In an attempt to deal with the current opiate crisis, lawmakers are looking at the possibility of allowing marijuana use to combat opiate addiction.
WHEC says that “However, not everyone is in favor of this change. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence worries the use of medical marijuana could lead some people to develop other drug addictions.”
This is a valid concern because marijuana is often toted as being a “gateway drug” that can lead to other illicit drug use.
So there are really at least 3 issues on the table here: One is the idea that marijuana itself can be addiction, another is that marijuana can be a gateway to other drug use, and the third is the idea that using marijuana to combat opiate addiction might be a useful form of harm reduction.
So let’s take a closer look at how our own values and opinions interact with these 3 issues.
First of all is the issue that marijuana can, in itself, be an addictive and potentially destructive drug of abuse. Many people try to dismiss this notion out of hand, arguing that marijuana is not like other “hard” drugs, and that it does not create crippling physical dependency like other drugs, and therefore it should not be treated as a highly addictive and dangerous substance.
I disagree with this notion based on the escape potential that marijuana offers the user–especially on an emotional level.
Let’s break that down further so that we can understand the true nature of marijuana addiction. If a person is having a really bad day and they are feeling emotionally negative in some way, they can use a modest amount of marijuana and instantly have those negative feelings eradicated. This can be so profound that the person can temporarily forget why they were even upset in the first place.
This is definitely addictive. If you are experiencing negative emotions and you want to self medicate, then using marijuana can “get you there.” If you disagree with this idea then you simply have not ingested a large enough quantity of the drug yet! I do not say that in order to glorify the substance or to be cute about, I am making a serious point here: Marijuana can be used to completely medicate your emotional state. Anyone who is upset, angry, afraid, or in a “bad mood” can instantly medicate that condition with a sufficient dose of marijuana.
This is what I am talking about when I mention the emotional component of marijuana addiction. It is not the physical dependence that we are concerned with here–it is the fact that, once a person starts relying on marijuana to medicate their unwanted negative emotions, they are going to tend to keep using the drug to “deal with reality.” What “dealing with reality” comes down to is figuring out how to handle the emotions that are being thrust upon us on a day to day basis.
So some proponents of the harm reduction approach would argue that marijuana is not all that dangerous and it is “safer” than most other substances. They would argue that it is not physically addictive.
But I have had the experience myself of using marijuana on a regular basis in order to cope with all of the stress and emotions in my life. It was a bit like running around like an ostrich and sticking my head in the sand. I wanted to escape from myself and from my life and so I self medicated using this drug over and over again.
Does this mean that every person who casually tries marijuana is going to get addicted to medicating their emotions by using it? No, of course not. You can see evidence that this is clearly not the case all around you. Only a certain percentage of users will really get addicted to the drug and use it to medicate their emotions. What I am saying is that the potential for this is real, and the dependence on the drug can be significant, even if it is “only” an emotional dependence.
My direct experience with marijuana was that it was indeed a gateway drug in my experience. Honestly it led me to alcohol, cocaine, and to experiment with other substances as well. I do not necessarily believe that it is a gateway drug for people who are not predisposed to addiction, but I don’t think that really matters in the end. If there is an addict inside waiting to come out, marijuana can certainly be the stimulus that starts that chain reaction.
When it comes to the harm reduction arguments I have only my own opinions to go by, but one of the things that we can draw a bit of historical perspective from would be the methadone maintenance programs of the past. These were generally not very helpful because the people who became hooked on methadone still had a tremendous struggle with dependence, it was simply in a different form. Now it is worth pointing out that methadone was just as physically addicting as the drug it sought to replace, and perhaps that was its point of failure. Marijuana is arguably less addictive than opiates, and so that is a small point in its favor.
However, just because it is less physically addicting, switching to marijuana from opiates does not do anything to improve the attitude and the mindset of the struggling addict who is seeking to better their life. If your drug of choice was opiates and you now decide to self medicate with marijuana, are you not still just running away from your problems rather than seeking new solutions in recovery?
Abstinence based recovery is driven by the fact that because you can no longer self medicate you must now seek to improve yourself, to improve your life, and to find new solutions. It is this path of personal growth that gives you the amazing rewards and benefits that you get in recovery.
The term “dry drunk” refers to someone who is technically clean but who is not working any kind of program, not seeking solutions, not seeking personal growth. It may be the case that a harm reduction approach is going to cause the struggling addict to miss out on this personal growth, even if they find a “middle path” of addiction that allows them to function again.