Featured Team Members: Aaron Wallis, Ph.D, LP
Marijuana is among the most commonly used substances seen in wilderness therapy clients. As such it is important to understand and contextualize many of the common arguments and beliefs espoused by our cannabis using clients, the most common of which is that marijuana is not addictive.
The purpose of this article is not to vilify or condone marijuana, it is to help us to take a different angle when confronting clients about the consequences of their marijuana use. As with many things in life, the truth is often in the middle. Accurate information is often hard to come by in the world of marijuana and clients are exposed to and internalize many myths and half-truths.
There are numerous reasons people begin using marijuana or other substances. Chief amongst them is to feel differently than they currently feel, physically or emotionally. This is an effort to cope and must be judged on how it affects the life and well-being of the user. Our current political and social climate is increasingly accepting of marijuana and clinicians face a dangerous pitfall of being dismissed entirely if we do not engage in a deeper discussion of marijuana with those we serve. While marijuana has established benefits in specific types of pain, nausea, and inflammation, it is not the panacea it is often claimed to be. Below are some common marijuana myths and misconceptions:
“Marijuana is not addictive”
We will break this down into two components, physical and psychological. It is often touted that marijuana does not result in physical addiction. This is due in part to a particularly long half-life (1.3 days) and relatively mild withdrawal symptoms in all but the heaviest users. The THC in marijuana along with its constituent components of terpenes and cannabinoids stimulate the endocannabinoid system. “Endo” is a prefix meaning originating from within; our body already has cannabinoid receptors that are involved in the pleasure and reward systems of our brains. When consistently stimulated by marijuana the body begins to produce less of (downregulate) its endocannabinoids since it has a steady external source. This is where the long half-life comes in. If a person were to use marijuana every other day, the level of THC in his/her body will continue to rise, even though the intoxicating effects wear off between uses. After enough time the body no longer produces enough endocannabinoids to maintain a steady baseline and users need marijuana to feel “normal.” This is a clear hallmark of physical addiction; the body makes changes to its own internal equilibrium in response to regular use of a substance.
Regular marijuana use also has a psychological effect. Consistent users report less enjoyment in daily hobbies and activities without marijuana use. This discourages typical self-care and reward for pro-health, pro-social activities. Marijuana is technically a stimulant and can have a powerful effect on the mind. It can increase connectivity and sensation, often making people feel more creative or “in tune.” However not only does this effect not last, it can impede focus and sustained thought, making it more difficult to actually create, despite increased feelings of creativity.
Many people often use marijuana to cope with difficult emotions, including anxiety and depression. The concern with using marijuana in this way is that while it may provide short term relief (though increase the intensity of some emotions) it typically exacerbates these conditions in the long run. Problematic users look to marijuana as a primary coping skill because it feels good in the moment, and because of its short-term effectiveness they stop using other coping methods. They stop talking to their support system, stop engaging in proactive self-care, and stop having the capacity to tolerate unpleasant affect. A metaphor to use with clients is that of a cast, initially worn for an injury that has been kept on too long; the muscle and tissues atrophy and grow weak from disuse. When the cast is removed, the person suffers because they are less prepared than they were before the injury for the rigors of life.
Based on my professional experience, the most seductive and dangerous effect of marijuana is that it makes one tolerant of boredom and mediocrity. Marijuana provides a passive and pleasant stimulus to users and allows them to pass time without experiencing the healthy ravages of minor anxiety, boredom, dissatisfaction, and restlessness. These common emotions and our resulting efforts to cope with them are the driving force behind many activities that enrich our lives, enhance our relationships and further our ambitions. Marijuana can make you accept a lesser version of yourself, and that is its true danger.
Aaron Wallis, Ph.D. | Clinical Therapist, Young Adults
Dr. Wallis has had the privilege of living in many fascinating places due to being part of a military family. He received his B.A. in Psychology from Texas Tech University before he moved to his beloved state, Colorado. He earned his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. While in graduate school, Dr. Wallis was able to explore a few areas of clinical interest through research: substance use (marijuana), social skill development and social media. Not only did he study these concepts through research, he was also able to hone his clinical skills working directly with young adults in several college counseling centers including Grand Valley State and University of Colorado. Learn More about Dr. Aaron Wallis and Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.