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What Mixing Weed and Alcohol Does to Your Body

I rarely mix weed and alcohol—but when I do, I become more silent than a hermit crab floating in space.

But pursuing the high that results from combining the two drugs—known as a “crossfade”—isn’t uncommon. Researchers, however, are still delving into the science behind this blissed-out state of mind—and why so many people seek it out.

Let’s start with what you probably already know: Alcohol is a depressant, but in low doses, it causes emotional release and lowers inhibitions. Marijuana is also known for its relaxing qualities but can produce very different results depending on how much and what strain is smoked. So what happens when you mix them together?

The first thing to know: “Not everyone responds to alcohol and marijuana the same [way],” says Scott Lukas, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. Lukas would know: He’s now done two studies in which he got people high and observed their reactions.

One study looked at how smoking weed affects the absorption of alcohol, and the other looked at how drinking alcohol affects the absorption of THC. Smoking cannabis, he found, activates your body’s cannabinoid 2 receptors (CB2), which can affect how quickly your body absorbs alcohol.

“Marijuana does a unique thing to your small intestine that alters the motility [the way things move through your intestines] of your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) in such a way that it causes your blood alcohol levels to actually be lower than… if you had just consumed alcohol by itself,” Lukas says.

But in the second study, Lukas found that alcohol actually has the inverse effect on THC: If you drink first and then smoke, it causes the levels of THC in your plasma to skyrocket, intensifying your high. That’s because alcohol opens up blood vessels in your digestive system, which helps THC get absorbed—a finding confirmed in a more recent study done in 2015.

As most recreational marijuana users can attest, however, there are limits to this feel-good effect: Drink too much before you smoke, and you run the risk of “greening out”—a nauseous sensation that kicks in when you feel sick and overwhelmed after getting too high. (Trust me, it’s no fun.)

“Individuals may go pale and sweaty, feel dizzy with “the spins,” nauseous, and may even start vomiting. This is often followed by the need or strong desire to lie down,” wrote Constance Scharff, an addiction specialist in California, in a column for Psychology Today.

More modern methods of ingesting THC—like dabbing, vaping, or eating cannabis—could further exacerbate this risk, but Lukas hasn’t had a chance to study them yet. He notes, however, that the THC levels now commonly found in cannabis and cannabis products greatly exceed the amounts he used in his studies.

Using common sense will go a long way: Lukas says there aren’t many side effects that come from mixing the two drugs that won’t also pop up from abusing the two independently. Just be careful not to overdo it, and always proceed with caution.

“If you’re sitting alone in your bedroom,” he says, “and you’ve got pillows all around you, and you’re well hydrated, and the bed’s not too far off the ground, the risk is low.”

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Researchers now understand the science behind the crossfade.

Why Weed and Alcohol Don’t Mix

The scientific explanation for getting the spins.

W e’ve all been there. You’re drinking at home, hiding out from coronavirus while listening to 69 Love Songs and sniffing your ex’s old undershirts. You’re adequately sauced, but not so drunk that you can’t remember all the words to “I Don’t Want to Get Over You.” Then you decide that what this moment really needs is a little bit of weed.

Bad move. As I learned every single weekend from the ages of 18 to 25, the wrong mix of booze and weed can be a toxic combination. Your blood pressure will drop, your stomach will seize, your skin will turn clammy, the color will drain from your face, and the world will start spinning. And that’s before you start puking. What seemed like a good idea at the time can quickly end with your head in the toilet if you’re lucky, and in the bushes if you’re not. It is, to put it mildly, unpleasant.

This doesn’t happen to everyone. Some people can drink a handle of Jim Beam and do half a dozen dabs, and then walk in a straight line and repeat the alphabet backward. We call these people “alcoholics.” But for many of us, adding weed to an already full stomach of booze can be a real party killer.

There’s a pharmacological reason for that, says Scott Lukas, the director of the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory at Harvard, and a man who has spent his career studying the effects of combining recreational drugs.

In 1992, Lukas published a study on what happens when people drink alcohol and smoke weed, and what he found was surprising: Cannabis actually lowers the blood alcohol content by impairing the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. In other words, adding THC to the mix kind of sobers you up, while at the same time getting you stoned. In theory, this sounds great, but the problem is what comes next: People tend to increase their alcohol consumption if they aren’t getting as drunk as expected.

“What would somebody do if they drank three beers, which normally makes them tipsy, and all of a sudden they’re not feeling it?” Lukas asked me over the phone. The answer is obvious: Drink more. And this, in turn, can lead to over-intoxication and everything that comes along with it, including the spins, the puking, and the feeling that if the world isn’t ending, it should be.

Interestingly, the effects on THC levels are reversed when combined with booze, which Lukas found in a 2001 study: “When subjects smoked a marijuana cigarette and then drank, the THC concentrations skyrocketed,” he told me.

It’s also less likely to make you sick if done in this order. From my extensive personal experience, this checks out, but what’s the reason behind it? It has something to do with the anti-nausea effects of THC and other cannabinoids—the very things that make weed such an effective treatment for the upset stomach that can accompany chemotherapy or illness.

“It depends on the drugs, the dose, and the order in which you do it,” Lukas said. “If you smoke first, you get the antiemetic [anti- vomiting] effect going on, so that if you drink too much, you won’t get as nauseated.”

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Of course, the best way to avoid “greening out,” as the phenomenon is called, is to stick with one drug or the other. “The effects are unpredictable enough when doing just one drug,” Lukas said. “When you add a second drug, you add another whole dimension.”

But if you’re going to mix, remember this: Dosage matters. Order matters. As the old adage goes, “Drink to excess and then smoke, and the spins are no joke.”

The scientific explanation for getting the spins. ]]>