Getting More Bhang for Your Buck: Cannabis in India


3 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/health/getting-more-bhang-your-buck-cannabis-india

As of October 18th, 2019, edible (and drinkable) cannabis became legal in Canada. And yet, almost 5 months later, legal cannabis stores have remarkably little selection. The SQDC (Quebec’s cannabis retailer) only started stocking cannabis beverages one week ago and only offers three types of tea and one type of seltzer. All things considered, it doesn’t seem like drinkable cannabis will be replacing Canadian’s joints, oils, pills or vapes any time soon.

If we look elsewhere however, the story of cannabis drinks couldn’t be more different.

According to the 2017 World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, two of the top 10 cities that consume the most cannabis in the world are in India: New Delhi and Mumbai. The trick here is that much of the cannabis consumed isn’t smoked, but rather drunk in a drink called “bhang”.

Bhang looks somewhat like a shamrock shake or a green smoothie, but tastes (I’m told) of spices and herbs like saffron, fennel, garam masala and more. Strictly speaking, the term bhang refers to a paste made by steeping finely ground cannabis leaves (not buds) in hot milk. This paste can then be eaten on its own or used to create drinks or snacks like pakoras. However, the most popular preparation by far involves adding more milk, rosewater, sugar, nuts and other ingredients to the paste to create a refreshingly cool drink. This drink is often referred to as bhang but is more correctly named according to what ingredients are used, as a bhang thandaibhang lassi or other.

Bhang is especially common during Hindu festivals, in particular Holi, the two-day Festival of Spring, which turns the streets into a sea of colour with coloured paint and water pistols. Cannabis has a rich history in sacred Hindu texts and is named as one of the five sacred plants in the Atharva Veda. The Hindu god Shiva has long been associated with cannabis, and is said to have used bhang for meditative and healing purposes, and is even known as the Lord of Bhang. Cannabis has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat conditions ranging from skin disorders to anxiety.

Despite India’s rich cannabis-history, marijuana is actually illegal in the country. Bhang manages to maintain its huge consumption rates due to a legal loophole. It is against Indian law to possess hashish and ganja, but not the leaves of the cannabis plant, which is what bhang is made from. Incidentally, despite its illegality, hashish (made from the resin of the cannabis plant and commonly mixed with tobacco before smoking) is much more popular in India than in North America, while marijuana (the dried buds of the cannabis plant) is much less popular.

Interestingly, cannabis of all preparations was legal in India until 1961, when the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs moved cannabis to the hard drug category. Prior to this, cannabis consumption had been seen as an inherent part of the religious and social customs of India. Even the colonial British rulers concluded, after commissioning the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report of 1894, that “to forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so gracious an herb as cannabis would cause widespread suffering and annoyance.”

Today any flowering top (called ganja) and separated resin (called charas) from the cannabis plant remains illegal in India, although that is clearly not limiting citizen’s ability to imbibe in THC and CBD. So long as only the leaves of the cannabis plant are consumed, Indians are within their legal rights. As to what happens to the flowering buds once the leaves are removed, well, perhaps I’ll save that for the Indian government to worry about.

The Truth Behind “Beer Before Liquor”

2 minute read
Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-health/beer-liquor

Have you ever heard the saying “beer before liquor never been sicker”? Or “liquor before beer, you’re in the clear”? What about “grape or grain but never the twain”? Well, it turns out that there might be some truth to at least some of these adages.

There are a few factors to consider here.

First, there’s the absolute volume of alcohol you are consuming. Looking at the Manhattan as our example cocktail, it contains roughly 28% alcohol by volume (ABV), which makes it seem much less potent than, say, straight whiskey, with its ABV of 40%. But it’s not really fair to compare these drinks on their ABVs since the amounts consumed tend to be different.

What matters isn’t the ABV of a drink, but the true amount of pure alcohol (ethanol) in a drink. In the chart below you can see a comparison of drinks’ ABVs, volumes, and actual amounts of ethanol.

DrinkABV (%)Volume of
1 Drink
(mL)
Absolute Amount of
Alcohol in 1 Drink (oz)
Beer63550.72
Wine121500.6
Manhattan281401.31
Bloody Mary122200.9
Straight vodka40450.6

So you can see that, even though we tend to consider one glass of wine, cocktail, or can of beer equal to “one drink”, the actual amount of alcohol you’re consuming can vary wildly by what kind of drink you are having.

The volume difference in drinks also influences how quickly we drink them. A beer tends to take longer to drink than a cocktail, or especially a shot, simply because it’s much larger. Purely based on volume, you could drink 2.5 Manhattans in the time it takes to drink one bottle of beer. So, by drinking beer, you essentially give yourself a lower alcohol per minute rate of consumption than when drinking cocktails.

If your options are only to drink cocktails and then beer, or beer and then cocktails, it makes sense to keep your heavier drinking for the beginning of your night. When you’re more sober you’ll be better able to pace yourself, evaluate how you’re feeling, and make changes to your rate of consumption if need be. Later in the evening, when your decision-making process is already compromised, beer is a safer option that won’t contribute as much to making you more intoxicated.

There is however another factor at play here: how well your body absorbs alcohol in different preparations. A 2007 study found that the vodka served diluted (with carbonated or still water) was absorbed faster than the vodka served neat. This means that even if the same amount of time is taken to drink straight liquor or a glass of wine (two drinks which contain about the same absolute amount of alcohol) the wine still may leave you more intoxicated, as it is better absorbed into your blood.

As for the grape or grain advice? Feel free to ignore it. A 2019 study compared the hangover severities of subjects who drank only beer, only wine, beer and then wine, or wine and then beer, and found that “neither type nor order of consumed alcoholic beverages significantly affected hangover intensity.”

Before the Breathalyzer There Was the Drunkometer

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know-history/breathalyzer-there-was-drunkometer

The idea of a mechanism to measure the alcohol a person has consumed dates back quite far. A 1927 issue of Popular Science speaks of a device to ‘test a Tippler’s breath’, suggesting that housewives use W.D McNally’s new invention to see if their ‘errant’ husbands had been out drinking. The device is said to use chemicals that change colour, but what chemicals they were is unknown. This is howeverthe same mechanism behind the first portable breathalyzer just years later.

The first stable breathalyzer for out-of-lab use was developed by Rolla N. Harger in 1931 and named, hilariously, the drunkometer. This early breathalyzer functioned very differently from modern ones: it relied on a colour change due to a reaction between alcohol in the breath and acidified potassium permanganate. Lacking a quantitative scale it simply relied on the idea that more purple colour equaledmore alcohol.

The first breathalyzer as we currently know it was developed by Robert Frank Borkenstein in 1958. Borkenstein coupled a photometer with a reaction between the alcohol in a subject’s breath and potassium dichromate. 

This method allowed quantitative measurements of blood alcohol content, and let us move away from simply declaring people “50% drunk.”

His breathalyzer was a tremendous leap forward for law enforcement and road safety, as it gave police a non-invasive, quantitative and rapid method to confirm that somebody was too drunk to drive. 

Since Borkenstein’s breathalyzer, the technology hasn’t changed that much (read about it here). Except that breathalyzers are now less than $20 and small enough to fit on keychains.

From Bottle to Blood to Breath: How Breathalyzers Work

Originally posted: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/did-you-know-breathalyzers-dont-directly-measure-your-blood-alcohol-concentration

The term “alcohol” to a chemist  means an organic compound that contains an OH group, but as far as the public is concerned “alcohol” refers to one specific compound, namely, ethanol. It is ethanol that we consume in wine or beer, and when we measure blood alcohol content (BAC), we’re really measuring blood ethanol content.

Breath analyzers (Breathalyzer is a brand name) contain an anode (negatively charged electrode) and a cathode (positively charged electrode). When you blow into a breathalyzer, the ethanol in your breath reacts with water from the air at the anode and is oxidized to form acetic acid (like in vinegar).

Meanwhile, at the cathode, oxygen from the atmosphere is reduced to form water. These two coupled reactions produce an electrical current between the electrodes that’s proportional to the amount of ethanol present in your breath. So, breathalyzers don’t truly measure blood alcohol content (which can only be done with a blood test) but estimate it based on the ethanol in your breath.

There are a few situations in which a breathalyzer may fail to measure BAC accurately. Notably, individuals with higher-than-normal levels of acetone in their breath may have it detected as ethanol. This could include diabetics, those on fasting diets, or those adhering to a ketogenic diet. There are a few other substances that could interfere with the chemistry of a breathalyzer, but not ones that you’re too likely to have in your bloodstream, thankfully.

All Alcoholic Beverages are Watered Down

Originally posted here: https://mcgill.ca/oss/article/did-you-know/how-much-alcohol-alcohol

In most of the world alcohol content is measured by volume. This gives us the familiar 12.5% on the side of a wine bottle. But what does this percentage really mean? 

The alcohol in alcohol is ethanol, and it’s ethanol that diffuses into our cells and inhibits our neuronal functions(makes us drunk). Most vodka is 40% alcohol by volume (ABV), meaning that in a normal-sized 750 mL bottle of Vodka, 300 of those millilitersare ethanol, and the other 450 mL arewater.

More interesting though is alcohol by weight (ABW), which is preferred by some states. 300 mL of ethanol is about 237 g. So if your average gin and tonicismade with 60 mL of gin, you’re only drinking 24 mL of ethanol or 19 g. The rest is just H­2O.

But if your gin has more water than ethanol, why are drinkers always dehydrated? It turns out that ethanol inhibits the production of antidiuretic hormone, whose function is to instruct your kidneys to reabsorb excess water from urine. With this hormone’s production suppressed, your kidneys pass too much water into your urine, and you’re left dehydrated, and constantly running to the bathroom.