“Where I am sitting right now, I can see people sitting and injecting drugs,” says Andrew Warner from his stuffy car in New Hampshire. It’s raining outside, and Warner, 46, is taking a break from his workday as a community health coordinator at Better Life Partners and the creator of the city’s volunteer-based needle exchange program.
“I am always in Manchester doing backpack outreach,” he says. “Today, I reversed an overdose and am giving out condoms and lube and Narcan (for emergency overdoses) and safe injection kits.”
When he’s not on the streets, he will set up shop in a park somewhere where people can swap out old syringes for clean ones. It keeps used needles out of the gutter and off the sidewalks and keeps injection-users safe by preventing Hepatitis C and HIV. His organization offers suboxone as a medically assisted treatment to heroin users to help with cravings and withdrawals. They also offer group therapy to help people in recovery, peer-to-peer support, along with psychiatric medication management for folks with co-occurring mental health issues. Warner will connect people to treatment, or if they just want someone to talk to, he’s there for that, too.
Before launching the Manchester program, Warner worked with the needle exchange in Cambridge, Mass., where he had an epiphany.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god. If I can do this the rest of my life, my life would be amazing,’” he says.
He says CBD helps him do his job.
Warner is an avid cyclist, guitar player, singer, and husband. And he’s also recovering from substance abuse himself. Like many addiction stories, his is one of compounding events that eventually led to full-blown dependency.
When Warner was younger, he used marijuana and psychedelics recreationally. He got into the Boston rave scene and began experimenting with ecstasy and ketamine. But it was legal medication prescribed by a doctor that wreaked havoc on his life.
Warner got jumped in Boston. The attackers broke his jaw.
“I started doing pain pills. I was definitely overtaking them,” he says.
Shortly after, he moved to New Hampshire and got in a car accident caused by a deer. His dosages increased and then the addiction took hold.
Warner was using his pain meds with cocaine and benzodiazepines. It was around that time that Purdue Pharma, the drugmaker behind oxycontin released an 80-milligram slow-release tablet. Because the pills did not last the full 12-hours as marketed, Purdue pharmaceutical salesmen told doctors to increase the dose. Soon suburban moms were turning into heroin addicts.
“Oxy 80s happened, and I just had no defense against them. My dad died and my wife at the time left me,” he says. “That’s just all I knew—wake up, take drugs— because I felt so horrible from everything that happened.”
Warner got sober from heavy narcotics in 2010 with help from AA, a new faith, and a ton of weed. His life was less frenzied. He was healthier. But he also knew he needed to stop using marijuana. His days were completely consumed by it. He was stoned sun up to sundown.
From 2013 to 2015, he had a short-lived stint of total sobriety. That all changed when he got Lyme disease that went undiagnosed for a year. The insidious tick-borne illness infects the blood with Borrelia bacteria. Eighty percent of the time doctors prescribe antibiotics and it goes away, but 20 percent of people become long-term sufferers. The symptoms appear differently in different people. It causes inflammation in the joints and muscles. It can attack the brain, cause neuro issues, facial palsy, as well as other manifestations.
Treatments range from “it’s in your head” to veganism to relentless antibiotics.
“It’s not really being studied, the health insurance companies are not interested in paying for it, so it’s kind of this thing where millions of Americans are suffering from it and they dont know what’s going on,” he says. “There is no hard-line treatment for it.”
Doctors often prescribe Lyme sufferers opiates and other pain medications, which wasn’t an option for Warner. He went back to THC.
“I had doctors tell me, you should take medical marijuana, it will really help you. It is like night and day,” Warner says.
His relationship to pain transformed with cannabis. Cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for regulating pain signaling and perception, as well as other functions.
While marijuana worked wonders for his Lyme, his addictive side instantly resurfaced.
“The obsession for me comes back immediately. I smoked it medicinally for like 5 minutes then it was like, OK, I am going to smoke all day like I normally do. It takes over my life,” he says.
Warner spent the next few years traveling around the globe—Serbia, Palestine, Greece, among other countries. Instead of staying in hostels full of backpacking 20-somethings, he had more respectful roommates. His recovery process led him toward Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the oldest Christian religion. He was bouncing from monastery to monastery, considering becoming a monk himself.
Eastern Orthodox monastic life is a stark contrast to a person with substance abuse disorder’s insatiable day to day. The monks practice self-denial and letting go of all life’s pleasures–clothing, family, the enjoyment of food, and other desires. Some live in the monastery, others choose isolation, and others take the extreme path of being a Fool for Christ, living as a homeless person who pretends to be insane.
“Their job is in obedience to pray for the whole world,” he says.
Yet, as far apart the streets of Boston and a Palestinian monastery may seem, you can draw comparisons between a monk and a person with substance abuse disorder’s regimented routines. One is a choice to live a life and discipline and faith. The other is just as devoted, but to a substance that strips away choice.
“I go from someone who is sober to someone who wakes up at 5 a.m. smokes weed, goes back to bed, wakes up at 7, smokes weed, goes to work,” he says.
At the monasteries, all-night vigils are followed by a few hours of sleep in the early morning hours, morning service, work in the monastery, evening service, then another short rest before the night-long liturgy starts again.
“I was using as I traveled, but never at the monasteries as I just wouldn’t feel right,” he says. “You can actually smoke and drink at some of them, but not in excess. And at some of them, it would be frowned upon for sure.”
He eventually quit for good in 2018 while in Serbia. A friend was on his way over to bring him weed when Warner decided he was finally done.
“The negative character defects get exacerbated. I’m very self-centered, self-seeking. The negative side effects of being in active addiction didn’t outweigh the benefits of medical marijuana for me,” he says.
The monks encouraged Warner to go work with people struggling with substance abuse in the United States, where his Lyme was more debilitating. His symptoms were muted while abroad. For instance, while he was in Greece, a healthy diet, an herbal regimen, and living a low-stress lifestyle cleared his symptoms for 8 months. But on his various return trips, his Lyme flared up as soon as the plane touched down on the tarmac.
Pain meds weren’t an option. THC was no longer an option. Warner had to find out how to treat himself. He started using CBD.
“I am not so sick all the time, and it doesn’t have the negative psychoactive components of THC,” he says. In high enough doses, he says CBD and CBG give him the same pain-relieving effects as marijuana.
“Some of these (dosing suggestions) say a start off with 4 milligrams. I am like, HAHAHA, I need like 150 milligrams. And that’s not the drug addict part of me,” he says. “For me, the medicinal (effects) come from 100 milligrams, 150 milligrams at a time, a couple of times a day.”
He thinks that many pain sufferers are not experiencing results due to under-dosing. People who may prefer something non-psychoactive stick with medical marijuana because they think that’s the only thing that works. Plus, the price prevents a lot of people from choosing CBD as a long-term plan.
Sometimes Warner goes days without CBD. Other times his use is very heavy. He smokes flower, uses Extract Labs full spectrum tinctures, and vapes—all come with unique challenges in his field.
He wants to try concentrates due to their potency, but it’s something he has to dab in private. Working in addiction, the optics of vaping or smoking hemp can give the wrong impression. Even tincture is a barrier because he doesn’t want his breath smelling like weed. But he works around it.
“CBD really played a large role in my recovery from drug addiction, but also from Lyme disease because it helps me function at a level where I can get out and exercise and I can get things done,” he says.
Warner’s favorite part of his job is strapping on a backpack, hoofing it around town, and connecting with people in the thick of their addictions.
“That is my favorite thing is to be a street outreach worker and build relationships with people,” he says. “Just letting this very marginalized, underserved population know that there is someone that cares about them and we’re there. If people take us up on that, it’s up to them, but at least they know they’re not alone.”
Tinctures are traditional CBD products that work as an ingestible and as a topical. Many people who have never tried CBD or other cannabinoids often