You’ve probably had the talk at some point. Or maybe you were the one giving it. Either way, it might have gone something like this: “There will be times when your friends are going to do things that you don’t agree with. They will experiment and get into dangerous situations. You’ll end up at a party where things quickly get out of hand. It’s up to you in those moments to make the right decision. Stand up to peer pressure. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t do drugs. If you do, you’ll get addicted, end up in jail, and ruin your life.”
Ok, so I’m paraphrasing, but the idea is the same. Too many people with authority lump cannabis in the “bad kid” box and said it was addictive.
Yes, there are strong scientific reasons why teens should not be experimenting with cannabis, but is it actually addictive?
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of mythological nonsense about cannabis floating around. Stop by marijuana shops in Vancouver, Washington, talk to anyone behind the counter, and you’ll quickly realize that there is so much misinformation about cannabis that the person’s job is almost less about selling you the sativa you want as it is educating the clientele on all sorts of topics from dabbing, to the benefits of using a bong, to the best storage containers, and so much more.
While we’re faced with all sorts of questions on a daily basis, one I still hear more often than you would think happens to be, “Is cannabis addictive?”
While it’s too often become common place for nearby cannabis connoisseurs to smirk at this question as if it weren’t legitimate, I can tell you that I’ve heard much more ridiculous queries, and that this is actually a question with an answer that keeps evolving, it seems. And, while some marijuana shops in Vancouver, Washington are quick to tell you, “No, cannabis is not addictive”, it turns out the true answer is more convoluted.
To better understand if one can have an addiction to marijuana, let’s start with another question: “What is addiction?”
According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, “Addiction is a complex disease, often chronic in nature, which affects the function of the brain and the body.”
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry,” states the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
“Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance or engages in an activity that can be pleasurable but the continuation of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary responsibilities and concerns, such as work, relationships, or health,” according to Psychology Today.
Here in lies our first problem.
While all of these statements from reputable sources are correct and there is overlap, they are also very different. And that’s because while we have learned much about addiction over the last half century, addiction is still not well understood.
The lack of understanding is just one of the reasons we treat the symptoms and not the disease. Remember, there is a reason they call it the study of medicine.
But, let’s get back to the issue at hand. Based on these definitions, is cannabis addictive?
The answer is yes.
But, you may say, cannabis doesn’t have any addictive properties like nicotine found in cigarettes. While we might not yet be able to pinpoint addictive chemicals in cannabis, it’s not so much the cannabis, but the behavior that is addictive. So much so that Cannabis Use Disorder was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5). In fact, they estimate one in three regular users can qualify as having Cannabis Use Disorder.
Cannabis Use Disorder
Cannabis Use Disorder is diagnosed by the appearance of 11 symptoms. Any two symptoms and you can be diagnosed, but as more symptoms appear the severity increases. Here are the symptoms as shared in Very Well.
- Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you meant to
- Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to
- Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance
- Cravings and urges to use the substance
- Not managing to do what you should at work, home or school, because of substance use
- Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships
- Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities because of substance use
- Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger
- Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance
- Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance)
- Developing of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance
In addition to the above, people who are diagnosed with Cannabis Use Disorder also complain of disruption of function due to use, an increased tolerance, cravings, and the development of withdrawal symptoms that can include the inability to sleep, restlessness, nervousness, anger or depression.
A recent study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) find that 2.5% of adults – about 6 million people – have experienced Cannabis Use Disorder in the last year. And, those who consume cannabis before 18 years old are seven times more likely to experience these symptoms.
However, while the numbers suggest addiction, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that Cannabis Use Disorder is more closely associated with dependence problems than full on addiction. Their estimates say about 4 million people in 2015 were dependent on cannabis and under 150,000 sought treatment for their behavior.
Their concern is the rising potency of cannabis. It’s well known that THC levels in cannabis strains are increasing. This, the institute states, could lead to more accounts of dependence down the road.
Ultimately, while cannabis itself isn’t considered addictive, people are occasionally developing a dependence on this substance and in some very rare instances, this elevates to addiction.