Can I use Marijuana in Recovery?
A topic that comes up often during groups and individual sessions is the question about marijuana use in recovery. Clients wonder and debate why they need to give up a substance that they regard as “no big deal”. The position in 12 step program is clear—that using any type of mind-alternating substance is not sobriety, but what’s the position in the addiction field outside of 12 steps? Most authors seem to agree with the 12 step position and understanding why is critically important. This post is a summary of a few of the arguments from both the 12 step literature and the literature from addiction.
One of the strongest arguments against using marijuana is summed up by stating that drugs and alcohol are not the problem, they are the solution to a problem. The problem is difficulties with coping with feelings, memories, dysregulated moods and unprocessed trauma. Addicts are not comfortable in their own skin and using any type of drug allows for a brief rest from this discomfort.
Using alcohol and other drugs interferes with our ability to be honest with ourselves, our emotions and to be open-minded regarding our life and how we manage it. How do we experiment with new ways of dealing with those challenges if we are checking out with drugs? Addictions expert, Allen Berger, PhD explains that, “Instead of running away from our problems, we learn to face them. Instead of avoiding our feelings, we embrace them. Instead of numbing out the voice of pain, we listen to it as a source of information for what is needed in our lives.” Usually, what we need is some form of love in the form of comfort, support and validation. It’s difficult and painful to be self-aware and to look at the full extent of our problems and learn from past experiences. This is what emotional maturity is all about and growing up means feeling and dealing with all of life’s pains, discomforts and challenges.
Dr. Berger continues, “When we hold still long enough and listen to our pain, we learn about our unmet needs, we get insight into our wounds and we face our personal shortcomings.” This is a critical skill in recovery and it allows us to find our own inner resources to soothe ourselves. When we use marijuana, or any mind altering drug, we deprive ourselves from learning how to do this on our own.
Another strong argument for why marijuana use doesn’t work in recovery is that it allows us to believe that we can control the use of one drug but not another. This is a hard reality that many addicts struggle with. We are more interested in maintaining the illusion that everything is all right and that we are still in control, that we are “normal”. This is a delusion, or false perception, which protects us from a painful truth. We do not want to accept that in reality, there are limitations, and we fight this constantly. The addict in us wants us to believe that we can still get high. The addict self does not want to admit that we are powerless over all mind-altering drugs.
A third reason why marijuana doesn’t work in recovery is that people are more likely to seek their primary drug when they are high. Why? The simple answer is dis-inhibition. When our inhibition is lowered, we don’t care about the consequences of our actions. We make all sorts of bad decisions and are more impulsive, rationalizing our behavior and minimizing its effects on our life, our relationships and our health.
Maia Szalavetz, PhD, author of Unbroken Brain explains that, “Self-control is much harder after taking a substance that increases impulsivity.” Once our addict-self has taken hold, and it will since it’s always lying in wait for a weak moment, you may find yourself seeking out your DOC or other substances of abuse. Your brain begins to search for the high that it really wants.
Although marijuana may not fall into the same category as heroin or alcohol addiction, the psychological addiction to marijuana can be very powerful. Szalavetz explains, “The reason marijuana is addictive is because addiction is a relationship between a person and a substance and not just a hijacking of the brain.” It may not leave your life in ruin as heroin or alcohol does, but we are not functioning at our best and we are certainly not present when we are high on marijuana. Marijuana abuse is more associated with missed opportunities –lost promotions rather than lost jobs; less fulfilling relationships rather than lost relationships; loss of motivation rather than total dysfunction.
Over a period of time, the long term effects of marijuana abuse are obvious. It quietly makes your life worse without it getting bad enough to seem worth addressing. Rolling Stone author, Katie Macbride states, “It takes the user out of the present and offers them the same escape from reality to which they became addicted.” Using any mind alternating substance deprives you of learning how to deal with the inevitable stressors of life’s ups and downs. We all must learn non-drug ways of coping, non-drug ways of having fun, non-drug ways of socializing. By continuing to use any mind alternating substance, we miss the opportunity to learn these essential life skills
Remember what defines addiction. It is a compulsive use of a substance (or behavior) despite negative consequences. If you want to try and defy the statistics out there and take your chances with using marijuana, be prepared for what may follow. For those who have worked hard for their sobriety and want to work a strong recovery program and change their life around, there is no good reason not to try what others have been practicing for years in the 12 steps—that total abstinence is the best, safest and most effective solution. It’s called being an adult.
This blog was written by Naomi Posner-Stein, professional social worker and therapist at Pacific Shores Recovery.
- • Allan Berger, 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, Hazelden 2008.
- • Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain, St. Marin’s Press, 2016.
- • Katie Macbride, Rolling Stone, January 11, 2017