By Kelly Fitzgerald
Marijuana is like the fun cousin of the drug family. He chills out, makes people laugh, and people generally excuse any mistakes he makes because they’re normally not life-threatening. However, there are differing opinions in the recovery community about what role marijuana plays for people overcoming addiction.
The internet is home to many forums and message boards where people encourage alternative methods for recovery, including the use of marijuana as an alternative to alcohol and other drugs like opioids. Several states across the U.S. have also begun legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use. It’s used to treat symptoms associated with multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, seizure disorders, nausea from cancer chemotherapy, and weight loss and poor appetite associated with chronic illnesses like HIV.
Overall, marijuana never gets a bad rap. In fact, many consider it to be useful. But can pot help you get sober? Is it a replacement for other substances you may be addicted to? Is it possible to become “green and sober”? Let’s take a look.
Is Marijuana Addictive?
Most arguments about the benefits of marijuana in recovery ultimately come down to whether or not it’s addictive. In other words, people who use marijuana to get off other substances could risk becoming equally addicted to marijuana. Then again, drugs like methadone and suboxone are used to gently ease people off of heroin and they also carry an addictive risk.
When I was smoking weed every day, I told myself and everyone around me that it was ok because it wasn’t addictive. This is a common myth that often circulates about marijuana. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse though, marijuana can be addictive. Research says about nine percent of people who use marijuana become addicted and that this number increases among users who start when they are teens and among people who use marijuana daily. In addition, more than one in three people in the U.S. have tried marijuana at some point in their lives.
Marijuana affects the immune system and the nervous system. The mind-altering chemical in marijuana, THC, passes quickly from the lungs into the bloodstream. Smoking pot can increase your heart rate by as much as two times for up to three hours. Other effects of marijuana include: increased appetite, slowed reaction time, dry mouth, dizziness, red eyes, shallow breathing, altered sense of time, impaired thinking, and difficulty with thinking and problem-solving.
Long-term marijuana use is also linked to mental illness in some users: temporary hallucinations, temporary paranoia, and worsening symptoms in people with schizophrenia. Additionally, marijuana is linked to depression and anxiety, as well as suicidal thoughts in teens. If you still think it’s harmless, you should know that people who become physically addicted to marijuana also experience withdrawal symptoms such as: anxiety, cravings, sleeplessness, grouchiness, and decreased appetite.
People can receive treatment for marijuana addiction. Behavioral support has been shown to be effective treatment. In fact, there are Marijuana Anonymous meetings. Their website states that you can attend meetings in person, online, or by phone, and they even have an official mobile app. Just like Alcoholics Anonymous, the only requirement for membership at Marijuana Anonymous is the desire to stop using marijuana. Their homepage reads:
“Who is a marijuana addict? We who are marijuana addicts know the answer to this question. Marijuana controls our lives! We lose interest in all else; our dreams go up in smoke. Ours is a progressive illness often leading us to addictions to other drugs, including alcohol. Our lives, our thinking, and our desires center around marijuana—scoring it, dealing it, and finding ways to stay high.”
These 12-Step-based groups are very successful and even have an international convention coming up in February. From the research and the treatment plans, it’s easy to see that yes, marijuana addiction is real.
Can Marijuana Really Get People Sober?
Whether or not it sounds logical to use marijuana as a tool to get sober, it works for some people. For instance, it’s not uncommon for people who are looking for medication that is organic and has few side effects to consider marijuana. However, there are also groups of people using marijuana as a replacement for much more hazardous drugs.
Last year, Vice spoke with Amanda Reiman, PhD MSW, author of the 2009 study “Cannabis as a Substitute for Alcohol and Other Drugs” in the Harm Reduction Journal and manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. Her study surveyed 350 patients, 75 percent of whom were using cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs, about half were using it as a substitute for alcohol, and 20 percent said they were using it for substation of illicit substances. What Dr. Reiman discovered was that although cannabis acted as a psychoactive substitute, there are certain properties of the cannabis plant that can aid people getting off other substances.
For example, she observed eight meth users using marijuana to stay within their desired boundaries of meth use. Instead of acting on the craving for meth, users would smoke marijuana as a way to slow their bodies down and allow them to think about what decision to make. They would consider whether they really wanted to use methamphetamine or if they’d rather just smoke some weed and go to sleep. She also pointed out that having access to marijuana while withdrawing from alcohol or opiates may make it less likely for a person to relapse because it makes withdrawal symptoms less severe. This makes a lot of sense once you consider that the main reason people relapse is because withdrawal symptoms become unbearable. If they can use marijuana to help with these symptoms, there may be a chance that they won’t return to the substances that caused them pain in the first place.
Green and Sober Celebrities
A recent interview with comedian and actress Margaret Cho in High Times magazine further displays the variety of ways marijuana can help some people in sobriety. Cho says that she was completely sober for 10 years, but missed the presence of marijuana in her life. She admits in the interview that she was “green and sober” for many years, but now drinks again. She also mentions how the recovery community is predominantly abstinence-based but that she feels marijuana enhances her life. However, Cho admits that her desire to smoke weed was purely to get high, not as a specific tool to keep her away from other substances.
In other cases, manageable marijuana use serves as a component of the harm reduction model. Dr. Scott Bienenfeld, CEO and medical director of Rebound Brooklyn, a Williamsburg recovery center, told The Fix that there’s a difference between sobriety and abstinence and he has seen many sober alcoholics who eventually embrace marijuana. He also says that pot addiction is the hardest to treat because compared to people who use IV drugs or suffer negative consequences from alcohol abuse, marijuana addiction sufferers do not display noticeable exterior dysfunctions. Instead, pot has a more drawn out effect on the brain and body.
Further on in the article, an interviewee who is currently in AA talks about using weed to ease the pain form her migraines. She makes a great point, saying: “The point of being sober is to make my life better. Some people smoke cigarettes in recovery, some people eat tons of sugar, or drink coffee. But they’re all drugs. I think sobriety is an individually defined thing.”
Former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon says that medical marijuana helped him recover from the pain caused by his football career and was the key to helping him ween off of his narcotic pain medication. Before he got his medical marijuana card in Arizona, McMahon was taking around 100 Percocet pills a month for pain in his shoulders, neck, and arms. He says using marijuana has provided him with pain relief, while still being able to maintain a clear head without the “fuzziness” he got from Percocet.
Is Abstinence-Based Recovery The Only Way?
As we can see, marijuana definitely works for some people as a substitute for alcohol and other drugs. It has also proven to be able to ease the symptoms of withdrawal. There are medical uses for marijuana and it’s becoming legal in several states. Opioids, however, which have been used more widely for legal medical purposes than marijuana, remain some of the most abused and dangerous drugs out there. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the death toll caused by opioids have quadrupled from 1999 to 2013, with over 22,000 fatalities in 2013 alone.
On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to reach fatally toxic levels from ingesting marijuana. Which is also not to say that marijuana can be thought of as a drug that can do no harm. Considering some of the damaging long-term effects of marijuana use, this is simply not true. For instance, research from National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2014 shows that regular marijuana users display impairment in the brain’s ability to respond to dopamine. This means regular marijuana users have impaired reward centers.
On the other hand, it is imperative that we expand our minds on the individual ways that people seek recovery. Medication-assisted recovery is not only necessary, but is scientifically proven to work in many cases.
Looking down on people who identify as “green and sober” because it is an unconventional method that does not work for everybody is simply unfair. Any individual who is attempting to better their life through overcoming alcohol abuse should be given the help and support they need, regardless of what works for them. The key to curing addiction is letting people know that they have options, and that one path isn’t the only way. Abstinence-based recovery works for a lot of people. It worked for me, but it’s not the only way.
An individual is in recovery when they say they are. If you’ve fought a battle to get past an addiction to prescription drugs, heroin, or alcohol, and you’ve used marijuana to help you along the way, more power to you. Who am I to judge? However, it is important to remember there are still people whose lives have become unmanageable due to the unhealthy use of marijuana.
Once we understand that these two ideas can coexist and are not mutually exclusive, we can move forward with an open heart and believe that yes, marijuana can help in some instances. I have always hesitated to call people who use marijuana “sober,” but ultimately it’s not up to me what they should be called.