Mainstream Marijuana

By Kelly Burch 11/13/16

The recovery community reacts to pot’s victory in last week’s election.

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A marijuana leaf filled in with the American flag.
America's favorite candidate—cannabis.

At least one thing went as predicted during last week’s election, as voters in eight states increased access to marijuana, forcing the federal government and the recovery community to reconsider their stance on the ever-expanding acceptance of marijuana.

“This election was a crucial shift for marijuana policy in this country,” said Erik Altieri, the Executive Director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, an organization that advocates for legalization. 

California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada all legalized recreational use of pot, meaning that 21 percent of Americans can now legally light up for fun. Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota approved medical marijuana, while Montana voters made medical pot easier to access.

Arizona was the only state where a marijuana initiative was defeated last week. The state already has legalized medical marijuana, but voters rejected recreational use of the drug. Even there the race was tight, with nearly 48 percent of voters in favor of recreational use.

With Tuesday’s results, 29 states and Washington D.C. have passed legalization of medical or recreational marijuana, and 12 states have decriminalized possession of the drug. With support for marijuana at an all-time high and 58 percent of Americans in favor of legalization, the momentum for marijuana is unlikely to be reversed.

“The genie is long out of the bottle on this issue and it won’t be going back inside anytime soon,” Altieri said. Eventually, national policies will affect public opinion, he added.

“As more states approve legalization laws, the upward pressure on the federal government to remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act will make the current status quo untenable.”

The statement echoed words from President Obama, who expressed a similar opinion earlier this month.

“The Justice Department, DEA, FBI, for them to try to straddle and figure out how they’re supposed to enforce laws in some places and not in others… that is not gonna be tenable,” Obama said during an interview on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.

In August, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) refused to loosen restrictions on marijuana, leaving it classified as a Schedule I drug alongside heroin, cocaine and other substances that are deemed to have no medical merit.

For the recovery community, the issue of legalized marijuana has been contentious. The Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery (MOAR) urged voters to reject Question 4, the recreational marijuana measure, citing concerns about commercialization of pot, marketing to kids and increases in impaired driving.

“Question 4 is about allowing this billion-dollar industry into our communities to promote and sell this addictive drug, with a very limited ability to restrict it,” Maryanne Frangules, MOAR’s executive director, said in an open letter released the day before the election.

Prominent Massachusetts officials, including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who is in recovery, were against the measure. Although the measure passed with 53.6 percent of the vote, areas of the Bay State that have been hard-hit by addiction, including many towns on Cape Cod, rejected the measure.

However, the people in recovery who spoke to The Fix about marijuana legalization were all in favor of the measures.

“It's disheartening to me to see advocacy groups like MOAR, Boston's Mayor Marty Walsh who is in recovery, and many other people affected by addiction buying into debunked science and antiquated beliefs about the dangers of marijuana,” said Britni de la Cretaz, a 31-year-old from Boston who has been in recovery for five years. De la Cretaz voted for recreational marijuana.

“The problem is not access to the drugs or substances; it's why so many of us substitute addictions or use whatever we can get our hands on. Many, if not most, people can use substances safely and not become addicted, and marijuana is one of the safest substances.”

Many people in recovery hope that more widespread legalization will correct the social injustices around drug use and addiction.

“I believe there are a lot of racial injustices that happen because of the criminalization of marijuana, and I hope this will do a lot to change that,” said Irina Gonzalez, 30, a Florida resident who has been in recovery for over a year.

Katie MacBride, a columnist for The Fix, says it is important for people in recovery to have open discussions about marijuana, and pay close attention to their own responses.

“I hope the recovery community as a whole does not shy away from this conversation,” she said. “I think there are a lot of individual things to consider, but discussion among other folks in recovery is essential.” 

MacBride lives in California and voted for recreational marijuana there, but is still cautious about how marijuana will change the landscape for people in recovery.

“I think it would be good for every person in recovery to think about how they want to handle the inevitability of pot being everywhere,” she said.

She also hopes that recovery institutions will encourage dialogue.

“I also think it's something we need to be really open to talking about. I know that in some AA meetings they keep things strictly to alcohol, but I hope that there will be many groups that allow the space for this conversation in addition to alcohol.”

Howard Josepher, the president and CEO of Exponents, a New York City recovery organization, took MacBride’s sentiment one step further.

“It’s going to be legal, and in some cases appropriate, that an individual who is participating in a treatment program is going to be prescribed marijuana as a way to deal with some of their underlying physical and mental health conditions,” he said.

The recovery community will need to consider that possibility, as well as reevaluate the focus on abstinence. Josepher, 78, has been in recovery from heroin addiction for more than 50 years. However, he drinks socially and has used marijuana occasionally.

“We were encouraged to be responsible, not sober upon completion of our program,” he said.

The idea of recovery without abstinence was more widely accepted 50 years ago, he said, and the visibility of marijuana may force the issue to be revisited.

With Tuesday’s election, it seems clear that it is only a matter of time until legalized marijuana is mainstream throughout the country, and the recovery community must rise to this new challenge.

“It will be a period of adjustment for everyone,” MacBride said. “I hope in the end, the benefits I mentioned will outweigh any negatives.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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