Marijuana: When Recovery Goes Up in Smoke
“Can I be in recovery and still smoke weed?” – is a question commonly asked by hopeful clients to recovery providers.
CORE’s also a recovery provider. In our 25 years of existence, we have encountered this question on thousands of occasions. It has several iterations. One of the more frivolous, being not so much a question but rather a belief shared by some returning clients, is “I thought I could smoke weed and stay clean.”
We have enough experience with such clients to provide a definitive answer to the above question, and the answer is no. In a perfect world we get to have our cake and eat it too, but we live in the real world. Smoking marijuana precludes recovery for newcomers, and it inevitably produces disastrous results for those who thought they were recovered.
Recovery is distinguishable from so-called “harm reduction”, which concedes to the addict’s demand for drugs. Unlike harm reduction that seeks to minimize the effects of drug use, recovery is much broader and refers to new life apart from drugs and alcohol. It is a process by which we replace old ideas, emotions, and attitudes with a new set of healthy conceptions and motives. Clients learn to find release from care, boredom, worry, and resentments – all without mind-altering drugs. They discover freedom and hope, and happiness in complete abstinence, which is an absolute condition for actual recovery.
The obsessive compulsion to use drugs is beyond the experience of ordinary people, who often find the illness difficult to understand. Our clients nevertheless suffer from a condition that separates them from regular folk. They are powerless against drugs and alcohol, and a relapse lands them into the cycle of addiction again. Swapping out one’s drug of choice for marijuana is a nonstarter for such people because it is a mood altering substance over which the client already is powerless. Clients are hoping to swap for a safer drug experience, but it turns out to be a drug experience nonetheless. The old cravings return, and they discover that marijuana also destroys inhibitions against using, just like their former drug did. Thus, the methamphetamine addict returns to meth, the alcoholic to alcohol, and so on.
Letting an addict in recovery rely on marijuana is like letting a passenger on the Titanic carry on a weighted life preserver. These facts have been demonstrated in so many cases that they aren’t seriously questioned within the recovery community. Yet, addicts and alcoholics continue to experiment with marijuana, and fail.
The issue is one of not being honest with oneself. The Big Book foresees this unfortunate tendency, remarking that an alcoholic’s drinking career will be characterized by countless vain attempts to prove he can drink like other people. Addicts do this too. Smoking marijuana is simply taking another stab at the same futile exercise, the result of which is always the same. “The persistence of this illusion is astonishing,” the Big Book says, “Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”
The addict and alcoholic will reinforce this illusion by looking to the activities and attitudes of ordinary people, who are not powerless, and who do not share their malady. The phenomenon is properly understood as another manifestation of how addiction affects the perceptions and thoughts of the sufferer.
As an example, they may refer to state laws regarding marijuana use. The Missouri legislature legalized marijuana for medical use in 2018. It can be obtained with a medical marijuana card, and popular websites facilitate the process by promising a card in 10 minutes or less, or your money back, guaranteed. The whole process appears unassumingly simple, even harmless to the addict who is in denial.
By far the most convenient excuse for addicts, however, comes from public opinion itself. If research polls show that Americans overwhelmingly say marijuana should be legal for recreational or medical use, then how bad can it be? It’s harmless fun, something that makes us giggle and get the munchies, the reasoning goes. It can’t be like cocaine, methamphetamines, or heroin, which addict people, make them crazy, or even kill them.
In fact, marijuana is known to produce all these results. As an example, two years ago, the media widely reported a story about a 19 year-old math genius named Johnny Stack. From Colorado, he grew up in a God-country-and-apple-pie loving family. These poor people, who otherwise were model citizens, were struck by tragedy. Johnny jumped from a sixth story ledge. He suffered from a psychosis caused not by methamphetamines, but by marijuana. He was a marijuana addict, in a state where weed is completely legal. Johnny’s death was as real as if he had overdosed on heroin. His death is not an outlier. His mother now leads a foundation called Johnny’s Ambassadors, which is dedicated to “saving our youth from the harms of marijuana.”
There are many in America who would do well to educate themselves about marijuana, because the relevant studies show that it warrants the same caution as alcohol.
The marijuana sold on the streets today is far more potent than the cheap product sold decades ago. In 1990, a dime bag bought on the streets may well have come up from South America, where workers hacked down plants and ran them through wood chippers until the pieces were small enough to be bricked up in bags. When somebody smoking a joint claimed “this is good stuff,” it meant their bag actually contained some amount of THC.
Today, product sold on the streets is home grown right here in America. It’s fresh, and consists of THC laden leaves and buds. Improvements in hybridization and cultivation have produced plants that are inherently stronger – by an order of magnitude or more. Using alcohol as a comparison, the difference between the old and new weed is roughly the same difference as two 12 ounce bottles, one of beer, and the other of vodka.
Marijuana also is addictive. At CORE, a decade ago some of us were quietly surprised to see new addicts whose drug of choice was marijuana. We aren’t anymore. The typical symptoms of physical dependence on marijuana are similar to other hard drugs. Withdrawal is accompanied by symptoms like irritability, restlessness, cravings, mood difficulties, insomnia, and various forms of physical discomfort. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), estimates that 10% of all marijuana users meet the criteria for addiction. Crunching the numbers, that’s over 4 million Americans, nationwide, who are marijuana addicts.
Based on the foregoing, marijuana use in recovery is a dangerous decision that can result in unintended, and altogether unwanted, consequences. A client who wishes to recover must first resolve to get sober and proceed with their recovery program.
We do not intend for the above to be mistaken for a public policy debate about medical marijuana or about the upcoming vote on Amendment 3 which seeks to make marijuana legal for recreational use. CORE is a recovery provider, not an abolitionist organization or teetotaler club. We cater to the still suffering addicts and alcoholics who come to us for help. They, and all similarly situated individuals who may become our clients, are our proper concern.