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Marijuana has sometimes been described as a “gateway drug” that encourages hard-drug use. But one new treatment facility is treating it as an “exit drug” instead. Can pot really help addicts get off other drugs?
“So few people seek treatment, and we do need as many tools in the arsenal as possible,” notes ER Physician Dr. Travis Stork. “How did you even begin to think ‘let’s use marijuana, not as a gateway into drugs, but a gateway away from them’?”
High Sobriety founder Dr. Joe Schrank says that this can provide a point of entry into treatment for those who find the idea of detox overwhelming. “People find it an easier way to start,” he explains. “My hope is, especially for the younger people, that they do move on to cessation of all drug use.” But even for those who don’t move on to giving up drugs altogether, marijuana may be less hazardous than their current addictions – “Nobody’s finding recovery if they’re dead,” he adds.
Psychiatrist and addiction specialist Dr. Mike Dow doesn’t recommend this approach. “The most successful way I can treat somebody is by helping them to lead a productive life,” he says. “I’ve also seen that marijuana, just like heroin, prevents people.” Dr. Schrank disagrees, “Heroin and cannabis are not the same.”
Dr. Schrank adds that High Sobriety is one of the few treatment programs that has a full-time researcher, “We want to know what this is doing as much as anybody else.” But research is difficult because the U.S. still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug and it’s forbidden to use it in clinical trials.
“That’s a great point. We do need more research,” Dr. Dow agrees. However, he has another concern about the program – its name. “High Sobriety is sending a message to addicts?” he asks.
The Doctors are also concerned that, unlike methadone clinics that treat heroin addicts, marijuana is widely available without regulation or medical oversight – even in California, which hasn’t yet legalized recreational pot, “You can go to Venice Beach and get a card for $40,” Rosie Mercado points out. “We don’t want people to abuse it either,” Dr. Schrank responds. His program is very selective about who they accept.
“I would rather someone be addicted to marijuana than be addicted to heroin,” Dr. Stork. “And if 90 percent of the people out there who are addicted to something aren’t seeking treatment, we need to get that number up.” Asking for help is the first and most important step.