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How Much Alcohol or Cannabis Is Too Much?

What to do when you're worried about your recreational alcohol and cannabis use.

Key points

  • Many people are confused about how much alcohol or cannabis use is okay and how much is too much.
  • Both alcohol and cannabis use can negatively impact your physical health and well-being.
  • It is important to be honest with yourself about when your usage is negatively impacting an area of your life.

We are creatures of habits, some healthy, some harmless, and some potentially problematic. When it comes to widespread habitual recreational use of alcohol and — increasingly since it has become legal in many jurisdictions — cannabis, many of us are understandably unclear about whether or not we should be concerned about our own usage level or the level of usage of someone we care about. How do we know when our casual usage has crossed the line? If we’re indulging every day, exactly how much is too much? How do we know if we’re developing a dependence on alcohol or weed?

Let’s look at how you can identify whether your usage has become problematic… and if it has, what you should be doing about it.

These days, we have easy access to habit-forming substances to help us relax at the end of a stressful day, or numb our anxiety, stress, and low mood. Both cannabis and alcohol can take the edge off a bad day, a trying situation, or troubling news. Cannabis was made legal for recreational use in Canada in 2018, and is currently legal in 18 states in the US. Most of us, even if we have never tried alcohol and cannabis, know many people who use one or both substances regularly.

To make matters worse — and the questions about safe usage even more prescient — during the height of COVID lockdowns, many people turned to alcohol or cannabis to ease their anxieties, and calm their fears about their health, the economy, and the state of the world. For many people, their use crept up as the pandemic restrictions dragged on.

How harmful can it be?

Recreational users of alcohol or cannabis are familiar with their pleasant side effects but tend not to look too deeply at the downside of usage. But both alcohol and cannabis are associated with serious and harmful side effects and symptoms and can — each in their own way — leave users vulnerable to dependence.

Alcohol is well known to be highly detrimental to our health and linked to heart disease, stroke, liver disease, numerous cancers, mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, and a range of social issues. Cannabis, while used by medical professionals to treat nausea, anxiety, sleep disorders, and other medical conditions, can have a negative effect on mental health, cause damage to the lungs, lower the immune response in some users, and — after chronic, long-term use — result in cyclic vomiting syndrome, also known as cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. There is also research underway to determine the link between increased heart attacks in younger people and other specific groups diagnosed with cannabis use disorder.

Impaired driving is the number one criminal cause of death in Canada, and in the US, it is estimated that 32 people a day lose their lives due to drunk driving. Impaired driving is a serious crime with potentially significant and life-altering consequences.

Helpful definitions and a new framework

Alcohol is a toxic carcinogen present in varying percentages in wine, beer, and a wide variety of beverages. Cannabis is a psychoactive drug derived from the cannabis plant. Addiction can be defined as any behavior or use of any substance to provide temporary relief from uncomfortable emotions that negatively impact the life of the user, and despite negative consequences the user continues their use or behavior.

With its criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder and Cannabis Use Disorder, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) provides a helpful framework for determining whether or not the use of alcohol and cannabis among users is problematic, and if so, whether a usage disorder is mild, moderate or severe.

How much is too much?

General guidelines on safe alcohol use vary, with many indicating that more than seven drinks per week for women and 14 for men is excessive. But a recent study from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction suggests that: “… all levels of alcohol consumption are associated with some risk, so drinking less is better for everyone.” Many cannabis manufacturers recommend not exceeding 40 mg per day of consumption. As there are many variables when it comes to potency, including THC levels and methods of consumption, the question of safe daily or weekly usage is far more complex and difficult to pinpoint.

If you’re worried that your drinking or cannabis use has become problematic, be honest with yourself about whether your usage is negatively impacting any aspect of your life. If the answer is yes, it is time to reduce or stop using altogether.

Recognize the opportunity for positive change

Recognizing and addressing problematic usage right now will positively impact the quality of your life for years to come. If you can decrease your level of consumption or quit without assistance, you should. If you are struggling to reduce or stop usage, bring in outside resources to help. There are many professional resources, treatments, and supports available to address potential use disorders and support your recovery and long-term health.

We are here to live our best life, stand up for ourselves, and make healthy choices. Addressing our issues and vulnerabilities and prioritizing self-care are crucial to living life at our highest and best.

If you are concerned about your use of alcohol and/or cannabis

Accept that the risks of alcohol and cannabis are real, and that minimum guidelines are just that and do not tell the whole story of your usage.

Take a good, honest look at whether your use has negatively impacted your life.

Decrease your consumption or quit on your own, if possible.

Seek professional help and support if you need it. Your family doctor or therapist can connect you with the resources to help you take control of your usage.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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