Weed, booze, and addiction: The vices Michiganders turned to during COVID-19

Recreational weed growth, spikes in alcohol sales, and greater consumption of comfort food helped Michigan during its pandemic year. But the increased use of these vices had their own public health consequences, as well.

Whether someone caught the virus or not, Michigan resident's lives revolved around COVID-19. While it'll be years before the full breadth of a year of isolation and temporary restrictions will be understood, the impacts were felt almost immediately. 

"During the trauma - we managed pretty well," said Dan O'Neil, a psychologist.

A fear of getting sick, avoiding contact with others, and maintaining isolation all in the name of slowing down a fast-moving virus was all in the name of public health. But it all catches up eventually. 

"What is going to happen is six months after everything has settled, that is when we will see the problem," O'Neil said. "That will be the post-traumatic stress."

O'Neil says we're all living with a heightened sense of awareness. It can be an exhaustive process and an emotionally draining one. So it's only natural that people sought relief. 

In Michigan, there were more options than ever before. 

High times for weed in Michigan

"I spent 25 grand with tents, vendors, and food, and then the pandemic hit," said Jerry Millen, the owner of Greenhouse in Walled Lake, which hosted its grand opening of legal weed for adult use shortly after sales began.

After the voters spoke in favor of legalizing marijuana, it became available for purchase in late 2019. Three months later and it was one state's most popular purchases. 

"We excelled," Millen said. "Cannabis use and purchase went through the roof. People were stressed out, needed sleep, anxious."

Michigan residents spent $341 million on adult-use pot in its first year of legalization.​​​​​

The pot store utilized curbside assistance, which only buoyed sales even more. When relief checks from the government arrived in hopes of sparking local business growth pot store owners saw their sales climb even further. 

"I can tell you the exact time those stimulus checks hit because a lot of people were coming to the store," Millen said.

Michigan users spent $42 million dollars a month on average purchasing weed. 

Finding comfort in food and alcohol

But that wasn't all they spent their money on. 

Comfort food - it's called that for a reason. And according to Beaumont Doctor Rasm AlSibae, 2020 gave residents plenty of reasons to throw out their dietary plans for tastier - and unhealthier food.

This combination of growing use of sugary fatty food with the closures of the gym meant all those extra calories were that much harder to burn off.

"I can tell you during the pandemic, the weight gain in my patients is significant," AlSibae said, "it's just as bad as alcohol."

That doesn't mean alcohol use didn't climb either. It did. 

A study by drugabuse.com found the average drinker in Michigan each consumed 956 drinks in 2020. That breaks down to 18 drinks a week - one more than the national average in 2020. 

The average Michigan resident had 18 drinks a week last year.

That amount of drinking will do a number on one's body, especially if residents put off seeing a doctor for fear of catching Covid.

"A fair amount of those patients get admitted to the progressive unit or ICU because they waited too long," said AlSibae

In addition to the increase in patients with health problems, AlSibae also noted growth in the number of patients in their mid-30s with liver issues - usually a checkup reserved for people 55 and older. 

This, all while Bars and restaurants operated with restricted service.

Drunk driving numbers rise

Among other trends that climbed during 2020 was the number of drunk driving cases.

"We’ve had a nationwide increase of 4.6 percent of drunk driving crashes involving drugs and alcohol since the pandemic started," said Betsy Harris, Victim Services of MADD in northern Michigan. "In Michigan, we are seeing the same reflection in crashes."

That's according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The same study also showed when those crashes happened, they were deadly.

"(there was) A 13.9 percent increase in crashes that now involve alcohol and drugs," said Harris.

Intoxicated drivers were also mixing substances at a higher rate than the year before. "64.7% of crashes involving fatalities or injuries the driver tested positive for one or more active drug. That was compared to 50.8% before the pandemic."

An increase in addiction

Does that mean it was safer to stay at home? But even metrics that look at dangerous habits at home saw an uptick in escalating addictions. 

O'Neil, who is a sex addiction expert, said the shifting landscape onto the Internet allowed for an increase in virtual chatting and pornography. 

"The whole thing has been through the roof for sure," he said. 

He said 70% of addicts use their addiction to escape the trauma. And 2020 was a year to remember. 

"All of that stress is used to fuel that addiction. It keeps that addiction going. Because the addiction operates when there is stress that needs to be gotten away from," he said. "Much of the stress is unconscious. That is the problem."

But there is a silver lining to all of this. O'Neil said he saw an increase in the number of people seeking treatment for the first time because it got so bad for them. 

"When the virus ends and we go back to normal. It’s like we will hit the wall but that caboose back there it takes a while to catch up."