School of Social Work

No. 28 M.S.W. Program in the U.S.

Though we are already a few days into 2023, many are still working to shore up New Year’s resolutions and healthier lifestyles in general. 

One popular idea is to practice Dry January, “a time when people take a break from drinking and examine their relationship with alcohol,” as described by the director of the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, George F. Koob, Ph.D.

Of course, this approach can be utilized at any time, not just January. Some considerations from Dr. Koob:

  • If you’re drinking to have fun or manage anxiety, find an alternative like playing games at a party rather than drinking, or hiking or yoga as stress relievers.
  • Get friends and families to join you for a period of abstinence. 
  • Volunteer to bring non-alcoholic beverages to parties.
  • Track how you are feeling as you progress, making notes of sleeping patterns and energy levels.

If you’re considering hosting a party – Super Bowl LVII, we’re looking at you – Koob says to consider the following for non-drinkers. 

  • Emphasize food and not drinks.
  • Let guests know if food or other items contain alcohol when it might not be clear.
  • Avoid drinking games or activities.
  • Don’t call attention to non-drinkers.
  • Consider putting beer and liquor bottles out of sight to avoid potential triggers, and serve drinks in cups and glasses. 

Koob also suggests following Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mer Francis, Ph.D.

For those who still plan to drink, or to use other substances, and want to do it safely, VCU School of Social Work Assistant Professor Mer Francis, Ph.D., has some tips. Dr. Francis is an expert on substance misuse and addiction. 


Know your numbers

You may not know how to count how many drinks you’ve had. One standard drink is about one 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits, one 5-ounce glass of table wine or one 12-ounce can of regular beer. A regular bottle of wine has about five 5-ounce servings in it. Keep in mind that some beers and spirits have higher alcohol percentages, and this can make a 12-ounce beer more like 1.5 or 2 drinks. Details

Space it out

Your body can metabolize about one standard drink per hour without getting drunk, so if you want to drink without having a stronger effect, space out your drinks. Binge drinking, defined as drinking 4-5 standard drinks in less than two hours, is enough to raise your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to the legal limit of 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter. Binge drinking increases your risk for adverse outcomes. Details

Keep your boundaries

Choosing not to drink or limiting your drinking – for whatever reason – can be difficult when others are pushing you to drink. It’s OK to say “no” in a polite, firm way, and do your best to stick to your boundaries. Planned strategies can include letting the host know your preferences beforehand, having friends who can “rescue” you, having an exit strategy, deciding to be the designated driver or even considering not attending if you know it will be a problem.


Cannabis is legal for recreational use in Virginia and many other places. It’s generally safe to use in recreational amounts (<35 mg THC), so long as you’re smart about it.

Never drive buzzed

Cannabis is sneaky – it can be hard to tell how affected you are. To be safe, wait at least six hours before driving or doing other activities that require a sharp mind and good reflexes. If you’ve used a heavier amount (>35 mg THC), you’ll need to wait longer.

Know your personal risks

Some people are at higher risk for bad effects from cannabis (like with alcohol and many other drugs). If you or your family has a history of any mental health conditions like anxiety, mood swings or psychosis, be cautious about your use and consider either not using cannabis or only using small amounts. Likewise, if you have any breathing issues like asthma, consider using non-inhaled types of cannabis (e.g., edibles, oils).

Mixing substances is risky

Using cannabis and alcohol together can interact in ways you don’t expect. For example, both lower your inhibitions so you may drink more than you intended or do things you wouldn’t do otherwise. They also interact to make your reactions, coordination and thinking even slower than either substance would alone, and using cannabis can make you feel less drunk, so you’ll want to plan to avoid driving or doing anything that requires focus for at least eight hours after you stop using either. 

Street drugs

Never use alone

Always have a partner who can check on you and make sure you’re safe. If you don’t have anyone, the free Never Use Alone hotline – (800) 484-3731 – will stay with you virtually so you can use safely.

Have the tools to keep you safe

Dealers are increasingly adding substances like fentanyl to their products, and drug test strips are a simple tool you can use to check if it’s present and lower your overdose risk. Naloxone (Narcan) – an opioid overdose reversal medication – is another simple harm-reduction tool everyone should keep on hand, regardless of what substances they use. Finally, if you inject drugs, keep yourself safer by never sharing needles or works; using new, clean needles and works; and having safe disposal for any sharps you use. You can get all of these free or low-cost harm-reduction tools at Richmond City Health Department or Health Brigade’s Comprehensive Harm Reduction Services: (804) 358-6140.

Know when to get help

Sometimes the worst happens. If you or someone you are using with shows signs of an overdose, call 911 immediately. Life-threatening overdose symptoms include unresponsiveness or unconsciousness; slowed or stopped breathing; snoring, gasping or gurgling sounds; abnormally low or high body temperature; discolored lips or fingernails; chest pain or very fast heart rate; seizures or convulsions; extreme paranoia. 

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