New Marijuana-Based Recovery Program Is Making Waves

By Victoria Kim 03/31/17

The LA-based rehab aims to provide care for people who couldn’t find success in traditional abstinence-based treatment programs. 

close-up of a hand-rolled joint.

A new Los Angeles rehab, High Sobriety, is ruffling some feathers with its unconventional offerings—the most novel of them: Cannabis-Inclusive Treatment.

This isn’t that strange of a concept, for some. There’s a growing body of research analyzing marijuana’s role in weaning people off of prescription meds, namely opioid pain relievers. 

Dr. Gary Witman, a physician at Canna Care clinic in Massachusetts, said he has found success with this kind of treatment in the majority of patients seeking long-term recovery from drugs. Witman told the Boston Herald in 2015 that 75% of patients stopped taking harder, potentially lethal drugs (e.g., opioids, muscle relaxers, anti-anxiety meds) by tapering off with cannabis.

The priority is to save lives. “As soon as we can get people off opioids to a non-addicting substance—and medicinal marijuana is non-addicting—I think it would dramatically impact the amount of opioid deaths,” said Dr. Witman.

High Sobriety adheres to this same mindset. “Our first and foremost goal is to eliminate the risk of death from drug use,” according to its website. They emphasize that pharmaceuticals, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, all have a lethal dose—but cannabis does not. 

“Cannabis is used for a variety of medical conditions as both treatment and symptomatic care,” the website says. “Cannabis can aid in the detox process, helping with discomfort, insomnia, and flu-like symptoms associated with the withdrawal process, reducing or eliminating the need for other drugs.”

It’s worth noting that this particular program isn’t available to clients under 25 years old, and they must meet a list of prerequisites to qualify.

While the cannabis program has inevitably been getting the most attention—it’s just one of the treatment programs offered at High Sobriety. The rehab also offers medication-assisted treatment.

Its goal overall, according to its website, is to provide care for people who couldn’t find success in traditional abstinence-based treatment programs, which High Sobriety calls antiquated, clinically misaligned and nonscientific: “Our goals are broader than the binary question of: was the drug screen clean or dirty?”

Is High Sobriety a welcome alternative to traditional rehab approaches? It’s no secret that the success rates of most rehabs leave much to be desired. Typical success rates hover around 30% according to The New York Times—leaving 70-75% of clients who relapse, or worse.

Still, some medical professionals say replacing one drug with another psychoactive substance isn’t a viable solution. Psychiatrist Dr. Leah Bauer of the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians testified at a hearing last April regarding whether cannabis should be allowed for treating drug addiction under Maine’s medical cannabis program. 

This approach would “simply encourage another intoxicating substance in the lives of those trying to overcome the ravages of addiction,” said Dr. Bauer, “and in fact, marijuana may be pouring gasoline on the fire.”

Thomas McLellan, a former Obama deputy drug czar who founded the non-profit Treatment Research Institute, an organization which analyzes research and makes drug policy recommendations, is also skeptical. “Marijuana has exactly no role in the treatment of any mental illness,” he told The Guardian, “especially substance-use disorders.”

Addictions counselor, Jo Sullivan, who has been working in the field for the past three years, noted that abstinence-based recovery has worked for many facilities and recovery houses. However, she said, addiction is "complex and multi-faceted," and she's curious to see how the Cannabis-Inclusive Treatment will pan out. "I believe they are trying something out of the box," she told The Fix. "I applaud them. And I hope whatever their outcomes, they share widely so we can all learn, adapt and push this disease out of the shadows with everything we have."

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr