It is no secret that many AAs, for example, use marijuana despite their abstinence from alcohol. This points to an inexcusable absence among the many recovery options available to people struggling with addictions: marijuana is not considered a viable substitute.

Despite all that you might have heard about how someone kicking a substance addiction must abstain from all psychoactive substances, some of the best recovery I’ve seen is among people who use marijuana as a substitute for their former drug of choice – be it alcohol, heroin, cocaine, or amphetamine.

And now, finally, this fact is receiving some scientific vindication (1).

While some may object that many (maybe even the majority) who use MJ in such a fashion inevitably relapse onto their former poison, that’s true for pure abstainers as well. My own observations suggest that, overall, the marijuana smokers do better than the abstainers. Of course that’s anecdotal, and we really have no hard data on this question.

Still, given the recent inroads toward marijuana legalization and decriminalization, hard data will surely come over the next few years. My prediction, as an addiction scientist as well as a crackhead who has been around, is that honest observation will determine – beyond doubt – that the odds are better for the marijuana smokers.

For one, it really is hard to generate worse numbers than the pure abstinence approach – one in 20, if that!

But there is more.

One thing the recovery machine, professional and grassroots, typically overlook is that abstinence is simply not feasible for most addicts – at least not right away. And, down the road when it may be feasible, it might not be necessary or even the best option.

But let’s focus on the first few years of recovery: for an adult who has been self-medicating since early adolescence, complete abstinence is often destructive. In normal medical practice, professionals work with – rather than against – a patient’s tendencies. Yet, with addiction, a 180-degree reversal is often hailed as the necessary solution. In a vast majority of cases, this “solution” is a violent, dangerous assault on a person’s entire being.

And if less than 5% who attempt abstinence are able to keep it up for two years without a horrible crash, the dominant mindset simply blames the overwhelming majority rather than targeting the obvious culprit: abstinence hailed as the only possible goal at the exclusion of every other option. There really is nothing wrong with abstinence per se. The trouble starts when it is hailed, uncompromisingly, as the only option.

Throughout the 20th century, many were deprived – without a single good reason – of approaching their recovery through what has been derided as “the marijuana maintenance plan.”

It is, in fact, a good plan for a lot of people. And with the current trend in favor of the legitimation of marijuana use, it should not be long before support groups start popping up centered on marijuana use to help people kick harder drugs. There might already be a few such groups out there as I write these words.

About time too!

An earlier version of this article appeared on The Huffington Post, UK. January 29, 2013.

About the Author

Peter Ferentzy, Ph.D.

Peter Ferentzy, Ph.D., is a research scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

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