Using Marijuana in Recovery
I don’t really like smoking weed. Those who know me might be surprised to hear that, because I have given it a really good nudge in the past. I think sometimes I would smoke it just to feel something other than sober, or because I was hungover, but I never really like the high. I certainly never liked it as much as alcohol.
In my younger days I would smoke weed in cars or parks and stuff, and I would always have to be the last person out of my friends to smoke because as soon as I did I was immediately convinced the police were going to come and arrest us – much to the amusement of my friends. As I got older my paranoia would move on to believing that people were talking about me, or laughing at me, or other paranoid thoughts. One time I may or may not have even been a little bit scared that aliens were coming to get me from outer space (sadly not even joking). I have smoked weed a couple of times since I quit drinking, just to make sure that I reeeeaaalllly don’t like it. However, I finally admitted to myself that I don’t like it several months ago and stopped for good.
But other people do like it. It doesn’t make them feel paranoid, it makes them feel relaxed. Some people believe that it is not as addictive as alcohol and other drugs, and not as damaging, so some people substitute it for their drug of choice. Well I have no judgement on people who choose to do that – I can’t tell you what’s right for you. But I can tell you the facts, and they do seem to suggest that it isn’t quite as harmless as many would like to believe.
Cannabis and the Brain
*Warning sciencey bit*
There’s actually still a lot we don’t know about the effects of cannabis on the brain. This is one of the reasons I tend to be sceptical when I hear claims that it is ‘harmless’ and not linked to mental health disorders etc. The latter claim in particular, is demonstrably untrue, because cannabis use is strongly linked to schizophrenia, as well as several other mental health disorders, particularly amongst those who smoke heavily during adolescence. However, it’s not entirely clear if the evidence is causal or correlational (in other words, does smoking weed cause schizophrenia, or does schizophrenia cause smoking weed? Perhaps those affected are more likely to smoke to get relief from their symptoms. I don’t think science has answered this – but happy to hear about it if I am wrong). One thing that is pretty clear, however, is that smoking weed is not good for the developing/adolescent brain. So if you’re a teenager, then you probably just shouldn’t smoke weed.
As for what we do know about marijuana’s effects on the brain; well the active ingredient in cannabis is THC, and it is this that binds to cannabinoid receptors (specifically CB1 receptors). This has been linked to increasing ‘magical thinking’ and ‘imagination’, but I think at a fundamental level it really just magnifies your thoughts. So whatever the basis is there for already gets exaggerated. It also releases dopamine and norepinephrine, which can lead make you feel good or anxious, depending on several factors.
At a circuit level, marijuana can affect CB1 receptors in your hypothalamus, messing with satiety signals and hence giving you the munchies. It can affect your amygdala that regulates emotions and basal ganglia linked to decision-making. We’re not really sure why it has different effects on different people, but my assumption is that it builds upon the foundation that is already there. For me, because I am already quite prone to anxiety, smoking weed can amplify these thoughts and feelings and lead to paranoid thoughts. Of course it also affects your cerebellum which regulates movement and coordination.
Smoking marijuana also affects the hippocampus, although this possibly occurs primarily through neurotransmitters other than cannabinoids. This brain region is central to learning and memory. In particular, it is important for those memories of the things that you experience, rather than memories that have to do with learning facts about the world or learning skills. This is why if you smoke weed often, your memory can tend to be quite hazy (alcohol also affects this part of the brain, so if you drink and smoke, you might be particularly forgetful!).
*End Sciencey bit*
Should I Stay Away from Marijuana in Recovery?
I just don’t think that there is a ‘one fits all’ answer to that question. If you smoking weed sparingly (not every day), whereas you used to shoot dope every day, and your life is all the better for smoking, then I don’t think I should be the one to tell you to stop. Especially if you do stop and your life goes to shit again, that’s not going to do anyone any good.
I should also make it clear that I am not referring to medicinal marijuana for anything other than addiction here. The science is really very preliminary with regards to medicinal marijuana, despite what a few loud voices over the internet might have you believe. Therefore it is totally possible that smoking weed might be helpful in overcoming nausea for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, for example. There’s also cannabidiol that does not contain THC, which might be particularly helpful in treating a range of conditions. I am not speaking to those uses of marijuana here, I believe with regards to those we should go with what the science says. I am only speaking to the addict in recovery who is thinking about substituting their drug of choice for marijuana.
In these instances, my worry is that the person who substitutes one drug for another will not adequately address the underlying issues that led to their addiction in the first place, and then end up addicted to a whole new drug all over again. I have heard of this happening to a number of people in recovery. And yes I do think marijuana is addictive, psychologically at least. It might not induce tolerance and physical dependence in the same way as alcohol and heroin etc, but it certainly contains perceived value that can be imbued in its use and everything associated with it. That alone can produce a physical reaction in the brain and, over many learning episodes, a psychological need for the drug. It’s also a little worrying that if you are smoking weed you are still partaking in a mind-altering drug that could lead back to your drug of choice. Also if we take what we know about marijuana’s effects on the brain into account, then it just doesn’t seem to be as harmless as advocates would have you believe. Several lines of evidence now suggest that the damage from smoking heavilly over a long period of time can be long term.
So in short, my answer is that you probably shouldn’t smoke weed whilst recovering from other addictions. But as I said, I never liked it much anyway so the decision may have been easier to make for me than for others.
I’m sure there are bound to be those who disagree with me on this one, so feel free to let me know what you think. I am here as much to learn as I am to impart the knowledge that I have.