As reported by The Hartford Courant, July 2, 2007.

Getting Past the Smoke Screen

UConn Project Helps Pot Addicts

By Kathleen Megan

When police discovered marijuana in his pocket almost three decades ago, they did the kid a "favor." Rather than arrest him, they brought the 15-year-old home to his father for only a talking-to. High school teachers repeated the favor when they knew he was stoned or saw him smoking a joint outside the school, giving him only verbal warnings.

Though he was young at the time, the lessons weren't lost on Jim, who is now 42 and living in the Farmington Valley area and asked that his real name not be used. Too often, the attitude about pot is, "It's only pot," said Jim, and it's thought not to be particularly harmful or addictive. "But I'm here to say that's a lie."

As a grown-up, Jim's habit continued, and he lost jobs because of dirty urines but always managed to find a new job.

Finally, earlier this year, he reached a point where he couldn't stand the habit any longer: the sneakiness, the cost, the risk of firing or arrest. He feared he'd lose his wife and that his three children would be ashamed of him. That was when he found out about the University of Connecticut Health Center's research project designed specifically to help longtime marijuana users kick the habit.

Jim, who had managed to stop drinking when it became a problem, found that quitting marijuana was much harder and that the habit had a huge negative impact on his life.

Ron Kadden, a psychologist at UConn and the study leader, said that in previous trials, he and his staff have been successful in helping longtime heavy pot smokers cut back on their usage, but not in getting them to quit completely.

This current research project, which consists of nine individual weekly sessions with a counselor and follow-up visits, is aimed at testing various strategies to determine which ones are most successful at getting participants to stop entirely.

While other drugs - such as opiates, cocaine and alcohol - may be more physically addicting, Kadden said it appears that marijuana is more addictive psychologically.

"They just depend on it," Kadden said of the chronic user. "There is a feeling that you can't function adequately without it."

"People are willing to cut down but not willing to get off altogether," he said. "They are having trouble at work, trouble with their families; they are not getting promotions, not thinking as clearly as they would like to. They are not socializing with family and friends because they are so busy getting marijuana or being high. ... There is a feeling of depression and anxiousness when they are not using. ... There is a lot of pre-occupation with it. It's murder to quit."

For Jim, marijuana had become a constant every day. Jim, who works second shift, said he'd toke a little first thing in the morning to help him with the chore of getting his three children off to school; then he'd have a little more to help him relax through the morning; then more as he was getting ready for work; another hit during work; and more to relax when he got home in the evening.

"It got to the point where high was normal; not being high was abnormal," said Jim. "You didn't feel right unless you were stoned. It became kind of a maintenance thing, maybe not a lot each time, but enough to maintain that feeling of highness."

If he didn't have it, he felt as if he was "crawling inside" his own skin and became extremely irritable. He was spending $60 to $120 a week to maintain that steady high.

He feared he would get caught again and lose his job, while he also felt like a hypocrite talking to his children. "I'd sit and tell my kid all the dangers, all the bad things about drugs, and here I am doing it," said Jim. "My self-esteem was at an all-time low."

Sarah, who also comes from a Farmington Valley town and asked that her name not be used, is a divorced mother of three children, who had also struggled with addiction to alcohol and to other drugs. But in recent years, it was marijuana that she used regularly. "I had to be high to work; I had to be high at lunch. I had to be high to get through the evening and all the many, many activities my kids are in: Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, soccer. That was my way of being able to go sit and do everything better.

"I would like the feeling. I always felt I could function better when I was high," she said. She was also meticulous about making sure that no one knew she was high, always brushing her teeth after smoking.

But she also feared her habit would be discovered. "My kids are getting older. I didn't want them to see things. ... I didn't want them to be ashamed of me."

Both Jim and Sarah participated in what was a pilot project earlier this year for the current research that Kadden is conducting. The participants were put on one of three slightly varying treatment programs, though both Jim and Sarah had the same treatment plan. Their plan emphasized the development of coping skills to help them quit their habits and provided them with incentives - prizes - for practicing those coping skills at home.

Jim said he found it very helpful to work on identifying those behaviors that triggered the desire to use and on developing coping strategies. The hardest part of quitting for him was dealing with the sleeplessness he suffered without pot. However, he said, that only lasted for about two weeks. Meanwhile, he had to deal with his irritability. "Without pot, I didn't have much patience," he said. "It would be like: Oh, I just snapped at that kid for no reason."

The training helped him realize that the uncomfortable feelings and the urge to smoke would pass if he just relaxed, counted to 10 or diverted himself in some other way. "Instead of sitting there feeling sorry for yourself," he said he learned to "do something else, wash the dishes, take a walk. I'd say to myself: Stop that. Don't think that way. Look what you're doing to yourself."

Along the way, he qualified for prizes such as gift certificates for gasoline and for local stores. Now, he said, he feels as if a big weight as been lifted from his shoulders. "No drug ever gave me this feeling of confidence. That this is doable. You can be drug-free. ... It's very empowering."

Kadden said it is encouraging that both Jim and Sarah have been abstinent for several months, but with substance abuse, "there is no such thing as cured." If either have a setback, they can call the program and talk to a counselor and if necessary get a referral for longer-term help. "We'll have to see how they do over a longer period of time," said Kadden. "Talk to me in terms of years and then I'll be impressed, ... but they've got to start here. These are potential successes."

Sarah said the treatment helped her learn to deal with the little things that used to make her anxious and nervous and send her running for pot to relax. She also said her determination to have clean urines was a big motivator for her.

The prizes also helped: She ended up with a clock radio, a DVD player, a set of tools, a compact disc player, golf balls and other items.

But mainly she said it was her own determination to quit. "I didn't want to be 60 years old, still trying to figure out how to get off pot," she said.

The research project is still accepting participants. It is completely confidential. If interested, call 1-866-895-5727, a toll-free number.