Even though I was only nine years old, I’ll never forget the first time my parents caught my older brother smoking. At sixteen years old and in high school, he still commonly hung out with his friends from elementary school. In this case, they were literally hanging out his bedroom window smoking a bowl. The lingering smell made its way to my parents and it could not have been mistaken for a skunk.
At the time, I had no idea what cannabis was but I knew my brother had really pissed my parents off. At the time, cannabis was considered a “gateway drug.” They clearly didn’t want my brother anywhere near it. There was no doubt he was in trouble. We just never could have known at that point just how much trouble…
His story started with cannabis and ended with heroin. While cannabis is not physically addictive, my brother was not lucky enough to avoid or reverse the addiction cycle. While the cannabis industry continues to unfold and be embraced by so many- it brings up lots of questions for me. I’d bet it does for you, too.
With every article about cannabis and CBD I see, I find myself thinking- is it really possible to achieve sobriety using cannabis? But isn’t using cannabis considering breaking sobriety? What about CBD? So here’s what I’ve come to about that…
Types of Addiction Treatment
To best understand how I’ve come to think about cannabis treatment for addiction, it may be helpful to review the types of treatment currently being used. Addiction treatment comes in lots of shapes and sizes. Or actually I should say types or modalities. As everyone’s story is different, there are various types of treatments to support those seeking change. There are a few different modalities that are commonly used when treating addiction:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Individuals recognize that they have maladaptive behaviors and are living with an addiction problem. Counselors will work with individuals to recognize risky behaviors, how to change them, and how to prevent relapse.
Contingency Management (CM) This is a behavioral therapy in which individuals utilize motivations and rewards in order to abstain from drugs or alcohol. This may help to encourage and reinforce an individual’s sobriety.
Motivational Interviewing (MI) is an individual centered therapy aimed to explore and resolve ambivalence. The therapist must resist telling the individual what is right or wrong, understand the individual’s needs, listen to the individual’s needs with empathy, and empower him or her to set achievable goals.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) An individual must identify and change negative thoughts and behaviors. It may work to help an individual reduce cravings, avoid situations that may cause relapse, give up unhealthy habits, and learn skills to help cope.
Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) An individual must focus on using rational thinking. Rational thinking comes within, and an individual must understand his or her own thoughts and act on them in positive ways.
Matrix Model This includes many different therapeutic techniques. Individuals are taught to believe in themselves with dignity, self-esteem, and self-worth. Relapse prevention is taught by rewarding positive behaviors.
12-Step Facilitation 12-step peer support programs are utilized to promote abstinence by surrounding yourself with others in recovery. Well-known fellowships include Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
Medication-Assisted Treatment programs (MAT) are primarily used for the treatment and relapse prevention of opioids and alcohol. The medication prescribed works as a harm reduction technique and tries to help normalize things in the brain without the negative euphoric effects of opioids or alcohol taking you over. Your body is used to living with an addiction to a certain drug, so much that it cannot function without it. MAT programs work to make things easier for the individual to carry on with daily life, without the feeling of being “high”.
MAT programs are evidence-based treatment options. Research says that taking alcohol use disorder medications, opioid dependence medications, and sometimes the last resort option, opioid overdose prevention medications, are shown to improve quality of life.
Now, the question is where does cannabis for addiction treatment come into play?
Cannabis for Addiction Treatment- Is It Medicine?
According to recent research that focuses on harm reduction, there is hope that cannabis can be used for addiction treatment. There is no known “lethal dose” of cannabis like there is with opiates. No one has ever overdosed from smoking too much weed, but people have overdosed and died from taking too many opiates.
You’re supposed to go to rehab to get off drugs. You come out and your addiction to the drugs you used to buy from your dealer down the street are gone, but you developed an addiction to something new, something that was supposed to cure you: cannabis.
Cannabis can be used medicinally in terms of harm reduction techniques. It is much less harmful in terms of negative outcomes to smoke weed than it is to shoot heroin.
Sobriety and abstinence for some does not mean that you are staying away from all drugs, but perhaps those that cause you to seek help. Cannabis for addiction treatment works to replace unhealthy drug habits with something that can provide benefit.
Cannabis Use Is Breaking Sobriety
Some people may still live with the idea that the use of cannabis is breaking sobriety. They might be right if their definition of sobriety is “staying away from all drugs and alcohol.”
Cannabis is still a drug, right? Maybe even a gateway drug? I did say that I have a clear memory of my parents catching my brother smoking weed at a young age.
Cannabis for the use of a substance use disorder may just be creating a dependency upon another drug. You don’t need the opiates anymore but now you need the weed to numb the pain. Your mind is still going to be altered, as well as your thinking. Cannabis may put your mind in a different realm, one that would still be different if you were not under the consumption of any drugs or alcohol. You may now be relying on cannabis to ease the pain, the same pain that was eased with opiates.
AA meetings are known for cigarette and coffee breaks. Would it look right if during these cigarette breaks someone lights up a joint instead of a cig? Probably not.
Cannabis Use is in Support of Sobriety
Now, others may live with the idea that cannabis use is not breaking sobriety and can actually be very helpful in the rehabilitation process. Some may understand sobriety being that you can be sober from alcohol and opiates but still use cannabis.
Cannabis consumption does not lead to death. There are medical cannabis cards for a reason, right? Psychiatrists, physicians, therapists, counselors, all the people involved in an individual’s overall health and wellbeing are starting to turn to cannabis for medical treatment.
Cannabis use during addiction rehabilitation may:
- Redirect your habits from a more harmful drug to a less harmful drug
- Help taper off the dependency of the harmful drug
- Ease the symptoms of detox
- Medical use of cannabis can be monitored by your doctor
So, now what?
Cannabis for the use of substance use disorder can be characterized in two ways: it is either breaking sobriety or promoting sobriety. I think that is unfair to say, because the use of cannabis should not be characterized in either way. Like I said in the beginning, some people still believe that cannabis is a drug and others will always believe that it is the best medicine out there. The topic of whether cannabis should be used medicinally could be debated forever. But, what cannot be debated is the fact that it is not as harmful to the body as opiates are.
The use of cannabis to treat addiction is still being studied. My brother was not lucky enough to partake in harm reduction services that utilized MAT programs or even talk to a physician about utilizing medical cannabis. Those that have those services readily available to them should not let them slip away.
One thing is true: The damage that addiction can do to one’s body is sad to think about. The hope and idea of recovery that come from switching from hard drugs to cannabis is empowering.
Glennon Doyle. (2017). What Is Sobriety? . https://blackbearrehab.com/blog/what-is-sobriety/.
The Heavenly Center, a New Addiction Treatment Center, is Using Cannabis for Substance Use Disorders (2020). . SyndiGate Media Inc.
Recovery Research Institute.For Opioid Use Disorder, Does Cannabis Produce Harm or Reduce Harm? https://www.recoveryanswers.org/research-post/opioid-use-disorder-cannabis-produce-harm-reduce-harm/.
About the author
Dana is pursuing her dreams of ending the stigma around addiction & accessibility to treatment by studying counseling & health psychology in Boston. She’s passionate about creating safe spaces and in her free time, she enjoys cleaning, tennis, and biking.