It makes me chuckle when people refer to marijuana as a gateway drug. The conversation is especially amusing when had over cocktails. Easy accessibility, societal acceptance and manageable effects of weed are often cited as the reasons people choose it for experimentation. Once that door is open, further experimentation often follows, goes the argument. But this argument ignores the obvious. No drug opens the gateway quite like the most available and most abused drug in the history of the world: alcohol.
Weed is not to blame for the addiction epidemic. The biggest danger related to marijuana is not about what it leads to, but rather what it follows. Increasingly, smoking pot is viewed as a preferred alternative to drinking alcohol. As recreational marijuana gains legal status across the country, the idea that it is a safe alternative to booze for those of us who suffer from alcoholism is a scary proposition.
It makes sense, on the surface, because of the way weed impacts human behavior differently than alcohol. Pot usually makes us mellow and lethargic while alcohol often makes humans angry. Someone who gets really high might leave a trail of Taco Bell wrappers in his wake, while an alcoholic has splintered relationships to recover in the aftermath.
A lot of people in recovery, and most traditional therapy professionals, call it harm reduction. Trading one addictive behavior for another is acceptable as long as the new addiction does less damage. It makes sense if we don’t understand the brain chemistry of addiction. Once we learn what’s going on in the cranium of an addict, we see that harm reduction is like pouring gasoline on a fire.
It comes down to how the human brain processes pleasurable experiences. When something good happens, our brain releases neurotransmitters including dopamine. The dopamine flooding our minds is what gives us the sensation of pleasure. When we drink alcohol or smoke weed, the dopamine release is triggered.
If that was the end of the story, we could all walk around in drunken and stoned bliss for eternity. But there’s a catch. Our brains are constantly in search of an equilibrium. If we drink or smoke a lot, our brains begin to reserve pleasure neurotransmitter release for only when we drink or smoke. A funny joke, a beautiful sunset or a milestone accomplishment of our child doesn’t prompt a dopamine release. Our brain gets greedy and saves the good stuff for the alcohol or marijuana-induced release for which we have trained it to wait.
In other words, our life – even the good parts – turns dark and devoid of pleasure. Unless, of course, we feed the addiction we created. That’s how addiction works. We so overload the pleasure centers of our brains with stimulation from our drug or activity of choice, that our brains tap the brakes and make a direct and unwavering connection between that substance or activity and neurotransmitter release.
Life’s little pleasures cease to bring pleasure. We are stuck. We are addicted.
The hijacking of our neurotransmitters is all about self preservation. Our brains are very good at protecting us in search of equilibrium. That’s actually really good news if we find permanent sobriety. Our brains will rewire and mostly return to normal. In sobriety, affection from loved ones, a good book or a delicious meal will eventually bring us pleasure once again. But it takes time. Lots and lots of time. In my case, it took over a year for me to start to feel good when I am supposed to feel good. A year seems like a long time to wait for simple pleasures, but when compared to a lifetime of alcohol-induced misery, a year is a minimal sacrifice.
This explanation of the brain chemistry of addiction is why harm reduction is such a dangerous practice. We might think we’ve solved our problems by switching from alcohol to weed because we transform from angry assholes to lazy dumbasses. While marijuana and alcohol have dramatically different effects on the moods and behaviors of most people, they work in nearly identical ways in the brain. The neurotransmitter hijacking is transferred from booze to weed. We still need one of the two substances to trigger dopamine release. We remain depressed and lifeless without our drug of choice – even when we choose a new drug.
Weed might make us more tolerable to ourselves and others, but it perpetuates our alcoholism and keeps our brains dysfunctional and unhealthy.
I’m not at all afraid of marijuana as a gateway drug. Alcohol is the undisputed heavyweight champion of busting down the gate for the full spectrum of increasingly deviant and destructive behavior. But weed is far from a solution to addiction to other substances.
What scares the hell out of me about marijuana isn’t what it can lead to, but rather what it is being increasingly assigned to fix.
When I read about CBD oil helping children with seizures, it makes me angry that we outlawed research that could have brought this relief sooner. When I hear of the pain-relieving effectiveness of medical marijuana for people in end-of-life distress, I am thankful for the open mindedness of our society.
But increasing open mindedness comes with a scary side effect. Weed is being portrayed as harmless. We are using weed to dismiss normal, everyday swings of emotion. Stress, worry, sadness and grief are there for us to experience for a reason. It is an important part of the human condition to feel bad. We drink or smoke those feelings away at our own peril.
Kids are hearing the message of marijuana’s harmlessness as well. That message is especially dangerous in teens with not-yet-developed brains that can suffer irreparable damage from smoking pot. Weed is even more dangerous than alcohol when it comes to stunting brain development. Extrapolating harmlessness from legalization is a lethal misinterpretation. Unfortunately, it is a misinterpretation that is growing more widespread.
Weed is neither a harmless alternative to alcohol, nor is it a cure for alcoholism. A wound can’t heal if we keep aggravating it, and smoking pot in order to cure alcoholism is like trying to fix a broken arm by cutting it off at the shoulder.
As part of the push for legalization, it is often said that marijuana isn’t any more dangerous than alcohol. I believe, overall, that is probably true. But where that argument misses the mark is with its assumption that alcohol is harmless. We refuse as a society to recognize that alcohol kills over three million people a year and is the direct cause of a deadly disease that is more prolific than cancer.
Weed might not be more dangerous than the most dangerous substance on earth. But that doesn’t make it harmless.
I’m actually in favor of the nationwide legalization of marijuana. Letting the government call balls and strikes on our health and morality is a recipe for disaster. This isn’t an issue to be tackled by elected officials. It is a mental health decision to be made by individuals, and the strongest among the individuals need to influence our society. It is ineffective to mandate personal choice. We must ensure the freedom to make bad, life-altering decisions. We can put up signage about staying off the lake when the ice is thin, but we can’t prevent natural selection.
It all comes down to the same lesson we learned as children about persistence and work ethic. If we want to feel good, we can live a relatively pure and connected life. There are short-cuts, but they have deadly side effects. That which makes us feel artificially good for a while will gladly fill us with haunting depression. And one evil is never a cure for another.
Trading booze for weed shouldn’t be considered harm reduction. It is dysfunction transference that might have surface level benefits, but ensures our captivity until we do the work to find permanent sobriety. Asshole or dumbass, our brains are still broken.
Earning my permanent sobriety is the hardest thing I will likely ever do. If I had thought while in early sobriety that smoking weed was a viable solution to the seemingly insurmountable obstacle I faced, I would have explored it. But I couldn’t un-know that which I had already learned. Addiction is a brain disease, and you can’t cure the damage done by a poison with another poison.
There is only one solution. But you already know that, don’t you? As insidious as alcoholism is, it does leave us glimpses of truth that peak through the denial and destruction. You know. Are you strong enough to face the demon?
When you are ready, I invite you to check out our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery. We fund the program from donations from people who have felt the impact of addiction on their lives, and want the dysfunction to end. For alcoholics seeking sobriety, the program is free because we don’t think you should have to pay for your freedom. If you become a believer in the program, we will gladly accept your financial support to make the program available to those who follow you, those who see glimpses of their truth, too. To make a donation, to enroll or for more information, click the button below.