Recreational cannabis products might seem like harmless fun, but for people in recovery from addiction, today’s ultra-strong (and legal) weed is more dangerous than ever.

The addiction recovery community has always had a strained relationship with cannabis. There are many people in fellowships, 12-step and otherwise, that don’t consider cannabis a “real” drug. I’m a sober person that goes to meetings, and in private, I’ve heard more than a few sober people laugh out loud at the idea of hitting bottom on weed. 

As society and culture shift towards legalization, recovery professionals and fellowships must adapt to stay relevant. The binary idea that cannabis is either all-bad or all-good has been replaced by shades of gray, and in a world of absolutes, that makes cannabis a confusing subject for people in recovery. 

Are you still sober if you smoke weed? 

There’s a famous scene in the movie Half Baked (1999) in which the lead character, played by Dave Chappelle, goes to an NA meeting to confess that he’s “addicted to marijuana.” The statement triggers a round of raucous laughter and ridicule from the other attendees, and the scene concludes with a cameo from Bob Saget, who delivers a famous one-liner that’s a bit too raunchy for this post. The point of the scene was clear: cannabis is not a “real” drug like cocaine, opiates, or meth. And it’s certainly not an addiction that requires a 12-step meeting. 

The phenomenon of quitting “everything except weed,” is a familiar trope in the modern recovery landscape. Continuing to smoke weed while going to recovery meetings is so common, the recovery community actually has a name for it: marijuana maintenance. But now that the M-word has been canceled for its racist undertones, it’s more controversial to say marijuana than it is to actually smoke it. 

Does harm reduction recovery work?

Adding to the confusion is the theory of harm reduction, which is a very real school of thought and practice in the world of recovery. I happen to be a fan of harm reduction, because it’s true that smoking weed isn’t as “bad” as some things you could do to your body. However, I’m not sure smoking weed is healthy enough to be considered beneficial to recovery… except maybe during extreme cases of post-acute withdrawal from opiates, but even then, I’m not sure it’s a good idea.

There are, too, some people who don’t believe cannabis is a drug at all. To them, cannabis is a medicinal herb that grows naturally, but has gotten a bad reputation for no good reason. Still some people believe there’s been a 100-year conspiracy to outlaw weed, secretly led by the pharma industry and the conservatives. It seems like no matter what you believe about weed, you can find evidence to support your views. One of the things that makes the conversation about cannabis in recovery so difficult, is that there’s a lot of bullsh*t out there. 

“Smoking weed doesn’t make me want to do hard drugs, it makes me want to eat ice cream and pass out.”

For decades, opponents of cannabis have called it a gateway drug, while the pro-cannabis crowd claims the opposite. They say cannabis doesn’t cause cravings for harder stuff–unless you count ice cream and cookies. Unfortunately, that argument doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. It’s true that when it comes to physical cravings, weed doesn’t make users crave narcotics directly. Unfortunately, smoking weed doesn’t repel cravings either.

The simple truth is, people who use recreational cannabis are more likely to encounter hard drugs and alcohol than those of us who abstain entirely. There are also reports of fentanyl-laced cannabis proliferating across the US, which puts some cannabis users at risk for accidental overdose, triggers, or relapse. For people in recovery, it seems the inherent risks of cannabis far outweigh the potential benefits.

People with addiction should avoid mind-altering substances

There are many pro-cannabis arguments that make sense in passing, but a closer examination shows us that these “common sense” arguments only apply to cannabis users in the middle of the bell curve. It’s likely that a substantial portion of cannabis users experience minimal side effects and little to no consequences from occasional use. But unfortunately, people with addiction issues don’t respond to mind-altering substances the way the average person might.

The Narcotics Anonymous basic text states: addicts are people for whom drugs have become a major problem. People with addiction shouldn’t do drugs, and like it or not, cannabis is a drug, a mind altering substance. And mind altering substances and addiction don’t mix. For people recovering from narcotics addiction, a relapse caused by cannabis could lead to more fatal substances. Once again, the reward just doesn’t outweigh the risk.

The “new” cannabis is potent and potentially harmful

Since the 1970’s brought Cheech and Chong into the mainstream, smoking weed has mostly been portrayed in the media as a safe, harmless hobby. Stoners are portrayed as lovable, benign pleasure-seekers. A little on the dumb side, perhaps, but certainly not dangerous or sad like most other addicts. But even though pop culture tells us that smoking weed is no big deal, today’s cannabis is anything but harmless. Especially for people with addiction or chemical dependency. 

As a professional in the recovery community, I think it’s important to have frank, open, judgment-free conversations about the pros and cons of cannabis. To better understand the modern conversation about weed, it’s important to understand the state of things in the wide world of weed, and how we arrived there. 

Cannabis is big business all over the U.S.

These days, cannabis is big business. Over the last decade or so, early adopters like Colorado, California, and Massachusetts have (mostly) legalized it and created a boom economy. The free market picked up on the commercial potential, and pretty soon there were dispensaries popping up in major cities across the US. As popularity surged, so did the demand for more powerful, more convenient, less detectable products. 

To answer demand, cannabis producers, chemists, botanists, and mad scientist types all over the world started researching and experimenting. This new green economy led to the rise of a whole new generation of cannabis technology. THC strains are powered by decades of pseudo-scientific research, while delivery devices have graduated well-beyond the pipes and bongs of yesteryear. Cannabis can be ingested through a variety of mediums: electronic vape pens, tinctures, edible snacks, candies, gums, topical creams, pills, and even THC-laced sublingual films that are like Listerine Fresh Strips, except they get you high as a kite. 

High potency cannabis can be extremely dangerous

The “new” cannabis is more potent, more portable, and more dangerous than ever, and 21st century weed takes many forms. Classic “flower” (like the weed you smoked in college) still exists, but now it’s part of an enormous ecosystem of high-tech offshoots, extracts, and derivatives. Vape pens and vaporizers and edibles of every imaginable kind have made high-potency cannabis easier to use, harder to detect, and nearly impossible to control. 

One of the reasons the new cannabis is impossible to control is that a lot of it isn’t even cannabis anymore. Delta-8, Delta-10, THC-O, THC-V, HHC, and other hemp-derived products are technically legal, owing to the fact that they contain less than the legal limit of traditional Delta-9 THC. These new hemp compounds are psychoactive, but largely untested and certainly unregulated. Gray market hemp products don’t have to go through FDA approval to make it to shelves, and by the time lawmakers catch up to outlaw Delta-8 or HHC products, the science will have moved on to some other not-yet-illegal compound with unknown properties. 

You can get addicted to Delta-8, HHC, and THC-O

The new cannabis definitely isn’t as safe as its less-potent forefathers. New compounds like HHC and THC-O don’t even come directly from plants, they are copies of real compounds that have been synthesized in labs. HHC and THC-O are basically research chemicals, and there have been reports that both compounds, when taken in excess, can cause nightmarish hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and could even lead to overdose.

With the introduction of electronic vape pens, the new cannabis has gone incognito, making it more dangerous and harder to spot when someone is using. THC vapes are especially risky for teens and young adults, because the vapor that comes from these devices is usually odorless and dissipates quickly, making the vape a favorite among teens and young adults. 

The dark side of cannabis 

Rechargeable devices are easy to conceal, and can be used almost anywhere. V-pen smokers can get high any time, anywhere, with no residual odor or telltale smoke, which has led to a rise in cannabis addiction among young people especially. For many of these young people, vaping cannabis is an all-day, every-day habit. 

The dark side of cannabis is something that you don’t hear about very much these days, but exists nonetheless. Out west, Colorado has quietly reported that DWI-related deaths have increased dramatically since legalization, as has black market trading of cannabis, and illegal exports to other states. ER and hospital visits have increased in places that have decriminalized, and in cities and states that offer recreational cannabis, the overall crime rate has risen. 

Addicted to cannabis? Suntra can help.

The discussion about cannabis and recovery is a confusing one, but no matter what you think you know about weed, keep a few things in mind: cannabis is a drug. If it wasn’t a drug, then we probably wouldn’t even be talking about it. I think the hardest thing to reconcile about cannabis is that it seems to be great for some people, awful for some people, and a total non-issue for others. 

Cannabis affects different people in different ways. For some folks, cannabis is a savior, a cure-all that helps with pain, nausea, sleeplessness, and anxiety. Some people it makes them lazy and unmotivated, complacent and happy within a mediocre existence. And still others use weed as a crutch, convinced they need to be high in order to function in daily life. 

For people with addiction, unpredictable = dangerous

The effects of cannabis vary widely from person to person. It’s hard to predict how someone will react to high-potency cannabis, which is why it’s so dangerous for people in recovery. If you smoke pot, you might be fine. If I smoke pot, I might be drinking again by sunrise. If they smoke pot, they might wreck their car, or they might fall asleep on the couch.The problem with cannabis is that its effects are unpredictable. People in recovery from addiction are fighting for their lives, and when the stakes are that high, a little bit of cannabis just isn’t worth the risk. 

— Anonymous for Suntra Modern Recovery