In Recovery, on Suboxone, and in the Weed Business

I had a few days left on my Suboxone script when I interviewed Justin “Bong King.” He was a professional bong-racer and self-described champion of the competitive smoking circuit. An affable guy, nonetheless his was an image of American cannabis long past, pushed aside by marketing grads and stay-at-home moms who sold branded CBD and touted the benefits of micro-dosing. 

But Justin drew a crowd, and an entourage to boot. And his natural talent for hitting the fastest gram of weed would corner me into compromising my recovery.

Throughout my career as a cannabis journalist, I’ve kept silent about my sobriety. Finding freelance gigs is hard enough without the added burden of having to be that guy. Besides, if I learned anything from active addiction, it was how to lie at my job.

Covering Cannabis Events and Lying About My Sobriety

But as time passed, I felt withdrawn and disconnected. My recovery had no place in the cannabis industry. Moreover, medication-assisted treatment (MAT) seemed anathema to its goals, according to experts and the news. Rep. Matt Gaetz openly questioned whether buprenorphine and methadone are “a more effective offramp [to opioid use disorder] than medical cannabis.” CNN announced that CBD cures heroin addiction. And the editors of Leafly figured out how to combat the opioid crisis with medical cannabis two years prior.

After 20 years, recovery had finally become routine. As a cannabis journalist; as an editor in chief — so had my lies.

Some lies were easy. Weekly therapy appointments usually coincided with editorial meetings or deadlines. I worked from home, my boss was lax, and anyway, I kept hours around the clock. Monthly visits to my psych and 30-day Suboxone refills upped the number of undisclosed appointments I logged, but still, no one seemed to care.

On assignment was a different story. I covered cannabis expos or dispensary openings — events where the drug laws were lax and the supply was liberal. At a hotel in Hell’s Kitchen, I spent three nights alone avoiding networking galas and after-parties hosted by music moguls turned industry entrepreneurs. In the world’s largest dispensary off the Las Vegas strip, I dodged more questions than I asked when leaving empty-handed. With hand waves and head shakes and less-than-assertive no’s, I passed over pot by lying about my sobriety.

But face to face with Justin “Bong King,” there was nowhere to hide — no hotel room to run to, no door from which to make a quick exit. There was a crowd around us, boxing us in as he finished his gram smoking demonstration. I shook his hand and stumbled over my words as I signed off the segment on camera.

It was either a contact high or placebo effect, or maybe just panic anticipating the piss test I would take in the next few days.

Intensive Outpatient: 12 Steps and Scoring Drugs

When I had about two months left in my treatment program, I walked out of group for good. It was an intensive outpatient program; a six-month IOP run by Philly’s NHS that championed the Big Book and 90 days. For a minute it worked, but it’s drug rehab mired in a puritan past. The 12 steps are great, but they shouldn’t be a front-line defense.

Besides, all I did there was make friends and score drugs. Thirty addicts in a room is an excellent opportunity to network and learn.

By Easter Sunday that year, I felt broken. I was in a dirty motel on Route 1, hopped up on Benzedrex cottons and a $60 baggie of hex-en I purchased online from China. After 20 years of addiction, I had no drug of choice, save for anything that made me high.

My wife and kids back home slept together in one bed, a little less worried than the last time I disappeared. I was out of work and estranged from everyone. My best friend joined AA and realized I was one of his people, places, and things.

All I had was my family, and I was losing them too.

One lie allowed my addictions to grow without the worry of what would happen tomorrow. It’s the lie I told myself when I stole my ex-wife’s Dilaudid two days after her shoulder surgery. It’s the lie that made me laugh when I snorted enough Adderall to make my nose blue. And it’s the same lie that made me indignant when my ex-girlfriend’s brother became angry that I was a sloppy drunk in front of his small children.

On the Monday after Easter, I drove home before sunrise. It was dark and muggy and difficult to see through my tears and dilated pupils. When I got home, I faced my wife and children and ended the lie that had followed me through two decades of addiction.

“I can’t stop,” I whispered. That week, I discussed MAT options with my doctor. I’ve been in recovery since that day.

Cannabis as the Magic Bullet for the Opioid Crisis?

Tyler Sash won the Super Bowl in his rookie year with the New York Giants. At the time, he didn’t know he only had a few years left to live. A sixth-round draft pick out of Iowa, he overdosed on a combination of methadone and hydrocodone at the age of 27.

“[He] asked if he could smoke marijuana for his pain like the other players,” recalled his one-time girlfriend, former Miss Iowa and reality-show contestant Jessica VerSteeg. I interviewed VerSteeg when she was promoting a new blockchain-bitcoin something-or-other product in the cannabis space. She recounted Sash’s tragic tale during our interview, explaining how it became the backbone of her business.

“I wanted to change the way that other people saw cannabis,” she said.

VerSteeg’s article drew in readers, as did most CEO and celebrity interviews. Her story reminded me of how lonely my secrecy about my recovery had become. I often wished I could reach out and say that I understood. There are millions of people with substance use disorders, and we’re all so alone.

But like most of the executive class in the cannabis industry, her hot take on opioids ended up being bullshit. Conventional wisdom in the cannabis industry had run somewhat amok on this topic, and it forced me, I felt, into compromising everything.

There was the DEA agent who was so disgusted with opioids that he became a cannabis executive. Without irony, he told me that more research would prove the plant’s medicinal value. The head of an “innovation accelerator” in my city held a conference on the role of medical cannabis in the opioid crisis. He quoted research showing that states with medical cannabis laws have lower rates of opioid overdose deaths. Cannabis, they were convinced, would solve the opioid epidemic.

But Where’s the Evidence?

“Morphine, when it was introduced, was promised to cure what they called alcoholism at the time,” Dr. Keith Humphreys told me. A professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, he’s also worked at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under Presidents Bush and Obama. “Then, people got addicted to morphine, and cocaine was introduced.”

He continued: “In general, there’s been this enthusiasm of if we just add a different class of addictive drug on top then that will drive the other addictions out. Generally, what happens is we get more addiction to that drug, and we still have the original problem.”

I spoke with Dr. Humphreys after reading his research on cannabis laws and opioid overdose mortality rates. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he found the correlation to be spurious at best. It’s alarming — though not unsurprising — to see the industry ignore his findings. Several states, including Pennsylvania, where I live, approved opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis.

“I couldn’t recommend something medically without clinical trials, well-controlled by credible groups [and] checked for safety,” Dr. Humphreys said. He explained that in the case of cannabis, there was little more than these state-level correlational studies. “None of that has been done.”

“I’m amazed and disappointed that we don’t care more about people who are addicted to heroin [and other] opioids, that we would wave through something like [medical cannabis] without making sure that it will help people, not hurt them,” he continued, noting that cannabis has shown no efficacy as either a replacement for or an adjunct to any MAT therapy.

Listening to Dr. Humphreys made me realize how little I stand up for what I believe. Sometimes, when you’re an addict and you lie so much, you lose any sense of truth.

Tyler Sash’s family asked Jessica VerSteeg to stop using his name to promote her business. According to a report in the Des Moines Register, they didn’t want his name associated with drugs anymore, neither opioids nor marijuana. VerSteeg refused, repeating the story she told me to several news outlets.

For two years, I wrote about and reported on the emerging cannabis industry while hiding my ongoing recovery. In print and online, I preached cannabis while practicing therapy and Suboxone.

Even in recovery, you can still have regrets.

Originally published in The Fix August 27, 2019