Over time, Jonathan Habel’s drinking got heavier — along with his uneasiness about it.
“My dad, and my grandfather, always got home from work and as soon as they got inside would just grab a beer and another,” the 39-year-old Gatineau., Que. man remembers. “I kind of took the same habit that they had.”
“As time passed I drank a little more, a little more often. It became a habit, and it was just my way of winding down after work every night. I could feel that it wasn’t doing me any good, even though it kind of relaxed me. It never really was a healthy option.”
But at the same time, it made him uncomfortable.
He found a way out, though, after Canada legalized recreational cannabis. He started replacing much of his alcohol consumption with marijuana. He now describes himself as an “ex-low-level alcoholic.”
And it seems he’s not alone. National data on beer sales shows early signs of falling consumption in 2019, after cannabis was legalized, though experts caution a longer-term shift would take years, maybe a generation, to make itself felt.
For Habel, legalization meant he could buy cannabis with clear information about how much THC and CBD were in a product, and what strain it was. Using that information, he could experiment to learn what worked best for him.
“I felt that this could really work,” he says. “This could be something that I choose over alcohol to just relax and mark the end of the day. Just to switch from one proven dangerous substance to another one that is maybe not that bad after all.”
Habel has cut his drinking back by about 40 per cent. He says he’s happier, is spending less money, has gone off anxiety medications and has lost weight.
“I didn’t feel like I had to drink every night. It makes me more relaxed. I makes me more playful with my son. I have more patience with my wife.”
Beer industry statistics show that sales fell sharply in 2019 in several provinces with large networks of cannabis retail stores: Newfoundland and Labrador and the three Prairie provinces.
The effect is harder to see in provinces like Ontario and Quebec, which have been slower to build out retail networks. It co-exists with a longer-term, but gentler, fall in beer consumption.
And it’s less strong in B.C., where cannabis was available before legalization much more freely than in the rest of Canada.
The exceptions were the three Maritime provinces, where beer consumption saw little change, despite high and rising rates of cannabis use.
The effect may have intensified during 2019 in provinces that are actively building out cannabis retail stores. In Alberta, for example, December 2019’s sales of domestic beer in bottles and cans were down 6.4 per cent from December 2018.
“I think it might speak to the fact that this is a legal substance and people are preferring the experience of being intoxicated from cannabis than from alcohol,” says Rebecca Haines-Saah, a health sociologist at the University of Calgary. “We’re not seeing the alcohol market go away, but that is part of the substitution.
“There are a lot of assumptions that soon everyone will be using cannabis, and I don’t think we’ve seen that yet, but we are seeing some interesting substitution patterns, potentially.”
Brock University health policy historian Dan Malleck calls the shift “a fairly significant change.”
“How many people are just not buying beer, but just having weed at the end of the day? People who might take the edge off at the end of the day — are they not drinking whisky any more? Spirits numbers would be nice to see.”
People may just be looking for a relatively healthy substance to detach a bit from life’s problems, Haines-Saah says.
“If we could look at a term like ‘stress-related’, or ‘blowing off steam’ — that habitual, maybe daily or weekly periodic use where people just need something to relax with.”
“People are looking to cannabis for some kind of relief, and it may have a harm reduction component for people looking for a substance to sort of improve quality of life and promote relaxation, and people sort of weighing the harms and the benefits versus alcohol or maybe the prescription medicines,” Haines-Saah says.
Experts who spoke to Global News point out that while both substances have their issues, cannabis is on the whole safer than alcohol. A lower percentage of users end up addicted, for one thing, and alcohol is associated with a range of health problems from cancer to liver disease.
“We know that as we age our sleep diminishes, people are dealing with combined stressors of children and aging parents and the workplace and financial concerns.”
How far could the shift go? Everyone Global News talked to about the issue pointed to the deep social embeddedness of alcohol as a sign that a large-scale change is some way off.
“Consuming alcohol is still more societally acceptable than cannabis, in a social setting,” says University of Waterloo economist Anindya Sen. “To think that cannabis will supplant that, I don’t know how long it will take for that to happen. We still have a very firm notion among many people that cannabis is a pathway to the consumption of more severe substances, and it’s a drug, a narcotic, so we have to kind of prevent it.
“I don’t know how long it will take for such a change to happen. Within a decade? I doubt it. It could be a whole generation.”
Though it’s hard to tell how much of the alcohol use that may be being replaced by cannabis use caused actual problems, Haines-Saah sees the shift as a potential public health win.
“One of my academic mentors says that if we look at the evidence we have today, we would absolutely make alcohol and tobacco illegal and cannabis legal, just based on what we know about the net health harms associated with it,” she says. “The harms of cannabis have mainly been associated with prohibition.
“There’s a joke that we’ve made that if everyone consumed cannabis when they went to a hockey game, there would never be any riots or fights in the street after a Stanley Cup final. You would just see everyone kind of chilled out.”
Sales figures were provided by Beer Canada, an industry group.
While legal cannabis is freely available online, legalization has shown that Canadians strongly prefer to buy their weed in person at physical stores. In New Brunswick, which has a large number of cannabis stores, only 1.1 per cent of sales are online.
Alcohol use is complicated, cannabis use is complicated, and the way alcohol and cannabis use affect each other is poorly understood, in part because legal cannabis has only just been freely available.
However, there are early indications that as legal cannabis becomes more available, some forms of drinking become less common.
A U.S. study released in January showed that student binge drinking was less widespread in states with legal cannabis, and had become rarer in those states after legalization. If cannabis and alcohol are more or less equally available from legal sources, fewer people turn to alcohol, leading to less problem alcohol use, the authors argued.
It’s possible that THC in beverage form, with effects that are felt faster than edibles, may cut more into alcohol consumption. However, producers have found bringing cannabis drinks to market is harder than they expected — what worked in a lab turns out to be hard to scale up to mass production. Other than tea, nowhere in Canada has so far seen cannabis drinks for sale.
A 2017 U.S. study showed that medical cannabis becoming available in U.S. states led to a noticeable fall in alcohol sales,
In late 2018, about half of self-reported cannabis users polled said they would drink less under legalization, though a pollster we talked to at that time pointed out that there are ” … differences between what we think we’re going to do and what we’re actually going to do.”
For its part, the alcohol industry has invested heavily in cannabis, a move some observers see as a way of coping with the possibility of some alcohol consumption being replaced.
For example, beer and spirits maker Constellation Brands invested $5 billion in Canopy Growth in the leadup to legalization.