In my work I frequently treat people who feel they have become ‘addicted’ to marijuana. Most can’t understand why, as marijuana is not considered to be addictive – at least not in the sense that heroin, speed or painkillers can be.
According to my observations, in many cases it is not that the person is addicted to marijuana, but rather that over time they have progressed from using the drug recreationally to using it medicinally – to correct imbalances and mask symptoms. They feel as if they have become dependent on the drug because symptoms arise when use ceases, but disappear when it resumes. In most of these cases it is not the marijuana that’s the main problem but lifestyle.
Marijuana has different effects depending on your constitution. Having difficulty giving up marijuana is hard to understand for people with a Yin constitution who never really enjoyed the drug, or only had pleasurable effects from it for a limited time. I was one of these. Within a couple of years of regular use I became totally paranoid every time I smoked. Instead of laughing and feeling active and socially engaged, I would become extremely self-conscious, introverted and too scared to speak. Eventually I had to stop using it, I didn’t have a choice. In an attempt to recapture the excitement of my earlier positive marijuana experiences, I turned to cocaine and speed. The side effects of these were terrible and I was envious of people who could keep smoking dope and keep having fun without paying such a high price for it. Those people who can use marijuana regularly year after year and still enjoy it, are often the types with a Yang constitution. They are outgoing, high-energy people, with high sex-drives; they are also the group who experience most difficulties in giving up dope.
I have seen many Yang type clients who used marijuana daily for years and were able to function normally. It was only when they decided to stop using the drug that they noticed unpleasant side-effects. As these disappeared with marijuana use, these clients felt they were ‘addicted’ and that the marijuana was a problem. However, most had developed habits which, over time, were having negative effects on their health. A common one was poor diet. This applies to most drug users because drugs provide an artificial energy flow creating the impression that the body’s physical needs have been met. If you add this mistaken impression to a Yang constitution, which has naturally higher energy levels and the ability to go longer without food, it is easy to fall into unhealthy eating patterns. Many of the Yang type clients with marijuana problems regularly skipped breakfast and lunch. Their constitution in combination with the marijuana enabled them to ‘power’ through the day but by late afternoon they became aggravated and uncomfortable. In many cases the marijuana also increased sex-drive. While their Yang constitution had already provided a strong libido, marijuana can amplify sex-drive through magnifying properties and what TCM terms ‘Heat’ production. In this situation it is common for males to frequently desire sex and many clients managed this by ejaculating three or more times a day. This does temporarily allow the person to feel more relaxed but ultimately too-frequent ejaculation depletes the Yin and eventually leads to the opposite condition by preparing the ground for impotence in later life.
This type of lifestyle generates a cycle where frustration increases and the person finds that they then need dope throughout the day to calm them down and enable them to handle situations without ‘losing it’. Many start to feel dependant and feel as if they have to give it up. But the marijuana it is now being employed to balance an overly Yang constitution and giving up in these circumstances is not a solution to anything. As a therapist I generally don’t encourage giving up anything but focus instead on the person, the true underlying condition and also on providing the organs with the fuel to create a state of wellbeing. This is the reason why people are attracted to drugs in the first place. Another reason clients see me wanting to give up marijuana is because they have been told to. But anyone who repeats a marijuana experience does so because it makes them feel good. This leads to the next important issue: Why should you give up something that makes you feel good? Giving up marijuana because society, your parents, partner or friends expect or tell you to is also very difficult. Before trying to stop you need to identify what it is that the marijuana provides, so that it can be found in another way. Otherwise it also creates a cycle of stopping, experiencing either unpleasant symptoms or emptiness, and then needing the dope to control them. This makes your life unnecessarily stressful. My golden rule is to take something up rather than give something up. If you want to change your life it is best done gradually not suddenly. If you want to stop drugs, introduce lifestyle and diet changes first, particularly if drugs are playing a significant role in your life either by generating pleasure or dealing with pain.
Improved diet is a crucial first step. In TCM organs are considered to create emotional, physical and spiritual reality. If you don’t give them what they need, your life will unfold accordingly. On a basic level food creates life and the more intelligence you apply to your diet, the more effectively you prepare the ground for emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. Once your organs are able to produce positive emotions and states without the use of drugs, then reduce marijuana intake – slowly. To get off drugs you need to control the drug. If the drug is in control, it is going to be very hard to stop. However, to control the drug there needs to be a reserve of strength and will-power – the very qualities that drug use progressively erodes – and this comes through a healthy lifestyle. In Traditional Chinese medicine it is said ‘don’t look for a cure but find your centre instead’. By improving your organ condition you will naturally find that centre. Drug use can then be addressed rationally rather than reactively.
Finding your centre often involves making change which is demanding enough without having to give up marijuana as well. In many cases it is more effective to implement changes in your life and form new ‘good’ habits while using the dope almost as a reward for perseverance. This approach also makes the side-effects of quitting more manageable. The most debilitating symptom experienced by people who take the cold-turkey approach to quitting marijuana is weeks of insomnia. Tossing and turning night after night is unpleasant enough, but when it is followed by days feeling frustrated and exhausted it quickly becomes unbearable. You will naturally want to take the drug again to make it all stop. However, if you focus on improving organ condition first through the methods described above plus Chinese herbs and acupuncture, the insomnia can be alleviated. As can the cravings – another debilitating side-effect. Some rehab centres offer sweets to control cravings. Although this may help, from a TCM perspective treating an imbalance with highly-processed sugar products may also worsen an underlying situation. Sugar harms the spleen (the organ associated with cravings) making recovery much more difficult. Strengthening the spleen as well, reduces cravings from within.
My philosophy is to work with drugs rather than working against drugs. I believe that everything happens for a reason. If you take drugs there is a reason behind it. I was at an international drugs conference recently and was surprised to find that the judgemental belief that people do drugs to ‘escape’ was still current. As a therapist I believe that reality is harsh and the natural tendency is to ‘escape’ this discomfort. We all do it one way or another. Food addicts turn to chocolate bars, greasy food and salty chips; sex addicts to serial on-line dating and sex with strangers. Wealth and security addicts buy material possessions. Drug users use drugs. Everyone is simply following the impulse to feel nurtured and supported – our natural destiny. It is not productive to judge people for any of these behaviours. In Traditional Chinese medicine nothing is good or bad, hence you are neither good nor bad for doing drugs. However, for every action there is a reaction. Taking drugs does make reality seem more pleasant but in the long term it has the opposite effect. So if you do drugs you need to work with the reaction and seek balance from within by living life in a certain way – the Chinese call it the Tao. Without drugs you may not have experienced the state of free-flowing Chi and perfect organ function. Drugs provide a reference point for this. Accordingly a past drug habit can be the first step towards health and happiness because it makes you aware of how you want to feel in life and who you want to be. If this is the reason you took drugs it is now your responsibility to make it your reality.
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