Is Marijuana Addictive? The Answer Remains Unclear
The question of whether marijuana is addictive is central to the debate over whether to legalize its use in Florida and other states — but it is a question with no simple answer. While many addiction experts caution that cannabis is addictive, others, along with many clinicians, researchers and non-specialists, disagree. At the very least, it seems that the answer depends on how one defines addiction.
What is Addiction?
Even the term “addiction” itself is debated among experts in reference to compulsive drug use. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, created by the American Psychiatric Association for use in describing and diagnosing mental health disorders, discusses drug dependence rather than addiction, as dependence implies merely physical craving, while addiction implies a psychological component as well.
Drug addiction is commonly understood to encompass the following factors: the compulsive, repeated use of a drug despite its harmful effects on one’s relationships, work or health; the development of tolerance to the drug and/or the experience of withdrawal symptoms when use of the drug stops; and a loss of control on the part of the user in relation to the amount or frequency of use. Whether these factors apply to the common experience of regular marijuana use is up for debate.
Is Marijuana Addictive?
Advocates for the legalization of marijuana for medical use, such as former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders, often assert that marijuana is not physically addictive. Elders has further argued that marijuana use offers many benefits for people suffering from pain, nausea and other symptoms related to diseases like cancer, diabetes and HIV. Elders contends that marijuana is far less toxic than other, legal pharmaceutical alternatives used to treat the same symptoms.
Opponents of the legalization of marijuana use, on the other hand, claim that, while withdrawal from marijuana may not cause as severe symptoms as withdrawal from certain other drugs, pot is still addictive. Some also argue that marijuana is more psychologically than physically addictive — and that psychological cravings are more difficult to withstand than physical ones.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there does seem to be a correlation between long-term marijuana use and addiction. Some studies also point to a correlation between early marijuana use — beginning before age 17, or in some studies, before age 13 — and later addiction, both to marijuana as well as to other substances.
Still, while estimates on addiction rates among marijuana users vary from one study or expert to another, those rates are certainly lower than for users of other common substances, both legal and illegal. Depending on the study or expert cited, somewhere around 10% or less of marijuana users will become addicted, making it significantly less addictive than tobacco (with a rate of 20–30% of users becoming addicted), heroin (around 25%), cocaine (15–20%) or alcohol (around 15%).
And some point out that if the element of harm — to one’s health, work or relationships — is integral to the definition of addiction, perhaps the question regarding marijuana should not focus simply on whether it is addictive; perhaps it should focus more on whether addiction to marijuana is a real problem. While addiction to substances like tobacco, alcohol and cocaine has proven, damaging effects on people’s health, marijuana has been found to be nontoxic — it cannot cause an overdose — with less harmful effects on one’s health than those other substances. Similarly, while withdrawal from alcohol, heroin or crack cocaine, for example, can be severe and long-lasting, marijuana withdrawal is far milder. Long-term and habitual marijuana users have reported experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as sleeplessness, irritability, anxiety and mild depression, but nothing more severe.
The Debate Continues in Florida
As the debate continues in Florida over whether to legalize marijuana for medical or recreational use, the debate over the addictiveness of cannabis continues as well. The risk of addiction is a legitimate concern when considering whether to support or oppose ballot initiatives that would make marijuana legally available for regulation and consumption. The question of whether marijuana is addictive, however, may change over time to encompass other factors, such as the rate of addiction and the problems caused by marijuana addiction as weighed against the potential benefits of its use.
About the Author: Catherine Avril Morris writes on subjects ranging from astrology to parenting, grief, and romance novels. Her role in the 1993 cult classic film Dazed and Confused may have laid the groundwork for her interest in current events related to the legalization of marijuana. Find her at www.catherineavrilmorris.com.