A new rehab facility opening in West Los Angeles promises to treat drug addiction in a new and exciting way: by giving addicts drugs.
High Sobriety bills itself as "cannabis inclusive treatment" and stands in direct contrast to most treatment centers, which preach complete abstinence from mind-altering substances, including alcohol and marijuana. According to its website, High Sobriety uses marijuana to help patients detox from drugs and alcohol, and also as part of the center's continuing care:
At High Sobriety, our first and foremost goal is to eliminate the risk of death from drug use. Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, pharmaceuticals and other street drugs all have a lethal dose. Leading the death toll, killing more than all others combined, is alcohol. Cannabis has no known lethal dose. The simple truth is eliminating drugs with a lethal dose and using a drug with no lethal dose is a massive improvement, life improving, and life saving. For generations we have been told that cannabis is a “gateway” drug, at High Sobriety, we believe it is an exit drug.
High Sobriety was founded by Joe Schrank, a recovering addict who has been abstinent from drugs and alcohol for more than 20 years and who once worked as a counselor at Promises Malibu. He later started one of New York City's first sober-living homes, which earned him a flattering profile in The New York Times Style section in 2011 (the piece noted the facility's exposed brick walls and Restoration Hardware chairs).
Speaking to the Times, Schrank was critical of West Coast recovery: "They’re much more upbeat than we are. ... I think the byproduct of their upbeat energy is a real disingenuous, superficial reality that just doesn’t exist in New York. It doesn’t totally translate culturally. I’m attempting to take what’s good and translate it to an urban mentality.”
Since then, Schrank has made numerous television appearances as an addiction expert, and even did a TEDx Talk in 2013.
We reached out to Schrank to ask about his new venture, but he declined to comment, saying he'd had multiple requests and was only giving interviews to media outlets guaranteeing "longer-form features."
Some people in the addiction field were surprised to learn of Schrank's approach at High Sobriety.
"I’m in a state of shock," says Dr. Howard Samuels, who used to work with Schrank at Promises; he now runs the Hills Treatment Center, a high-end facility in L.A. "We all know in the treatment field that weed is such a dangerous drug for the emotional stability of our youth."
There are, of course, opposing viewpoints. Alternatives Addiction Treatment is one of the few established rehab facilities that does not prescribe total abstinence to all of its patients. Instead, Alternatives adheres to the "harm reduction" philosophy, where the goal for many clients is to learn how to drink in moderation.
"I think the requirement for full abstinence is one of the primary reasons why some people end up not seeking treatment at all," Alternatives founder Dr. Adi Jaffe says. "Someone who’s using heroin, marijuana and alcohol, and who can stop their opiate use, we see that as progress."
Jaffe says he isn't sure how High Sobriety will use marijuana in treating its clients, and that could make all the difference. But, he says, "I think there is definite need for harm-reduction approaches. So I’m excited that what they’re introducing is another method for that."
Here's how High Sobriety's website describes the program's use of marijuana:
Our cannabis replacement protocol is in full compliance with law and under medical supervision. Cannabis is used for a variety of medical conditions as both treatment and symptomatic care. Cannabis can aid in the detox process, helping with discomfort, insomnia, and flu-like symptoms associated with the withdrawal process, reducing or eliminating the need for other drugs. After the initial detox, our doctor will provide a comprehensive and collaborative evaluation to determine an individual’s goals for recovery. The determination of how cannabis is used is ultimately made by the doctor, like any other medication.
Post detox, cannabis continues to be an option under medical supervision.
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Yet there is little evidence that marijuana – which contrary to popular opinion can be addictive – helps drug addiction, according to Dr. Lara Ray, a professor of psychology at UCLA who focuses on addiction research.
"As with many other applications of cannabis, it’s not grounded in science," Ray says. "We do know that folks who have a propensity to abuse one substance will likely abuse another. Having a substance like marijuana with a high abuse potential cannot be a favorable thing, in my opinion."
Prescribing marijuana to a drug addict, she says, is "very counterintuitive, and potentially quite dangerous."
"This is really the No. 1 fact about our field that worries me," Ray says. "The treatments out there, for the most part, don’t represent the science. ... This [industry] is not well regulated."