Do You Have a Healthy Relationship with Cannabis?

written by Dianna Benjamin

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Photo by Anna Shvets

These are stressful times. The targeting of black bodies is not new information, but technology has made it possible for us to watch the gruesome events over and over again.

Add to that a pandemic that has disproportionate impacts on black health, and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.

Many of you reading this may be feeling enraged. Stressed. Numb. The effects of cannabis can help to remove the pressure, but is using cannabis to cope with stress healthy?

Yolo Akili Robinson, founder of the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), asks a better question.

“I think that it’s important that when you think about any coping strategy, it’s more about figuring out what your relationship is to it,” he said.

BEAM works to make emotional health care and healing more accessible to black people. A part of this work is coaching people to identify their coping mechanisms and evaluate how those mechanisms are affecting their lives.

When it comes to cannabis, that answer is complicated. Especially for people of color.

The war on drugs targets minority communities. There are a lot of people of color dealing with the trauma of criminalization because of it.

But cannabis has been used for centuries to relieve mental and physical pain. Researchers continue to find evidence-based medical uses for the plant.

Even so, the narrative that upholds cannabis criminalization lingers. So does the idea that someone who uses cannabis to cope is a stoner. An addict. A criminal.

If you use cannabis to relieve stress, there is a simpler way to assess your relationship with the coping strategy: ask yourself if the way you use cannabis adds to or detracts from the stress in your life.

In fact, you can ask that question about any of your coping mechanisms.

“Every coping strategy can at any point become unhealthy,” Yolo explained.

“Working out at the gym can become dangerous if you’re over-exerting yourself and your body every single day. Smoking marijuana can of course get overused. If it’s used in a way that is disrupting your life, then it can show up in a harmful way.”

If cannabis is your only coping mechanism, consider adding others to your toolbox.

“The problem isn’t weed. The problem is the relationship to it, right? You can still have weed, but maybe we need to give you some yoga, too. Maybe you have a therapist, too,” Yolo said.

“I am in favor of all of us having as many diverse coping strategies as we can.”

The stress black people experience living in a society built on their subjugation is enormous. Dealing with that stress through cannabis consumption is one effective coping strategy, but it is not sustainable on its own.

“You talk to people in recovery from alcohol or any substance, and they’ll tell you it’s not really about the substance. It was about the fact that they were trying to numb — to run away from whatever they were feeling in their distress,” Yolo said.

“I think it’s important to focus on really equipping folks with diverse skills and strategies and not demonizing the strategies they have.”

How the Cannabis Industry Can Promote Mental Health

Cultivating a healthy relationship with cannabis is about more than consumption. It’s also about building an industry that addresses systemic inequalities.

Food scarcity, underfunded public schooling, and housing inequality make it difficult for people of color to even think about mental wellness. At the same time, the stresses of racism, poverty, and poor health make access to mental healthcare critical for minorities.

Yolo argues that policy makers should use cannabis revenue to fully fund community health centers to address this.

“So many people here in California but also across the country talk about trying to get access to mental health centers that are community based and, you know, it’s long wait lists of six months. You don’t know when you’re going to see someone. The centers themselves are often not able to really provide adequate or effective care,” he said.

But environment extends beyond where to find mental healthcare.

“When I think about mental health and wellness in black communities, I think about the fact that we need to have policy in place that holds police jurisdictions accountable,” Yolo said.

“The reality is when the police are killing black women, black men, black bodies and not being held accountable for it, that creates more stress and anxiety and trauma in our community.”

When cannabis laws and policies address these issues, the path toward emotional healing becomes more accessible.

How to Cope with Stress

Are you feeling overwhelmed and looking for ways to diversify your coping strategies? BEAM offers some guidance on how to cope.

Mindfulness activities like meditation and prayer can help make you aware of how you’re thinking and feeling in a nonjudgmental way.

Responding to our emotional distress by engaging in a relaxing or fun activity like reading, cooking, or gaming is a safe way to redirect our energy.

Having a name for these strategies can help us be more intentional about using them.

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According to Yolo, coping with stress can be as simple as playing a game or being silly with loved ones.

“I’ve heard parents come in and say, you know what? We started doing a dance class with my kids, and it brings us together,” he said.

“And I’m like, that’s beautiful because that is a strategy to help you navigate your way. You’re getting some catharsis through that. You’re cultivating connection, and it doesn’t have to be this very super clinical intervention.”

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For many people, the phrase “mental health and wellness” means therapy. In addition to requiring vulnerability — a trait black people are often taught to undervalue — therapy is expensive.

“Sitting down with a therapist and a family is a little bit more difficult for some of our folks to do. But getting in front of, you know, a screen or a TV and having a dance class moment — that’s maybe a little bit more accessible for a lot of us,” Yolo said.

Therapy is enormously valuable if you can get it, but it is not the only way to improve your mental health.

“People are doing things like playing video games together with the kids. These are things that maybe we don’t do normally, but they still build connection and they’re not calling us to go spend some more money.”

Whatever you use, it’s very likely that you have found a way to cope with stress. According to Yolo, the important thing is to examine your relationship with those tools and use them on purpose.

“Most of us have strategies already. It’s just about naming them, understanding them, and holding them up.”

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