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Marijuana: Recreational Use or Self-Medication?

Marijuana is cheap, easy to find, and now legal! But why are you REALLY smoking it?

In November of last year, Californians passed proposition 64, an initiative that allows individuals older than 21 to buy, possess legally, and transport 28.5 grams of marijuana for recreational purposes. California joins Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Colorado, which had previously passed similar laws and seen immediate economic gain. California is expected to generate $1 billion in taxes, which will be used, in part, to cover other drug enforcement costs, as well as initiatives against illegal drugs and supporting mental health treatment. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have pushed for a change in marijuana policies as a matter of criminal justice policy. Some conclude from this that everything is good: that the state is making money, we are on our way to ending the “war on drugs” and now we can all smoke weed whenever we want! This, I believe, is where people stop reflecting on this quickly evolving subject, but by not reflecting, they feel justified and empowered in their daily smoking habits.

In an interview with Time magazine, Amanda Reiman, the manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, stated, "We encourage people to think about cannabis in a new way.” She continues, “As something that is perfectly acceptable for adults to do in a responsible way. That's one of the messages that legalization sends." This statement is no doubt true. However, no one is stepping up to say what “responsible way” means. Legalization is interpreted as a form of permission for not only Californians, but also jealous onlookers from less progressive states, suggesting that marijuana is no longer considered in any way dangerous or harmful, and we should feel free to light up whenever we please.

I’m not suggesting that marijuana is bad, or that you shouldn’t use it. In fact, marijuana has been proven to help significantly a wide variety of mental and physical health conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, fibromyalgia, and pain management in cancer patients. Recreational use, however, leads us down a path into a culturally accepted grey area in which we have begun to blur the lines between recreational use and self-medication. I regularly find myself sitting with clients who struggle to buy fresh vegetables, remain in less than adequate living situations and can barely cover costs for sliding scale therapy sessions, while still managing to spend a substantial amount of money for their pot use. Why is marijuana such a financial priority for them?

Usually one of the first arguments for regular and even constant marijuana use is that pot is natural, given to us by the planet, and is therefore safe and requires no limits. Often clients have explained that they do not consider pharmaceutical drugs to be an option because they are not natural and have too many side effects. Those are justified points. However, just because something grows out of the ground, does not mean we get a free pass to use it without limits.

Consider the National Academy of Sciences review entitled, “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids.” This 468 page review concludes that there is strong evidence that using marijuana can lead to the development of schizophrenia and other types of psychosis, it can worsen respiratory problems, can lead to increased risk of car accidents, smoking during pregnancy is associated with low birth weights in newborns. In addition, there is moderate evidence for impairment in attention, memory, and learning, increased suicidality; and an increased risk of developing dependence on other substances. The Surgeon General states that among the short-term symptoms of Marijuana use include disinhibition, impaired balance and coordination, problems with learning and memory, panic attacks and psychosis, and hallucinations and delusions. These findings are worth considering.

When we smoke weed, we often feel bonded to those around us, we feel we have clarity of thought, we may feel more creative and motivated to put plans into action, we can feel more comfortable in our skin and sense an increased magnetism in our selves and our personality, and we can feel less inhibited and more expansive. In these respects, marijuana provides an incredibly appealing altered state of consciousness. But what happens when we are constantly altering our state of consciousness? When we get off work and immediately seek out a joint or even wake up to our bong, we are denying ourselves our reality and choosing another one entirely. We think differently, we feel differently, and, as with alcohol, we can more easily hide from our stresses, worries, and the traumatic experiences that haunt us from our past. We find that the altered state of consciousness is far preferable and therefore choose to be in that space as much as we can manage.

Not many people ask themselves before taking a hit why they are smoking. Instead, for too many smoking becomes habitual, and weed becomes a friend that helps us maneuver away from discomfort. We may wake up and take a take a hit. We get home from work and take a hit. We are about to eat, so we take a hit. We are visiting family, we should probably take a hit. We are going for a walk, we’d probably enjoy it more if we took a hit.

When people find themselves smoking weed on a daily basis, and even multiple times a day, we have to wonder what it is that they may be hiding behind the smoke. In my practice, people are often running from uncomfortable feelings like worry, fear, depression, anger, and sadness. It’s difficult to face these feelings, which are nevertheless a inescapable part of the human experience. However, to relieve these feelings, we have to “feel it to heal it.” If we have the courage and willingness to face these feelings, and that which is causing them, they can move through us and open us up to more enjoyable feelings, a deeper understanding of ourselves, and a greater ability to process through and integrate these difficult feelings in the future. If we choose substances to ignore our pain instead of facing it, the pain remains, only temporarily dulled.

I had a friend call me to ask about his two teenage sons and their smoking habbits. The father had set up a rule with the sons, that they were free to use marijuana as long as it was at home. He did not want to regulate their usage of marijuana and wanted to also maintain an open line of communication around drugs and anything else easily kept by teens from their parents. However, he was calling me because he was noticing that his sons were now smoking weed on a daily basis, maybe even using it as a way to manage depression. He felt stuck between wanting to be the open, easy-to-talk-to dad and his concern that his sons' usage has hit a point that was of concern. This is a situation parents find themselves in frequently, especially with marijuana. We want to say its ok, because maybe it can be. But what happens when it becomes not ok? How can we tell?

What I shared with this friend was my concern about his sons' emotional development. The young adult brain doesn’t stop developing until around the age of 24. Especially as teens, we start experiencing the emotional turmoil of dating, rejection, fear of the future, and figuring out who we are. I wondered with him how much they might be smoking to avoid negative feelings or experiences and if they were going as far as to choose this altered state of consciousness over their day-to-day reality or over feelings that they needed to learn how to deal with without the help of a substances.

We have to keep asking ourselves these questions:

Why am I smoking?

Am I smoking to hide from something uncomfortable or painful?

Do I prefer being high on a regular basis? Why?

Have I given myself a free pass with Marijuana and if so, is it valid?

How is my attitude toward weed affecting those in my life?

Will I be able to tell if I have crossed the line into self-medication? Will I admit it to myself?



McGreevy, P. (2016, November 8). Voters legalize pot in California. Here's what will happen next. Los Angeles Times . Retrieved from

Steinmetz, K. (n.d.). California Legalizes Marijuana: Everything You Need to Know. Retrieved August 07, 2017, from

The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. (2017). The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. doi:10.17226/24625

Contributor, T. A. (2017, July 15). Why isn't there a warning label on marijuana? Retrieved August 07, 2017, from

United States., Public Health Service., Office of the Surgeon General,. (n.d.). Facing addiction in America: the Surgeon Generals report on alcohol, drugs and heath.

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