Being Drunk Or High Is In Your Head
“Here’s to alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned
The effects of alcohol and weed are largely exaggerated.
Most of their effectiveness comes from the popular expectations of behavior/mindset, and the excuse they provide for actions one would not normally perform sober.
After all, you for sure that these drugs make you feel differently. You’ve probably used them recreationally at least once, depending on your age and upbringing—and you have unmistakably felt their effects.
The classic story of the first drunken night, or the first high experience is probably enough to convince most people that alcohol and weed alter your perception.
You’d be especially emphatic about that argument if you puked your brains out while the room was spinning, or spent an eternity wondering if you’d ever come down from an edible high.
I’m not here to tell you that alcohol and weed are complete and utter placebos—that could easily be disproven by grabbing the nearest beer or joint.
My argument is simply this: particularly in social settings, the effects of alcohol and weed are highly exaggerated.
The inspiration from this post came from a personal experience of mine. While throwing a house party with a group of friends, one of my buddies ended up getting particularly drunk. I’ll spare you the exact details, but he kept on acting more and more egregiously as the night went on—taking his shirt off and dancing on the table, grabbing and making out with a girl he was into right on the sofa, flicking off the cops that came to shut us down and then running away, etc.
This was a friend that usually didn’t get too out of hand, so his behavior was even more notable. Either way he was super entertaining, and the party as a whole was a great night until we inevitably were shut down by the cops.
I caught him a few times throughout the night carrying his personal Yeti cup, and wondered what he was drinking—and why he would bring his own stuff instead of just using a normal solo cup.
The morning after, as I began to clean up the apartment with my roommates, I found my friend’s Yeti cup overturned behind a closet door. The liquid that spilled out on the ground was clearly juice.
Now my curiosity was definitely piqued.
I lifted the cup up and opened it by twisting the cap off. Not a hint of alcohol.
I took a sip. Pure orange juice.
I asked my other friend who was bartending all night if he had filled this friend’s Yeti cup at all during the night. He replied in the negative.
Now of course, maybe my friend was drinking from other people’s cups (a germaphobe so unlikely). Maybe he brought his own alcoholic drink, drank it all, and opted to refill with orange juice to be responsible (it didn’t seem like the orange juice we had at the party). Maybe he took shots before leaving (definitely possible).
Ultimately, it made no difference to me. I found it hilarious either way, as my friend put on quite the performance—so if he did it while entirely sober, more power to him.
This experience did get me thinking about my own adventures intoxicated. Now perhaps I have a high tolerance, or there’s something unique about myself, but even when I have clearly and unmistakably consumed high levels of alcohol—comparable to people around me who seem to be on another planet—I have felt largely in control.
I’m the friend that often gets told to drink more, perhaps because I don’t engage in any sort of wild or unpredictable behavior and people think I must not be drunk enough.
Another factor that might lead people to believe that I’m not lit off my mind is the fact that most people seem to be too shy to dance unless they are at least a bit tipsy.
I love to dance even in broad daylight, in my most sober moments, therefore that important benchmark is lost on me.
Don’t get me wrong. I feel something, and I love it, and love being around other intoxicated people—but I already am a loose and fun person, and I never experience the sincere loss of control that characterizes other people’s drunk experiences.
The worst I get is a unquenchable urge to go to the bathroom every 30 minutes.
I’ve had the same experience with getting high.
I can consume the same amount of weed while alone, and while in a group, and I can feel it much much more when in a group setting.
Perhaps you’ve also heard of the urban legend of a fellow high school freshman that buys weed from a generous senior.
The middle schooler takes the weed to show off to his friends at lunch.
They make plans to smoke it after school, and fumble through the entire process, but finally get to lighting the joint and passing it around. The kids begin laughing and bragging to one another about how high they are.
The next day, the freshman runs into his dealer friend and thanks him for the drugs. The senior can’t help but laugh when he asks him how he enjoyed it.
“Yeah me and my friends got super high, dude. I wanna buy more whenever you have the chance.”
“That was oregano, you idiot.”
The power of the mind is incredible.
In order to move towards the evidence for my claim, let’s first examine the expected effects of alcohol and marijuana—both from an objective scientific standpoint, and from a subjective social behavior perspective.
Starting with alcohol, the more mainstream of the two (perhaps not for long). Scientifically, this is what alcohol does to your brain and body:
Blood alcohol concentration is important to consider when determining if an individual is drunk. The higher the concentration of the drink, the quicker the intestinal tract absorbs the alcohol.
Drink mixers might slow down the absorption of the drink by inhibiting the alcohol to bypass the stomach (due to digestion of sugar or muscular spasm of the valves). Food may also slow down absorption.
Women have more adipose tissue, which causes for a longer retention of alcohol in the body as compared to men. Men have more muscle, so the alcohol will be diluted and retained for a lesser period of time.
Alcohol will be evenly distributed throughout the body, and though it impacts many organs, only the brain will be discussed, as that is the focus of this article.
At different concentrations of alcohol, an individual may feel different levels of intoxication: low concentrations there is a sense of euphoria, in high concentrations alcohol can decrease motor function.
Alcohol, also known as ethanol is water-soluble and therefore can diffuse through the blood-brain barrier readily. Alcohol is a drug known as a depressant. When it reaches the central nervous system (CNS), it binds to GABA receptors (a subtype of inhibitory receptors) in specific areas of the brain.
Binding to these areas activates the inhibitory receptors and decreases excitation of neurons. GABA receptors are ligand-gated ion channels that open up when binding to specific neurotransmitters.
They are specific, and therefore only allow the molecule chlorine to flow into the neuron. When chlorine enters the neuron it decreases the resting membrane potential significantly.
By decreasing the resting membrane potential, it is also inhibiting the neuron by making it more difficult for the neuron to become excited and produce action potentials, a neuron’s way of communicating.
Decreasing excitation of neurons in the brain will cause for the symptoms intoxicated people often have. The staggering balance often seen in intoxicated people can be due to inhibition of neurons in the cerebellum.
Alcohol can decrease excitation in the hypothalamus, which controls release of hormones and decreases sexual performance. It can inhibit neurons in the medulla causing for sleepiness and slow breathing that some individuals might have even causing them to knock out during an event.
One of the most significant effects is that it impacts cognitive function by acting on the cerebral cortex, which controls consciousness, slowing down the processing of sensory information and critical thinking.
While drunk, people are expected to: be more talkative, friendly, sexually aroused, flirtatious, daring/courageous, reckless, forgetful, and aggressive if provoked. In general, you are expected to be less restrained in your desires and inhibitions.
Moving on to weed, the largely forbidden fruit. Scientifically, this is what weed does to your body and mind:
The active ingredient in marijuana that is absorbed into the blood from the lungs, and goes to the brain is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
While most people drink alcohol, weed can be administered in several different routes: through ingestion by eating and drinking, through inhalation/the lungs, through the skin/transdermal, etc.
Different routes cause for different levels of subjective high, and different lengths of feeling that subjective high.
For example, eating an edible means the body must first absorbed the marijuana by the stomach and intestinal tract. While being digested in the stomach, the acidity degrades THC. In the process, some THC is converted into another chemical form that takes longer to pass into the brain. Inhalation on the other hand is almost instant.
Once in the brain, just like with alcohol, the active ingredient, THC, binds to specific receptors known as cannabinoid receptors apart of the endocannibinoid system. The main difference between weed and alcohol is that alcohol is a depressant, while weed can be a depressant, hallucinogen, and stimulant.
The body produces its own endocannibinoids that would normally bind to the receptors, however THC takes its place and overwhelms the system. By binding to different areas of the brain apart of the endocannnibinoid system, it gets in the way of proper functioning causing for different physiological activities to lose balance.
To be more specific, endocannibinoids are different in that they (unlike neurotransmitters) are produced by the postsynaptic neuron and bind to the presynaptic neuron, to control how the neuron sends, receives and processes messages.
Areas of the brain that contain these endocannibinoid receptors are: the amygdala, basal ganglia, hypothalamus, hippocampus, cerebellum, nucleus accumbens, etc.
By offsetting the normal balance of these areas, an individual may grow an increased appetite or sexual desire (hypothalamus), become paranoid (amygdala), feel a sense of euphoria (reward pathway/nucleus accumbens), have a slower reaction time (basal ganglia).
Even after getting high, an individual might feel its effects when realizing they don’t clearly remember what happened, this is THC acting on the hippocampus, the area of the brain that regulates formation of new memories.
While high, people are expected to: laugh easily, misunderstand/overcomplicate things, crave food, entertain abstract/philosophical thoughts, exhibit creativity, be anxious/paranoid, be forgetful.
Why would the effects of alcohol and weed be exaggerated?
The answer is composed of two straightforward parts.
The first part of the answer is this: much of American culture, from movies, to shows, to music, to conventional teenage/young adult customs, promote a set of specific expectations.
Basically, we as a society collectively define what being drunk or high is supposed to be like, and the cool and/or short-sighted actions we are supposed to take while under the influence.
There is a great deal of high school/college related media that has some sort of portrayal of drug consumption. The portrayals are usually characterized as glamorous, and a vital component of coming of age. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this, but there does seem to be an effect that these forms of entertainment have on actual real life drug consumption.
I’d actually argue that the dangers of teenage/young adult teen consumption don’t come from the entertainment industry—they come from parents who are too afraid to talk to their kids about responsible drug use, and therefore allow their children to be manipulated by their peers in social settings.
The second part of the answer is this: people build on the pre-defined expectations, and use their supposed state of non-sobriety to perform actions they would not have the confidence to (or would be frowned upon) while sober.
In a sense, this revelation is a bit disheartening. People ought to have the courage to act the way they want to act, and not have to rely on mind altering substances to live their lives the way they wish.
Some of you should be nodding along by now. Whether you’re sheepishly admitting that you yourself engage in these practices, or you know of friends who have, my case should be familiar.
The urban legend I mentioned earlier is convincing, but it’s exactly that—an urban legend.
How about this study? A pair of researchers at Victoria University in New Zealand, demonstrated that people drinking tonic water with lime (but told they were drinking alcohol), acted as inebriated as their actual alcohol drinking counterparts.
Oh, and the popular “wine drunk” distinction—that’s false. All alcohol has the same physical effect on you.
Wait a minute, all those articles are about alcohol—what about weed?
The power of suggestion is real my friend. Particularly in group settings, as social creatures, we do our best to fit in and emulate the behaviors of those around us.
By now, I hopefully have successfully convinced you that people may and can use drugs to excuse behavior they’re too insecure or morally inhibited to engage in while sober.
There’s a reason that people drink heavily before going out—not only does it provide a form of social bonding, but it calms the nerves that are associated with publicly dancing, and attempting to hook up with people.
The ugly side of this is seen in the cases of rape (or even gang rape), where individuals disregard their own moral compass, and take advantage of other people’s impaired judgement and reactions to sexually violate them.
On the side of marijuana, there are topics that people would like to discuss sober, but are afraid would be considered too out of left field for most people. In a high setting, they now feel like they can broach unconventional topics or thought patterns.
But what should you do with this information?
Nothing, other than observe really.
Chances are, whatever your friends do while they’re drunk or high, are the things they’ve been dying to do but haven’t had the courage to. If they claim they can’t remember something, unless they actually passed out, they’re probably lying.
Conversely, people may act in over the top ways that they never would have dreamed of doing while completely sober. So chances are, if they seem to really regret something they did, they are probably genuine.
As for your own self, the moral of the story is to feed into the placebo effect to feel drunker or higher than you really are. Surround yourself with plastered people, or extreme stoners, and you’ll be able to feel stronger effects than what you physiologically should be feeling.
On the other hand, if you’ve had a little too much, remind yourself that you can largely control the way you’re feeling.
And if you’re past the point of no return? Well, you’re on your own pal.