There’s Real Evidence That Legalizing Pot Can Reduce Drinking

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BY: Jon Walker 04.20.18

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When Molson Coors disclosed earlier this year that it considered the advent of legal marijuana to be a significant risk to its business, the company was coming down on one side of a contentious debate that has accompanied the movement to bring pot out of the shadows and into the world of taxed and regulated consumer products.

In Colorado, a pioneer in legalization, advocates centered their campaign on the argument that marijuana was far safer than alcohol, and therefore should be treated in at least a similar way.

That argument, though, becomes moot if marijuana is not actually a substitute for alcohol, but rather a complement. In other words, if getting high means you also drink more, it doesn’t matter if getting stoned is safer than getting drunk.

Because the federal government has long starved financing for research into cannabis, there is much still to learn, but early results do seem to suggest that what is intuitive is also true: that pot is a substitute — not just for alcohol, but for opioids, too.

“Although the ultimate impact is currently unknown, the emergence of legal cannabis in certain U.S. states and Canada may result in a shift of discretionary income away from our products or a change in consumer preferences away from beer,” Molson Coors Brewing Company warned in its filing.

The booze industry is not ignoring the threat, either. Several alcohol companies and alcohol industry organizations have helped fund the campaigns against marijuana legalization initiatives, which suggests that they are convinced enough of the theory to put money behind it.

An analysis I did of preliminary liquor sales data from Oregon suggests that the concerns of the industry may have merit, and that legal marijuana may indeed be causing people to consume less hard alcohol.

How recreational marijuana impacts alcohol consumption could be the most important financial and public health impact of its legalization. While marijuana use is not without problems, alcohol is responsible for roughly 88,000 deaths a year, and excessive drinking is estimated to create an economic cost of roughly $250 billion.

Voters in Oregon legalized marijuana in 2014, via Measure 91. In October 2015, the state began allowing recreational sales to adults over the age of 21, but cities and counties were given the ability to ban these businesses, so some did not allow recreational sales to take place. This makes it possible to compare hard alcohol sales in the parts of the state with recreational marijuana stores to sales in those jurisdictions without them, using data from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, or OLCC.

In this analysis, Oregon municipalities were divided into two groups: cities that had at least one store selling recreational marijuana throughout OLCC fiscal year 2017 (summer 2016 to summer 2017) and cities which never had recreational marijuana sales before July 2017. Store data is based on information from the Oregon Health Authority and OLCC.

From fiscal years 2016 to 2017, all liquor sales in all cities with recreational marijuana locations grew by just 4.17 percent. By comparison, in cities without marijuana stores, all liquor sales grew by 5.86 percent. While a small difference overall, this was the biggest gap in the growth rate between these two groups going back 14 years. In previous years, the growth rate for these two groups tracked fairly closely.

Jon Walker/The Intercept

Alcohol sales dipped after fiscal year 2016 in areas with pot stores.