Right after I arrived at my first and last Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a woman in a pink teddy-bear sweatshirt clutched me to her ample breast. She was the only other person in the basement meeting of a North Carolina Methodist church, a group that I’d found online earlier that day and, apparently, wasn’t very popular. I was 25, broke, unemployed, and had realized eight hours earlier that I was a drunk.
I’d been crying for most of the day, but the shock of finding my head sandwiched between a stranger’s boobs — the bear’s googly eyes staring at me from her abdomen — knocked the tears right out of me. The woman let me go and nodded as she listened to my story. One day at a time, she said, and handed me a copy of AA’s primary text, The Big Book. She encouraged me to come back the next day,when there might be more people, she said. As I headed to my car, a predatory-looking man with a dirty camo hat and a mustache crossed the parking lot from his truck to talk to me.
“Watch out for the one in the pink sweatshirt,” he said. “She’s a predator. Come back tomorrow!”
I was positive that I wouldn’t.
I did, however, eventually stop drinking. What finally worked wasn’t the 12 steps or talk therapy or the outpatient group where I learned a recipe for prison wine. It wasn’t moving or finding a career, a partner, or new friends. It was something no doctor or therapist or addiction counselor would recommend, and something that could have gotten me arrested. The thing that finally worked was marijuana.
From my first warm keg beer at as a high school freshman, I loved drinking. Just loved it. Drinking was a lazy cure for the thing I hated most, which was boredom. Why climb mountains or get a hobby or write a novel when I could just walk to the 7-Eleven and pick up a 12-pack and be entertained for the day? Sitting on my porch, studying for school, watching TV alone, talking to humans — all of it was more interesting with booze. The best thing about being an adult, I was sure, was drinking.
But in college, the problems started. Here’s a short history of the dumb shit I did while drinking: knocked out my front teeth (blamed it on slippery ice, in August), wrecked my bike (gave ER nurses my high school algebra teacher’s name instead of my own), and lit a porch on fire (told the fire marshall it must have been spontaneous combustion). I was fired from jobs fit for teenagers; I dropped out of college twice and graduate school once; I quit one job from a barstool. To quit another job, I had a friend call my boss and say I wouldn’t be coming back. “Tell him you can’t give him any more information,” I said. “Let him think something bad happened.” Something bad had happened: I had a hangover.
There were more accidents and many close calls, but most nights were pretty pedestrian. Sitting at the bar every day at 4, drinking my life away, stuck. And sick. At 24, I had the shakes. If I looked in the mirror in the morning — something, like mornings themselves, I avoided — a bloodshot bobblehead stared back at me.
What finally drove me to AA was a phone call from my ex-girlfriend. After five years together, we had broken up and I moved back across the country to live near my sister until I got on my feet. I was drunk skinny-dipping with a stranger I’d just met when my ex called, crying. She’d found out that I’d cheated on her, repeatedly, throughout our relationship. I hung up on her and got back in the pool.
The day next, sober, we spoke for the last time, and everything became clear. I loved my ex-girlfriend. I assumed we’d eventually get married, start a family, and die old and ugly together. But none of that would happen now because I was a shithead. What the fuck was wrong with me? It occurred to me that every time I’d cheated, I had been drinking. Half the time, I had been so drunk I forgot who I was with. I was either a bad person or I had a drinking problem. The drinking problem seemed easier to solve, so I went with that.
Although Alcoholics Anonymous has been the go-to prescription of doctors, therapists, clergy, and judges for decades, its abstinence-only model has a success rate of just 5 to 8%, says Gabrielle Glaser, the author of Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — And How They Can Regain Control. “There’s no science behind AA at all,” Glaser told me. Nonetheless, observing a few AA meetings is all the exposure most doctors have to addiction medicine, Glaser said. “But that’s not how people get better.”
There are many ways people get better. Some people — Europeans, mostly — get better with Naltrexone. It’s a prescription drug that blocks the uptake of endorphins, making a second or third glass of wine “about as appetizing as a big old Slurpee full of Dimetapp,” Glaser said.
There’s also cognitive behavioral therapy. I tried this approach in an outpatient group for recovering addicts, most of them on probation. We were given worksheets that asked us to name five things we liked about ourselves and seven people we could rely on. That’s where I learned you can make wine by combining fruit juice and water in a large plastic bag and adding several packets of sugar and Honeybuns torn into small pieces. You leave the bag in a toilet tank to ferment and, after a week or so, filter with the cleanest socks you have. I kept drinking the kind that came out of bottles.
In addiction stories, the hero’s journey always ends with getting clean. She battles her psychic demons and comes out on the other side, no longer needing to get fucked up. She realizes that life is better sober.
These stories conveniently ignore the fact that getting altered is fun. It’s a huge part of our culture. I was tired of the problems booze brought to my life, but I didn’t want to be sober. I still wanted to get altered to celebrate and bond and mourn and make friends and cope with all the shitty parts of life.
I didn’t — and don’t — think there was anything inherently immoral about getting fucked up. It eases the tension of first meetings and smooths the edges of bad days. Despite everything I ruined while drinking, I still believed one of the best parts of adulthood was getting fucked up. So one night, hanging out with my stoner friend Shannon, I put down the bottle and picked up the pipe.
The switch wasn’t immediate. At first, I just smoked with Shannon. We’d take bong hits watch the 90210 VHS she’d had since the ’90s. When Shannon moved to Philadelphia, I started buying my own weed, from an middle-aged yoga teacher who grew his own and didn’t seem to own shoes.
A few months later, I was sitting at my neighborhood bar having the same conversation about some dumb band or basketball team, and I realized I would rather be at home smoking pot on my couch. The reason I went out to bars — the reason I drank — was because I was always afraid that I would miss out on something — that something, anything, would happen. But the reality is, nothing ever did. So I did something I’d never been able to do before: I left the bar.
There’s a growing body of articles and online testimonials from and about people who swapped mind-altering substances and watched their lives improve. There’s also Eve (not her real name), a woman I met on a Reddit forum for cannabis users and spoke to on the phone. Her story is dark. Eve grew up poor and was sexually abused as a kid. Starting at age 14, she drank every night, and for the next 10 years, she blacked out every night.
After college, Eve got a job in a research lab and frequently went to work still drunk from the night before. She almost ruined her marriage by acting out while drunk, assaulting her husband and flirting with strangers. She knew she had to stop, but AA didn’t work for her either.
“What struck me in the meetings was that they would say, ‘You’re an addict because this is who you are as a person,’” she recalled. When Eve started smoking pot and seeing a therapist, she was finally able to quit drinking. “I don’t think I ever would have quit if I didn’t have another substance to use,” she says. I know how she feels.
There have been no major American studies comparing the effectiveness of abstinence-only sobriety and marijuana substitution. That’s partly because federal restrictions on cannabis research were only lifted by the Obama administration in 2015 and it’s still really difficult to get approval to research the medical benefits of marijuana. In Canada, however, a 2012 survey of 404 medical marijuana patients saw 75% of respondents using marijuana as a substitute for another substance, including prescription drugs, illicit drugs, and alcohol.
Another study by Amanda Reiman — the manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance — found methamphetamine users who were medical marijuana patients were able to reduce or eliminate their meth use. “Methamphetamine was described as a craving, like a voice was saying, ‘Hey, let’s go do some meth.’” Reiman told me. “Cannabis was able to quiet that voice for them.”
I used to crave alcohol, even though I knew the consequences. Stopping at the bar for one drink would mean having four and then getting a six-pack at the 7-Eleven on my way home and then waking up the next day so hungover I’d barely make it to work. With weed, I don’t find myself jonesing for a hit. I don’t smoke before work, or in other inappropriate situations. I sometimes wake and bake on the weekends, but during the week, I wait until after dinner to take my first hit. But if I did smoke during the day, it wouldn’t impair me like alcohol does. Sure, I may comment on how blue the sky is more frequently when I’m stoned, but it doesn’t prevent me from doing my job. It enhances rather than incapacitates.
The medical establishment has not jumped to embrace cannabis as a treatment for alcoholism. “It’s absolutely true that alcohol is more likely to kill you,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and one of the authors of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know. “But if you grab a random sample of marijuana users and say, ‘Hey, is marijuana causing problems in your life?’ they are about twice as likely to say yes as if you did the same thing with a random sample of alcohol users.”
This may be true for some marijuana users, but it’s not my experience. While it is true that I eat more pizza now than I did when I was drinking, alcohol caused far more problems in my life than weed ever has. Compared with the physical and mental effects of alcohol, marijuana seems benign. If pot’s a gateway to anything, it’s sweatpants and delivery.
And pot is probably a more popular substitution tool than we realize. Kenneth Anderson, the founder of an online support group for alcohol users, says Eve and I are part of a large but mostly silent minority. A quarter of his participants effectively use cannabis to reduce their dependence on alcohol or other drugs, Anderson told me. We just don’t hear much about them because, in most states, it would get them arrested or violate their parole. Even in progressive states like the ones I’ve lived in, there’s a lingering stigma attached to getting high. Weed is still secreted away with sex toys and porn.
Some mental health practitioners are warming up to the therapeutic use of cannabis, however. Social workers who are “in the trenches every day with people who have serious drug dependence issues” know marijuana is “not the problem,” said Amanda Reiman. “They know that it’s helping their clients stay off of or reduce their use of other substances.” More resistant, Reiman said, are psychiatrists, who are trained to think that addiction is a brain disease that is treated with total abstinence. Then there are private treatment centers and rehab clinics. They have little incentive to advocate for cannabis as harm-reducer, Reiman said, because it’s often pot offenders who get sent to these centers instead of jail. Pot pays the bills.
Which is not to say we should do away with status quo approaches to sobriety like treatment centers and AA. I know they work for some people. And I know that most people don’t have the luxury to experiment with illicit substances. Nonmedical marijuana is still completely illegal in most states, and the laws are disproportionately enforced in black communities. (Although black and white Americans use pot at the same rate, black people are almost four times as likely to get arrested for it, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.) But as marijuana is decriminalized and legalized, it may become a popular alternative to alcohol for social drinkers and problem drinkers alike.
Marijuana is not a perfect replacement for drinking. A bartender has never made me look at a slideshow of his road trip to the Grand Canyon, as a weed dealer once did. Pot has cost me more than booze — I could probably have bought a mid-level sedan with all my drug money over the years — and it comes with its own dumb shit.
A couple of years ago, my old friend Shannon and I hot-boxed the bathroom of a nice hotel in Philadelphia, where I was staying for a conference. We somehow managed to lock the bathroom door behind us, leaving a half-smoked blunt on the sink. Violently high, I thought I was going to spend the rest of the weekend peeing in my trash can, until my friend broke down the door. But that’s the kind of thing that happens with weed — you get locked out of a bathroom. You don’t hurt people.
Pot has also had an impact on my relationships, albeit a much less destructive one than alcohol. Turns out, not all women enjoy the smell of marijuana before Sunday brunch. The last woman I dated really hated that I smoked. She told me it made me dumber and less present in the world. I would have quit had she asked, but she didn’t, and by the time I realized just how much she hated weed, it was too late.
I quit smoking for a while after that. I didn’t want a substance to ruin a relationship ever again, and I needed to see if I could get by without it. So I took a month off. I was amazed at how fine it was. I sometimes missed smoking, sure, but the biggest difference was that I remembered my dreams and I watched TV sitting up instead of lying down because I wasn’t constantly trying to keep a bong upright.
One oft-repeated phrase in AA and other recovery circles is that drinking will either land you dead or in jail. I got lucky on both those fronts — I’m still alive and I’ve never been to jail. Or maybe it wasn’t luck. Maybe it was pot.
Marijuana gave me a way out of a cycle that felt unbreakable. I have a good life now, one I’m proud of and generally enjoy. The conventional wisdom is that the only way to recover from addiction is total abstinence — that even a glass of champagne at your daughter’s wedding will make you spin out, start fights, barf on the table, and cry in public. But I’m not entirely sober, even from booze. These days, I do drink occasionally. But saying no to the second drink will always be a struggle for me, so, most nights, I say no to the first one. Instead, I pack a bowl, inhale deeply, and know that while some may think that marijuana ruins lives, it might have saved one.
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