Alcohol - Just a simple drug?

Alcohol is the oldest known and most widely used psychoactive drug in the world…and yes, it is a drug. And despite all the talk in the media about marijuana and other drugs, alcohol is still, by far, the “drug of choice” for people of all ages.  

There is no question that alcohol is totally socially acceptable in our society, with a large percentage of the population enjoying an alcoholic beverage on a regular basis. But at the same time, we can’t ignore the fact that each year alcohol ruins millions of lives, causes an untold number of deaths, and results in billions of dollars in health care expenditures.

If you are going out to party and plan to do some drinking, one thing to keep in mind is that alcohol reduces your inhibitions, so socially unacceptable behaviours such as aggression are more likely to occur. After just a few drinks you are more likely to place yourselves in risky situations.[1]


Do you know your BAC’s?

BAC or “Blood Alcohol Concentration” refers to the amount of alcohol in a person’s blood. In Canada, the BAC is usually expressed as the number of milligrams of alcohol in 100 milliliters of blood. Our Criminal Code BAC limit is .08%. [2] This is the level at which Criminal Code impaired driving charges can be laid. It is important to realize, though, that even small amounts of alcohol can impair driving ability.

That is why just about every province and territory in Canada has administrative laws for drivers whose BACs are .05% and over. Drivers at these levels do not face criminal impaired driving charges, but they are subject to licence suspensions ranging from 24 hours to 7 days depending on the province or territory. [3]

The more you drink, the higher your BAC. The higher your BAC, the more physically and mentally impaired you become. The more impaired you are, the higher the risk of an accident.

When you have a drink, the alcohol is absorbed directly into your bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine. The more your drink, the more alcohol will be absorbed, and your BAC will continue to rise. Within 30 – 90 minutes, the alcohol is distributed evenly throughout your body. Once the alcohol has entered your bloodstream, it doesn’t simply pass through you. It must be broken down (oxidized) and eliminated. 

It takes about 90 minutes for your body to absorb and eliminate one standard drink. The exact time depends on factors such as: [4]

  • how much you weigh

  • whether you are male or female

  • the strength of your drinks

  • how old you are

  • your drinking history

  • your genetics or biological makeup

A number of factors, such as body weight and fat/muscle ratio, influence how fast the alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream. Generally, it takes less alcohol for a woman to reach the legal limit than it does for a man.

These charts allow you to estimate your BAC after consuming a certain number of drinks in a given period of time. They are based on ideal conditions (i.e. ideal body weight) and are intended to provide an indication of how the number of drinks you consume translate into BAC. Remember, there is no safe limit for drinking before driving or operating equipment.


A closer look… binge drinking

We’ve all heard about it, but what is binge drinking? According to the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, it’s:

  • 5 drinks on one occasion for guys

  • 4 drinks on one occasion for females

While it may seem like a fun idea at the time, drinking to get wasted can come with a whole host of consequences. A lot of the harmful things people experience when they drink happen when they have five or more standard drinks on one occasion. When you’re drunk, you are more likely to:

  • be in car crash, causing injury or death [5]

  • sexually assault someone [6]

  • get into a fight [7]

  • have unsafe sex [8]

  • forget the night and blackout [9]

  • get alcohol poisoning, and end up spending the night at the toilet or in the hospital [10]

Alcohol poisoning is the most life-threatening consequence of binge drinking. When someone drinks too much and gets alcohol poisoning, it affects the body's involuntary reflexes — including breathing and the gag reflex. If the gag reflex isn't working properly, a person can choke to death on his or her vomit.[11]

If you are at a party and someone appears to be choking on their own vomit, put them into a recovery position:

  • Raise the person’s arm above their head.

  • Roll them on their side towards you.

  • Tilt their head to make sure their airway is open.

  • Tuck the nearest hand under their cheek to maintain the position of the head.

  • Keep an eye on them, look for signs of alcohol poisoning and call for help.

No one wants their night ruined. The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse recommends that guys stick to a maximum 4 drinks and girls to 3 on special occasions. Click here to read more. Or, check out this site to learn more about healthy drinking.


Mixing alcohol with other drugs

lcohol & Marijuana: This combo is common. But even so, it can have some unpredictable side effects including nausea, dizziness, vomiting, panic, anxiety, and paranoia. When recreational drinking and smoking marijuana are combined, it is easier to drink excessively and risk alcohol poisoning, which can kill you.[12] And driving? Forget it. When these two substances are combined you become even more impaired than you would on just one drug alone. [13]

lcohol & Prescription Drugs: Let’s take a look at pain-killers first… oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine, and all the ones you hear about on the news. These opioids, which are synthetic creations of opiates, slow down your breathing. Alcohol is also a downer, making the body even slower. Fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, is especially dangerous when mixed with alcohol.[14]

ou may have heard of stimulant drugs such as Adderall, Ritalin, and other ADHD meds. Alcohol and uppers can make you dizzy and you could have trouble concentrating. More seriously, heart problems and liver damage can occur.[15]

ou never know what you’re getting with illicit prescription drugs. Other contaminants may be mixed in, which can cause some serious problems. If you are going to use, don’t use alone and start with a small amount. Be able to recognize opioid overdose by signs of very small pupils, slow breathing, and trouble staying awake. Call 911 immediately if you think someone has overdosed. Check out this chart of opioid overdose signs.

lcohol & MDMA: A lot of people take “Molly” at dance parties and music festivals since it increases energy, but “M” makes your body heat up and we all know dancing makes you sweat. A LOT.[16] Plus, alcohol makes you go to the bathroom more, making you lose even more liquid. With these two in your system, you could be looking at some severe dehydration which can make you pass out, get heatstroke, or cause you to be hospitalized from dehydration. If you’re going out, pace yourself, drink water in between alcoholic drinks, and take breaks in order to cool off.[17]

lcohol & Cocaine: Combining vodka and coke increase the effects of either substance. Once in your system, this combo causes the production of a toxic substance called cocaethylene. It increases risk of heart attack and death and you may become more aggressive or violent. [18]


Fast Facts

  • Alcohol is a downer or depressant, meaning it slows our bodies down.[19]  While one drink may “loosen” you up, drinking more makes you drowsy and muddles your memory.[20]

  • Alcohol + opioids = possible overdose and death because you’re breathing is so slow.[21]

  • In Canada, the highest rate of impaired-driving deaths occurs at age 19.[22]

  • A driver with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10% is 50 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a driver with no blood alcohol.[23]



  1. Fact Sheet: Drinking and Alcohol, Canadian Public Health Association, 2006. Web

  2. Perreault, Samuel. "Impaired Driving in Canada, 2011." Statistics Canada: Canada's National Statistical Agency / Statistique Canada : Organisme Statistique National Du Canada. 30 Nov. 2015.

  3. "Overview - Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)." MADD Canada - Impaired Driving. Web.

  4. Fact Sheet: Drinking and Alcohol, Canadian Public Health Association, 2006. Web.

  5. Chamberlain, E.; Solomon, R. Zero Blood Alcohol Concentration Limits For Drivers Under 21: Lessons From Canada. Injury Prevention 2008, 14, 123-128.

  6. Abbey, A. Alcohol-Related Sexual Assault: A Common Problem Among College Students. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Supplement 2002, 118-128.

  7. Anderson, P.; Chisholm, D.; Fuhr, D. Effectiveness And Cost-Effectiveness Of Policies And Programmes To Reduce The Harm Caused By Alcohol. The Lancet 2009, 373, 2234-2246.

  8. Ibid

  9. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism,. Alcohol Overdose: The Dangers Of Drinking Too Much; 2015.

  10. World Health Organization,. Alcohol: Global Status Report On Alcohol And Health 2014; Geneva, 2014.

  11. "Binge Drinking." KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation.

  12. Scharff, Constance. "The Dangers of Combining Alcohol and Marijuana." Psychology Today. 6 May 2014. Web.

  13. Hartman, R.; Brown, T.; Milavetz, G.; Spurgin, A.; Pierce, R.; Gorelick, D.; Gaffney, G.; Huestis, M. Cannabis Effects On Driving Lateral Control With And Without Alcohol. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 2015.

  14. Muijsers, R.; Wagstaff, A. Transdermal Fentanyl. Drugs 2001, 61, 2289-2307.

  15. Tavernise, Sabrina. "New Sign of Stimulants’ Toll on Young." The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 Aug. 2013. Web.

  16. Baylen, C.; Rosenberg, H. A Review Of The Acute Subjective Effects Of MDMA/Ecstasy. Addiction 2006, 101, 933-947.

  17. Gahlinger, P. M. (2004). Club drugs: MDMA, gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), Rohypnol, and ketamine. American Family Physician, 69(11), 2619–26.

  18. Pennings, E.J., Leccese, A.P. & Wolff, F.A. (2002). Effects of concurrent use of alcohol and cocaine. Addiction,97(7), 773-783.

  19. Valenzuela, C. F. (1997). Alcohol and neurotransmitter interactions. Alcohol health and research world, 21, 144-148.

  20. Ibid.

  21. White, J.; Irvine, R. Mechanisms Of Fatal Opioid Overdose. Addiction 1999, 94, 961-972.

  22. Fact Sheet: Drinking and Alcohol, Canadian Public Health Association, 2006. Web.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Fact Sheets - Caffeine and Alcohol." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 Nov. 2015. Web.