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The Impact of Alcohol and Marijuana Availability on Usage Levels

The availability of substances like alcohol and marijuana – how easy they are to get – impacts how much people use them. Availability depends on a bunch of interconnected things: whether the substance is legal or not, if you can buy it in stores, whether society accepts its use, how much it costs, marketing, and more.

Together, these factors determine how much effort you’ve got to put in to get the substance. And that shapes how much people consume, which affects public health and social stuff.

This article will take a closer look at how the different pieces of availability influence usage rates, consequences, and policies for both alcohol and weed. It’ll review the data on use before and after legal changes, see variations between groups of people, consider related benefits and harms, and provide evidence-based ideas for policies. Read on to learn more about this complex topic.

Alcohol Marijuana Consumption

Dimensions of Availability

The availability of alcohol and marijuana depends on several key factors:

  • Legal Status: Whether the substance is fully prohibited, decriminalized, regulated for medical use, regulated for recreational use, or entirely unregulated. More restrictive approaches make access difficult but fuel underground markets. Legalization can enable regulations to mitigate harm.
  • Retail Access: The number, density, and locations of stores selling the substance. Also, the ease of actually making a purchase, which may require showing ID or other verification. Wider retail availability and fewer purchase barriers increase access.
  • Social Acceptance: Prevailing societal attitudes, cultural norms, and behaviors regarding acceptable use of the substance. Social acceptance facilitates usage by reducing stigma and judgment.
  • Pricing: Taxation, market competition dynamics, promotional offers, and regulation significantly impact affordability. More affordable substances see higher demand from cost-conscious consumers.
  • Promotion and Marketing: Advertising, branding, event/venue sponsorship, and product innovations shape interest, awareness, and perceptions of the substance. More aggressive promotion stimulates demand.

These interrelated factors collectively determine the effort required for consumers to obtain alcohol and weed, which directly impacts usage levels.

Historical Usage Rates Before and After Availability Changes

Alcohol Usage Trends

The Prohibition era from 1920-1933, when alcohol was federally banned in the United States, provides useful insights into usage patterns under restricted availability:

  • Initially, alcohol consumption decreased by around 30% as legal supply channels were cut off. However, illegal underground markets soon emerged to meet persistent demand. By the late 1920s, an estimated 2% of industrial alcohol was being diverted to illegal drinking establishments.
  • In 1933, Prohibition was repealed, and alcohol usage rapidly spiked as availability surged. Consumption stabilized at levels approximately 70% higher than before 1920 as supply and demand reached a new equilibrium.
  • In subsequent decades, gradual long-term increases occurred – per capita consumption today remains over 30% higher than pre-prohibition levels. Easing social attitudes, alcohol promotion, and affordability factors are likely drivers of this growth.

Marijuana Usage Trends

In recent years, as marijuana has transitioned from being fully prohibited to legally accessible for medical and even recreational use in multiple U.S. states, usage rates have risen markedly among adults:

  • Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014. Past-month usage among adults has increased by over 50% – from 13.6% in 2014 to 21.2% in 2019, based on federal survey data.
  • Other states with recreational markets have seen similar upward trends. By contrast, increases in past-month usage among youth aged 12-17 have been smaller, at around 5%, alleviating fears of substantially more adolescent use.
  • Medical marijuana access has also increased self-reported use among adults. For example, Arizona legalized medical use in 2011 and past-month adult usage rose 17% by 2017.

So expanding legal availability through medical or recreational channels enables substantial increases in marijuana usage among existing consumers. However, full-scale commercialization does not appear to widely initiate new usage behaviors.

Availability Impacts by Demographic

While the overall directional effects of increased availability on consumption are clear, impacts differ across demographic groups:

  • Age: Adolescents and young adults are most influenced by the attitudes and behaviors of their peers regarding substance use norms. Legal status plays a less direct role for youth.
  • Socioeconomic Status: Pricing and affordability disproportionately impact usage behaviors among lower-income communities. Taxation that raises prices can mitigate harm to vulnerable groups.
  • Geography: Availability still varies significantly between urban and rural settings, even in locations with similar legal access. More access points and social visibility in cities facilitate higher use.
  • Cultural Background: Social attitudes toward substances stem heavily from cultural norms and traditions around intoxicants. Some cultures strictly discourage use, while others have integrated certain substances like alcohol.

So a nuanced understanding of differences across age, class, geography, and cultural demographics is important for availability-focused policies.

Public Health and Social Consequences

Increased availability can carry both potential public health harms and benefits:

  • Motor vehicle crashes: Alcohol intoxication clearly raises traffic accident risks. Marijuana’s impact is more complex, with some studies finding little effect and others showing impairment, especially when combined with alcohol.
  • Health issues: Chronic disease, addiction, and overdose risks generally correlate with increased use at a population level. However, legal access enables regulations targeting product safety.
  • Crime rates: Legalization eliminates black market activity and reduces many drug offenses. But links to domestic violence, sexual assault, and some property crimes are inconsistently observed.
  • Economic outcomes: Tax revenues from regulated sales can provide funds for public services and health programs. However, workplace productivity declines may occur with more use.

So the increased availability of alcohol and marijuana appears closely tied to both public health challenges and potential societal benefits. Thoughtful policies are needed to mitigate the risks of expanded access.

Policy Recommendations

Suggested evidence-based policies to limit potential public health harms from greater legal availability include:

  • Limiting the density of retail outlets in local neighborhoods through municipal zoning policies. Clustering of stores is tied to increased consumption.
  • Implementing age restrictions – ideally set at 21+ – on all purchases to help prevent underage access and delayed brain development harms.
  • Levying taxes at levels that reduce excessive consumption, especially on groups most vulnerable to overuse harms. Some revenue can offset health costs.
  • Funding public education campaigns to accurately communicate science-based harms and risks of alcohol and marijuana to support informed consumer choices.
  • Investing tax revenues from regulated sales into abuse treatment and mental health service access to combat addiction and dependency issues.


In conclusion, the legal status, retail access, pricing, marketing, and societal acceptance of substances like alcohol and marijuana have demonstrated multifaceted impacts on their consumption levels. Increased availability broadly correlates with higher usage and both public health challenges and potential economic benefits. Responsive, tailored policies and regulations can promote overall public welfare by managing the accessibility of alcohol and marijuana to balance priorities.