Marijuana Maintenance: Why It Doesn’t Work

People attempting to achieve sobriety might do all sorts of unusual things to beat back their addictions. They might swear that cinnamon toothpaste helps to block a craving for alcohol, for example, or they might insist that doing handstands at least once per day can redirect blood flow in such a way that a need for cocaine disappears. These opinions might seem strange but often a family chooses to turn a blind eye. After all, if these habits keep people sober, what’s the harm, right?

Unfortunately, some people choose to dabble in the use of marijuana in order to keep them away from other drugs like alcohol, cocaine and heroin.

This so-called “marijuana maintenance” program has been widely denounced by the recovery community as an ineffective or even harmful strategy but even so, people may insist that their weed use isn’t a problem at all.

Breaking through that denial might mean holding an intervention and discussing those dangers in detail.

Why Weed?

For some addicted people, marijuana is a familiar substance that’s been a part of life for decades. For example, a study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology suggests that people tend to initiate the use of marijuana at age 18, which is about two years earlier than the age at which they begin to use other drugs like cocaine. Studies like this seem to suggest that marijuana is just a part of life for some people, and they might be reluctant to give the drug up. Just as they use coffee to wake up in the morning, they might use marijuana at night to relax. This kind of familiarity can make people feel as though the drug is benign, and they might not even consider their ongoing use problematic. They’ve always done it, and they might think they always will.

In addition, marijuana isn’t always associated with dramatic withdrawal symptoms that people can feel acutely. For example, a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology suggests that people who attempt to stop using marijuana experience symptoms like:

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Shaking

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But people who abuse heroin might feel nauseated, weak and wracked with pain. Heroin users might instinctively know that their drug use is wrong because it makes them feel so very ill. Marijuana users just don’t get that kind of feedback, and as a result, they may not think that their habits should be changed.

Finally, there’s a persistent myth about the addictiveness of marijuana that could allow users to think of the drug as harmless. People consistently suggest that this natural, herbal product can’t be responsible for addiction because the substance is man-made. The National Institute on Drug Abuse takes a different view, however, and suggests that up to half of people who abuse marijuana on a daily basis become addicted to the substance. It’s just that powerful. Sometimes this means that people who attempt to blast away an addiction with marijuana end up developing a secondary addiction, and they might insist that no addiction exists because they’re chemically dependent on the drug. That’s the way addictions work.

Hidden Dangers

While replacing one addiction with another might be dangerous enough, there are some attributes of marijuana that make it even more alarming in terms of recovery. For example, a study in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior suggests that the abuse of marijuana is related to a sense of motivation. People who use are somewhat sedated and calm, so they’re less likely to handle tasks that are required for work. They might also be less inclined to handle tasks associated with addiction recovery, like:

The amotivational syndrome marijuana use brings about can make recovery from any substance, including marijuana, almost impossible. Those who lean on marijuana to help with problems with other drugs may find that they end up with psychosis as a parting gift, and that could also make recovery more difficult.

Similarly, marijuana has been known to trigger episodes of psychosis in vulnerable people. A study in Current Psychiatry suggests that marijuana alone can’t bring about a chronic disease like schizophrenia, but it could bring about changes in concert with genetic malformations in some people.
Marijuana has also been associated with numerous health problems, including breathing problems and heart difficulties. In some cases, marijuana can trigger conditions that cause pain, and that might make a relapse to drug use yet more likely, as people look for ways to soothe their discomfort.

A Better Way

Real recovery from an addiction means more than simply replacing one substance with another. In fact, recovery might mean more than replacing a drug with an action. Recovery means developing a sophisticated suite of tools people can use in order to deal with the ups and downs of life. Rather than pushing off dysfunction onto another drug, people need to learn how to handle life without any kind of substance at all. That’s the kind of transformation rehab can bring about.

But motivating someone who thinks marijuana is helping can be difficult.

Sometimes a family needs to do a little digging in order to uncover the consequences the person has already seen. That way, those problems can be amplified in an intervention, and that might prompt the person to change.

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For example, a study in BMJ suggests that people who abuse marijuana can develop slowed reflexes and impaired judgment, and that might put them at an increased risk for a motor vehicle collision. If the person has been in a recent accident involving a motorcycle, a car or a truck, this could be a great thing to bring up in an intervention, as it helps to demonstrate that marijuana isn’t as benign as it might seem.

Similarly, marijuana is still considered an illegal substance in many states, and it’s always considered illegal by the federal government. As a result, some employers test for marijuana exposure, and if they see it, they may suggest immediate termination of an employee. When this happens, the family has a consequence to point to in an intervention.

Families can also just discuss the changes they’ve seen and their hopes about the future. If the person has seemed emotionally unavailable, for example, because he/she is always high and rarely in control, the family might discuss close relationships they once had in the past, and they might express how much they miss that lively person and how much they want that feeling of closeness to return.

Sometimes, however, people who are abusing marijuana as a form of maintenance simply won’t agree to formal rehab at the end of an intervention. They might agree, however, to a quick conversation with a mental health professional. Here, the therapist might use a technique known as motivational enhancement to help the person see the need for change. The idea is that the therapist asks a series of questions about the marijuana use and the person’s overall health, and based on those answers, the person develops a slow sense of recognition that the drug isn’t really helping as much as hurting. At the end of these sessions, people might choose to enroll in rehab.

It’s perfectly appropriate to suggest that reluctant people choose therapy over rehab at the end of an intervention, but if the person won’t even do that, there’s more that the family can do. For example, families might look closely at the choices they make each day that might make the marijuana use easier for the addicted person to accomplish. Do they:

  • Set aside money in the family budget for drugs?
  • Allow marijuana use in the house?
  • Keep munchies on hand for a binge?
  • Take drugs alongside the person?
  • Call in sick for the person after a binge?
  • Make excuses about the behavior to friends or other family members?
  • Bail the person out of jail due to marijuana?

These little enabling behaviors can allow an addiction to persist long after it should be extinguished because the addicted person is buffered from the consequences of the drug use. Families that make an honest accounting of the steps they’re taking to keep an addiction alive might make subtle changes in the aftermath of a failed intervention, and in a few weeks, they might visit the topic again. Once the person has seen that marijuana use comes with very serious consequences, that person might be much more likely to agree to treatment.

It’s clear that preparing for this talk can be tough, particularly when the person feels as though the marijuana use is reasonable and not harmful. Thankfully, families don’t have to go through this preparation alone. They can hire an expert, known as an interventionist, to help plan the conversation and bring about a change. These experts can even provide assistance to families who have a failed intervention who still want to bring about a change. Some interventionists stay involved with families like this for months, and the help they bring can really make things different. Please call us to find out more about the interventionists in your area who can help you to deal with a marijuana maintenance problem.

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