In a sun-filled room overlooking a smattering of palm trees, power lines, and cement-and-terracotta bungalows, a 73-year-old recovering alcoholic rolls a joint.
Frank, whose name has been changed for this story, doesn’t particularly like the feeling he gets from smoking cannabis, but he doesn’t hate it either. And he admits it helps him sleep.
High Sobriety, the southern California rehab center where Frank is staying, incorporates cannabis into its treatment regimen for people with drug and alcohol addiction. Frank hasn’t touched scotch, his former drink of choice – or any other alcoholic beverage, for that matter – in 30 days.
A month ago, he was living alone and drinking around the clock, despite repeated warnings from his physicians about negative interactions between alcohol and the medications he takes for high blood pressure and other age-related health issues. During a bender over the holidays, Frank knocked over the carriage holding his daughter’s 10-month old baby. Concerned, his family took him to Alcoholics Anonymous. Nothing stuck, and Frank’s health continued to decline.
So one day last year, his daughter called up Joe Schrank, High Sobriety’s founder, and asked if he could help.
The idea behind High Sobriety is simple: Help addicts stop abusing the substances that are causing them the most harm, and use cannabis as a tool to do so.
“Our retention rates are so much better with being able to give them something,” Schrank, a trained social worker who has spent the last 15 years working with addicts, tells Business Insider. “The truth is a lot of these people are deep deep deep into the weeds with drug and alcohol use and to think there’s a light switch and they can just turn it off…I mean you’re dealing with a different person when you talk about cessation of drug use.”
Schrank’s unconventional approach has put him at odds with many people in the recovery community. But his strategy is part of a new and growing movement that aims to treat addiction like any other mental illness – with science. The approaches coming out of this movement share a common thread: the belief that we should stop treating addiction as a moral issue and start treating it as a medical one.
Schrank disapproves of the way AA and other similar programs portray drinking and using drugs as moral problems. That approach is out of touch with science, he says.
“I never think of drug use as any kind of moral thing. Actually, I like drug use, although it didn’t really work out for me,” Schrank says.
Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist and the author of “Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction,” agrees.
“This stuff that emphasizes this morality, we don’t have anything else like that in medicine,” Szalavitz, a former heroin addict and AA member, says. “And the 12-step thing talking about ‘defects of character’, that’s not exactly helpful for someone who already has a lot of self-hatred.”