Why the Addiction Recovery Community Should Accept Medical Marijuana

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Why the Addiction Recovery Community Should Accept Medical Marijuana Though programs discourage "mood-altering substances" for recovering addicts, cannabis extracts might be far safer than the opioid alternatives

The first time someone told me it’s possible to consume cannabis without getting high, I scoffed. I was five years sober and my friend, newly in recovery, was telling me about a “special” kind of marijuana. Apparently, she said, it offered anti-anxiety and pain relieving effects without the high of “traditional” marijuana. I didn’t pay much attention. First, I didn’t have strong feelings about marijuana one way or the other – my drug of choice was always alcohol. Second, weed with medicinal benefits and no psychoactive effect seemed like the wishful thinking of a newly sober recovering addict. I wrote it off as a pipe dream of the uncomfortably abstinent.

For anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in a 12-step meeting, any discussion of cannabis brings to mind a familiar scene: a newcomer to the group asks if they can continue to smoke pot, as long as they quit drinking (or using other drugs). The question is commonplace, the response almost Pavlovian: a good-natured chuckle, followed by a firm, unequivocal no.

Most recovery programs encourage sobriety, which is generally defined as abstinence from the recreational use of “mood-altering” substances. If you’re among the 49 percent of Americans who have used marijuana recreationally, you can attest to the mind-altering effects of the drug. Getting high – much like President Obama said of inhaling – is the point. From a 12-step perspective, using marijuana recreationally is no different than using alcohol or other drugs. It takes the user out of the present, offers them the same escape from reality to which they became addicted. This is the reason for the unambiguous no. While nothing is universally true for all addicts, stories of people who quit one substance only to replace it with another are as common in 12-step meetings as tepid coffee. So we stay away from “mood-altering substances” – all of them.

The lines become blurrier when the conversation veers from recreational to medicinal drugs. Narcotic medications, even when prescribed properly, have addictive properties, so recovering addicts tread carefully before taking them. This, too, is understandable: shouldn’t a recovering heroin addict be wary of taking a painkiller with the same active ingredient as heroin? Of course, this puts recovering addicts who experience chronic pain, anxiety, or have other conditions that might be treated with potentially addictive medication in an impossible situation: live with chronic pain and/or anxiety or risk becoming addicted again.

Ideally, these decisions should be made on an individual basis, between doctor and patient. But the attitudes of a recovery support group inevitably have some influence on a recovering addict’s decisions. This is why it’s crucial that the addiction recovery community understand the realities of medical cannabis and the potential benefits for people who are sober, or trying to get sober.

Over the past decade, changing attitudes and better information about cannabis has led to legalization in a growing number of states, first for medical and now recreational purposes. Scientific data about the benefits of medical marijuana is compelling and increasingly accepted: A 2016 Quinnipiac poll determined that 89 percent of Americans support the use of medically prescribed marijuana, a number that has been consistently growing for two decades. Yet nine years of being in 12-step meetings and researching addiction has made it clear to me that many in the sober community are automatically dismissive of medical marijuana.

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