it kind of is.

Alcohol takes longer to ‘kick in’ than cannabis. It can also take a lot longer to wear off, as regular drinkers know. Once alcohol is in your system, it boosts marijuana’s effects by opening up your blood vessels, allowing more THC to be absorbed.

The key here is to predict the delayed response to alcohol in your own perception when experimenting with hard liquors, which have a relatively quick and unexpected onset.

Applications in Medicine

Cannabinoids are frequently mixed with alcohol, even for medical purposes. Alcohol-based extraction is a safe way to isolate cannabinoids from plant matter, along with fat-infused extraction. [1]

Additionally, regular alcohol consumption appears to increase the ability of the body to absorb THC; which, may become a way to augment the impact of cannabinoids for medical patients.

Alcohol Based Tinctures

Much of what appears on the edible and medical cannabis market today contains an alcohol-based extraction of cannabinoids. The reason? There are many recipes and formulas where fat-based concentrates do not work. See cannabis water or soda. Or gum. Or candy. Or even medical drops. [1]

Regarding the above recipes, cannabinoids can be extracted by soaking cannabis plant matter in a high-proof, edible alcohol. In these applications, cannabinoids and terpenes are isolated, purified, then later mixed into recipes or combined with other elements. [1]

Don’t Drink and Drive

‘Crossfading’ can have especially dangerous implications on the road. In Random Drug Tests across Australia, police have found that 40% of those who indicated the presence of cannabis in their system were simultaneously intoxicated with alcohol. A study found that on average, driving ability was moderately impaired by cannabis, but severely impaired when alcohol and cannabis were mixed together. People who may feel comfortable driving after drinking a beer or smoking a joint may find themselves severely impaired from the combination of both substances.

Summary

There are plenty of people who regularly combine cannabis and alcohol without incident. Whilst it’s likely that protracted use will lead to long term impacts on your health and wellbeing, there are definitely ways in which you can mitigate your risk when ‘crossfading’. Just play it safe, and try to smoke before you drink. Using common sense will go a long way.

It is important to know your own limits. In this case, it’s the dose that makes the poison. Where one is usually accustomed to consuming more of the substances in isolation, a little of both tends to go a long way. If you are new to combining these two substances, do so with caution and moderation.

Sources Cited

[1] Royal Queen Seeds – Can You Ever Mix Alcohol With Cannabis?
https://www.royalqueenseeds.com/blog-can-you-ever-mix-alcohol-with-cannabis-n640

[2] Vice – What Mixing Alcohol and Weed Does To Your Mind
https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/aey385/what-mixing-weed-and-alcohol-does-to-your-mind

[3] Greenstate – Can I Combine Alcohol and Marijuana?
https://www.greenstate.com/explained/can-combine-alcohol-marijuana/

[4] Honi Soit – Harvard Researchers Get High, Then Drunk
https://honisoit.com/2013/02/harvard-researchers-get-high-then-drunk/

[5] Ethanol increases plasma Delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) Levels and Subjective Effects After Marihuana Smoking in Human Volunteers
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11543984

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