Recent findings from an American research team point to a significant increase in the mind-altering effects of marijuana/cannabis in a person who also consumes even small amounts of alcohol.
All forms of cannabis contain THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), a mind-altering substance largely responsible for making cannabis products a source of diagnosable abuse and addiction. In a study published in May 2015 in the journal Clinical Chemistry, federal and university-based researchers looked at what happens to the THC blood levels of people who also consume small amounts of alcohol. These researchers concluded that the chemical effects of alcohol substantially increase blood levels of THC, whether an individual consumes a relatively small or relatively large amount of marijuana, hashish or hashish oil.
THC, Cannabis Potency and Addiction
THC belongs to a large family of chemical substances known as cannabinoids. Generally speaking, marijuana (the leaves and flowering parts of cannabis plants) contains lower levels of this mind-altering chemical than hashish (concentrated cannabis resin glands). In turn, hashish contains lower levels of THC than hashish oil (hashish put through a solvent-based extraction process). However, since the early 1990s, the amount of THC in the typical batch of marijuana has escalated drastically, and the marijuana available today frequently has a THC potency once only linked to hashish.
When an individual consumes marijuana or any other cannabis product, THC enters the bloodstream, passes through the blood-brain barrier and reaches a group of brain structures sometimes referred to informally as the pleasure center. Inside the pleasure center, THC boosts the levels of dopamine, a naturally occurring brain chemical responsible for controlling a powerful sensation called euphoria. It is the euphoria-producing potential of cannabis products that helps explain their danger as addictive substances. (The same thing holds true for alcohol and the vast majority of mind-altering drugs/medications.) When a person repeatedly consumes marijuana, hashish or hashish oil, working conditions inside the pleasure center can undergo a lasting change and set the stage for the onset of cannabis dependence. Roughly 9 percent of all marijuana consumers ultimately develop an addiction, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports; habitual consumers have a much higher addiction rate of 25 percent to 50 percent.
Known Impact of Cannabis and Alcohol Use
The combination of alcohol and cannabis qualifies as a form of polydrug use. As a rule, polydrug use produces unique hazards in the individual when compared to the use of a single mind-altering substance. Apart from any question of THC blood levels, known possible impacts of combining cannabis and alcohol include a substantially reduced ability to operate a motor vehicle, exposure to a highly disorienting level of substance intoxication, increased chances of experiencing paranoia or anxiety-related changes in mental outlook and increased chances of experiencing physical problems such as nausea and vomiting.
Alcohol and THC Potency
In the study published in Clinical Chemistry, researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the University of Maryland and the University of Iowa used data gathered from 32 adults to examine the effect that alcohol consumption has on the blood concentration of THC inhaled in cannabis smoke. All of the participating adults used marijuana/cannabis at least once in the three months prior to the study; at most, the participants used the drug three days a week over the same span of time. During the study, each participant consumed a small amount of alcohol designed to increase blood-alcohol levels to roughly 0.065 percent (somewhat below the threshold for legal intoxication) or an alcohol placebo. Ten minutes after consuming alcohol or an alcohol placebo, each participant smoked marijuana with a 2.9 percent THC potency, marijuana with a much higher 6.7 percent THC potency or a marijuana placebo with no THC content.
The researchers concluded that, even after consuming a relatively small amount of alcohol, any given marijuana/cannabis smoker experiences a significant uptick in the amount of THC circulating in his or her bloodstream. This finding holds true for cannabis with low THC potency and cannabis with high THC potency. The researchers also concluded that the combination of alcohol and marijuana/cannabis leads to a higher blood concentration of THC’s main breakdown product, which also has a mind-altering effect. In the study participants, the elevated THC levels associated with the overlapping consumption of alcohol and marijuana/cannabis lasted for a number of hours.
The study’s authors believe their findings underscore the chemical interactions of alcohol and marijuana/cannabis and help explain why people who combine the two substances have such heavily impaired driving abilities.