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Is It Safe To Drink Alcohol When In Recovery From Drugs?

Brittany Thompson, MSMFT

Medically reviewed by

Brittany Thompson, MSMFT

January 24, 2019

Drugs and alcohol affect the brain in similar ways. Both types of substances cause a release of dopamine in the body that leads to intense feelings of pleasure. While recovering from a drug addiction it may be dangerous to consume alcohol because the brain is still seeking that dopamine high and an individual may end up replacing a drug addiction with an alcohol addiction.

Do Drugs And Alcohol Carry The Same Risk Of Addiction?

You might be thinking that it would be okay to drink alcohol because it doesn’t affect you the same way as drugs. You might think it affects the brain differently, and just because you are addicted to drugs, it doesn’t mean you’d end up dependent on alcohol, too.

The truth is, drugs and alcohol affect common neurological reward systems in the brain. Taking drugs or drinking alcohol both affect the brain functions and chemistry that release dopamine into your system. Dopamine is what produces the effect of feeling pleasure, and it’s the need for that pleasurable dopamine high that results in dependency.

The truth is, some people are susceptible to becoming dependent on virtually every type of addictive substance. Then there are others who will only develop an addiction to specific substances. Some people will be able to recover from the devastation of drug addiction and will be able to drink to a normal, reasonable degree. Others may find themselves having successfully achieved recovery from drug addiction, only to find themselves suffering the worst of alcohol addiction.

So is it possible? Yes, but it is difficult to know for sure whether it would or would not become a problem for an individual.

Cross-Addiction: Trading One Type Of Addiction For Another

When you are successfully rehabilitated for drug abuse, you can be in danger of replacing your dependency on drugs with dependency on something else. It can be alcohol, compulsive shopping, gambling, sex, even overeating. This is called cross-addiction.

Warning signs you may be suffering from cross-addiction include:

  • Dropping former pleasures or interests either to make time for the new addiction or being physically unable to due to effects of the addiction
  • Mood swings for the worse when you can’t take the substance or take part in the activity
  • Shirking responsibilities such as family needs, work, studying for school
  • Lying to cover activities that involve your new addiction
  • Trying to quit without success
  • Doing things that are against the law, such as stealing, to fund or supply the addiction

Going through rehabilitation and maintaining a drug-free life after successful therapy requires focus and determination. Alcohol has negative effects on your ability to focus and weakens determination. It can result in loose, lazy behavior that is the breeding ground for a relapse.

Alcohol can be a gateway to worse addictions, and make you vulnerable. Your brain still wants the effect of the dopamine high, and it’s perfectly happy to get it, any way possible. By trading drug addiction for alcohol, you may end up needing to go through rehabilitation all over again – for both.

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The Relationship Of Alcohol To Drug Dependency

You often hear of the fear that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that inevitably will lead to the abuse of worse drugs. The fact is, alcohol has been known to lead to drug dependency at a much higher degree.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA) did a study with results that included:

  • Over 67 percent of people who started drinking before age 15 went on to abuse illegal drugs
  • Less than 4 percent of people who never drank went on to further drug use
  • Someone who begins drinking alcohol before age 15 is 101 times more likely to use cocaine than someone who didn’t
  • 27 percent of participants in an adult drug program who used cocaine, methamphetamines or heroin started with alcohol

Overall, results showed that alcohol was the initial substance used by those who ended up addicted to drugs.

It has been observed that the following risk factors are common in those who have gone through successful rehabilitation for drug use, but went on to abuse alcohol:

  • History of family alcohol abuse
  • Childhood trauma, such as sexual molestation
  • Emotional trauma such as divorce, the death of a loved one
  • Psychiatric conditions occurring in tandem with substance abuse
  • Involvement with other heavy drinkers
  • Alcohol abuse that came prior to dependence on other drugs
  • Use of both alcohol and drugs at the same time

Introducing Or Substituting Alcohol For Drugs Post-Therapy

Several rehabilitation programs over the years have experimented with allowing alcohol in lieu of drugs either as a substitution or as a reward for successful recovery from drugs.

One group tried to allow moderate drinking. They advocated working from abstinence to moderate, reasonable use. Their goal was to teach members how to deal with stress that causes one abuse. Showing that they do have the power to control their addictive tendencies. In their practice, some people did choose to stay abstinent. Others did not.

Another group actually allowed drinking privileges as a reward for abstaining from drugs. The results from either approach didn’t work. In fact, in the second group, it was a disaster. Even group facilitators proceeded to drastically misuse alcohol.

There is another group that advocates substance management that involves substituting a “less harmful” drug for another, such as alcohol or marijuana. This has its own problems. For starters, some of these less harmful substances are illegal. Also, people may view it as a “cure-all” and not realize that while under the influence of these less harmful drugs, they are still susceptible to poor decision-making such as driving drunk or drugged. Most of all, this sort of approach doesn’t allow a person to learn proper coping techniques that empower them to refrain from giving in to substances and addictive tendencies.

Enrich Your Life In More Productive Ways Than Drinking

You may approach drinking with a cavalier attitude, “I can handle this”. You may think that, in some way, by successfully completing drug abuse therapy you can, and are even entitled to drink alcohol.

There are so many other things you can do to enrich your life and reward yourself for the incredible work you’ve done to overcome your addiction. You’ve come so far, why take the risk? It would be much better to move forward into a healthy, enjoyable, productive life than to potentially backslide.

The bottom line is, if something has more potential for harm than good, you should just stay away from it. When you’re not sure if a potential step might take you in the wrong direction, contact us at We can help you decide which way to go.

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