Can Pot Help Opioid Addicts to Recover?

Rolling Stone writer Katie MacBride argues that the recovery community should accept medical marijuana.

When journalist Katie MacBride first heard from a newly sober friend about a type of cannabis that doesn’t get the user stoned, she was understandably skeptical.

“I thought it sounded like some addict bullshit,” she recalls.

Later, while watching the 2014 documentary The Culture High, MacBride saw that there might be some truth to what her friend was saying.

“It was my first exposure to actual scientists talking about how [some parts of cannabis] don’t have any psychoactive effects. That’s when I realized this was something worth investigating.”

MacBride recently penned an article for a January issue of Rolling Stone, titled “Why the Addiction Recovery Community Should Accept Medical Marijuana.” In her piece, MacBride lays out the common occurrence of newcomers to 12-step meetings asking if they can keep smoking pot as long as they abstain from their main substance of choice.

As she notes in the article, the response is usually “a good-natured chuckle, followed by a firm, unequivocal no.”

MacBride — whose comments for this article reflect only her own opinion and not that of any recovery organization — believe there are a number of ways in which 12-step programs could potentially expand their thinking.

“Anecdotally, I think attitudes do change,” she says. “I know back in the day there used to be some potential stigma around people taking antidepressants. I think that is the most dangerous misconception about Alcoholics Anonymous there is: that anyone in there should ever give you medical advice. We are here for suggestions about behavioral recovery, but we’re not involved in any medical process.”

In her feature for Rolling Stone, MacBride also highlights the difference of opinion within the recovery community for drugs seen as medicinal as opposed to recreational. Those addicted to heroin and other opiates are often faced with choosing between taking prescribed painkillers for legitimate pain and risking retriggering their addiction or enduring immense pain. She also cites a Substance.com article by a recovering heroin addict in which the author shares the unanimously critical response to his query to fellow Narcotics Anonymous members about whether medical cannabis might be utilized to help taper off from opioids.

It’s an interesting position, especially given the prevalence of substances like methadone, an opioid medication used to help wean addicts off of heroin. While methadone unquestionably helps some individuals endure the nasty withdrawal symptoms of quitting heroin, it is also possible to become addicted to methadone itself and even to overdose from it. According to a Centers for Disease Control study published in December, there were 3,301 deaths in 2015 alone from methadone overdoses.

The fear, it seems, comes from a belief that while under the psychoactive effects of THC, recovery addicts might find themselves more willing to return to their primary substance of choice. But what then of cannabidiol, or CBD, the cannabis compound with remarkable healing properties and no known “high” associated with it (or any recorded cases of fatal overdose)? Is it possible that in a world where attitudes toward cannabis are rapidly changing that some recovery programs like AA and NA might see CBD as a viable treatment solution for those in sobriety?

“I’m not sure,” MacBride says. “It’ll be interesting to see if the legalization of recreational marijuana here in California reinforces negative stereotypes or if [it] helps people to start becoming more educated about it. I think 12-step programs have been able to evolve in their attitudes in the past. Maybe they will again.”

Of course, being in recovery speaks to a number of substances beyond heroin, and it may very well be the case that many people feel it’s all-or-nothing when it comes to their sobriety.

“I really do understand the mentality of someone who’s trying to get sober in an abstinence-based program feeling like smoking pot in recovery is not a thing. … When I was in high school and I smoked pot, I was there for the psychoactive effects. That was the point.”

A change in opinion from the recovery community may already be on its way. While MacBride braced herself for a sea of angry emails in response to her Rolling Stone piece, what she’s receiving instead is overwhelmingly positive — notes from people who either known someone in recovery who is successfully using cannabis in their treatment or from sober individuals using it themselves.

“I was surprised by that,” MacBride says. “I thought that there would be more stigma and more backlash from people.”

Zack Ruskin covers news and culture for SF Weekly.

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