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For many Canadians, a glass of beer or wine or a toke of cannabis is a welcome relief at the end of a stressful day — but are they essential services?

On Monday, the Government of Ontario released its list of essential workplaces that can continue to operate during the COVID-19 outbreak. The list included liquor stores, alcohol producers, wholesale stores that sell beer and wine to providers as well as cannabis stores and producers.

It’s a move that is being praised by public health and substance-use disorder experts, who say it could help prevent social unrest from breaking out and even save lives.

A person who is in alcohol withdrawal can experience delirium, epilepsy and death, says Larry Grupp, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in the neurobiology of alcoholism.

“If you’re a real alcoholic, then you’re going to have epilepsy, and (if) you’re going into withdrawal because you don’t have access to alcohol, you could die,” Grupp said, noting that it’s a small section of the population who is that heavily addicted to alcohol.

“I think they’re just trying to avoid anymore kind of social unrest on top of the (COVID-19) problems,” he said, adding that he supports keeping liquor stores open.

Leslie Buckley, chief of addictions at the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health, said she and her colleagues were monitoring the announcement closely and were worried liquor stores could be closed.

The concern was that people who are severely addicted to alcohol would experience negative health outcomes and may turn to more harmful forms of alcohol, such as rubbing alcohol or mouthwash.

“That was definitely on our list of concerns … depending on which one they’re using, it can cause incredible harms,” Buckley said. “Sometimes I have people who drink gasoline.”

She noted that the way alcoholism affects people varies widely from individual to individual. One person who has been drinking heavily for 40 years may experience an extremely intense withdrawal, whereas another person who drank the same quantity for the same length of time may not.

Managed alcohol programs, which provide an hourly dose of alcohol in a clinical setting to people who need it, are typically run out of homeless shelters or other social service agencies, Buckley said, and not something everyone can access or knows about.

Grupp and Buckley were less enthusiastic about cannabis stores remaining open. Neither of them opposed the move, but said while cannabis can be habit forming, no one is going to die because they can’t access their cannabis.

But it wouldn’t make sense for the government to allow access to one intoxicant and not the other, Grupp said.

“You can’t treat alcohol and cannabis differently anymore, so if LCBO is going to stay open, the cannabis stores are going to stay open,” Grupp said.

Grupp cautioned against cannabis use for people who are under 25. Generally, he said he believes the drug is less predictable than alcohol in how it affects people.

In these stressful times people might be inclined to have a few drinks to relax, but Buckley recommends people still follow Canada’s low-risk drinking guidelines. She is concerned the stress of the pandemic could cause people to use more than is healthy.

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“I’m worried about stress and loneliness maybe being a trigger for people to use more substances. But on the other hand, for a lot of people, (COVID-19) could really be an opportunity to change,” she said.

“When there’s life change, it’s a good time to change other behaviors.”

Buckley acknowledged stress and loneliness can also trigger people who are in recovery. There are a number of online support groups, such as SMART Recovery, and Alcoholics Anonymous and Cocaine Anonymous both have an online presence, she said.

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