REGINA — For Shelby Curtis, keeping away from hard drugs starts with quieting her thoughts.
The 26-year-old got a prescription to use cannabis medicinally earlier this year while in recovery and living in Regina's Raising Hope housing program for new mothers facing issues such as substance abuse.
She uses THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, to manage depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
"I can instantly ... relax and talk to myself and tell myself that everything’s going to be OK, like, whatever it may be," Curtis says. "When I use THC, like I don’t have like any interest in using hard drugs."
Curtis was surprised when, earlier in the fall, she inquired about returning to Raising Hope and, she says, was told she would no longer be allowed to use THC.
Curtis says she was willing to use gel tablets rather than smoking a joint, but says she was told no, because it would get her high.
Experts say it's common for people who struggle with substance use issues to see cannabis as a more preferable option to other drugs or alcohol.
"It’s a substitute," says Andy Hathaway, a professor at the University of Guelph, who studies drug policy.
Hathaway says only about 20 per cent of people who go into treatment are successful long-term and even some in traditional 12-step programs, which encourage sobriety, understand people still use cannabis to take the edge off.
"They call it marijuana maintenance," Hathaway says.
As Canada deals with record numbers of people dying from overdoses, M-J Milloy of the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, says some groups in Vancouver and Victoria are even handing out cannabis to drug users most at-risk.
"This is really the way harm reduction works," says Milloy, whose research focuses on evaluating the effectiveness of cannabis as a harm-reduction tool.
"People who use drugs have this good idea, they try it, they find it works in their view and then they just do it because they really are just trying to save their own lives."
Milloy says a study among street-involved youth last year found those who used cannabis everyday were far less likely to start injecting drugs.
Beyond depression and anxiety, Milloy says people turn to cannabis to deal with chronic pain. That's promising, he says, because many seeking pain relief end up taking illicit opioids and risk overdosing.
"Rather than it being a gateway for more serious drug use, in our setting (cannabis) appeared to be protecting people from escalating their drug use into more serious patterns."
Kelly Csada, who runs a cannabis education centre in Regina, says it's common for medicinal cannabis users like Curtis to face barriers, including the risk of losing their job.
In late October, Csada had a lawyer write a letter to Raising Hope's executive director after other residents who used cannabis for medical reasons complained that they would face eviction if they tested positive for THC.
"It’s time to get into the 21st century," Csada says. "It’s been legal for doctors to prescribe (cannabis) since 2001 as a medicine.
"When you have at-risk vulnerable people who are being prescribed benzos for an anxiety issue and they feel like they want to eat the whole jar … that’s not a good situation."
The Canadian Press made multiple attempts to reach the director at Raising Hope and none of the messages was returned.
Curtis says, ultimately, she wasn't accepted back into the program.
"I find it like really offensive," she says.
"Don’t get me wrong, I have smoked weed just for the sake of being high, but I’ve also used it specifically for my mental health."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2020.