Apr 19, 2024 - Health

Cannabis drinks allow people to go "Cali Sober" on 4/20

Illustration of a Cannabis plant in a vase made of a beer bottle.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Companies that make cannabis-infused drinks are encouraging people to ditch booze for weed on 4/20 — the longstanding pot holiday.

Why it matters: More people are going "California Sober" — no alcohol or hard drugs, just marijuana, thank you — but the medical community is split over whether this is a good idea.

  • The practice is known as "harm reduction," which involves swapping out your biggest demon for a smaller one.
  • "We're saying, 'Drink this when you're socializing as a healthier alternative to alcohol,'" says Jake Bullock, the founder and CEO of Cann, which makes weed-infused seltzers.

Driving the news: THC drinks have become a product category for people who want a gentle buzz without smoking — and folks who struggle with alcohol use.

  • 4/20 has become a big marketing hook. (4/20 is doper slang for marijuana, and has turned April 20 — this Saturday — into a big, lit celebration.)
  • There are now dozens of drinkable products on the market, with names like Happi, Cantrip, Cann, Boldt and Artet (which calls itself a "cannabis aperitif").
  • They come in pretty cans and fruity flavors (like blood orange cardamom and grapefruit rosemary) that mimic the fun of boozy cocktails.
    • Cann, for example, is running 4/20 promotions and hawking the benefits of cannabis over booze: No more "hangovers and texts to your ex."

What they're saying: "As a society, we drink our intoxicants," said Amanda Reiman, a harm reduction scholar and chief knowledge officer at New Frontier Data, a cannabis industry consultancy.

  • "That's how we consume coffee; that's how we consume alcohol," she told Axios.
  • "I foresee a day in the future where you go to a bar and your choices are caffeine, alcohol or cannabis."
A party table filled with food, games and cans of cannabis-infused drink cans.
Makers of cannabis-infused beverages like Cann want them to become party staples. Image courtesy of Cann

Yes, but: Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs don't condone going "Cali Sober," and doctors are divided over it.

  • "Too many people are still falling for this fad," Lantie Elisabeth Jorandby, chief medical officer at Lakeview Health in Jacksonville, Florida, writes in Psychology Today.
  • Marijuana can damage the brain, particularly in young people.
  • Some doctors say that if you're addicted to one substance, you'll be addicted to any substance you try, and your only choice is abstinence.

The other side: "The phenomenon of being 'Cali sober' is taking the recovery world by storm," Peter Grinspoon, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, writes for STAT.

  • "It isn't cheating to use medicines or other substances to maintain recovery," adds Grinspoon, who teaches at Harvard Medical School.

Where it stands: Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse — considered one of the nation's leading experts — takes a middle-ground stance.

  • "Rigorous research on the potential risks, benefit, and health effects of cannabis use is urgently needed," she said by email in response to questions from Axios.
  • She noted "emerging evidence on the potential therapeutic uses of constituents of cannabis" as well as "an increase in the emergence of adverse health effects associated with cannabis."
  • More research is needed, she said, so we "can minimize potential harms associated with both alcohol use and cannabis use."

Zoom out: While all cannabis businesses see 4/20 as a sales peg — for gummies, chocolate, smokables — it's the drink makers that are pushing hardest to reshape the stoner holiday.

  • They want us to hoist a frosty can of ganja instead of suds — a trend that dovetails with Gen Z souring on alcohol.
  • Each can has a low dose of THC — typically 2 mg to 10 mg — so you can pace your high once you learn your tolerance.

Zoom in: Customers of THC beverages tend to fall into three categories: Baby Boomers who want to quit drinking, parents who want to stay clear-headed, and young people who never started drinking in the first place, said Cann's Bullock.

  • Among people with alcohol use disorder (the most accepted way to refer to alcoholism these days), people who quit 100% sometimes welcome help from THC drinks, gummies and/or smokes.
  • Others use the drugs to pare their drinking back to normal levels.
  • "The people Cann helps the most are really heavy alcohol drinkers," Bullock said.

The bottom line: While marijuana is an intoxicant, it's not potentially fatal like alcohol — and it's not associated with the same violent behavior and sloppiness that's typically seen with booze.

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