Telling people my story of recovery from addiction has always proved controversial. It’s a story that’s echoed by the experiences of countless others, but is usually airbrushed out of mainstream addiction narratives: I emerged from nearly 10 years of addiction to cocaine and heroin without sticking to a 12-Step program and without becoming totally abstinent from all drugs –– in fact, using marijuana was a key part of my success.
While I’ve always been clear that the total-abstinence route of Alcoholics Anonymous and the rest wasn’t right for me, I have no bones to pick with 12-Step programs. Many of my good friends frequent the rooms and tell me that they’ve found them enormously beneficial, lifesaving even.
Still, most of the negative reactions to my recovery story have always come from “friends of Bill.” Bill Wilson, AA’s founder, used LSD and believed in its potential to help alcoholics recover. But hearing that I used marijuana as a tool to wean myself off heroin seems to incense some of the 12-Step faithful.
In my early days of recovery, using marijuana was a vital way to stave off my cravings for heroin, short-circuiting the urge and giving me the chance of quiet self-reflection instead. My fears would subside and this allowed me to regroup. Having used methadone for years, I found that using marijuana instead had an amazingly positive effect on me.
Three years ago, I described my recovery story for another website. I wanted to draw attention to those of us who are able to stop using the drug that had brought us down without becoming completely abstinent. Publicly and privately, reactions to the piece were divided, ranging from “completely absurd and dangerous” to “[offers] a sense of real possibility for people who thought that they were out of options.”
“It’s typical sick thinking, and it is dangerous for most addicts,” said one typical comment on the article. “I’ll pray for you, my brother.” Another commenter sniffed, “Too much phony BS here to sort through. Nothing new about an addict substituting one substance for another and rationalizing their behavior.”
But my story seemed to resonate with many others. “Trying to maintain complete abstinence was like hanging onto the side of a cliff –– it was just a matter of time until I got tired and let go,” commented one reader. “Now I get to have my beer and drink it, too.”As well as the public comments, I got numerous emails, mostly supportive, from people with self-recovery stories like mine. This is to be expected: The National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) tells us that 90%-plus of people with substance use disorders overcome them –– in about 90% of cases without AA or any formal treatment. So a lot of us are doing something very different.
As well as self-recovery, however, there was another thread running through my correspondents’ testimony: Most also reported using marijuana to help with cravings.
The once-taboo idea of using marijuana as a tool for people who want to stop using more dangerous drugs is catching on. This Substance.com article by Philippe Lucas of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) sets out some of the evidence for this “substitution effect” and more research is ongoing. While it’s true that some people can get addicted to marijuana –– as with any pleasurable drug or experience, like sex or shopping –– the reduced harms here compared with an addiction to alcohol, say, or painkillers are obvious. Most of us who use marijuana in this way don’t get addicted.
The US marijuana landscape has radically altered in the last three years. Marijuana is now legal for adult recreational use in Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C. It’s also a legal medicine for a range of conditions in a total of 23 states. So it seems like a good time to revisit the issue of marijuana in recovery, and to ask whether changing national perceptions might be mirrored by a shift in attitudes within the 12-Step community –– sparking more calls for “recovery” not to be synonymous with “total abstinence.”
“There is a reason they call it ‘marijuana maintenance’ in AA,” says Julian, who hasn’t used alcohol or other drugs in his 14 years in the program. “Many people get and stay off the hard shit smoking pot. In AA, where the goal is complete abstinence, that is a no-no… But as we all know, most junkie AA guys will, in candor, say, ‘You’re smoking weed? That’s not a drug!’”
Julian is one of my many friends who have gotten sober using the 12 steps. He and I stayed in the same sober living house 14 years ago, when he had just quit drugs. He stayed away from heroin, got his life back in order, and still attends meetings regularly –– yet his knowledge of the unofficial “marijuana maintenance” program in AA is first-hand. Julian has been a regular pot smoker for most of his time in recovery.
“I think pot is an excellent way to get off and stay off smack or crack, but then again I have always loved pot,” he shrugs. “It works well with me…but it’s not for everyone. Point of fact is, most junkies and cokeheads I knew really weren’t that into weed.”
When I was strung out on heroin, I didn’t smoke weed. In fact, I looked down on it, with the kind of inverted snobbery that most heroin users feel when it comes to “softer” drugs. After all, we’re part of a proud lineage, stretching back via William Burroughs, Lou Reed and Lenny Bruce, all the way to Thomas De Quincey. Weed was –– in my ignorant view –– for kids, hippies and frat boys.
But later, when I approached marijuana with an open mind and veins that weren’t pumped full of narcotics, I realized what I’d been missing. Sure, I enjoyed being stoned. But more than simply a pleasant distraction, weed offered something else. It did for me what years of therapy and 12-Step groups could not: It allowed me to see my addiction for what it really was, and therefore to finally beat it.
“Especially out here in California, where it’s all-but-legal…it’s caused some cracks to appear in the whole ‘good drug/bad drug’ thing in AA,” says Dave, another long-term AA-er, who recently celebrated his 25th sober “birthday.”
“I mean, after every meeting I’ve ever been to, everybody rushes outside to light a cigarette and glug down a few cups of coffee. So it’s not surprising you’re getting some people looking at that and saying, ‘Hey, no fair. How come you can smoke tobacco and still be considered sober, but if I smoke marijuana it’s considered a relapse?’ After all, they’re both mood-altering substances. Marijuana is the healthier of the two.”
Dave does not smoke marijuana, but he has a tolerant attitude toward AA members who do. “When I’m sponsoring a new guy –– especially one whose main problem was booze, coke or junk –– then no, I’m not gonna jump all over them for lighting up a joint, any more than I would if they took an antidepressant,” he says. “My view is this: If they’ve got a legitimate prescription that says they need it, then it’s not my place to get involved. I’m your sponsor, not your doctor, you know?”
“Certainly, I have clients who use it in this way,” says Dr. Adi Jaffe when I ask for his professional opinion on the pros and cons of using marijuana as a tool to wean off other drugs. Jaffe is a UCLA-trained addiction expert, the man behind All About Addiction and a regular contributor to Psychology Today. He draws from his personal experiences with meth addiction when working with his clients at Alternatives Addiction Treatment in Los Angeles.
“When you think about it, this is classic harm reduction methodology,” he continues, “replacing a more harmful and dangerous drug with a lesser one to improve coping while reducing consequences. Harm reduction literature in general supports this idea as a positive step in recovery. If someone struggles with anxiety, they need something to help with it, whether that be neurofeedback, talk therapy or weed.”
I ask if he has any idea of how widespread a practice this is in the 12-Step scene. “I have been hearing about it happening within the AA community more and more,” Jaffe says, although he still notes, “my sense is that most typical 12-Step followers look at the practice unfavorably.”
It’s certainly true that not everybody is happy with the idea of the erosion of marijuana’s verboten status within the recovery community. “Hell no!” is the blunt answer I get when I ask a long-standing NA-er called Mark if he’d be okay with his sponsees smoking a little weed. Mark currently sponsors three guys, and has been helping people quit ever since he himself quit heroin and crack cocaine in the late ’80s.
Mark lives in Queens, so I asked him to imagine this scenario playing out if New York joined the ranks of states where marijuana is legal. “If someone feels they still need to smoke weed, then they aren’t clean,” he says, “Period. And I don’t give a shit about whether they make it legal everywhere or not. It’s legal to drink a pint of Wild Turkey, but if you do then you’ve got no right to raise your hand at a meeting when they ask who has a day sober. That’s bullshit.”
But what about tobacco? Isn’t it a contradiction that it’s accepted for people in NA to smoke a pack of Marlboros a day?
“Look, having a cigarette has been okay within the 12-Step community since day one,” Mark says. “Honestly, if we told the AA community that it was no longer okay to smoke cigarettes I don’t think you’d have a damn meeting left in the country. You might have a point –– might –– that at the moment we have an imperfect solution. But honestly I think we’d be better off considering outlawing tobacco at meetings than okaying people getting stoned. I mean, what next? Crackheads allowed to have a few shots of Jager to steady their nerves? Hey, it’s okay, booze didn’t used to be their drug of choice!”
So he doesn’t see a future for Marijuana Maintenance in the rooms of AA, as legalization continues?
“Not really,” he says. “There’s a lot of shit like that in AA, stuff that might not make a lot of sense on a pure logic level, but is just…common sense. Weed is different from tobacco. It just is.”
The whole “it just is” argument amuses Dave. “Look,” he says, “AA is a broad church. In many ways it’s the largest anarchist organization in the world. Just like you can go to one Christian church and they’re marrying gay couples, and you go to another and they’re telling you you’ll go to hell for kissing another guy, AA can be like that too. There’s the real fire and brimstone, by-the-book, doctrine-driven meetings…and then there’s the kind of AA I practice.”
Could he sum up “his” AA’s philosophy? “Shit, as long as you don’t have a spike hanging out of your arm, then basically I’m a live-and-let-live type.”
As the grip of prohibition continues to loosen and the medicinal benefits of marijuana are further explored, it would be great to think that mainstream AA could continue to evolve –– in this area as in others –– in the same direction as the rest of society.