A stick that is often used by policy makers to beat back calls to relax attitudes towards cannabis is that it is a ‘gateway’ drug. The argument goes that weed is just one step down a long and slippery slope that leads to a smorgasbord of harder drugs and puts the user at risk of falling victim to addiction. But, what if cannabis could be part of the solution as opposed to the perception that it is part of the problem? What if cannabis had a role, not as a gateway, but as an exit gate for harder drugs such as heroin?

In the past couple of years a number of reports have highlighted the fact that medical cannabis could play a role in weaning addicts off opioids. These include a report in America by the medical journal, JAMA Internal Medicine showing states with legal medical marijuana had a 25 percent reduction in opiate overdose deaths, and a study by the Laboratory for Physiopathology of Diseases of the Central Nervous System which used THC to eliminate opiate dependence.

The scientific research process is a notoriously (and justifiably) slow one. While we wait for science to catch up with the potential use of cannabis in this area, personal stories (and filtered from the wilder claims zipping around social media) provide an insight into the experiences of those battling on the front line of drug addiction. Policy makers are no friends of anecdotal evidence, but in life we live and learn from our own experiences and we also learn from the experiences of others…

Sky Black is a confident, good looking 23 year old who currently lives in Utah after some years living in LA. He has worked as a fashion model for brands such as Finish Line athletic shoes and glasses.com and is a fitness model whose work has taken him across the US and to Europe. An advocate of HIT (High Intensity Training) he runs fitness courses and has numerous clients. He is also a recovering heroin addict. This is the story of how he overcame his addiction and has kept clean, not with rehab or substitute drugs, but with exercise and cannabis.

Sky Black started out in life as plain old Daniel. He grew up in the state Utah, in America’s Midwest, which is home to a sizeable Mormon population (over 60% of the state are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).  Members of church abide by a strict health code which eschews tobacco, alcohol and other addictive substances, and Daniel’s Mormon upbringing reflected this, in that he ‘never touched a substance’ until he was nearly 17.

However, it was at this point that he hit a slippery patch in his life and the culmination of a chain of unfortunate events prompted him to seek escape by experimenting with a range of drugs, including heroin. Initially introduced to the drug by someone he refers to (complete with inverted commas) as ‘a friend’ he quickly fell into the familiar heroin trap. “It was basically an easy way to escape from my reality,” Daniel explains. “All the pain and the bullshit went away immediately. As the months went by I stopped experimenting with other drugs and just fell into H Town…”

At this time, Daniel was still at school, and it wasn’t long before his desire to flee from reality took its toll as his enthusiasm for school was sapped away by his heroin habit. “I was always very introverted,” Daniel says. “I was shy of the world and afraid of people’s judgment. I never wanted to let anyone down to the point where I’d never try to speak my mind.” He describes a desire to be ‘invisible’ and heroin helped him to achieve this state.

Daniel’s ride through H Town lasted another 6 months before he realized he had a problem. As nobody in his close circle was aware of his addiction, Daniel was unable to call on family and friends to serve as a support network. He knew he had to get off heroin and he knew that he would have to do it for himself. In a bold move, he decided to go it alone.

“I went through HELL. I took myself off to my friend’splace. I went through cold turkey while people were shooting up around me, oblivious to what I was going through. After all the numbness that heroin brings, in those initial days all your sensations come back, amplified. I was beyond hypersensitive. Any touch to my body would either provoke extreme pain or cause me to orgasm (yes, I know that sounds weird).  I lay on a bed in my own vomit, feces, piss and semen for three days… but I made it out alive.”

Free from heroin, Daniel wasn’t out of the hole yet. He replaced one habit with another – in the form of booze – and for the next two years went through some bad times as he tried to get his life back on track. However, he says that this period and the experiences he went through had a positive element in that he developed an empathy. Throughout this time there was also a constant in his life - exercise.

“I came from a wrestling background so I had that work ethic implanted in me. Once I came off the heroin, I started wrestling again and working out in the gym, pushing weights. This wasn't only important but vital to my recovery. It allowed me to obsess about something. Looking back, it (exercise) was an overall constant positive but I had so much negativity in my life I guess I didn’t recognize it at the time.”

Daniel also discovered cannabis. He had used it briefly as a teenager, but had too soon skipped over it in the reach for harder drugs with more impact. However, now he was focusing more on his exercise and the health of his body, he realized that cannabis actually offered something that he had been missing. He says; “After a while of smoking I started to understand how cannabis was making me feel and the benefits it was providing. I had lost a lot of weight too, so the appetite stimulation was a real benefit. It was almost like I was normal again.”

And what about the combination of cannabis and fitness? “The light bulb moment came after a friend of mine offered me a smoke before going to the gym one day. I ran to the gym (about a mile) and then I realized how easy it felt – the weed had put me in the zone. Then in the gym I took note of how my body and mind seemed to be able to push past barriers I wasn't able to before. Like I was able to truly internalize and focus on the task at hand and grind out reps I feel I couldn't before. It made my lifting go from physical/mental to a mixture of physical/mental and something that was bordering on the spiritual. I got so in the zone, like never before. Where nothing or no one mattered and I could just push myself. I completely loved every second. It was a pretty defining moment.”

Along with eating the right foods, cannabis soon became part of Daniel’s fitness regime. He credits it for having a positive impact on his life, helping him to focus and a positive influence on his thoughts. He hasn’t done heroin for 6 years, and although he feels the cravings still at times, he credits cannabis with keeping him on the right path. Typically he smokes bongs or consumes edibles.

Is this a route he would prescribe for others who are wanting to quit harder drugs? “I know it has helped me in many ways. If it has worked it for me, I don't see why it can't help others. I would recommend it to people struggling to overcome, but, if you're new to smoking, and are prone to anxiety, stick to indicas. They make you relaxed and comfortable so it helps with withdrawals of any kind. Once your body understands it better then you can start having fun with the sativas.”

Over the process of getting clean and building a career out of fitness, Daniel took on the moniker Sky Black (he did live in LA for a while after all!). In the past few years he has also used his own experience to persuade others, walking the fine line with substance abuse, of the benefits of a healthier life. What he brings to the table is the fact that he knows what he’s talking about. So does he have any advice for those who may be in a similar situation to his younger self, stalked by demons and strapped into their own ride through H Town?

“My first bit of advice would be for them to ask themselves who they want to be in 5 years. What steps they can take today to be that person. When you're in that hell, that state of mind, it's fucking hard to say the least. I needed to do it myself personally. This WILL be the hardest thing you've done from physical to mental to spiritual. You will be broken. You will need to recreate yourself. My formula was to improve myself, you need to find and form passion.

Find a healthy outlet. I wanted to do bodybuilding and fitness. I wanted to become confident and healthy and honestly, to test myself and see if I could go from the lowest, from heroin addiction to a role model and inspiration on a massive scale. I am still doing that test but I've come a long way!! You need to be REAL with yourself. No one can do this for you. You can't blame or lean on anyone. No wiggle room, no excuses. You need to be strong. Once you get past this, I promise everything else in life seems a hell of a lot easier.”

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SkyBlackFit/
Insta: @Sky_Black_Official 

Words by Che Capri 

Image by Phirun Sam

Published in Weed World magazine issue 126