I’ve always liked to drink. As a teenager, I began sneaking hard liquor out of my Grandmother’s pantry. She used it to cook with, and being that she was old and pretty immobile, it was pretty easy to get my hands on as much as I wanted. I’ve never liked beer, but by the time I was a Sophomore in High School, I was drinking just as much beer and malt liquor as I was the hard stuff. Of course, my friends at the time were nothing, if not enablers, as well. And I’d been able to keep the fact that I was drinking pretty much day and night from my family, my teachers, and anyone who could have stopped me. I was smart, an honor student, and very sneaky, so I don’t really blame the adults in my life for not noticing, although it has been suggested to me that maybe I should.
I was able to stop drinking for years after High School, through sheer force of will. But that all changed when my father died from a cardiac event, right in front of me. I performed CPR on him for at least half an hour before the EMTs got there. I couldn’t get him to start breathing again, and neither could they. It gave me a type of PTSD and I went sort of numb for at least a year after that. It’s not exactly rational, but I felt responsible that he’d died. It might have even been some sort of survivor’s remorse. Whatever it was, it messed me up and I couldn’t emote, at all.
It also didn’t help anything that my mother pretty much just lost her shit. She didn’t help me plan the funeral, make the arrangements, help me find pictures for the sideshow, clean the house for well-wishers or anything. Furthermore, she wasn’t eating, bathing or taking her medications. She wouldn’t answer the phone, go outside, take care of her dogs, or even change her clothes. So, it was up to me to do everything on my own. After the funeral, it kind of got worse because things around the house would break, and I’d have to be the one to fix it, maintain it or call a handyman. Doing literally everything and being in charge of a human being with a lot of health problems, while also dealing with your own health issues and grief, is a lot of responsibility and I caved under the pressure eventually.
How it started
Because of my responsibilities, I would only drink at night. It started out being just one drink. And then about a week later, it had become an entire bottle of wine to myself a night. Then two. Then, I moved on to the hard liquor. A piece of advice: if you’re drinking entire bottles of hard liquor to yourself every night, you’ve probably got a problem. At that point, I was what is known as a “functional alcoholic”. I could get through all of the errands, appointments, and responsibilities of the day without drinking, drink all night, and then still get up and be responsible the next day.
The first thing that tipped me off that I was in trouble was the fact that I wanted my drink earlier and earlier each day. I’d start looking forward to getting everything done so I could drink. It really didn’t matter what I was doing, I was thinking about how much I wanted to drink. And then one day, I actually thought “Man, I NEED a drink!”. I realized that if I needed a drink, actually needed it, I had to stop. So, I did something that seemed stupid at the time: I lit a joint. Of course, the effect of smoking cannabis is nearly instantaneous, and it provides a euphoric effect, not a depressing one, so I didn’t really want that drink anymore.
Getting myself out
There’s actually a bit of science behind using weed to treat alcoholism. It’s called “marijuana maintenance”. The idea is that instead of drinking, you smoke, vape, or otherwise ingest marijuana. It may sound silly, but it actually has better success rates than AA does. There are just as many opposed to marijuana maintenance as there are those who support it, and I’ll get into both sides of that later. First, I want to give you some information so that you can sort of form your own opinions before I give you mine.
Many people don’t know that excessive, daily use of alcohol results in withdrawal within one to four days after a person stops drinking. Stopping alcohol consumption quickly and entirely is often called “going cold turkey”, and it’s hell. If you’re alcohol-dependent and have stopped cold turkey, you’ve got a 50/50 chance that you’ll experience withdrawal. Contrary to popular belief, withdrawal doesn’t just involve some sweating, shaking and throwing up. It can actually be fatal. If no other complications come along, you can still get severely dehydrated from all of the vomiting, diarrhea, and sweating. And, what’s worse is that there’s a type of super-withdrawal that some people get that’s even more fatal than normal withdrawal.
Delerium Tremens is considered to be the most serious type of withdrawal. It’s referred to as the DTs, and many people use this term interchangeably with withdrawal, not knowing that one is worse. Delerium Tremens is a serious medical emergency. Around 1-5% of people go through the DTs, and between 1-4% of those hospitalized for DTs actually die from it. But, the mortality rate drastically increases if you don’t seek proper medical treatment. The overall mortality rate, hospitalized or not, is between 5 and 25%. Delerium Tremens is a trip because you go through 1-4 days of hell with withdrawal before exhibiting symptoms of DT. So, you could start going through withdrawal, think you’re about to be out of the woods, so to speak, and then have a medical emergency and even die. That’s quite the price to pay for sobriety.
It’s not just alcohol
You don’t even have to stop drinking to experience DT. If you’re a heavy drinker, on par with my favorite TV character, Frank Gallagher (Shameless), you may be thinking that it’s better to just keep drinking and avoid the DTs. But, alcoholism kills people more often than sobriety does. One can experience the DTs if they drink, but don’t eat enough, if they get a head injury (which happens more than you would think when a person is drinking), if they develop an infection, or if they simply just get sick. Symptoms include scary stuff such as: chest pain, anxiety, delirium, confusion, agitation, delusions, fear, excessive sweating, fatigue, increased heart rate and/or breathing rate, eye and/or muscle movement problems, hallucinations, nausea, stomach pain, increased startle reflex, nightmares, seizures, sudden mood changes, restlessness, and involuntary muscle contractions. It tends to last longer than withdrawal, as well, peaking at around 5 days before it starts to subside.
Current treatments for DT are a bunch of hokum, at best. Alcohol can prevent the condition and stave off symptoms. However, the amount of alcohol needed to thwart the DTs in a chronic, heavy drinker is considered medically dangerous (read: would probably be enough to get a small army loaded). So, instead, doctors turn to pharmaceuticals to treat symptoms, such as seizures, and keep patients comfortable and calm. Some of the medicines used include: valium, Propofol, Ativan, benzodiazepines, and phenobarbital- all of which can be addictive.
Studies are actually being done right now to determine how to use marijuana to treat not just withdrawal, but Delerium Tremens, with positive results. Personally, I’d be all for it if I had DT because I’ve never taken any barbiturate or anything with “benzo” in the name and NOT had it mess up my stomach, which is not what you want when you’re already throwing up, having seizures and getting dehydrated. Marijuana has been known to treat many of the symptoms of DT, even the seizure, stomach issues, and muscle spasms. It wouldn’t be easy to only use marijuana to treat it, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend using marijuana to treat DT without some close monitoring from a medical professional. But, if cannabis can treat DT, it can treat withdrawal symptoms with little to no problem. In fact, doctors in the United States used to prescribe pot to treat DT, and did so all the way until 1941, around the same time that it became illegal in the U.S.
The light at the end of the tunnel
After you get over the withdrawal stage, you have to find a way to keep yourself from drinking again. The first thing that comes to most peoples’ minds is rehab. But, recovery and rehabilitation centers aren’t always an option. They’re very expensive, and they require patients to have insurance, which may or may not cover rehab. And, to make matters worse, rehab requires patients to leave their homes, family, friends and their jobs to live in the facility during treatment. So, the culture shock and financial burden for people in recovery programs is real. Worse still is the fact that it’s really hard for an alcoholic to find a good support system or caregiver because of the immense workload and responsibility that they take on. This means that they’re going to have trouble paying for the treatment, they’re in a new place with new people, strung out, isolated from their loved ones, and they lack a support system adequate to cope with all of these changes. It’s not very surprising that lots of people have trouble with this particular method of recovery.
12 Step Programs, such as AA, are another way to go, but they’re not very effective. I really hate saying that because I know that some of the people in these programs really mean well and that they can work at least for a while for some people. But, the problem seems to be that it only works for a while, after which the members fall off the wagon, or find something else that actually worked for them. There’s an interesting study that was published in 2000 by Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, recording AA membership and participation from 1968-1996. They did so by analyzing AA membership surveys. What they found was downright scandalous. Around 81% of newcomers stopped participating and coming to meetings within the first month. Only 10% were still going to meetings after 3 months. And a mere 5% were still attending after a year.
Those numbers are pretty much mirrored in this decade. In 2013, it was estimated that around a million people went to AA meetings regularly and that there were around 60,000 groups established in the U.S. Those numbers sound great because it means that a lot of people are trying it. The problem is that their success rates are still at a measly 5-10%. This means that 90-95% of people in the program fail, and that seems super ineffective. While it’s not impossible to recover via a 12 Step Program, the odds aren’t in favor of it.
Why weed was the answer for me
There are several reasons that marijuana maintenance seems like a better option for many people. For one thing, it actually treats alcoholism, it’s not just a distraction or coping mechanism. The Journal of Neuroscience published a paper that says that cannabis shields the brain stem from further damage, and starts to repair damage already caused by heavy alcohol use. In the same study, it states that weed makes you crave alcohol less, and it helps make recovery easier. So, that seems like the ideal recovery method: it keeps you from wanting alcohol, treats withdrawal, and repairs the damage that it did to your body.
There are lots of benefits of marijuana over alcohol. The first major benefit is that you really can’t overdose on marijuana, but you can drink too much. Around 44,000 people die from binge drinking per year in the United States, according to the CDC. Conversely, it has been proven that a fatal dose of THC is between 15-70 grams of marijuana. Some nerd somewhere calculated that out to be between 238-1,113 joints. Those are ridiculous numbers, as surely no one on the planet has time to smoke 238 joints in one day, and they definitely don’t have time for 1,113. I’m honestly not even sure that Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Seth Rogen, and Cheech and Chong could split 1,113 joints between themselves and smoke it all in one day.
You don’t get angry when you’re high, so you’re less likely to go to jail for domestic violence or assault. Alcohol is pretty much synonymous with violence, getting hurt, or hurting someone else. But, marijuana seems to prevent domestic violence. One study showed that married couples who used marijuana were less likely to experience domestic violence of any kind during the first 9 years of marriage. And, that makes sense. I’ve never encountered an angry stoner, but I’ve encountered many an angry drunk.
What others have to say about it
It’s for these reasons that many people have turned to marijuana maintenance. The University of British Columbia in Vancouver recently did a survey on those who applied for a medical marijuana card. They found that 1/2 of them had applied for it in order to try marijuana maintenance. So, word is getting out that it works, and people are trying it.
Those opposed to marijuana maintenance balk at claims made by advocates that marijuana is safer than alcohol. Critics are quick to point out that there hasn’t been a study with a title that specifically says “marijuana is safer than alcohol”, and they claim that it’s therefore not true. Furthermore, they claim that marijuana maintenance is morally reprehensible, because it’s “not scientifically proven to work”, and that alcoholics genuinely need help, not to be preyed upon or to be handed another addiction. While there’s nothing that specifically says that marijuana is safer than alcohol, there are statistics to prove it, and you need only look at things like overdose and crime rates to see it. And it’s not at all possible to develop a physical addiction to marijuana. A person can develop a psychological addiction to it, and it can make a day suck if you don’t have any weed, but you certainly won’t get withdrawals or die from a psychological addiction.
The other argument that opponents of marijuana maintenance have is that replacing alcohol with marijuana simply replaces one drug or substance for another. This completely misses the point of marijuana maintenance and recovery in general. The substance isn’t the problem. In fact, alcohol can provide several health benefits when used in moderation, such as lessened depression, reduced anxiety and a lower mortality rate than that associated with binge drinking. The problem, therefore, is not the alcohol, but rather one’s ability to control themselves with it.
In the end, it’s up to you
A lot of people find balance in marijuana maintenance and moderation, rather than total sobriety and abstinence. Marijuana maintenance is generally frowned upon by those in 12 Step Programs that require you to be 100% sober and substance- free (except for caffeine and nicotine. Those substances are frequently encouraged at meetings, even though they’re both highly addictive.) If you can get clean through total abstinence, more power to you, but lots of people can’t, or don’t want to put themselves through that. I think it’s sort of like some mothers choose to have epidurals and other drugs during childbirth, and others don’t. It’s a personal choice, and one isn’t better than the other. As long as a person gets clean, why does it matter how they did it, so long as they didn’t hurt someone else in order to do it?
The goal of marijuana maintenance should be this: to replace alcohol, which a person can’t control, with marijuana, which is easy to control. The marijuana can treat the withdrawal symptoms, depression, insomnia, and all sorts of other things that one experiences during recovery, making it a treatment option more than a simple substitution. And, once a person gains control over the alcohol completely, they’ll eventually find that they don’t need the marijuana either. Then, they have two options: they can learn to drink in moderation, or they can stay completely sober. As long as their addiction is under control, that choice is a personal one.
The idea that using marijuana to treat alcoholism is simply a crutch is pretty laughable. If you’re addicted to opiates, and you use methadone or suboxone to get you through recovery, there are even people that criticize that. It doesn’t matter how you go about recovery, someone somewhere will disagree with how you do it. So, the most important thing is to do what works for you. And if marijuana maintenance works for you, or has worked for you, but people still criticize you for it, screw them. They most likely have no idea what you went through, anyway. Whether you’re reading this article because you’ve used marijuana maintenance and gotten clean, you used another method and got clean, you’re thinking about getting clean, or you’re thinking about helping a loved one get clean, good on you. I’m proud of you. Keep it up!