Can You Smoke Pot and Call Yourself Sober?
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This article first appeared at The Fix.
“I never formally decided to start smoking pot again,” Annie says with a slight shrug. “It just sort of happened.” Annie is 32, and has been alcohol-free (thanks to San Francisco AA) for almost five years.
Like many others, Annie’s path to recovery was long and sloppy. After drinking to excess, getting fired from jobs, decimating friendships and putting herself in shady situations throughout her teens and 20s, Annie says finally getting sober was like breathing a massive sigh of relief. “I never hit a crazy-dramatic bottom, but I was just done. Once I made the decision to try AA, I didn’t really hesitate,” she remembers. “I knew it was time.”
After landing in AA, Annie stayed in the center of the boat. “I did what I was told to do—I got a sponsor, went to meetings, worked the steps, had sponsees,” she says. In fact, she still does most of that stuff. The only thing that’s changed is that she’s not officially sober-with-a-capital-S anymore—she started smoking pot again last year, after a program friend confided that he had a medical marijuana card. He used weed to treat his anxiety, but didn’t tell his sponsor about his habit.
“[My friend] didn’t feel weird about it, and it helped his anxiety so much,” Annie recalls. Having a history of anxiety herself, the notion of having something external that could genuinely help soothe her rattled nerves sounded, well, almost irresistible. “Meditation and prayer are great, but at the end of the day, they weren’t helping enough when I went into a panic spiral,” she says. After mulling it over for a couple months, Annie decided to try pot, too. Now she smokes every few weeks when non-AA friends have it (she avoids buying it because she fears getting addicted).
“Pot doesn’t affect me the way alcohol did,” Annie says. “It doesn’t make me act out—it mainly just makes me chill and tired.” She hasn’t told her sponsor or her program friends, and she sometimes feels guilty for harboring such a major secret. But her main concern? What other AAs would think if they knew. “I have no interest in doing anything other than smoke every now and then. But I know people would judge me for the weed thing and say my sobriety is null and void.”
In a way it is, claims Dr. Scott Bienenfeld, CEO and medical director of Rebound Brooklyn, a Williamsburg recovery center. “Changing your mental state with a chemical goes against what we talk about as sobriety,” he says. “There’s a difference between sobriety and abstinence.” Bienenfeld says he sees clients like Annie—sober alcoholics who eventually try to embrace “manageable marijuana” use—all the time. “It’s considered part of the harm reduction model,” he explains. But the doctor finds pot “the hardest addiction to treat, because when people stick needles in their arms, the cavalry comes running. When people drink, it’s loud and messy. But pot isn’t associated with precipitous dysfunction; instead it’s a very long, gradual burnout.”
Annie may not be the only stealthy smoker out there, but (surprise!) not all “sober” pot users continue to participate in AA. Shawn, 30, of Oakland, Calif., started smoking pot about a year into his sobriety, initially just to help him sleep. He didn’t tell anyone in the hopes of avoiding any AA “backlash.” Over time, his usage grew, and he drifted further and further from the program, despite remaining abstinent from alcohol on his own. For the most part, Shawn says he hasn’t experienced any negative consequences from leaving AA or from using weed. He currently smokes every day for anxiety relief, but says he “doesn’t consider it abusive” because it’s “not hurting him” or anyone else. It's also not hindering his work or relationships (lucky guy!).