Can You Smoke Pot and Call Yourself Sober?

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!).

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.

“Full disclosure is almost always the best medicine,” Dr. Bienenfeld says. “We’re only as sick as our secrets.”

Yep, this means they’ll have to re-set their time. No, that’s never fun. But in the end, only we can clearly assess our own behavior and the values, actions and feelings that drive us into—or away from—sobriety. We must police ourselves, with the end goal being not just abstinence, but being able to fully embrace the classic catchphrase, “to thine own self be true.”


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