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What Cannabis Legalization Means For Alcohol Sales

While states like Colorado, Washington, and California have legalized recreational cannabis, only California allows on-premises cannabis consumption, giving many in the state options over whether they’ll consume cannabis onsite or go to their usual bars to consume alcohol.

Will the legalization of cannabis have an effect on the consumption of alcohol? Are people beginning to use cannabis instead of alcohol, and will alcohol consumption diminish because of it? Or, will alcohol consumption increase because people like the booze/cannabis combination? Researchers are trying to determine whether people substitute cannabis for alcohol or complement cannabis with alcohol.

What The Research Says

The RAND Corporation conducted such a study for the state of Vermont back in 2015 to inform state legislators about marijuana policy as the lawmakers grappled with cannabis legalization. Vermont eventually approved the use of recreational marijuana in January 2018, with the law set to take effect on July 1. The law makes Vermont the ninth state to legalize recreational cannabis in the U.S. Interestingly, Vermont is home to the first state legislature to legalize cannabis, with every other state doing so through a public referendum.

In the RAND study, the evidence regarding cannabis and alcohol were a mixed bag. There has been research studying different age groups, time periods and other variables, but it varies widely. The alcohol-cannabis relationship differs across different groups; for example, adults use the two differently than do teens. Certainly, the varying policies from state to state have a significant effect on both cannabis and alcohol use. For example, those who are allowed home cultivation may have more of a tendency to drink alcohol in the privacy of their dwelling.

A collaborative study between Georgia State University and the University of Connecticut looked at sales of alcohol from 2006 to 2015 at grocery stores, convenience stores, and other sales outlets. Their study found that cannabis was substituted for alcohol, as evidenced by a 15 percent reduction in alcohol sales in one month. In Colorado and Washington, alcohol sales have remained unchanged since 2014, when cannabis stores opened.

The Safety Factor

An Australian study examined vehicle accidents involving cannabis and determined whether alcohol also played a role. About 20 percent of all drivers involved in crashes exceeded the blood alcohol limit, but of those, only about one in ten also tested positive for cannabis. Conversely, in cases where people were over the cannabis limit, over 30 percent of those cases also involved alcohol. Australian researchers concluded that alcohol remains the most significant threat for car accidents; it’s not that drugged driving isn’t, it’s just that drunk driving far exceeds it.

California is currently determining where to build on-site cannabis consumption locations and how many they should build. Unfortunately, if they’re trying to include the alcohol factor, there is not any conclusive evidence.

The Vermont Example

Research will likely continue in the area, but in the meantime, California may want to take a page from RAND’s recommendations for Vermont. RAND cautioned Vermont against getting caught in the “binary choice”—prohibition or legalization. Instead, RAND suggested a wide range of possible implementations of legal cannabis, focusing on four key aspects: regulations, price, products that can be distributed and the organizations allowed to provide legal cannabis.

In the end, Vermont implemented one of the most restrictive marijuana legalization policies in the U.S. Adults cannot buy or sell, but they can possess a very limited amount from private home-grown plants. Growers can have up to an ounce of flower and can grow two flowering plants or four non-budding plants per home. Vermont has no commercial farming or sales but expects to down the road as they ease into legalization.

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