Can recovering addicts smoke weed without backsliding into substance abuse? It’s a question frequently asked by those in the recovery community as well as the general public - especially people who don't consider cannabis a drug in the first place.
But addiction therapist Joe Schrank disagrees. Schrank and his colleagues at San Francisco's Remedy Recovery help individuals dealing with substance abuse, but instead of by steering them away from cannabis, they give them access to the plant as a safer alternative to what they were using before.
“Medication-assisted treatment has much better outcome than just your basic rehab,” Schrank told Civilized. In his view, it is far safer and more realistic to allow people to recover with the use of cannabis because it has widely been found to be a much safer substance than alcohol or opiates. “One hundred twenty people a day drop dead from an [opiate] overdose,” Schrank explained. “Those numbers decrease rapidly when people are maintained with proper medications. And those numbers decrease when cannabis is available.”
He added that medical marijuana is especially effective for young males, who are more likely to abuse medication, according to Schrank.
“My thing with young guys is that it’s very difficult to give a young guy Vicodin. They’re impulsive. They drink. So there’s a lot of risk factors — mismanaging or misusing substances. One of the reasons I like using cannabis for this particular population is that the stakes are incredibly low. So, if we said to a 24 year old athlete who recently had a knee surgery, and we gave him a vape pen and said ‘you can hit this two times before going to sleep,’ and he hit it four times, nothing happens. If we say ‘here, you can have one Vicodin,’ and they have two Vicodin and a few beers, we could be in serious trouble.”
But he's had tremendous difficulty getting that message across to the recovery community, where his methods have received severe pushback from fellow addiction specialists.
“It was like you’re telling the Bible Belt that Jesus was gay,” Schrank said of the initial reaction to his pro-cannabis philosophy for addiction treatment. “There could not have been more pushback.”
That backlash, however, didn't change his view that abstinence-only rehab programs are not only outdated but irresponsible.
“We all love the idea that (patients) are going to be drug free, and they're going to love AA, and they're going to be sober. That's terrific. But you can't pretend that there aren't other options. That’s way outside the spectrum of integrity as a practicing mental health professional. And that's where the current state rehab is. That's what people do.”
While members of the sober community have railed strongly against integrating cannabis into recovery, several experienced members of the medical community have voiced support for attempting to replace more dangerous drugs with cannabis.
“An ER nurse will say ‘Great. Give them cannabis.’ EMT guys will say ‘Wonderful. We don’t have to revive guys who use cannabis,’” Schrank said.
And while weaning someone off one substance and onto another might not solve the underlying problem of addiction, Schrank insists that it's a major step on the road to recovery. One that can save lives.
“I don’t think of addiction recovery as different to other concerns,” he explained. “If somebody needs to lose 100 pounds, and they lose 50, we don’t tell them they didn’t do it right. We say, ‘You know what? Great.’ Now, if somebody gets off of heroin and onto cannabis, we should say the same thing. We should go, ‘That’s wonderful. You’ve taken death off the table. Good for you.’”
Though Schrank strongly advocates for medicating with cannabis, he describes himself as “a sober guy."
"I'm 20 years sober," he told Civilized. "I don’t use cannabis.”