Fans of wine, like me, tend to minimize wine’s harms. One way we do this is by focussing on wine’s aesthetic qualities, while scarcely acknowledging the fact that it’s a vehicle for alcohol, an intoxicating drug. This, author Adam Gopnik observes, exposes the wine world to ridicule and charges of hypocrisy. While I disagree with Gopnik’s conclusion that were it not for wine’s intoxicating powers, we wine geeks wouldn’t attend to its flavours—after all, if true, this would leave our interest in food’s flavours unexplained—Gopnik is right that we should pay greater attention to our drive for intoxication.
Intoxication has been on my mind as I’ve watched Canada in the last few weeks become the second country in the world to legalize cannabis. I’ve found myself worrying (along with the medical community) about the public health implications of the projected consumption of $8.7 billion of marijuana in Canada in 2019, 95 percent of it via lung-damaging cigarettes. My instinctive response has been that the expected $7 billion disbursed on wine in the same year is better spent: it’s not only a better value aesthetically—the government’s Ontario Cannabis Store opened with 52 selections, by my count, as compared to the thousands of wines available at the Liquor Control Board—but it’s also a better intoxicant for health and safety reasons. Is my bias against cannabis at all defensible?
Certainly not, according to David Nutt, professor of Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, who has inveighed against alcohol’s normalization, and maintained that cannabis is safer and less apt to cause violence. In Drugs Without The Hot Air (2012), Nutt says of alcohol, “Far from being safe, there is no other drug which is so damaging to so many organ systems in the body.” The alcohol molecule’s diminutive size allows this toxin to invade our cells, and yes, to give pleasure and lift social inhibitions, but also to wreak the brain and liver damage, to impose the dependence and accidents most of us have either experienced or witnessed.
Cannabis, on the other hand, though woefully understudied as a medicine, is endogenous since there’s a cannabinoid system that helps regulate neurotransmission within us. Cannabis is therefore able to positively affect pain, mood, spasms, appetite and other symptoms of disease. Yet, it too, with chronic use and high doses, can cause dependence, cognitive deficits, psychosis and accidents, especially when the plant’s main psychoactive substance, THC, is elevated, as it increasingly is in today’s strains. So far, though, my sense of alcohol and wine’s superiority to weed as an intoxicant stands on shaky ground.
Since alcohol is frankly a toxin, then, and cannabis is a potential medicine and according to the limited but suggestive science, safer (particularly when it’s not smoked), should I be abandoning wine and becoming a weed connoisseur? I don’t think so.
In fact, wine and cannabis can both lay claim to such deep roots in our evolutionary past as intoxicants and sources of aesthetic experience and pleasure that they might both be deemed essential to our flourishing. As Jonathan Silvertown outlines in Dinner with Darwin (2017), what our body’s cannabis and opioid receptors reveal is our evolutionary connection to the insects and mammals plants first had to defend themselves against. The psychoactive compounds like THC in cannabis, and opiates in the poppy, protected them against predators, and our related physiology explains our dose-dependent responses to these compounds. And, in the fermentation of sugars in fruit by yeast, alcohol operates as a toxin to other yeast species, just as it still does to us. Our contact
with ripe fruit enriched by alcohol for millions of years through our earliest mammalian ancestors, has led to our adaptation to alcohol, to a gene mutation that augmented the body’s ability to de-toxify alcohol by a factor of 40. Other genetic mutations make individuals more or less susceptible to alcohol’s effects, and more or less prone to abusing it. (Beyond genetics, more cases of addiction seem to be caused by adverse childhood experiences, traumas that lead to adult-onset diseases like addiction, as shown in the famous Kaiser Permanente study of 17,000 patients. The conditions of growth matter for human beings, as they do for plants.)
Intoxication poses risks, and it’s up to all of us to understand and acknowledge its role in our lives. Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), poet of modernity, critic, and an addict subject to wine, weed and opium’s charms (and partly aware of his trauma-filled childhood’s role in his addictions), was given too-strong doses of hashish by the first doctor to engage in clinical studies of cannabis, Jacques-Joseph Moreau. Baudelaire’s subsequent 1851 essay, with its paean to wine’s beauty and social character as compared to hashish’s stupefying and isolating effect, has distorted and probably had an outsized influence on my and other’s attitudes to weed. Now as I look to continue to dose myself with a safe amount of my favourite drug, Rebel Coast Winery’s innovation of an alcohol-free, THC-infused California Sauvignon Blanc that has “just enough THC to mimic the intoxicating effects of a glass of wine,” has caught my eye. Wine that’s also weed could well be what persuades me to try cannabis.