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Marijuana addiction - is cannabis really addictive?

Although many people still dispute its existence, most medical and addiction treatment groups now acknowledge that marijuana addiction is a real condition that affects about 9% of marijuana users.

Do you believe that marijuana is potentially addictive?

Well, if you don’t, read the following five arguments that support the concept of marijuana addiction and see if the evidence changes your mind.

Note

Since marijuana has become such a polarized and politicized discussion, it’s easy for people on both sides of the issue to overstate claims (it’s a killer!…it’s a panacea!) and to see things in very black and white terms.  We try to present the shades of gray – where the truth probably resides. At ChooseHelp we are anti drug war and anti prohibition but pro treatment and very much pro compassion.

What Is Addiction?

Wikipedia:  Addiction is the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences, or a neurological impairment leading to such behaviors.

So when we discuss the evidence for marijuana addiction, what are we talking about exactly – what is addiction?

Well, according to the American Academy of Addiction Medicine:1

  • Addiction is a brain disease that affects your reward, motivation and memory circuits.
  • Dysfunction in these circuits leads to an unhealthy or pathological drive for reward (such as by getting high).
  • Characteristics of addiction include cravings, an inability to consistently abstain or control your use-related behaviors (assuming you want to), a decreased ability to recognize how your use causes life or relationship problems and dysfunctional emotional responses.

Evidence to Support Marijuana Addiction

From the California Society for Addiction Medicine:2
  1. Scientists can see that marijuana stimulates the brain’s reward centers in ways that closely mimic other addictive drugs (through dopamine release in the limbic pathway).3
  2. Animal studies show that animals display withdrawal-pattern behaviors upon sudden abstinence after chronic THC administration
  3. Heavy users will develop a tolerance and require greater amounts to get high. This is similar to what is seen with other addictive drugs.4
  4. There is research and clinical evidence showing that some heavy users will experience a recognizable set of withdrawal symptoms along a predictable timeline after cessation of use. Some researchers have compared the severity of marijuana withdrawal symptoms to those of nicotine withdrawal from quitting cigarettes.5
  5. Scientists have observed that approximately 1 in 10 (9%) of marijuana smokers will become addicted at some point in life. For those who smoke regularly before the age of 18, that number doubles, with 18% meeting the criteria for dependence at some point in the lifespan.

Why Many Dispute Marijuana Addiction

When so many people can use marijuana on a recreational basis without ever developing serious problems from their use, how can we call this an addictive drug?

Well, though marijuana is addictive, it’s not very addictive – certainly not as addictive as many other commonly abused drugs. For example, though 9% of marijuana users will develop an addiction at some point, according University of California Professor and Psychologist Jann Gumbiner, Ph.D, 15% of people who use alcohol will become addicted, as will 17% of cocaine users, 23% of heroin users and 32% of cigarette users.6

Extrapolating from Personal Experience

If it didn’t happen to you or anyone you know – could it still happen to other people you don’t know?

Almost half of all American adults have tried marijuana at least once (a Michigan State Univeristy study from 2007 puts the number at 43%) so this is well over 100 million Americans. The vast majority of this number never got addicted.

  1. If neither you nor any of your friends experienced any marijuana addiction, it becomes easy to discount its existence – but remember, only about 1 in 10 ever develop a serious problem. Are you absolutely sure that for every 10 people you know who smoke or smoked marijuana not one will ever have had or have an addiction problem at some point over an entire lifetime?
  2. For most people this is an impossible question to answer. If you’re young and the people you know who use are also young, you can’t yet say whether any will have an addiction over their lifespan. If you are older and smoked a long time ago, then you are unlikely to have stayed in close contact with all the people you smoked with back in your younger years.

Due to these longitudinal challenges, we can’t just use personal experiences to extrapolate general information – we have to rely on valid research studies.

Marijuana Addiction Risk Self Test

Are you at risk of marijuana addiction?

To find out, answer the following questions, based on the cannabis abuse screening test.7 For each question, give yourself a score from 0 to 4, where:

  • 0 = never
  • 1 = rarely
  • 2 = occasionally
  • 3 = often
  • 4 = very often

The Questions

Answer each question based on your behaviors over the last year 12 months.

  • Have you ever smoked marijuana before noon?
  • Have you ever had memory problems when smoking marijuana?
  • Have you ever smoked by yourself?
  • Have you had any friends or family members express concern about your marijuana use or ask you to cut-down or stop?
  • Have you tried to stop using or cut-down without success?
  • Have you experienced life-problems related to your marijuana use, such as problems at school or work, problems at home or with important relationships, money problems, legal problems and others?

Scoring

If you score:

  • 0 to 2 = You have no addiction risk.
  • 3 to 7 = You have some addiction risk.
  • 7 or higher = You have a high addiction risk.

If you’re still in doubt, try an easy marijuana addiction self test or teen marijuana addiction self test that may help you better understand your situation. 

If You Decide to Quit or Cut-Down

Many people can overcome marijuana addiction without professional help. For advice on quitting, cutting-down or getting past marijuana withdrawal symptoms, read:

If you try on your own and you can’t achieve your goals (be they abstinence or moderation) then it makes complete sense to get some professional help, either through a formal marijuana addiction treatment program or by working with an addictions therapist. If a few weeks spent learning of cravings management and relapse prevention strategies can help you get your use under control, then that’s almost surely time well spent.

References
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Page last updated Jun 30, 2014

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