I Tried “Medical” Marijuana in Sobriety, Here's What Happened

By May Wilkerson 07/08/19

I was a destructive, chronic blackout drinker for years; marijuana, on the other hand, always seemed like a potential safe zone.

sober woman exhaling marijuana smoke
It’s not marijuana’s fault I can’t use it wisely. Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

Three years ago, at six years sober, I decided to try medical marijuana. “Try” is a cuter word than “relapse,” and “medical” made it seem like it was under the care of a doctor. But there were no doctors involved. And I should’ve known that for the kind of addict I am, when it comes to drugs, there is no try. There is only do, and do, and do more until one day you are on your floor sobbing because all the doing is making your life a living hell but you don’t know how to stop.

I Know I'm an Alcoholic, but Pot Is Not Alcohol

I was a destructive, chronic blackout drinker for years (not to brag). This is a gift only in that I have the clarity to know that “casual” drinking is not an option for me. Even the idea of a glass or two of wine with dinner makes me shudder because I want the whole bottle for dinner, followed by a dessert course of hard liquor and total chaos. I could one day forget this and convince myself that things might be different, but luckily it hasn’t happened yet. I’ve made too many amends and recounted too many drunk horror stories at dinner parties to ever go back.

Marijuana, on the other hand, always seemed like a potential safe zone—a gray area in between complete sobriety and destructive annihilation. Before getting sober in 2010, I was too busy getting wasted on booze to give weed much attention. Unlike with alcohol, I don’t have a back pocket full of marijuana horror stories to put things in perspective. 

It doesn’t help that the drug has a reputation for being extremely cool and relatively harmless. In TV and movies, heavy weed use gets to be the punchline while heavy alcohol use is the point of tension or tragedy. Alcoholics on screen always seem to crash their cars and destroy their families, while the potheads make dumb jokes and go on snack-related adventures. Sign me up please!

Plus, medical marijuana really does help a lot of people—it’s been reported to work wonders for people with PTSD, cancer, epilepsy, and other problems I don’t have. It also seems to help people with problems I do have: anxiety, depression, insomnia, ADHD, feeling bored, feeling restless, feeling feelings, the pain of being alive. Based on what I’d read and heard, weed was the potential antidote to about 95% of my problems. 

Weed’s public image has gotten even better as it becomes legal in more U.S. states, which I fully support even if it does me no favors. The days of reefer madness have been replaced by a culture of vape pens, gummy bears, bud-tenders, and medical marijuana. I live in LA, where you can’t go a block without a billboard or a storefront touting the drug as a solution to all your problems. Fun, glamorous, and soothing, it’s both therapy and leisure! For someone who loves therapy and medication as much as candy, an anti-anxiety medication in gummy bear form is almost irresistible.

At six years sober from alcohol and drugs, I knew intellectually that smoking, vaping, or eating weed was probably a bad idea. But my imaginative addict brain convinced me I could be a “functional pothead” like I’d seen on TV and movies. I told myself I could smoke up like Frankie from Grace and Frankie or Ilana from Broad City. I didn’t take into account that I’m neither a divorced aging hippie with a bottomless bank account nor the most confident 20-something in the world. Or that neither of these characters are real people.

Functional potheads exist in the real world, too. I know because I’m friends with them. Many are super-successful and seem happy with their lives. 

So, with no doctor in sight, I made the decision to join the usually-high club.

I Was a Dysfunctional Pothead from the Start

Moments after getting high at a friend’s apartment, I realized my sobriety, which I’d worked so hard to attain, was gone. I also realized the universe was a simulation and everyone I’d ever met was mad at me. I had a debilitating panic attack and woke up the next day on my friend’s couch covered in Dorito crumbs. So, I did it again. And again. And again. For years.

Weed didn’t torpedo my life the way drinking had. It worked slowly, gradually eroding my mental health and the life I’d built for myself. Like a frog in water slowly heated to boiling, I didn’t realize what was happening until the damage was done. Even then, I didn’t realize, because any time I had a bad feeling, I got high. If I felt shame, sadness, dissatisfaction, worry, pain, or longing, I got high. But emotional pain, like physical pain, exists for a reason. It’s your brain’s way of saying “SOS! We have a problem! Fix it!” Instead of listening and resolving the problem, I just shut the voice up with a weed pen.

In some ways, weed did improve my life, especially at first. It made parties, which I had avoided since getting sober, more fun and easier to navigate. There’s a reason people numb their brains to ease the discomfort of interacting with groups of other humans all crammed into one place. One of my biggest struggles at parties is how to escape a conversation without the excuse of “grabbing another drink.” You can only go to the bathroom so many times before people get suspicious or try to do coke with you. Weed helped me detach from my anxious, people-pleasing brain and just enjoy hovering right outside the moment, looking in. 

Sometimes I miss being high at parties. But since most of my life does not take place at parties, it’s not worth it.

Must All Addicts Be Completely Sober?

I want to make this clear: I’m pro-weed, just not for me. Like most rational people, I believe that it should be legal. It’s not marijuana’s fault I can’t use it wisely. And it’s certainly not the people wasting their lives away in prison for possessing or distributing it, most of them men of color. Draconian and racist U.S. drug laws have been shamelessly exploited by the police and the prison industrial complex for way too long. So I support the legalization of weed for medical and recreational use. Even if that means I have to smell weed smoke on every street corner and see it passed around at parties like pigs-in-a-blanket. 

I also disagree with the idea that all addicts must be completely sober. Addiction is a complex problem that manifests differently for everyone and we don’t all benefit from the same treatment. Total abstinence works for some people (i.e. me), but I know recovering addicts who benefit from weed, sometimes as a form of harm reduction. I have lost friends to overdoses because they couldn’t stay sober. So if one kind of high prevents you from a much more lethal one, I’m all for choosing the lesser of two evils. Especially in a society where most people can’t afford therapy or prescription medication. Maybe some people need weed to just make it through the day, and that’s okay.

For me, it didn’t work. I wanted weed to provide a temporary escape from this reality to a wackier one where food somehow tastes even better, like it does in every Seth Rogen movie. But the “temporary” part didn’t work out for me. I’ve never been good at dipping in and out of reality. If I find an escape, I’m buying a one-way ticket, learning the language, and putting down roots. Bye, reality! I’m an ex-pat now.

The good news is: I finally got my high horror story. The bad news is it’s not exciting enough to tell at a dinner party. It involves long stretches of panic and paranoia, paralyzing depression, compromising my creative dreams, and isolating myself from people. Shortly before getting sober, I had a panic attack from taking too many edibles while hiking and two very kind strangers had to help me down a mountain. I’ll revisit that one next time I try to tell myself it’s a good idea to “treat my anxiety” with weed.

Since quitting, my anxiety and depression have improved, in part because the doctor-prescribed medications I take are no longer cancelled out by weed use. I’m more productive, which makes me happier. And food, it turns out, tastes just as good sober. My life isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was. A big part of me wishes I’d never taken that 2.5-year vacation from reality. But at least next time I pass a billboard advertising weed as “therapy,” which happens at least once every time I leave my apartment, I know to smile and just keep walking.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.