Marijuana Legalization: Will It Affect the Recovery Community?

Marijuana legalization has been at the forefront of discussion for some time now, but has become especially relevant in the past few years. Four states have approved the use of marijuana for recreational use: Oregon, Washington, Colorado, and Alaska. Also, with the legalization of medical marijuana in several others states, there has been an influx of marijuana in the public marketplace.

With marijuana becoming more mainstream and self-medicating becoming seemingly acceptable, how will these laws affect those in recovery from drugs and alcohol? Firstly, let’s take a look at the facts associated with marijuana use.


Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Hoover Adger, Jr., MD, MPH, MBA describes research on marijuana use and the effects: “Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal substance in the United States. Its use is associated with educational underachievement, reduced workplace productivity, motor vehicle accidents, and increased risk of use of other substances.”

The substance is also linked to physiological problems, and psychiatric conditions, such as panic, anxiety, psychosis, and depressed mood (Adger). Marijuana is generally accepted as an addictive substance in the medical field. So, one can understand why people recovering from another substance should abstain from all drug use–including marijuana use.

But, what happens when you surround recovering addicts with a substance that is now being deemed “medically sound?”


For those of us in recovery, marijuana is considered a drug because it alters the state of mind. Addicts have one thing in common: we all want to get out of our own heads. So, anything that can change or alter our state of mind is a drug and can be considered addictive.

Some people claim that they are sober when they smoke weed because they are not using their substance of choice, whether that is cocaine, heroin, or prescription medication. This is commonly referred to as the “marijuana maintenance plan.” But the marijuana maintenance plan fails to take into account the reality that most people do not keep smoking marijuana the rest of their lives. The pot use typically leads the addict back to the original substance of choice.

One way to attempt to understand this is by looking at the phenomenon of the first high. Addicts chase the first high for life. Not the first high on marijuana, but the first high on cocaine, crack, meth, heroin, or other highly-addictive drugs. Marijuana is simply a stepping-stone to a relapse.

To be in recovery and considered sober, by any professional or by twelve-step programs, you must abstain from all mind or mood-altering chemicals. This includes marijuana. Marijuana is altering. It may not be as dangerous as injecting heroin into your arm, but it may as well be because a heroin addict is not going to keep smoking pot forever. They will eventually start doing heroin. It just does not work that way. Maybe there is the rare case that someone who is in recovery from a hard drug can use the marijuana maintenance plan for the rest of their life, but it is just not the typical case.

But, for a recovering addict, that is the allure. The inner dialog looks something like this: “Marijuana isn’t really a drug. I just feel relaxed when I smoke pot. I can be that one person that doesn’t start shooting dope again. Let me see… I’ll just smoke a joint and find out. I’ll finally be able to kick back and relax.” Unless you are an addict, it is probably very difficult to understand the deceptive pull of the marijuana maintenance plan.

Robert DuPont, MD, describes this condition: “Although most drug abusers have stopped drug us many times, the big challenge is long-term abstinence because of the strong biological pull of the drug experience…”

Self-medicating is the underlying factor in this equation. Addicts are self-medicators, from psychological illness to physical illness, and “wanting to get high” off of marijuana is not as innocent as it may sound because it still encourages and reinforces that behavior that we need something outside of ourselves to be, or feel, “ok.” And, once that floodgate is opened, it’s very difficult to close it back.


Dr. DuPont makes an excellent point in this statement: “… the state of being abstinent from alcohol and drugs while developing a strong character based on honesty and unselfish values is called ‘recovery…’ legitimizing smoked marijuana as a ‘medicine’ is a serious threat to the health of all Americans, and particularly, the health of individuals in recovery.”

Bob Lynn, Ed.D, supports Dr. DuPont’s viewpoint. Lynn states that “for so many addicted individuals, medical marijuana quickly becomes the great abyss that creates nightmares for individuals and families. That rationalization that the term ‘medical’ provides opens the door for addiction and almost certain relapse for the drug dependent client.”

Legalizing marijuana may make it more popularized, and more readily available than it already has become, but, this is not the issue at hand for addicts in recovery. Most addicts do not have a problem locating drugs. If we want to smoke some pot, we will go get it. Not an issue. It’s the whole attitude around this issue that is most detrimental to recovering addicts.

The discourse of legalizing marijuana undermines an addict’s footing in their program of recovery. This theme of marijuana being used for medical purposes is totally contradictory to the efforts of the recovering individual to live life on life’s terms.

Some people may feel like marijuana benefits them from a medicinal standpoint. It may. But, a drug is a drug is a drug for addicts. Because the world changes and the laws change does not mean that I can start safely consuming mind-altering substances. What if scientists discovered some medicinal properties in cocaine? If I accepted that I could use it as medicine, I would be dead.

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