In 2016, 63,632 Americans lost their lives to drug related overdoses. Many of these deaths were due to prescription or illicit opioid use—and the numbers are rising every day. But the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis has also bolstered another trend: A resurgence of addiction treatment centers, which profit an estimated $35 billion annually, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. While traditional abstinence-based treatment centers are exceptional at raking in profits, most residents experience multiple relapses after completing their programs.
Cannabis-inclusive recovery may be the answer many addicts are seeking. The rapid normalization of cannabis has seen its adult- and medical-use programs gain increasing support among Americans, most notably within the healthcare community. A recent poll published by Medscape found that over 60 percent of physicians support federal legalization, yet the concept of cannabis-assisted therapy isn’t receiving the same support from the recovery industry, which champions the cessation of all drug use—including the use of Methadone or Suboxone found in medication-assisted therapy programs. This belief stems from the philosophy found in the 12 steps of Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous programs, which have been shown to produce an abysmal success rate of five to 10 percent.
However, the notion of cannabis-assisted therapy is gaining traction among addiction-recovery advocates who adhere to harm reduction policies. According to the harm reduction philosophy, cannabis use is preferential to hard drug use as it is non-lethal and leads down a non-lethal pathway. And states like New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have listed opioid dependence as a qualifying condition for their medical cannabis programs. However, cannabis-inclusive therapy is about much more than getting high. In fact, getting high isn’t a goal at all.
“You can walk into High Sobriety at any point in time and all of our residents are able to have a complete and coherent conversation with you.”
High Sobriety, a cannabis-inclusive recovery environment based in Los Angeles, California, is a pioneer of this approach to addiction treatment, and its 90-day program is appropriately regimented.
High Sobriety works alongside an inpatient recovery center where incoming residents are hosted for 30 days of inpatient detox prior to entering the program. Residents work with an on-campus cannabis clinician who recommends medication and determines the appropriate dosages and frequencies. All cannabis consumed on-campus is non-smokable. Cannabidiol (CBD)-heavy products are used throughout the day, while more tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-heavy products are administered at night. In compliance with California state law, cannabis is not dispensed to residents directly, and it is instead acquired from recommended dispensaries where representatives from High Sobriety acquire it for residents.
The goal of cannabis-inclusive therapy is simple—to treat the anxiety, insomnia, cravings and withdrawal symptoms that follow detox and to mediate the frustration and angst that can occur when confronting sobriety and the abuses that often underlie addiction. Residents are not allowed to consume psychoactive cannabis before meetings, and they are not left to consume cannabis all day at their leisure. Cannabis products are only used to achieve a level of comfort that is conducive to the therapy process and residents’ personal progress.
“You can walk into High Sobriety at any point in time and all of our residents are able to have a complete and coherent conversation with you,” High Sobriety’s Director of Research and Development, Dr. Sherry Yafai M.D, told CULTUREB2B. “They are attending their meetings, they are putting in the work, they are getting to the next level. In fact we’ve had a number of residents who, once they complete the program, stop using cannabis for a period of time, which you won’t see with Suboxone users, you won’t see with Methadone users, you won’t see with any other recovery program.”
Dr. Yafai explained that the most promising aspect of cannabis-inclusive therapy seems to be the newfound excitement most residents find in terms of their perspectives toward sobriety. Rather than feeling like it’s an impossibility, residents begin to see sobriety as a tangible option, something within their reach. Nevertheless, cannabis-inclusive therapy isn’t always the best model for recovering addicts, and any patient considering consuming cannabis to overcome opioid or other substance abuse disorders should do so after weighing their options with a licensed physician. Likewise, those interested in opening cannabis-inclusive recovery centers should do so with caution.
“When people are impaired they make bad judgements, especially addicts. One thing seems like it can be handled, so they think they can handle the next step, which is alcohol or other hard drugs,” Yafai said. “That’s where I see the problem of doing this [cannabis-inclusive therapy], the mentality that everyone struggling with addiction can do it or everyone can open a center where all you do is therapy and let them smoke pot. That’s not the idea and that’s not the goal.”