One of the hot new trends is medical marijuana, and what better thing to treat with it than addiction itself. Apparently researchers are starting to test the idea that marijuana can be used to treat both alcoholism and opiate addiction.
The Fresh Toast says that some studies exist, “though few are US-based because marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug prevents most federal scientific research.” Which simply means that, because marijuana has only recently become more legal in the US, very few studies exist that attempt to prove alternate and off label uses for it.
But because it is going to be a legal option for people to pursue, we need to consider just how effective it might be as a form of treatment.
They would typically label an idea like this as being “harm reduction.” Instead of convincing people to try complete and total abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances, the harm reduction philosophy attempts to get addicts or alcoholics to dial back their destructive behaviors, or to trade out a more harmful addiction for a far less damaging dependency. For example, getting heroin IV users to switch to medically controlled methadone doses was an attempt at harm reduction that we have used in the past.
So what can we expect from this new idea, of using marijuana to treat other addictions? What is this really going to look like?
Unfortunately, my fear is that this idea is going to gain a lot of traction, and potentially become a very common treatment for both opiate and alcohol addiction. Why? Mostly because of the target audience and their preferences.
If you look at generations of the past, they were much more likely to accept a hard line answer and simply do what they were told to do, as opposed to younger and new generations that are more defiant and more likely to push back against conventional wisdom. With previous generations I believe that you could say to the average alcoholic: “Look, you need to go through rehab, start going to these AA meetings, and read this book about recovery.” People would actually follow those directions in some cases, believe it or not.
Today, the attitude towards treatment is different. The alcoholic or addict is more likely to say “well, what are my options? I don’t really like meetings. What alternatives can you offer me? What medications are available to help me with this? How can I get a good result without doing all of that hard work you are trying to dump in my lap?”
The attitudes have shifted, and I believe that this is going to change how we treat addiction moving forward. People want an easier, softer way, and I think that MAT is going to be their first stop at achieving this goal. “Oh, there is a medication that can take away my cravings? Sign me up for that.” Or “Oh, using medical marijuana can reduce my cravings for opiates or alcohol? I’ll give that a try.” It certainly sounds a whole lot easier than going to 90 meetings in the next 90 days and spilling my guts in a fourth and fifth step to some that I ask to be my sponsor in AA.
I honestly hope that MAT and things like this medical marijuana idea can be found to be highly effective. I really hope it works out well. But I can’t help but be skeptical, possibly because I myself attempted to use marijuana in order to avoid uncontrollable alcohol intake.
My main concern is this: Using marijuana in the short term is wonderful. It works great. If your goal is to avoid opiates or alcohol, and you substitute in marijuana temporarily, this works wonderfully at first. I know this because I have done it myself. You can absolutely avoid the urge to drink by using another drug such as marijuana.
The problem for me was that eventually it stopped working so well. Eventually I built a tolerance to marijuana such that I felt like my emotions were overwhelming me and I could not seem to use enough of the drug to fully medicate myself. Meanwhile, I knew that if I combined the marijuana with just a modest amount of alcohol that this would completely “fix me” at that time.
In other words, while I was temporarily using marijuana in order to avoid my alcoholic drinking, this only worked up to the point that I could effectively medicate my unwanted emotions. I was stressed, I was angry, I was afraid–and I was medicating those emotions using substances rather than to deal with them like a responsible person. And eventually the tolerance effect cheated me out of my high to the point that I just had to return to drinking.
In other words, eventually, the marijuana is not enough. Every opiate addict and every alcoholic will eventually reach a point in their life where they will say “this just isn’t cutting it any more, I need to use my real drug of choice.” Because they are already medicating their emotions with marijuana, they don’t really have an alternative (such as learning to deal with and process their emotions while sober).
Using marijuana to treat addiction is going to be a losing battle–in my opinion–because you are still medicating your emotional state with a drug. Therefore when the alcoholic is in “recovery” and using medical marijuana, they are not really learning and growing as a person, because they are simply medicating their unwanted emotions. So they are not making progress, they are not learning anything. The only “trick they know” is to use a substance to medicate their current mood. This isn’t helping in the long run.
As I said, my hope is that they can figure out how to prove me wrong. Maybe they can figure out a way to create strains of marijuana that only reduce anxiety without really medicating someone to the point that I am suggesting here–where they get high and their mood is instantly shifted and they can overcome unwanted emotional states. But my fear is that the current generation is going to hear about this as an option for treatment and they are going to jump on it immediately, hoping that it is the easier softer way that will fix all of their problems without forcing them to do any work or confront any harsh realities. The truth is that real recovery requires real work, and if you want to significantly change your life for the better then you have to pay a price in order to get that reward. Simply subbing in a different drug is not going to produce the desired result unless you also accompany that strategy with a great deal of hard work, introspection, and spiritual soul searching.