Are Cannabis Drinks Better Than Alcohol? Here’s What You Need to Know.
Say hello to the new cocktail hour. Nearly a quarter of U.S. consumers are trying to cut back on alcohol, according to a 2021 survey by NielsenIQ, and one of the main reasons for the downshift is a desire to be healthy. Enter cannabis-infused seltzers. Boasting organic, vegan, and non-GMO labels, they’re more closely associated with wellness in the minds of consumers, and they’re quickly becoming a popular alternative to alcohol. With cannabis now fully legal in 21 states along with Guam and Washington, D.C., the global cannabis drinks industry is booming: the market is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of a mind-blowing 54% between 2021 and 2028.
Could a “healthy” buzz with no hangover be the way to extend Dry January throughout the year? One brand, Happi, offers cans of low-dosage seltzers in vibrant flavors like raspberry honeysuckle and blood orange ginger — perfect for a splash of fresh juice or a lemon twist. Another brand, Caan, bills itself as a “social tonic” and ships starter packs to 33 states. But are cannabis beverages really healthier and safer? We talked to Dr. Igor Grant, the Director of the UC San Diego Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, to help guide us through the Wild West of liquid weed.
How are the impacts different from alcohol?
“There’s nothing magical about THC one way or the other,” says Dr. Grant. “There’s no absolutely safe level of any drug, and it depends on a person’s own physiology.”
That said, it’s all a balancing act. “Relatively speaking, with modest use, cannabis seems to be safer than alcohol.”
Alcohol has a much higher risk of fatal alcohol poisoning — nearly 2500 people die yearly — and more harmful long-term effects on our bodies. “We know that alcohol in large amounts causes all sorts of organ injury. Small amounts may not be particularly harmful though the research is still evolving.”
Of course, THC impacts mood, behavior, and cognitive function, but according to Dr. Grant, modest amounts used occasionally are probably harmless.
One thing to remember: Anyone who has sipped a cocktail before eating knows you can go from sober to tipsy in mere minutes because alcohol has a stronger effect on an empty stomach. Surprisingly, cannabis is the opposite, especially if you’ve filled up on fatty food. “THC dissolves in the lipids of fatty substances; it hops on the lipid raft, so you’ll feel the effects faster when you’re full.”
How is it different from smoking or gummies?
When you vape or smoke cannabis, the THC quickly enters the bloodstream, so people feel the effect very fast.
“It’s a rapid onset of action when you smoke, but when you ingest THC by mouth via gummies or drinks, it takes time for the materials to be absorbed by your gut so that the effect will be delayed, maybe by 30 minutes or even an hour,” says Dr. Grant. This leads to a common pitfall for people unaccustomed to the delay (or expecting a buzz like alcohol). “Maybe you don’t feel anything within 30 minutes, and you’re tempted to drink more. Within a few hours, a person can really get hammered. It’s harder to control.”
One advantage the cannabis seltzers have over gummies is customized dosing. The seltzers boast various levels of THC, typically 2.5 to 10 milligrams, and you can slowly sip your drink through the night, controlling how much you get.
Are there health benefits?
“THC does have some positive medical properties,” says Grant. “It’s well-established that THC helps with certain types of chronic pain from injuries or inflammatory conditions, and it can also help control muscle spasms.” Low doses, like 2.5 to 5 milligrams, can help with anxiety, too. But Grant warns that “in higher dosages, paradoxically, people can get even more anxious and paranoid.”
On the other hand, the jury’s out on alcohol. Though numerous studies have touted the health benefits of, say, a daily glass of wine on the heart, new research suggests alcohol provides little to no health benefits whatsoever.
What should we be cautious about?
We know how our bodies react to alcohol: we have a few drinks, and the buzz wears off after an hour or two.
“In pharmacology, the effects last much longer,” says Dr. Grant. Depending on how much liquid cannabis you imbibe, you might feel the effects for many hours. Additionally, the combo of alcohol and THC is something researchers don’t understand well, according to Dr. Grant. “You might know exactly how your body reacts to two beers and how you react to 2.5 milligrams of THC, but not the combination. Some research shows that even small amounts of THC multiply the effects of alcohol.”
The upshot? If you sip cannabis recreationally or socially, it’s best to have some experience with it to know how you’ll react. And that age-old advice rings true: everything in moderation.