Why Medical Marijuana Isn’t a Safe Option in Recovery

Jun 7, 2022

As popularity continues to grow for legalizing medical and recreational marijuana use, 12-Step group facilitators and addiction recovery center counselors likely will see an increasing number of requests to use Medical marijuana during the recovery process. Doctors can grant medical marijuana cards for any number of physical and mental health maladies, many of which often co-occur with substance abuse and recovery.

However, at least for the moment, most drug rehab professionals feel the risks of using one addictive substance to help recover from another addiction aren’t worth the benefits. Here are some reasons why:

Medical Marijuana

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For starters, let’s clarify the term “Medical Marijuana.” Simply put, it is marijuana prescribed for a medical condition. The drug’s potency depends on the specific strain you use. Still, it is the same as the recreational version in that it contains around 15 to 20 percent of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) compound that causes the “high” people associate with the drug.

Marijuana and hemp both come from the dried flowers, stems, leaves, and seeds of the cannabis plant. A cannabis plant contains more than 100 different compounds or cannabinoids, but we will only concentrate on the main two – THC and cannabidiol (CBD) – for this article. From a legal standpoint, marijuana is any form of dried cannabis plant with a THC level higher than 0.3 percent. On the other hand, hemp contains 0.3 percent THC or less and doesn’t cause any euphoric effects.

Both THC and hemp-derived CBD share the same chemical components but elicit very different psychoactive reactions. People use both compounds routinely to relieve chronic pain, inflammation, MS-related spasticity, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, and social anxiety and other mental health concerns.

Benefits Hazy, Risks Clear

Scientists conclude that while there’s enough evidence to support that oral THC offers relief from cancer treatment-related nausea and vomiting and nightmares associated with PTSD, the data on other health benefits is extremely limited. Research on hemp-derived CBD is equally limited, although some clinical and preclinical studies reveal that it has a calming effect on the central nervous system. This may prove helpful in lessening the crippling effects of anxiety, depression, seizures, and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

The only natural cannabis product approved by the Food and Drug Administration is a prescription CBD oil called Epidiolex, which treats two specific types of epilepsy. The FDA has also approved Dronabinol, a synthetic version of the THC cannabinoid, for patients suffering from nausea and vomiting due to cancer treatments.

The latest testing paints a much clearer picture of the risks of using marijuana and hemp. According to study information compiled by the National Association for Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), THC (the primary ingredient in marijuana) has been shown to alter judgment, impair motor coordination, cause paranoia and psychosis, reduce slow-wave and REM sleep, and impair short-term memory. Over a more extended period of use, it can increase the risk of developing psychoses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, alter brain development, and impair cognitive functions.

Even with limited data, leading health organizations such as the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) consider marijuana use a serious public health concern. The AMA wrote in 2017 that “cannabis is a dangerous drug” and supports legislation to label all non-FDA approved cannabis products with the statement: “Marijuana has a high potential for abuse.”

The APA reiterated its position on cannabis use in 2019, stating, “There is no current scientific evidence that cannabis is in any way beneficial for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder. In contrast, current evidence supports, at minimum, a strong association of cannabis use with the onset of psychiatric disorders.”

While hemp-derived CBD does not cause any of the damaging psychiatric side effects linked to THC and is generally well-tolerated, it has some downsides. These include appetite changes, weight loss, dizziness, and fatigue.

Yes, Marijuana IS an Addictive Substance

Another critical reason to avoid marijuana is that it’s potentially addictive. You have probably heard from almost everyone in popular culture, maybe even your children, that you can’t become a marijuana addict.

Contrary to what many might think, people can and do develop cannabis use disorders. And although marijuana use is hardly fatal, it’s every bit as serious as any other addiction, especially if you have already engaged with a substance abuse rehab for another addiction. National Institute on Drug Abuse research shows that roughly 30 percent of marijuana users will develop some form of dependency or addiction. According to the NIDA, four million people met the criteria for marijuana use disorder in 2015.

Marijuana producers also continue to increase the THC content in their products, thereby escalating the drug’s potency. For instance, the NIDA stated that in 1990, confiscated marijuana contained about four percent or less THC. In 2018, that percentage almost quadrupled to 15 percent. These numbers, coupled with concerns about medical marijuana overmedication, create a disturbingly permissive landscape for those battling substance abuse.

Legally Speaking

While marijuana is legal for medical and recreational purposes in several states, it remains an illegal Schedule I drug at the federal level. And given the way professional organizations like the AMA and the APA classify THC-containing cannabis as “a dangerous drug,” it will likely remain so until further research says differently. If you have a substance use disorder, THC use has the potential to spin your mental and physical health out of control and jeopardize your recovery. In our opinion, that’s not a risk worth taking.