Is it possible for a struggling alcoholic to kick the booze by smoking marijuana?
Believe it or not this is a question that comes up for many, many alcoholics and addicts who are struggling with addiction issues.
It is easy to believe that marijuana has significantly lower consequences than alcohol, so it seems like a perfectly plausible solution.
The question is: Does it work?
In my direct experience the answer is “no.”
Based on what I have learned in my recovery about substance abuse, the answer is also “no,” it doesn’t work.
Let’s take a closer look and find out why not.
First of all: Alcohol is a drug
First of all we need to clear up a common misconception:
Alcohol is a drug.
Period. This is one of the things that Narcotics Anonymous gets right. They treat alcohol as a drug just as they would treat any other drug.
And in the world of recovery, it has since been discovered that the actual substance that you are abusing matters very little in terms of recovery.
In other words, it doesn’t really matter if you were using alcohol, or cocaine, or painkillers. What matters is that you were self medicating every day because you did not like yourself or your life. You were taking drugs for a reason. You were covering up your feelings and emotions. The point is not that you were addicted to cocaine, the point is that you were running away from yourself.
Many people get confused about this. They think that a specific substance that drives an addiction (such as alcohol for example) is in a completely different ballpark as someone who is addicted to a different substance (such as heroin for example). In terms of chemistry they are correct, alcohol and heroin are obviously a lot different. But in terms of recovery the two are basically the same thing: They are a substance that people put into their body in order to escape, to self medicate, to avoid reality.
What is important in recovery is the fact that we were all running away from ourselves. It does not really matter what substance we were using or why it was our drug of choice or what kind of buzz we preferred. None of those details matter. How we got high doesn’t matter in recovery. All that matters is that we were on a bad path in life and we want to change it to something more positive. In recovery we focus on the solution, not on the problem. What drug we consumed is part of the problem.
Alcohol is a drug. It just happens to be a legal drug that is packaged up and sold at most grocery stores and gas stations. It is a in a liquid form, but it is still a drug. If you keep putting more and more of it into your body eventually it will put you into a coma and kill you. Alcohol is not special or unique, it is just another drug. Don’t give it some sort of special exemption just because it is legal and socially acceptable in some places. It is still a drug, just like any other drug.
Why switching addictions never works in the long run
There was a time when I was using alcohol and marijuana quite a lot together. I knew that I had a problem but I did not realize the full extent of my problem yet. I could not conceive of the idea that I was a “real” alcoholic or drug addict yet. I had not suffered many consequences in my life just yet due to my addiction.
So I went to rehab and I heard what they were telling me. They seemed to be saying “you have to get rid of all the drugs and the alcohol if you want to change your life.”
I was not ready to hear that message yet. I was nowhere near the point of true surrender. So I choose to ignore that message of “total abstinence” and I heard what I wanted to hear.
Which was basically this:
“Only quit the alcohol, that is your real problem, that is the drug that is causing you to get into bits of trouble….but keep using the marijuana, because that is your miracle drug, that actually helps you, there is nothing wrong with getting high, it is not dangerous like alcohol can be, etc.”
So that was what I chose to tell myself the first time I ever went to treatment. I had a plan.
My plan was to leave rehab and to never drink alcohol again. I was certainly not going to go to these meetings that they talked about, nor was I going to follow up with any other sort of recovery tactics (counseling, group therapy, AA and NA, etc.). I wanted none of that. My plan was to self regulate my addiction by quitting alcohol but continuing to smoke marijuana.
That was my plan.
So what happened?
You can probably guess what happened. What happened is the entire point of this article.
The “marijuana maintenance program,” as they call it, simply doesn’t work.
Oh, it worked for a while. I think it worked for a few weeks or maybe even a few months, I can’t really remember.
I avoided alcohol and smoked marijuana every day for about 2 months or so. And then I finally went back to drinking as well.
Now what is important to realize here is that I really tried. I seriously did everything that I could to avoid going back to drinking. When I finally took that drink of alcohol there were tears in my eyes. I was beside myself and I did not know what to do. I felt like I would die if I did not drink in that moment.
So why had it all failed for me? What had gone wrong?
Why did marijuana work for a few weeks, but then suddenly it was no longer good enough? Why did I have to go back to drinking?
It has to do with emotions. Feelings.
I never knew that at the time. It would not be until several years later that I would learn WHY I was self medicating.
I was medicating my emotions.
Medicating your emotions with a drug
When I first got out of rehab and I tried the marijuana maintenance plan, it was working fine for me at first.
I had gone through detox of course so I had no drugs or alcohol in my system at all.
So when I got home from rehab and I smoked some marijuana it had a profound effect. It was a little bit like getting high all over again for the first.
This did a wonderful job at medicating my mood. It made me happy. Any frustration or anger or fear that I was feeling melted away.
This was what the drug did for me. It instantly transported me in terms of feelings and emotions. If I was sad, or scared, or feeling bad, it brought me up.
And it worked great.
But then a little thing called “tolerance” crept into my life again.
And this was a problem.
Because suddenly I had to use a lot more marijuana in order to get the same effect.
This cost money.
So I noticed as time went on that I was smoking more and more. And I was having to do it more frequently throughout the day. And I was just using a whole lot of the drug in order to make up for the fact that I was not drinking alcohol.
What I was really doing was completely unknown to me at the time. I thought that I was “partying” and having fun when I used drugs.
This was not accurate though. What I was really doing was medicating my emotions.
All of the negative stuff that I felt throughout the day, all of the negative feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anger, self pity, and so on–I was attempting to medicate all of that stuff away using drugs. I wanted to be happy all the time. Drugs were my solution for this.
This actually works in the short run. If you take a non-addict and they are feeling bad and you force them to smoke enough drugs it will significantly alter their mood. There is no point in lying about it, drugs actually work…..in the short run.
The problem is that they don’t work in the long run. If you try to smoke marijuana every moment of every day in order to be happy at all times, you are going to fail. You will run up against a hard wall, and that wall is named “tolerance.”
There comes a point when you cannot smoke enough drugs in order to medicate the pain away. Not necessarily physical pain, but the emotional discomfort that I have been talking about. The addict or alcoholic does not like to feel their feelings. They would prefer to medicate those fears and frustrations away using chemicals.
No matter what your drug of choice happens to be, there will come a point when your tolerance builds up so much that the drug becomes less effective.
I reached this point when I was on “the marijuana maintenance program.” I could not smoke enough to medicate my current feelings. I was upset for some reason, and this will happen to you too eventually. Given enough time you will go through some ups and downs. You will become emotionally distraught at some point, it is part of the human experience. Not every day, but over time you will experience ups and downs with your emotions. It is inevitable.
And if you are trying to replace one drug with another then you are going to run into a wall at this point. You will realize that the drug you are substituting in does not work nearly as well as the drug you once replaced. And that is when you will “relapse.” I say “relapse” in quotation marks because you never really got sober to begin with, all you did was to switch drugs. But you continued to self medicate and this is not recovery by any means. It is not even close to real recovery.
My experiment ended when I finally had a bad day. It did not take too long for this to happen. And when it happened I was already used to smoking quite a bit of marijuana on a daily basis, just to be “happy” and feel content. So at that point when I was upset, there was nothing I could really medicate with in order to properly deal with my emotions. I was already using marijuana just to feel content. I could not smoke enough drugs in that moment to take away the pain. And so I broke down and bought a bottle of liquor.
The lessor of two evils?
If you want to achieve long term sobriety then my suggestion is that you focus on the idea of total abstinence from all drugs (to include alcohol).
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that one drug is the lessor of two evils. As you can see by my example above, if you try to substitute one drug for another then it simply won’t work.
The problem is that even if you are using the lessor of two evils, that drug that you take every day will start to build tolerance. When you use a drug every day then it becomes your baseline. Now instead of feeling “high” and getting a real boost from taking your drug it just gets you back to “normal.” Instead of feeling high you merely feel content. And if you go without the drug at all for a day you feel totally miserable.
If you are in this situation then the only thing that is going to help you in the long run is to embrace total abstinence. If you try to substitute one drug for another then you are just teaching your brain not to deal with reality. You are training yourself to simply keep running away instead of learning how to deal with life.
It is easy to fall into the trap where you compare two different drugs, and decide that one is better for you over the other. But in reality you have to look at the long term consequences. In nearly every case, trying to substitute a “safer” drug for a more dangerous substance will never work out. In the end you will always be led back to your real drug of choice.
Addiction is progressive. Once it has its foot in the door, it goes crazy in escalating you through the madness. If you think you can get away with “just one” then you are probably fooling yourself. The insidious part is that all of your ideas about how to regulate your drug use will work in the short term. The problem is that none of it works out in the long term. Eventually it will all fall apart if you are trying to regulate your drug intake. This is just how addiction works.
Why you should focus on total and complete abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances
I believe that in your personal journey to overcome addiction you should focus on complete abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances.
This would include alcohol and any other drugs that medicate your mood or your mind. Many of these other drugs are available as a prescription so there is a personal responsibility to know what those substances are so that you can avoid them.
Do not fall into the trap of saying “well my doctor prescribed this medication for me so it is OK that I take it” even though that substance may be addictive.
It is your responsibility to know exactly what chemicals you are putting into your body at all times.
Just because a doctor told you it was OK does not make it right.
In fact, some doctors have very little knowledge of addiction, so even if your doctor tells you that a medication is not addictive, it is still your responsibility to check it out yourself.
If you are reading this now then you have access to the Internet, and you can easily do a search for any given medication along with the words “abuse potential.”
For example, many doctors believe that a medication such as Ultram is not addictive, but I have met people in detox where this was their only drug of choice. They were in rehab for abusing this medication that their doctor told them was not addictive. So who is right in the end–the doctor who believes it to be safe, or the addict who has overdosed or ruined their life? I’ll let you figure that one out.
This is a situation that is improving over time, by the way. Doctors were much less informed about substance abuse issues twenty years ago, for example. We have already come a long way in terms of educating people. But there are still some significant gaps out there and there are still doctors who do not fully understand the dangers of certain medications.
And this is why “you are your own doctor” when it comes to putting a pill in your mouth. Just because you got the pills prescribed to you does not mean that it would be responsible for you to take them. Of course I am not telling you to ignore medical advice here, all I am saying is that you need to be honest and responsible. Do your homework if your doctor is putting you on a new medication. Do your own research (this takes less than 5 minutes of searching online) and then talk to your doctor about your concerns. If the doctor is stubborn and insists that there is no danger (where you found out otherwise) then you might need to find a new doctor.
I am not suggesting that you self medicate, I am only suggesting that you need to be extra careful about what you put into your body. Just because a doctor prescribes it does not mean that it could not end in disaster in terms of your addiction. I have watched this problem happen many times over the last decade.
If a struggling alcoholic says that they are quitting for good this time, ask them if they are willing to forgo all mood and mind altering substances. If they say “yes” then that is certainly a good indication compared to someone who is going to substitute one drug for another. Going to rehab and getting “fully detoxed” is the best starting point for anyone who wants to recover.
In general, it is very difficult to treat any sort of addiction by taking more drugs. There are some situations where this is possible to some degree (such as Suboxone therapy for opiate addiction, etc.) but for the most part you are going to have to learn how to deal with life without self medicating with any substances.
For example, people who use Suboxone in order to overcome opiate addiction still have to learn how to cope with life in other ways. The medication that they take does not get them “high” or medicate their feelings. They still need to learn to deal with reality.
And you need to learn this too. In order to do that you need to be fully detoxed from all mood and mind altering substances.
What about you? Have you tried to substitute one addictive drug for another before? How did it work out for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!