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Can You Smoke Pot and Call Yourself Sober?

Some Alcoholics Anonymous members toke secretly without telling their sponsors. Are they in denial?

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Though it’s not as dramatically destructive as drinking, pot can be addictive. According to NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse), about 9% of those who use marijuana become dependent on it. That statistic increases to about 25% to 50% for daily users. And because of their body chemistry and their escapist urges, alcoholics could be more likely to get hooked on the green stuff. Dr. Bienenfeld believes using pot “makes it more likely you're going to drink again [because] it lowers the threshold for relapse.” He suggests 12-steppers remember that weed could “edge you further away from the track you want to be on,” he explains. “The 12 Steps are about constantly trying to better yourself.”

Susannah, 27, supports Bienenfeld’s message of self-improvement, but she doesn’t believe that it's necessary to abstain from pot to do that. The DC-based soberite has been in AA for almost four years and, like Annie, she’s dedicated to her program—she has a sponsor, sponsees, an active social circle and she goes to a few meetings each week. But a couple years ago, she too turned to marijuana when she began getting frequent, debilitating migraines. “The only thing that helped me was pot,” she says. She felt guilty, and decided to fess up to her sponsor, Jen, who understandably wasn’t thrilled. Still, Jen encouraged Susannah to do what she needed to do—as long as she actively worked to stay honest with herself. After talking it over with her “normie” husband, Susannah’s perspective began to shift. “My husband [said], ‘You’re in pain and you could feel better if you smoked—why are you doing this to yourself? Why is [abstaining from pot] what sobriety looks like to you?’”

Now, though she still doesn’t drink, Susannah smokes every few days—sometimes for migraine relief, sometimes to ease stress, and sometimes “sort of recreationally.” She hasn’t told many AA friends, and her current sponsor has no clue. But Susannah doesn’t think it’s anyone’s place to judge her definition of sobriety. “The point of being sober is to make my life better,” she explains. “Some people smoke cigarettes in recovery, some people eat tons of sugar or drink coffee. But they’re all drugs. I think sobriety is an individually defined thing. So when I get four years [in AA], it will be four years of sobriety for me even though I’ve been smoking pot.” 

Dr. Bienenfeld agrees that sobriety is individually defined, saying it’s a “self-reported phenomenon.” Sure, in AA there are steps, traditions, and suggestions, but there are no real rules—no scary uniformed program police will come crashing through secret pot smokers’ doors at night. Aside from the threat of becoming dependent on the drug to escape or unwind, the main challenge for undercover weed users is: can they feel OK with themselves when they look in the mirror each day? Can they smoke without eventually wanting to drink? And if people like Annie, Susannah and Shawn are OK with what they’re doing and don't feel they're misusing the maryjane, what business is it of anyone else? No one's—but “you’re talking about the limits of AA,” according to Dr. Bienenfeld. “Being in AA is not a good situation for someone who wants to [continue to smoke pot].” He suggests that folks who do want to be “sober” while continuing to smoke try “working with a really good addiction professional two or three times per week.” 

But if it becomes difficult to look at themselves in the mirror—if they find themselves feeling ashamed or longing to have just one tiny little glass of Merlot with their routine nightly toke—it might be time for secret sober users to out themselves.

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