What’s the harm in mixing alcohol and drugs? A lot, apparently!
By Kate Karriker-Jaffe, a behavioral scientist who studies inequalities in alcohol, drug and mental health problems.
In a recent study that Dr. Meenakshi Subbaraman and I published with colleagues in the journal Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, we found that U.S. adults who use alcohol and drugs at the same time are more likely to report signs of alcohol use disorder and drug abuse than users who do not mix substances. In our prior work we have seen higher rates of risky behaviors such as alcohol-impaired driving by people who mix substances, but the group of adults in our newest study had never been to alcohol or drug treatment, which suggests that they have potentially serious problems that are going unrecognized.
It’s important to point out that the problem was not in using both alcohol and drugs, per se, but rather the issue was using these substances at the same time. For example, among drug users, heavy drinking was not related to drug abuse symptoms, but using alcohol and any drug (including cannabis or others like cocaine) at the same time made someone sixteen times more likely to experience drug abuse symptoms such as having problems at work or with their health due to their drug use. People who used alcohol and drugs at the same time also were more likely to report cravings for alcohol and alcohol withdrawal symptoms, in addition to social and health problems due to their drinking. These symptoms are important clinical indicators that deserve prompt attention.
Although screening adults for heavy drinking is recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, it is not as common to screen adults for drug use during primary care appointments. If physicians and other practitioners start asking adults who drink whether they also mix alcohol with any other drugs, we may be able to quickly identify people who need help. This will help to reduce alcohol and drug problems that negatively impact adults and their families, friends, co-workers and communities in the U.S. and other countries around the world.
Katherine J. Karriker-Jaffe, Meenakshi S. Subbaraman, Thomas K. Greenfield, William C. Kerr
Kate Karriker-Jaffe is a behavioral scientist who studies inequalities in alcohol, drug and mental health problems. She seeks to understand how and why these conditions develop and to identify people at particularly increased risk of problems. Her ultimate goal is to intervene using ecological approaches that support people in need and that also change the situations and circumstances that harm physical and mental health.