CANNABIS AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO OPIATES
This is a subject that’s close to me, and we’re at a point where the use of opiates has truly become an epidemic in Canada and the U.S., so I don’t mind taking off the gloves a bit.
This epidemic is real, not some clickbait media creation. We had 174 overdoses last week in my relatively small home city of Vancouver. North Americans make up just over 20% of the world’s population yet consume around 80% of the opioid painkillers produced globally.
I was at the funeral of my friend’s brother no more than a month ago, and in the month between initially writing this chapter and coming back to edit it, a former colleague was found dead in her apartment. It’s out of control by any estimation.
I also went through my own self-induced opioid hell in my mid- to late twenties. I had started taking these things called “percs” after playing hockey, in order to relax and not feel all the bumps and bruises. I had no idea at the time what they really were. They seemed to appear out of nowhere sometime around 2005, and were soon absolutely everywhere. They were generally described or known as “muscle relaxants,” and it seemed like neither myself nor anyone else had a clue that they were actually highly addictive and part of the same family as heroin.
My story from there is all too predictable and common. Without realizing it, I was now using them to treat much more serious mental issues instead of a few scrapes or bumps. Soon, I was taking a few every night. And within a year, I was sometimes taking 15 or 20 a night, snorting OxyContin, and smoking heroin.
I bottomed out in 2007, and ended up in detox. I struggled with relapses for another five years or so, but was extremely lucky to have bailed out when I did. I wasn’t using heroin regularly yet but was on the razor’s edge of becoming a full-blown junkie.
Getting clean and staying clean after you’ve crossed that line is incredibly difficult, and my heart goes out to those fighting that battle. A few of my dearest, most cherished friends were not so lucky.
So where does cannabis use fit in? For myself and many others, it’s helped a lot, and I certainly have some observations from the standpoint of a former addict. First, once you’ve gone through serious addiction like this, you realize how silly some of the fearmongering surrounding cannabis has become. Can you become addicted to or dependent on cannabis? Absolutely. But it’s about as much cause for alarm as being addicted to coffee. It might cause some relatively minor problems, and quitting will probably suck for a couple days or weeks, but let’s get real.
Calling cannabis an addictive substance is a bit of a stretch. I have never encountered someone who has gone through detox or rehab for hard drugs and thinks cannabis should be mentioned in the same sentence as alcohol, opioids, or methamphetamine in terms of addiction.
The notion of cannabis being addictive in any serious sense almost universally comes from people who have never been addicted to anything and have never used cannabis in a meaningful way. I challenge any doctor or addiction “expert” who thinks otherwise to go through what I did and tell me otherwise.
Most of these people mean well and are extremely intelligent and highly educated. But they’re like virgins who’ve watched hours of pornography explaining to you what sex feels like. They’re relatively clueless.
I can remember lying in my cot in detox; strangely enough, I spent more time thinking about smoking a joint than I did craving a Percocet. Opioids had ruined my life, and despite serious withdrawal, I was determined to get them out of my life.
Naturally, detox would have been a logical opportunity to quit cannabis as well, as I had been a heavy user for years. But while I was hooked on opioids, my cannabis use had taken a backseat for obvious financial reasons. Back then, a Percocet cost $5. You could develop a $100-a-day habit in a very short period of time, and I can vividly remember being mad at myself for letting this addiction come between me and cannabis. I prayed that if I could get through these few days and get out, I would never fuck around again with anything that could put me in this position.
Looking back, I realized that addiction is a shameful, embarrassing, and mentally devastating experience, but my feelings on cannabis were the exact opposite. Having gone through true addiction, I now know that my cannabis use is something different. Although I had always used, it wasn’t until years later, when I discovered more about how to integrate cannabis into a different way of living and had a better attitude about it, that I was able to use it to help with the lukewarm opioid addiction that lingered for years after initially getting “clean.” (This is the stage where you’re not seeking out pills or whatever but wouldn’t want to be left alone around a bottle of Oxys.)
I have at least one specific strategy for former opioid lovers like myself and for people trying to kick fairly lightweight current opioid abuse. If you are seriously using, this is not appropriate, and detox or rehab is the only thing that’s going to help you right now. I’m not going to even try to quantify this scientifically, as I’m not qualified to do so, nor do I think there’s enough quality data in 2017 even if I were. But it’s been incredibly effective for me and others, and I know it will work for a lot of people out there.
Bear with me.
Most of us, at least in the early stages, are generally using at night. The hardest time for me after getting clean was in the evening, vaguely between 8pm and bedtime. I used to call it “the witching hour,” and when I relapsed, it was almost always during this time. Peers of mine who were also users usually struggled most at night, too. (Unfortunately, for those at a high level of addiction, there’s no witching hour—every hour is a nightmare.) This is also true for a lot of alcoholics, gambling addicts, and so forth.
Addictive types can generally slug through the day but get in trouble when they run out of things to do at the end of the day. I think there’s a lot of physical and mental baggage by nighttime for a lot of us. You have a combination of physical fatigue and mental overstimulation, and as previously mentioned, it can be a boring time when your workaholic brain turns its attention to deeper and more existential problems and traumas. On top of all that, there’s pressure to decompress so you can get to sleep at a reasonable time. It’s no wonder so many people struggle with insomnia.
Cannabis can actually easily help “normal” people with a lot of these issues. Insomnia, for example, becomes fairly simple to fix. And, naturally, it helps those of us partial to opiates. Still, for me, it wasn’t enough on its own, no matter how many joints I smoked. I still had this creeping feeling of it not being enough, although I don’t even want to imagine how bad it would have been if I had no cannabis at all.
Describing an opiate high for those who have never had one isn’t easy, but I’d call it a state of complete physical and mental well-being. Every physical and mental problem you have or have ever had, completely erased. Total satisfaction with whatever is going on in your life, and a physical feeling of warmth and comfort, like your soul itself was wrapped in a blanket. An amazing thing to be able to provide people who are terminally ill or suffering intense pain, but incredibly dangerous for the rest of us.
I spent years chasing that feeling, and eventually found it by accident. In fairness, when I say I found “it,” that’s somewhat misleading. That out-of-this-world feeling of comfort and pleasure you get from a serious opiate high cannot be 100% replicated by any normal human behavior. It’s a fake, drug-induced tango of serotonin and dopamine. But between your body’s natural reward mechanisms and the earth’s gift of cannabis, you can do it a little more naturally should you need to do so. This can be something to get you through the initial post-addiction stage, or if you’re like me, basically a way of life (and as mentioned in the disclaimer, I’m not a doctor, and you should consult one before making any significant dietary or lifestyle changes).
I present my extremely unscientific recipe for satisfying nightly cravings for an opioid high:
1 part cannabis
1 part extreme cardio
1 part intermittent fasting
I stumbled across this combination a few years ago and never relapsed or had cravings again. I’ll go over these quickly, but in a nutshell, you’re combining THC, “runner’s high,” and a flood of endorphins from your body getting a lot of food after being teased all day. Nothing supernatural.
Cannabis. Obvious parallels with using opiates. Helps with sleep, relaxation, and feelings of well-being, and offers pain management without the harsh addictive qualities.
Extreme Cardio. I say “extreme” for a reason. Going to Planet Fitness and goofing around with a ten-minute jog or low-intensity bodybuilding isn’t going to do anything for you. I’m talking high-intensity, puke your guts out stuff. Crossfit, swimming, boxing—and, of course, since we’re chasing a “runner’s” high, anything that involves a lot of running will work.
Plenty of research on “runner’s highs” shows they cause our bodies to release chemicals that, like THC, can mimic the highs you get from opiates. My favorite nights come after I’ve had an absolutely brutal workout that day. The harder you work, the higher you get. As a bonus, I’ve heard there’s also research suggesting exercise is good for you!
Intermittent Fasting. I was actually naturally inclined to eat this way, but stopped, as it goes against the advice of almost every expert. Once it actually caught on and started being used by bodybuilders, athletes, etc., I went back to it with amazing results despite how odd it seems. However, we’re only discussing it here in the context of my little “recipe,” so I won’t go into the many variations of it or the science behind it.
My variation works by saving up as many calories as possible for the end of the day. This allows me to essentially gorge on anywhere from 1000–1500 calories on my last meal or two of the day. We all know that dopey, satisfied feeling we get from eating when we’re really hungry, and the reward chemicals flooding into your body do a very good job of mimicking the feeling of an opiate high.
These things all help on their own, but for me, as I said, the magic really happens when all three are done in tandem. This probably all sounds very strange to someone who’s never been addicted to opiates or doesn’t see the attraction. But, those of us who have been know it’s a desperate struggle to find a way to enjoy life again without them. I got to a point where my war with opiates was down to a single theatre of battle: the few hours in the evening after dinner until I went to bed. Once all these elements were in place, I didn’t fear the night anymore, and I now feel like every day is Friday—always something to look forward to at the end of the day, and I sleep like an infant (one of the really docile ones). If you’re struggling with this stuff, give it a shot. The initial goal is simply to stay off opiates, and once you’ve have that dealt with and you’re feeling stronger, you can start to make adjustments.
I can practically hear the therapists and addiction “experts” screaming about how this doesn’t address underlying issues and uses cannabis as a “crutch.” And they’re absolutely right.
Ideally, we’d all reach some place where we didn’t have these cravings or feelings. But we are talking about people’s lives. Very short ones, by any measure. In regard to opioids and how cannabis might help, people are dying. There’s no time for arguing over vague concepts and constructs of what the “right” way to feel better is.
Keep in mind as well that cannabis use is extremely threatening to some of these people. Someone telling them that the vile cannabis weed might help more than they do is likely to cause an explosion of cognitive dissonance that would make Hiroshima look like a jumping jack.
In general, my thoughts on the current opioid epidemic, cannabis use, and the medical community are pretty harsh. I try not to be critical of anyone anymore, but given what I’ve been through, I’ll say this: Look out for yourself. Most doctors are vehemently opposed to cannabis use, yet our communities are awash with powerful, highly addictive drugs closely related to heroin. When legalization looms, they demand cannabis be closely regulated and ludicrously controlled, yet seem to have done little to curb opiate usage.
After I attended detox, I was shocked at how often I was offered opioids. From my dentist. From an emergency room. A physician prescribed me Tylenol 3 with codeine, and he knew I had been to detox for pills. Yet not one of those sources would have been willing to prescribe me cannabis. I’m comfortable suggesting that anyone, medical degree or otherwise, who thinks that using cannabis for pain management is more dangerous than experimenting with heroin’s little cousins is either a) misinformed, b) lying, or c) an absolute fucking moron.
My advice is to stay away from opioid painkillers at all costs. If you are terminally ill or are suffering from debilitating pain, that’s a different story, and I would never try and tell someone in that position what to do. But for the rest of us, refuse them. Tell your doctor you’re okay with aspirin and tough it out. Try a cannabis edible if you like getting high. Just do anything other than finding out if you’re hardwired for opiate addiction, like me.