Over the past decade, the movement to legalize marijuana in the United States has gained serious momentum, challenging perceptions and changing laws in many states throughout the country.  These challenges have come from various arenas; some states have allowed for the use of marijuana as a medical treatment for certain conditions, while others have made it legal for purely recreational use.  Activists supporting legalization take pride in their accomplishments and cash-poor states look forward to the revenue stream they hope marijuana sales will provide, but little thought has been given to addicts in recovery who may face a new stumbling block in their recovery.

What is Marijuana?

Marijuana is the most commonly used drug in the United States.  Two related plants, Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, are used to supply the leaves, flowers, stems and seeds that are dried to produce marijuana.  These plants naturally produce a mind-altering chemical, THC, that people typically imbibe by smoking the dried plants in joints (hand-rolled cigarettes), blunts (emptied cigars that have been filled with marijuana), pipes, or water pipes known as bongs.  People can also consume marijuana by including it in baked goods. 

Is Weed a Drug? 

Marijuana, also known as weed, grass, or pot, is definitely a drug based on the way it impacts the brain, both in the short-term and the long-term.  When a person uses marijuana, the chemical THC enters the bloodstream and moves to the brain.  Short-term effects include:

  • Feeling “high”
  • Altered senses, such as seeing colors brighter than usual
  • Altered sense of time
  • Change in mood
  • Impaired movement
  • Difficulty with thinking and problem solving
  • Impaired memory

When used over long periods of time, marijuana can affect brain development.  Studies indicate that marijuana use negatively impacts:

  • Thinking
  • Memory
  • Learning

These effects are more pronounced in people who start abusing marijuana younger in life.  A study by Duke University found that people who began heavy marijuana use as teens and continued as adults lost an average of 8 IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38.  That loss did not repair itself when the user discontinued marijuana use.  People who began heavy marijuana use as adults did not show such a drastic change in IQ.

The fact that people purposefully use marijuana to get high, coupled with its negative impact on the brain, suggest that it is, indeed, a drug. 

Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

Research has shown that marijuana is, in fact, a gateway drug, a substance that introduces a person to drug use and opens the door to harder drugs.  The idea of marijuana being a gateway drug is supported by facts.  When a person uses marijuana, the pleasurable high that they feel stimulates the brain to use it again in order to achieve that same high.   Studies have shown that marijuana users experience a phenomenon known as cross-sensitization, in which the brain is not primed just for future marijuana use, but becomes more receptive to other drugs, including morphine.  The United States government conducted a long-term study, the National Epidemiolgical Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders, which surveyed drug and alcohol use in adolescents and young adults.  The findings indicate that adolescents who use marijuana are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than those who do not use marijuana, and adults who already had an alcohol use disorder and used marijuana were more likely to develop a worse alcohol abuse disorder.  These studies show that marijuana use causes biological changes that make the user more likely to use other drugs.  As it becomes legal in some states, this is especially dangerous, because some people who would not otherwise engage in drug use will try marijuana if it is legal.

The History of Marijuana Legalization

Proponents of marijuana legalization are working to decriminalize marijuana on a state-by-state basis.  Marijuana is now legal in some form in 29 states.  In Oregon, Washington, Nevada,  and Alaska, it is legal for recreational use, and it will be soon be legal in Massachusetts and Maine as well.  In others, it is legal only for medical use; and in still others, it is legal for medical use and it has been decriminalized, meaning that possession of small amounts will not be prosecuted.  Each state has specific regulations on how much usable marijuana and how many plants an individual may possess.  The movement continues in the remaining states and the trend certainly points towards the eventual legalization of marijuana throughout the country.  Federal laws prohibit possession of marijuana, but under the Obama administration, these laws were not actively enforced.  President Trump has vowed to enforce all federal laws, including marijuana laws, but it is not yet clear how how administration will handle states that have legalized marijuana.

How Does Legalized Marijuana Challenge Addicts in Recovery?

Being a recovering addict in a state where marijuana is legal is a challenge; easy access to marijuana adds an extra layer of temptation, but it is not insurmountable.  It is a lot like being an alcoholic; just as alcoholics can expect to encounter alcohol and have people offer them a drink, recovering drug addicts in these states will probably come in contact with people using marijuana and have someone offer it to them.  Just as alcoholics might walk by a bar or liquor store, recovering addicts will walk by marijuana dispensaries.  In order to maintain sobriety, recovering addicts should plan ahead for strategies to help cope with these challenges.

  • Develop policies to govern personal behavior: make it a rule never to go into a dispensary, even with a friend.  Prepare a response in case someone suggests popping into a dispensary.
  • Plan how you can turn down an offer to use marijuana when hanging out with friends.  By preparing what to say in advance, you can prevent being caught off-guard.
  • Limit contact with people you know use marijuana.  If you are comfortable, tell them that you are in recovery and need to avoid temptation.

If you or someone you love struggles with addiction, call our toll-free number today.  Help is available.