I call myself sober, but I drink and do drugs. How does that work, one might wonder? The technical term for what I practice is non-abstinent harm reduction-based sobriety: I don’t take substances I’ve abused — opioids — but I don’t abstain from inebriation entirely. When I want to get lit, I indulge in something that is “less harmful” to me personally — something that won’t trigger a relapse. I keep cannabis edibles on hand when I can, and I’ve been known to take a toke or two. Unfortunately, my casual approach to weed may not be effective for a lot of people in recovery. According to the experts I spoke with, smoking weed may not be the best way to stay sober.
Being California sober — only smoking weed and taking psychedelics — may be all the rage, but it may not be a great option for people who struggle with addiction issues. Even when you take psychedelics off the table, using cannabis when you’re in recovery is not an approach that addiction specialists condone.
Anecdotally, certain compounds in cannabis have been praised for having potential to curb other drug cravings. But “experts have not historically used marijuana as a treatment to help users abstain from other drugs of abuse,” says Jason Levine, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist who specializes in addiction. Of course, he says, it has also been illegal for decades and so there has been a dearth of research supporting its benefits. But even now, says Levine, “Research has actually shown that marijuana use can lead to addiction.” To be clear, Levine means that yes, you can form an addiction to cannabis.
One of the problems with using weed to stay sober, then, is that weed in itself can be addictive. And using one (albeit less dangerous) crutch to ween yourself off of another is very tricky.
Weed is widely considered to be less addictive than a lot of other drugs, but research suggests that almost 9% of people who smoke weed develop a dependence on it. That’s pretty low risk for most people, but individuals who struggle with one kind of addiction are often prone to developing cross addictions — a.k.a. multiple addictions. Another problem is that sometimes people make riskier decisions when they’re high. If you’ve ever smoked weed and thought you had a really brilliant idea only to discover a few hours later that finger-painting your wall came out more preschool disaster than shabby chic, you know what I’m talking about.
I can attest that for someone in recovery, the stakes of temporary judgment impairment can be high — they can go way beyond a bad home decor decision. “It is a slippery slope to addiction once people in recovery start to use substances like weed or alcohol to cope,” says Brian Wind, Tennessee-based psychologist and chief clinical officer of Journey Pure, an addiction treatment center. This is especially true right now, when most of us are having a difficult time. “In isolation, people may be unable to manage negative thoughts and feelings and turn to substances as a coping mechanism,” Wind says. “COVID-19 can also increase anxiety and stress levels which leads to a higher risk of relapse.”
Smoking weed may be really tempting right now, because it feels low risk and can help distract you from other cravings, but Wind suggests that people who are already in recovery probably shouldn’t risk it. He says that we are only now beginning to learn about the effects of THC and CBD — the active substances in weed — and that scientists need more time to investigate the potential benefits they may have for people with other addictions.
“The risk of marijuana addiction and the negative effects of marijuana use may be too harmful at the moment to justify their use as a harm reduction strategy,” Wind says. Weed addiction, he adds, can increase the risk of psychosis, impaired memory, anxiety, depression and lowered cognitive ability. Who really wants to deal with this list of symptoms while also trying to kick cravings to the curb?
As sexy as it sounds, marijuana maintenance — using weed to kick other drugs — doesn’t have any clinical data to back up its efficacy. “There isn't conclusive evidence that marijuana can help a person recover from other kinds of addictions,” Wind says. And, he adds, developing a weed addiction is neither rare nor risk free. Yes, only about 9% of people who use weed become addicted, but up to 30% of people who use cannabis are likely to develop marijuana misuse disorder — which means they end up using weed more than they’d like. This kind of misuse, Wind points out, can have debilitating side effects.
But isn’t smoking weed significantly better than using hard drugs? In some ways, sure. It’s highly unlikely that a person will OD on weed and nigh impossible for smoking too much weed to be actually fatal. And because it’s well regulated — in the places it’s legal — it isn’t likely to be laced with the toxic chemicals that street drugs are often cut with. It also doesn’t give you the same kind of high.
As heroin has become more potent and deadly in recent years, many in the recovery community are starting to recommend using cannabis as a replacement, but Wind contends that it doesn’t make sense to swap them out, chemically speaking. “It is interesting that marijuana has been chosen as a replacement for heroin,” Wind says. “It is in a completely different class of drug and its effects are dissimilar to heroin.”
Look, I am no fan of abstinence-only recovery, and I think that shaming people for the ways they choose to stay clean is cultish twelve step nonsense. But the reality is that it’s a lot easier to just say no than to say maybe sometimes, and if a person is at-risk for relapse or for developing a marijuana misuse disorder, why bother with taking the hard road? You might be wondering if any of this has changed my mind about my own path. Nope. I’m good with my choices. But I will think twice now before I recommend weed as a harm reduction strategy to someone else.
If you are struggling with addiction, please talk to a professional. Call SAMHSA's hotline at 1-800-662-HELP. There’s someone there 24/7/365.