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Wine and Cannabis: Pharmacodynamics

Wine and Cannabis: Pharmacodynamics

Drugs get such a bad rap. Sure, some are problematic, and many are dangerous, but there’s something undeniably beautiful about the interaction between person and drug. The chaotic biochemical dance that follows drug ingestion changes not just the body and behavior, but the drug itself. It’s an exchange that can represent a vibrant spectrum of possibilities, depending on the individual, the setting, and of course, the drug.

Some of these interactions are violent and destructive or neurotoxic. Amphetamines, for example, hijack dopamine-producing neurons, causing them to eject unusually high amounts of the neurotransmitter out into various brain systems through the same channels that usually take it away. Most drugs that people regularly take don’t have such simple or brutal methods of action, and many drugs can help support and protect dysfunctional body systems without toxicity or undesirable side-effects. The point is, the immediate, mechanical effects of drugs on the body vary quite a bit. Today, we’re going to compare and contrast wine and cannabis from the inside out, looking at pharmacodynamics, or the way the body changes in response to the drug.

There are three factors that change the character of any given experience with a drug: dose, route, and duration. This means that, in general terms, the more of a drug you use, the more pronounced its effects, the way you administer the drug is associated with the speed and duration of those effects, and the longer you continue to administer a drug, the longer its effects will last.

When it comes to alcohol, these three factors account for pretty much all the differences in ways and kinds of “drunk”. Alcoholic drinks contain only one major psychoactive chemical, ethanol, so feeling drunk on vodka is a more intense experience than being drunk on beer only in that the dose is more pure and the duration of administration typically shorter. The same factors play roles within the realm of the cannabis experience too. One of the reasons a dab is much more intense than a joint is that the dose is much purer and duration of dose is shorter. However, the similarities between alcohol and cannabis don’t extend much further than that. Let’s look at what happens when you drink a glass of wine.

Alcohol Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication only begins when ethanol actually reaches the brain, and the human body works really hard to keep that from happening. Alcohol is degraded in the GI tract and then heavily metabolized, or transformed in the liver by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. Heavy use is very stressful to the liver, and can cause ketacidosis, hepatic failure, and ultimately cirrhosis. When the liver’s ability to metabolize alcohol is maxxed out, some of the alcohol makes it into the blood, and ultimately the brain, producing feelings of euphoria and disinhibition.

Ultimately, just what alcohol is doing to produce those pleasant effects is still very poorly understood! Ethanol is an extremely dynamic molecule. No structural equivalent is produced in any part of our brain, yet it interacts mechanically with so many different brain systems that it is impossible to be sure exactly which interactions are causing which perceptual effects. Alcohol comes in swinging, inelegantly modulating the function of over seven different kinds of receptors, opening certain channels, closing others, and blocking the reuptake of at least two important neurotransmitters.[1,3,4,5] After the dust settles, it’s hardly a surprise that our hangovers usually include a headache!

We may not know exactly how alcohol works, but we do know that it in moderate to large doses, it kills brain cells, in many different brain regions, with more than one method of action[6]. If moderate to large doses are repeated, alcohol use almost invariably leads to dementia, and even restrained alcohol use can be a factor in its development. It also causes teratomas, or tumors, in fetuses, which are far more sensitive to far lower doses.[7]

Indeed, alcohol is one serious drug, and using it can have extremely serious repercussions on health. Fortunately, almost all of the major ill effects from alcohol, except for its effects on fetuses, can be seriously mitigated by keeping doses small and infrequent. In fact, one very small glass of wine a day may even have neuroprotective properties![2]

Cannabis Use

Unlike in the case of alcohol, using cannabis entails ingesting many different chemicals that have the potential to affect the brain in different ways. There are two major categories when it comes to these chemicals: cannabinoids and terpenes, and, fortunately for your brain, neither class will kill your neurons.

dankIn fact, cannabis intoxication is without many of the unpleasant physical side-effects of alcohol intoxication because cannabinoids are chemicals that mimic neurotransmitters our body already produces, rather than a highly reactive foreign compound that changes things indiscriminately. The endocannabinoid system is a highly important regulatory brain system that serves many roles. One of the most important is the role it plays in keeping your synapses from firing too frequently. Another famous role includes the generation of a “runner’s high” during long-distance high-impact travel. When we ingest plant-based cannabinoids, we can stimulate our endocannabinoid system to produce a variety of effects.

The law in Washington State prevents me from discussing the medical benefits of cannabis in this space, but suffice it to say that cannabis intoxication entails almost none of the neurological risks associated with alcohol use. The way cannabis use temporarily changes the brain is in a way that it was designed to change in the first place, under appropriate environmental conditions.

Terpenes make it an even more interesting issue. These aromatic compounds are produced in the same part of the plant as THC, but in addition to helping to create the unique individual aromas of each strain, recent research by prominent cannabis scientists strongly suggests that these aromatic chemicals also have very noticeable effects on the quality of the high, which finally provides us with an understanding of why different strains produce different effects, even though THC works the same way in every case.

The Bottom Line

If one of the two drugs deserves a bad reputation for sheer biological toxicity and potential to change people’s brains in a deleterious way, it is unquestionably alcohol. And yet, alcohol’s neurotoxic effects are swept under the rug at bars across the world every night, and there are still persistent myths about weed being more dangerous to brain cells. Clearly this bias isn’t pharmacologically based, either. So if it’s not inherent to the plant, or to the mechanism of the chemical, we have nowhere left to look but at ourselves! Next time we’ll start to talk about culture, and at the history of drugs in America, and maybe we’ll find our answer there.

 A Note About Safety: Judicious use of cannabis and alcohol produce a natural synergy that some people find very enjoyable. Cannabis and alcohol can potentiate, or enhance, one another’s effect. At a certain dose, which varies from person to person, this combination almost always results in nausea and a certain level of disorientation, even for people who may have high tolerances to either or both of the constituent drugs. The point is, when combining, dose small, and accent one drug with the other, don’t combine them equally. No one under the influence of alcohol or psychoactive cannabis derivatives should operate a motor vehicle or heavy machinery. No one combining the two should operate anything more complex or dangerous than a corkscrew, and be careful with that foil cutter, buddy. As always, combustion is stressful to the lungs, and alcohol is neurotoxic and hepatotoxic. Small doses of alcohol are much safer than large doses.


Predator Zinfandel & Sour Diesel


This week, we’re gonna get passionate. I recommend enjoying this pairing with either a heated date, or a spirited debate. Both choices are big in nose and flavor, and both will get you moving and expressive. With this pairing, lean on the wine, and accent with the herb for a conversation where voices will raise with excitement, and usually fall with laughter.

  • Predator Zinfandel – One of my favorite, inexpensive Zinfandels from Lodi, available in most grocery stores for less than $15 (look for the ladybug logo). Rich strawberry, cherry, and undertones of chocolate, accented by a delicate, slightly olivine savor. We tend to start drinking it slow, and pick up speed as appreciation turns to gluttony for its vibrant flavors.
  • Sour Diesel – One of America’s most famous and beloved strains, this sativa is named for its characteristic “diesel fuel” reek. It is energizing enough to be compared to coffee, but with a noticeable push in the direction of the creative and psychedelic. An excellent way to start a day, and an excellent addition to a lively ending as well!




  1. Allen-Gipson DS, Jarrell JC, Bailey KL, Robinson JE, Kharbanda KK, Sisson JH, Wyatt TA. (2009). “Ethanol Blocks Adenosine Uptake via Inhibiting the Nucleoside Transport System in Bronchial Epithelial Cells.”. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 33 (5): 791–8.
  2. Brust JC. Ethanol and Cognition: Indirect Effects, Neurotoxicity and Neuroprotection: A Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2010; 7(4):1540-1557.
  3. Hilger, G. (2006). Neurotransmitter transporters (H. Sitte & M. Freissmuth, Eds.). Berlin: Springer.
  4. Möykkynen T, Korpi ER. Acute effects of ethanol on glutamate receptors. Basic
    Clin Pharmacol Toxicol. 2012 Jul;111(1):4-13.
  5. Spanagel R. Alcoholism: a systems approach from molecular physiology to
    addictive behavior. Physiol Rev. 2009 Apr;89(2):649-705.
  6. Walker DW, Hunter BE, Abraham WC. Neuroanatomical and functional deficits
    subsequent to chronic ethanol administration in animals. Alcohol Clin Exp Res.
    1981 Spring;5(2):267-82. Review. PubMed PMID: 7018310.
  7. Wright JT, Waterson EJ, Barrison IG, Toplis PJ, Lewis IG, Gordon MG, MacRae KD, Morris NF, Murray-Lyon IM. Alcohol consumption, pregnancy, and low birthweight. Lancet. 1983;1:663–665.

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