Some are turning to cannabis as an addiction recovery tool.
Josh was 22 when he first tried cocaine.
“It was in a social setting. Being young, a bit naive and a tad curious, I took the plunge thinking it wouldn’t mean anything,” Josh, who asked to be identified by first name only, told Extract. “I sniffed furiously and boy, I felt great.”
Shortly after, Josh mixed cocaine with alcohol. He said it felt like a “warm hug”, and he liked it – a lot. He quickly became addicted to the combination.
Josh abused cocaine and alcohol for the next seven years of his life. He was caught in a powerful cycle that he did not think he could break. It took a toll on his ability to function, communicate and find joy in life.
“I had severe suicidal ideation happening upstairs,” he said. “When you’re pushed that far down the path of addiction, to where death looks better or more appealing than your favorite drug, then that’s a red flag.”
Seven months ago, with the birth of his first child, Josh knew it was time to stop using cocaine and alcohol. And he did. This June, it will be six months since he’s touched either substance.
“I decided to stop using ultimately because I decided I want to live,” Josh said. “I also want to grow, spiritually and emotionally, but I didn’t know that at the time. I love my girlfriend and I want the best for us – me, her and our 7-month-old son.”
Josh is in recovery now, but he’s not clean and sober – not technically. He uses cannabis as a replacement for cocaine and alcohol dependency.
It’s an unconventional recovery narrative, but Josh isn’t the only one using cannabis to kick vices. As drug abuse and overdose rates surge across North America, cannabis-inclusive substance abuse treatment is becoming an increasingly viable option in the world of drug and alcohol recovery.
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 21.5 million Americans ages 12 and older struggled with a substance abuse disorder in 2014. Nearly 80 percent of those individuals specifically battled alcohol use disorder.
Joe Schrank, a clinical social worker and program director at the Los Angeles rehab facility High Sobriety, says cannabis can be successfully used as a replacement for lethal, addictive substances.
“From my perspective as a social worker who’s steeped in the world of addiction, the value of cannabis is that you can’t die,” Schrank told Extract. “If we can use it to help people not get HIV, not get Hep B, not inject crazy stuff that they don’t even know they’re getting, not overdose and die, why wouldn’t we do that?”
Schrank, a recovering alcoholic with 20 years of sobriety under his belt, founded High Sobriety because he saw abstinence-only treatment programs weren’t working for everyone. High Sobriety offers a “cannabis-inclusive approach” that utilizes cannabis as a medication to assist patients with addiction recovery.
Although he doesn’t personally use cannabis as a tool for maintaining sobriety, Schrank says he sees many patients benefit from cannabis-replacement treatment.
“When someone has been using for a prolonged period of time, moving into total abstinence within 30 days may not be a realistic undertaking, it may not even be the best strategy,” the High Sobriety website explains.
High Sobriety’s cannabis replacement protocol operates in full compliance with California law, according to the facility’s website. Doctors determine how cannabis should be used and supervise each patient’s treatment plan.
Shrank and other advocates of cannabis replacement for drug and alcohol addiction say marijuana can help individuals during the initial detox process by easing discomfort, insomnia and flu-like symptoms of withdrawal and can reduce or eliminate the need for other medication to manage symptoms. After the detox period, cannabis-replacement advocates say it can help individuals maintain their abstinence from substances like alcohol, cocaine and heroin.
There is very little scientific evidence that proves marijuana works as an effective treatment for drug addiction. There is, however, research indicating cannabis can help chronic pain patients reduce opioid painkiller use and abuse.
A study published in The Journal of Pain in June 2016 found cannabis use was associated with 64 percent lower opioid use in chronic pain patients. The study also found cannabis use was associated with better quality of life, fewer medication side effects and fewer medicines used by chronic pain patients.
Another study published October 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found states with medical cannabis access saw fewer opioid-related overdose deaths each year.
The research falls short of determining that cannabis can effectively help people kick drug habits, but many former addicts and a growing number of treatment professionals say they’ve seen it work. And given the country’s staggering rates of drug-related overdose deaths and limited substance-abuse treatment options, cannabis-replacement advocates say this recovery option deserves serious consideration.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of drug-overdose deaths in the U.S. nearly tripled from 1999 to 2014. More than 47,000 people died in the U.S. due to drug overdose in 2014, and more than 60 percent of those involved an opioid. By 2015, drug overdose was the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S., with more than 52,000 lethal overdoses across the country that year.
Schrank, who says he has successfully treated a number of opioid-addicted patients using a cannabis-replacement protocol, suspects much of the controversy surrounding this form of recovery treatment boils down to the morality culture of drug use in America.
“If someone’s injecting heroin and they’re able to replace that and maintain with cannabis use, that, to me, is a massive victory,” Schrank said. “And people will say, ‘Oh, well, he’s not drug-free.’ But maybe he doesn’t need to be drug-free. Maybe that’s okay.”