Humboldt County has a drug problem. Most people would agree with this but if you don’t believe me read the North Coast Journal’s excellent two part series on addiction last month. It pretty well establishes that meth and opiate based drugs like heroin and oxy are a big problem around here. Alternately, if more hands on evidence is what you’re looking for, just walk around downtown Eureka or Arcata. The piece in the NCJ outlined different treatment and support options available in Humboldt, as well as different treatment philosophies. It was while perusing the section on harm reduction that I came across something interesting: the idea of getting a meth user to replace meth with cannabis. This sounds too good to be true – can people replace harmful drug use (meth, heroin, pain pills) with less harmful drug use (cannabis)? The answer is… it’s complicated.
Harm reduction is a treatment philosophy that basically says we are never going to have a society without drugs and not all users can expect to quit completely. So if we can’t change people’s behaviors (and needs) lets work to lessen the harm from those behaviors both for the individual and society. If we accept this philosophy than where does cannabis come in? Well there are two facets: one is the question of what we can do to lessen harm for people who use cannabis. This might include using edibles or a vaporizer instead of smoking (to vape or not to vape). The second and the one I want to talk about today is – can cannabis replace more problematic drug use?
First off, is cannabis less harmful than meth, pills and heroin? I think the answer is pretty straightforward – absolutely. Only the most conservative anti-drug nut jobs still say that smoking weed is just as bad as smoking meth or shooting heroin. The reasons fall into two categories: health and social costs. Under the health column we can put: nobody dies from a cannabis overdose, it’s not addictive in a way that causes dangerous withdrawals and it’s just not that toxic. Social costs are slightly more difficult to quantify but there is still strong evidence. Using cannabis is way more socially acceptable. In this state at least the legal consequences of using cannabis are far less severe than other drugs. When we look at negative outcomes we pay for as a society such as car accidents, hospital visits and domestic violence, cannabis also comes out the clear winner.
Now can cannabis use replace more harmful drug use and therefore lessen health and social problems? Here’s where it gets sticky. When it comes to legally prescribed drugs for managing pain there is pretty good evidence that some patients can use cannabis in place of prescription pain meds or to supplement them very effectively. After all just because a drug is legally prescribed doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with the above-mentioned health and social costs. The bad news is that this switch doesn’t work for every patient. The good news is that it works great for a lot of people.
What about the addicts using drugs illegally? When it comes to opiates we can assume that if it works for some legal users it probably works for some illicit ones too. How about meth? After all, two things there are plenty of in Humboldt are medical grade cannabis and meth addicts. It depends on who you ask. Some recovering meth users on quittingcrystalmeth.com and KCI.org the anti-meth site say it can work. People provide anecdotal testimony that it worked for them referring to “marijuana maintenance” and calling cannabis an “exit drug”. One big concern raised by many users is getting cannabis from a dealer who also sells meth. This problem though can be remedied through safe access. Some users can and need to be totally sober, for them it’s a zero sum game. In other words the only way for them to stay clean is total abstinence. Other people, though, were able to use cannabis to transition into sobriety or to replace the more harmful habit of meth use with the less harmful habit of cannabis use.
So can people replace harmful drug use with less harmful drug use? Yes, but it’s not for everybody. What we have to remember is that every case is different. What works for some people doesn’t work for others. After all, drug addiction is a multifaceted problem and it needs to be addressed with a variety of solutions. Even so, if cannabis can help just some of our problem drug users here in Humboldt live a better life for themselves and society, then I’m all for it.