Dazed And Confused: Cannabis & 12-Step Recovery (An Alcoholic's Perspective) 


“Hi! My name is Mu and I'm an alcoholic.” If, like me, you're in 12-step recovery from a substance problem, you're familiar with those magic words. I first said them at an A.A. meeting over 35 years ago, and in all that time, I haven't touched a drop of alcohol! I even wrote a well-known book, The Zen Of Recovery, about my experiences sobering up and getting healthy.

Now here's a second revised introduction : “Hi! My name is Mu and I'm a stoner.” This new public admission is every bit as hard for me as was the first, admitting my alcoholism. You see, for all these thirty-five years of abstinence from alcohol and being a recovery author and workshop leader, I have also enjoyed the mental, physical and spiritual benefits of cannabis.

I've had to keep it quiet and hide the person I really am because of a prevailing disapproval in the recovery community of anything except complete abstinence from all mind-altering substances, regardless of their effects, negative or positive. It was dishonest of me and it was cowardly. But it's time now for me and many other people in recovery to come out of the weed closet and claim our self-determined right to our own definitions of wellness. No, I am no longer drunk. And yes, I am usually high, even now as I write this. Especially now…let me explain.

It's important to point out that being stoned is in no way comparable to being drunk. This much should be obvious to the most hard-core 12-step person by now. Hell, I couldn't even have found my computer when I drank, much less use it to write this post. But somehow, I'm able to do it stoned. While many in the 12-step programs will argue that I am deluded, I have to insist that my long-time personal experience says otherwise.

Disclaimers: On Cannabis Addiction and Alcohol Use

I just want to address a couple of peripheral issues, add some disclaimers and generally clear the air before we move on to the gist of my stance.

First: I don't deny that some people find themselves psychologically dependent on cannabis. Addicted, they often claim. A couple of very dear friends who I helped enter recovery felt they had to also quit cannabis. I never for a moment doubted their claims. After all, the motto of A.A. emblazoned on our anniversary medallions says unequivocally “To thine own self be true.”

That is the only guideline we need to follow about our recovery, and particularly in regard to the well-intentioned advice of others. I apply this motto not only to my own continued use of cannabis, but also to the right of others to not indulge: to thine own self be true!

We become healthier and who we really are only by a fearless self-examination and deep acceptance of our true selves. What works for other people has nothing to do with what works for us. Only we ourselves can be reliable judges of our behavior, needs and desires. 

So...if you  feel you're addicted to cannabis, then by all means don't use it. I applaud your decision and support your self-diagnosis fully. Groups such as Narcotics Anonymous and Marijuana Anonymous are great resources for your recovery. And by the way, you probably shouldn't be looking at this website (unless you heard about this article) in the same way that I shouldn't really go into a bar.

Second: In no way, shape or form, am I attacking the use and enjoyment of alcohol. Those who know me, also know that I'm no “born-again” lecturing one-and-all on their particular shortcomings and “sins.” My recovery is mine alone and does not depend upon the approval or denial of others. I always keep alcohol in my home (along with cannabis and tea) to offer my guests who partake. Never have I felt tempted by its presence and not once have I even thought about it. No judgment.

If you feel you can use alcohol as an enhancer and enjoy its effects, more power to you! I remember how much I enjoyed it myself before it became a problem for me. If you can mix cannabis and alcohol and not harm yourself or others in the process, then party on! You'll get no disapproval from Padre Mu.

The Mind Police

I have a life-threatening disease that is activated by the ingestion of alcohol. A severe allergy, if you will, and most definitely not a moral shortcoming, as our public enforcers of puritanism would have you believe. The same enforcers, by the way, who still equate being high with being drunk. To these people, there is only one approved state of mind, only one style of awareness.

They legislate other ways of relaxing and perception into criminality. They approve only of mental states and drugs that encourage anger, consumption, loss of emotions, suppression of sensuality and a deadening of the spirit. Even in the halls of 12-step meetings, this pernicious propaganda is preached as gospel truth.

It's like being told that we can't use all the channels on our televisions, that there's only one correct channel and vision of reality. Our brains are the same.  For me and many others, cannabis and other substances vastly expand the palette of cognitive and perceptual options.

They help us channel-surf the miraculous thing that is human consciousness. They make music sound better, food taste better, and yes, as we all know, they greatly enhance sexual and sensual experience. They continually inspire creative and spiritual insights and help process complex emotional issues. They expand possibilities.

These people and their arguments about the “proper” use of the mind don't want our freedom. They want our obedience. They want our limitation into stunted parodies of what humans are capable of becoming. They fear autonomy and personal freedom. Get them out of your head!

They have colonized our very thoughts and dreams, causing us guilt, anxiety and depression. These points of view are like having police in every corner of our brains. Their day is over. But it's up to each of us to take Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey's advice, and to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.

A Formula For Freedom

Whenever I hear arguments about these issues and people trying to determine a “politically correct” and officially sanctioned state of mind, whether clergy, politicians or 12-step spokespeople, I recall the words of '60s acid guru and psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary.

Two Commandments for the Molecular Age:

  1. Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow man.

  2. Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his or her own consciousness.

Wow! Wouldn't it be awesome to live in a world where people took his advice seriously?  I mean what would it be like if we simply stopped judging each other and just freakin' chilled out? To each their own, it is said. What you do with your head is none of my business so long as you're not interfering with mine.

In fact, I believe that the mind that has all these opinions about everything, especially about the mind, are also the minds that can get themselves so easily addicted and unhappy. A closed mind is a sure-fire recipe for mental illness and dysfunction. Two A.A. slogans come to mind here: “Take It Easy.” and “Live and Let Live.”

It's now well documented that Bill W., the co-founder of A.A. and author of its literature and program, hung around with the infamous Dr. Leary and even took acid himself in his effort to help alcoholics recover. He never applied any sort of litmus test to the recovering mind. Was Bill less sober as a result? Should he have re-set his sobriety date? I think he would laugh at such nonsense.

Bill also explored Eastern meditation techniques as part of his quest. Things like meditation, Zen and yoga definitely alter one's consciousness, being spiritual forms that are also associated with early drug culture. Would we argue that these transcendent states of mind and spirit should be illegal or avoided? Ridiculous. The psychedelic movement in many ways fueled modern appetites for alternative forms of spirituality and therapy. To ignore this fact is to deny the truth of history. 

Want to drink or get high? Your choice! Regard yourself as 12-step sober if you don't drink but use cannabis? More power to you! Do not listen to the voices inside and outside your head that tell you your recovery is somehow “less than” or inauthentic, or that there exists an ideologically “pure” and orthodox form of sobriety.

In the next post we'll look at this thorny 12-step issue by asking a simple question: “Does it make your life unmanageable?

Does it make your life unmanageable?

This is the only question worth asking about substance use. I repeat: “Does it make your life unmanageable?” This question is drawn directly from official and revered A.A. literature and is the foundational tenet of recovery. It is, in fact, enshrined in the first of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable.”

I can only answer this question based on my own personal experience, but I ask you to continually ask yourself the very same question about nearly every facet in your life. I have found it to be an invaluable life-long tool for self-examination. It's the only scales we have on which to weigh such weighty decisions as our substance use, diet, relationships, behaviors, obsessions...the list is endless! The question, if asked fearlessly and with radical honesty, will deliver answers that can vastly improve and expand our lives.

So, did alcohol use make my life unmanageable? Just ask anyone who knew me! I drank to black out, to seek oblivion, to escape my personal demons, but to no avail. It was like, to quote a David Bowie song, trying to out a fire with gasoline.

Without going into nauseating and boring detail about my unmanageable alcoholic behavior, I'll instead just list some of the effects of alcohol on me: car crashes, injuries, arrests, jobs lost, family estranged, friends abandoned,  relationships destroyed, education aborted, potential denied, crushing guilt, deep depression, self-loathing, loss of emotional and spiritual depth, harm to others, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, lying, unbearable physical craving, physical deterioration, poor nutrition, loss of ambition, early ideals and dignity and the very real possibility of an early death. While I can easily go without cannabis and experience no withdrawal, alcohol deprivation inevitably led to uncontrollable cravings and misery - I'd call that “unmanageable”, wouldn't you?

Now let's contrast that experience with my life-long use of cannabis. First I have to say that although cannabis was always present when I drank, it was alcohol that was my priority. So although I was nearly always smoking as I drank, I never experienced cannabis apart from alcoholic intoxication. Sure, when I was very young and before I really started drinking, I enjoyed and appreciated the ambient effect of THC, but those memories were soon washed away by a tsunami of alcohol.

So when I finally quit drinking and was just using cannabis, a whole new world opened to me. It wasn't the gateway drug some people in the 12-steps said it was. It never caused me to miss or crave alcohol, In fact, the opposite was true! I found memories of my drinking repugnant and embarrassing when I was stoned. If anything, cannabis only reinforced my abstinence from alcohol.

I had to keep quiet about my cannabis use when around 12-step people who would deny the validity of my recovery if they knew about my use of cannabis. I experienced a fascism of recovery that I knuckled under to in order not to contradict or offend the sensibilities of my true believer friends.

I kept it quiet even in my book, although I wove hints into the text, mentioning people and concepts that had influenced me, most of them associated with the psychedelic and counter-cultural movements. And yes, now it can be told, much of the writing and insights in the book derived from cannabis experience. For me, cannabis became something that made my life more manageable. Case closed.

It was, in fact, the psychedelic revolution of my '60s youth that had led me to become a lifelong Buddhist and to begin to think about such things as spirituality, suffering and consciousness. Alcohol never led me to a Zen center or yoga class. My experiences with cannabis and psychedelics surely did. Cannabis seemed to make me a better person. Alcohol just made me into an asshole.

And so far as the “powerless” test of the first step? Believe you me, I was hopelessly powerless over my need for alcohol. With cannabis, it's me who calls the shots. I never feel a craving or addictive urge if I'm going without and if I choose not to use, I simply don't.

Personal Benefits of Cannabis

So in what ways does cannabis make my life more manageable?

First of all, I believe, somewhat heretically by orthodox 12-step standards, that all beings have a built-in and instinctual need for what I'll call “getting out of our minds” once in a while. Even my cats love their catnip. Dr. Leary said that we should change our minds as often as we change our underwear. Good advice from the doctor.

The universal urge to get high and drunk, party, blow off steam and forget the woes and pressures of the day cannot be denied. To aspire to some sort of unrelieved straight-edge mentality is foolish and unrealistic for most of us. Without the safety valve of ecstatic experience, life is not only drab but also potentially explosive. As I often advise: choose your drug before it chooses you!

So I choose not to use alcohol and come down on the side of cannabis. It safely and enjoyably fits the bill for me. You might be different. All I can be sure of is that I am an addict. Quitting alcohol didn't cure me of that particular element of my life. You might say I'm being disingenuous here, but I really believe that as a creative person with my addictive history, I need the vitamin-like effect that cannabis provides. Maybe for you, it's a pharmaceutical mood elevator. Or, maybe nothing.

I know many "sober" people in 12-step programs that refute the use of cannabis, but also defend their own prescriptions of pharmaceuticals for depression, anxiety, etc. I insist upon my right to decide what's good for me, and I will defend your choice as well. Your doctor can prescribe and legitimize your drug choice if it makes you more comfortable. I can diagnose myself and prescribe my own needs just as easily, thank you very much. Sober is as sober does. Honesty in all things.

As a creative person, cannabis has inspired me in my writing and artwork, leading me to new ways of considering my craft and helping me fulfill my potential. As a spiritual and emotional person, I have had life-changing insights with the aid of cannabis. And let's not forget just hanging out with friends and family, getting high, sharing hysterical giggles and the munchies. All these things and so much more.

The worst things that have happened to me with cannabis use? It is to laugh! I'll confess to listening to what I usually consider bad music and really enjoying it once in a while. Even to the point of crying over some ridiculous love song. Very embarrassing to a former music critic like myself. Once in a while, I might experience buyer's regret over some purchase I made when stoned, something I absolutely had to have in that stoned moment. Later, you think to yourself, why the hell did I buy that? What was I thinking about? I know many of you have done it too!

In a society that's fueled by guilt, anxiety and fear, cannabis tells me not to take it all so seriously. It brings me relief from existential dread, creeping depression and rigid thinking, as well as providing physical relaxation, emotional openness and enhanced body awareness. Maybe that's a bad thing by some standards, but I praise the herb for the wisdom it imparts to me.

These are just a couple examples of the places where cannabis has led me. Unmanageable? No way! Funny, yes, but in no way whatsoever has cannabis negatively impacted the quality of my life. On every level, cannabis has made my life more manageable.

I continue after all these years to give thanks for my long term sobriety as well as for the beneficial effects THC has had on me. I am grateful for the very many physical, emotional and spiritual gifts it has bestowed. I treasure the many friends I have made when sharing cannabis. I celebrate its revolutionary effect upon our culture. And most of all, I am now grateful to be able to share these thoughts with you and hopefully, provide some clarity on these very personal cultural issues. At long last, I can be honest about my experience with cannabis after decades of silence.

There are as many ways of being high or sober as there are people. There is no right way. There is no wrong way. There is only your way!

These are my opinions only and based on what works for me. Do you have any ideas about this? Any experiences you'd be willing to share? You can remain anonymous if you so choose. Send them here to the “Mu Say!” blog and get involved in this discussion. Help determine the shape of the modern recovery movement and help build a realistic cannabis community. Stay woke!


(Full disclosure: This piece was written entirely on 6 mg. of edibles and two smoked bowls of indoor home-grown. So there!)