Does cannabis complement or substitute alcohol consumption? A systematic review of human and animal studies

J Psychopharmacol. 2020 Sep;34(9):938-954. doi: 10.1177/0269881120919970. Epub 2020 Jul 10.


Background: Whether alcohol and cannabis complement or substitute each other has been studied for over two decades. In the changing cannabis policy landscape, debates are moving rapidly and spill-over effects on other substances are of interest.

Aims: update and extend a previous systematic review, by: (a) identifying new human behavioural studies reporting on substitution and/or complementarity of alcohol and cannabis, and (b) additionally including animal studies.

Methods: We replicated the search strategy of an earlier systematic review, supplemented with a new search for animal studies. Search results were crossed checked against the earlier review and reference lists were hand searched. Findings were synthesised using a narrative synthesis.

Results: Sixty-five articles were included (64 in humans, one in animals). We synthesised findings into categories: patterns of use, substitution practices, economic relationship, substance use disorders, policy evaluation, others and animal studies. Overall, 30 studies found evidence for substitution, 17 for complementarity, 14 did not find evidence for either, and four found evidence for both.

Conclusions: Overall, the evidence regarding complementarity and substitution of cannabis and alcohol is mixed. We identified stronger support for substitution than complementarity, though evidence indicates different effects in different populations and to some extent across different study designs. The quality of studies varied and few were designed specifically to address this question. Dedicated high-quality research is warranted.

Keywords: Cannabis; alcohol; and complementarity; substitution.