An Exit Not a Gateway – How Marijuana Treats Addiction

Is Marijuana Physically Addictive

We’ve only just stepped into 2018, and the battle for marijuana legalization is already raging. On January 4, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded Obama-era policies of federal non-interference in state-by-state marijuana laws, just as recreational marijuana legalization in states including California came into full effect. Since his appointment as AG, Sessions has demonstrated an unwavering devotion to the outdated, Reagan-era dogma wherein Marijuana is a schedule 1 drug with negligible medical value and high abuse potential.

In their resistance towards broader marijuana legalization, as well as cultural acceptance, federal officials like Sessions fail to understand that marijuana has already demonstrated itself not only as a widely applicable medicinal substance, but also as an effective addiction recovery tool. Here is a complete guide to how marijuana can be applied as an exit from addiction, rather than a gateway to it.

Understanding Addiction

What is addiction? – Answering this question remains a challenging task, even for the most seasoned addiction experts. Defining addiction is inherently complicated. It requires wading through a lot of cultural baggage, identifying different types of addiction, and acknowledging the ongoing ambiguity that the concept still presents to us.

One of the biggest challenges facing addicts today is embracing the current shift in clinical understanding. Many of our most established addiction treatment models are implemented by well-known, longstanding programs. The systems in place are often comforting for addicts who feel the need for a strong support system. Unfortunately, as the way we understand addiction changes, some of these established treatment institutions may prove less effective than previously thought.

Though there are virtually as many definitions for addiction as there are addicts, addiction can be safely classified as a compulsive behavior or use of substance with no regard for consequence. Generally speaking, there are three ways in which we currently approach addiction and its treatment:

Spiritual Malady – “12-step” institutions like Alcoholics Anonymous tend to frame addiction as a spiritual problem, solved by committing to a higher power and a system of altruistic behaviors. While there are many benefits to the community and support systems associated with these programs, institutions that apply the “12-step” model tend to have the lowest success rates.

The Disease Model – The disease model of addiction is widely accepted by medical associations. It classifies addiction as both a physical and mental ailment (not dissimilar from cancer, heart disease, or Alzheimer’s) caused by a combination of environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors. While certainly not without merit, the disease model may no longer be the most accurate classification for many addiction cases.

Lewis asserts that, though addiction is a serious problem, it’s not necessarily something that has to be solved through traditional addiction treatment. In a 2015 interview, Lewis also argues that the entire rehab industry is highly problematic because many of its institutions base their treatment on “generic policies, which don’t often benefit people.” Some mental health professionals argue that the disease model, though effective in de-stigmatizing addiction, does not sufficiently demonstrate that addiction truly acts like a disease. Psychiatrist Tim Holden argues that addiction is “a maladaptive response to an underlying condition, such as depression or a nonspecific inability to cope with the world.”

The Behavioral Model

Leading mental health professionals and scientists who agree that the addiction disease model is outdated tend to also agree on the validity of the behavioral model. The fact that mental health issues like depression and bipolar disorder often co-occur with substance abuse suggests that addiction is a behavioral symptom, rather than a permanently brain-altering disease. Emotional and psychological addictions also seem to back up this model. For example, 21st century phenomena like gaming addiction and internet addiction disorder appear to derive from things like family issues, academic stresses, and deeper psychological problems. The same might also be true for substance addiction.

Embracing the behavioral model requires most of us (including the rehab industry) to adjust our cultural values and expectations, and separate them from the way we should treat problematic behavior. It may be culturally ingrained in us to view addiction as a disease, but we may also be more successful in treating addiction if we view it as a behavioral manifestation of a deeper psychological issue. Understanding marijuana, and how it might be used to treat addiction, also requires a huge overhaul of cultural values and understanding.

For decades, a variety of authoritative entities have called marijuana a “gateway drug” that leads to abuse of more harmful substances. This label is highly provocative and inflammatory, and it’s been quite effective in barring us from discovering marijuana’s full medicinal value.

Marijuana is an Exit, Not a Gateway

For those of us who have grown up under the “gateway drug” dogma, the idea that marijuana could be an exitway for addiction may seem ludicrous. Can something that’s been placed in the same category as heroin and cocaine really be used to treat addiction? To answer this question, it’s important to note that marijuana is not physically addictive like other Schedule 1 drugs.

By now, you may have heard of marijuana use disorder, a recent designation of harmful cannabis dependence. While it’s true that some individuals experience marijuana dependence, it cannot scientifically be classified as an addiction. Not only is marijuana free of the severe physical harm caused by tobacco, alcohol, or other hard drugs, but it also lacks the potential for the same type of physical addiction.

One reason marijuana is seeing unprecedented state legalization is that it presents a wide variety of potential health benefits, which include:

  • Treatment for glaucoma
  • Reduction of epileptic, Dravet’s Syndrome, and other seizures
  • Cancer treatment
  • Anxiety reduction
  • Slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s
  • Decreasing the side effects of other painful treatments

Both THC and CBD—the two most prominent components in marijuana—play a role in marijuana’s medicinal value. Though hemp oil and other CBD-isolate products have become immensely popular, scientists have argued that the healing effects of CBD are more potent when taken as part of a full spectrum cannabis product.

But does the healing potential of marijuana translate to addiction treatment? A variety of plant-based substances like ibogaine and psilocybin have already been championed as healthy additions to addiction treatment. Preclinical studies also show overwhelmingly positive results in using marijuana to reduce opiate withdrawal symptoms. Using substances to treat substance abuse is hardly a foreign concept for addiction treatment programs, and the regulatory properties of marijuana make it a logical next step.

The Benefits of Marijuana in Addiction Recovery

Now that we have discussed the increasing validity of the addiction behavioral model and looked at the diverse medicinal applications of cannabis, the potential for marijuana to successfully treat addiction should be abundantly clear. Not only can marijuana be safely added to established addiction recovery programs, it can also be used as a potential replacement for less effective ones. Most addiction recovery programs include a combination of counseling, therapy, detoxification, and medication as shown in the slideshow below:

If we embrace the behavior model of addiction, it becomes easier to prescribe marijuana as an effective addition, if not outright alternative, to traditional modes of addiction therapy. Clinical trials have shown that cannabis can reduce learned fear and anxiety. If a deeper psychological problem is at the root of an individual’s addiction or substance abuse, adding marijuana to a psychological therapy regimen may reduce an addict’s fear or anxiety-based triggers.

Another mode of addiction treatment where marijuana can be applied is harm reduction: the process of systematically reducing the level of substance abuse instead of eliminating it cold turkey. Harm reduction often involves alternative substances designed to facilitate a transfer away from an addictive substance. Using medical cannabis as a detox aid may safely facilitate progress for addicts who are dependent on dangerous substances.

Not only is marijuana safer than many other addiction treatment substances, but it can also be more cost effective. Though states where marijuana has been legalized may see massive price hikes, the low doses of marijuana that one should take for addiction treatment may still be less expensive than traditional medications.

For those engaged in holistic, spiritual, or 12-step addiction recovery programs, cannabis may be an effective complementary treatment substance. Most 12-step institutions will disregard the idea of using marijuana in conjunction their programs, citing the cannabis high as a pathway back to old habits. Ironically, these same 12-step programs will usually offer coffee, donuts, and cigarettes at their meetings, all of which are potentially more physically addictive, and less healthy than low doses of marijuana. If you’ve tried a 12-step program and found it ineffective in treating your addiction, consider talking to an open-minded addiction counselor or psychologist to see if a marijuana-based treatment plan might work for you.

We clearly live in an age where our most trusted addiction recovery institutions require as much scrutiny as our anti-marijuana laws. As we come to understand addiction as a behavioral disorder and marijuana as a widely applicable medicinal substance, the potential to use cannabis in healing addiction almost seems inevitable. If you think marijuana might be effective in treating your addiction, always make sure to consult a trusted physician, and make sure you understand local laws and regulations.

Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
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