The answer to whether marijuana is addictive really depends on who you ask. Many pot proponents balk at the question, rolling their eyes and chalking it up to paranoia. Meanwhile, the “save the children” crowd tells the tales of a cousin three times removed who lost everything because they smoked a single joint on a double dare. But, the question isn’t solved with a black or white answer. The area is a bit grey.
Marijuana Use Disorder
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, around nine percent of people who use marijuana grow dependent on it and that number increases to seventeen percent for people who begin young (the younger, the more likely).
Those who begin before the age of eighteen are four to seven times more likely to become addicted. This addiction first begins as Marijuana Use Disorder
Marijuana Use Disorder manifests as irritability, problems sleeping, mood imbalances, a decrease in appetite, restlessness, and physical discomfort that peaks a few days after quitting and lasts for two or so weeks. These changes are the result of the brain adapting to synthetic cannabinoids and thus reducing the body’s own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters. You feel lousy because your brain is expecting you to give it cannabinoids and is no longer making as many of its own.
Marijuana Use Disorder morphs into addiction when a person can’t stop using pot no matter its interference in their life. Still, addiction is more than a physical dependence.
Per Psychology Today, one of the things that sets cannabis apart from other drugs is that the signs of withdrawal are typically subtle and easy to miss. Chronic users who suddenly give up the chronic might exhibit some hints – a slightly faster pulse or more anger at the roommate who didn’t change the toilet paper roll yet again – but the effects are much less noticeable than someone suddenly stopping opiates, alcohol, or things like Valium.
Yet experts argue that the lack of physical symptoms doesn’t mean that marijuana is truly not addictive. “Addiction,” in this case, refers to compulsive behaviors that teeter in severity. Someone who smokes every night though they don’t have the physical need may exhibit some degree of dependence, emotional or otherwise. This isn’t to say that everyone who smokes pot regularly is at risk for addiction – the vast majority of people aren’t addicted and not likely to become addicted. But
“not likely” doesn’t mean “impossible.”
The Symptoms of Addiction
The most obvious symptom of addiction is the inability to quit using marijuana. According to the DSM-5, other symptoms include: using larger amounts as time goes on; a strong desire to use; a level of use that interferes with life, work, or relationships; development of a tolerance; a habit that is time consuming (you spend hours trying to get weed, for instance); use in hazardous situations; and withdrawal symptoms upon cessation.
The Risk Factors for Addiction
As is true with other addictive forces – from gambling to Grey Goose – some people are more likely to grow dependent on marijuana than others. Per Healthline, two of the biggest influences on addiction are genes and responsibilities. People with genetic predispositions are more likely to grow addicted and those who have everyday responsibilities – they have a family, a job, or go to school – are less likely.
But nothing sets someone up for dependence as much as having a mental illness.
Estimates suggest that between 50 and 60 percent of marijuana abusers have depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, or PTSD
Marijuana Addiction in Perspective
While the above suggests that marijuana may prove addictive in a small percentage of users, one could use the “So what?” argument in regards to legality. After all, cigarettes are addictive, alcohol is addictive, and even sex is addictive for some. Of course, many of us are addicted to coffee too – it’s the number one reason we get up in the mornings (our kids are the second).
Things with the propensity for addiction aren’t always automatically bad either – like alcohol, coffee, and, yes, sex, cannabis offers plenty of health benefits. Sometimes the key is simple: “moderation” is better than “every waking moment.”
Marijuana Compared to Other Drugs
Anyone truly concerned about addiction in our society won’t make themselves heard by pointing their finger at marijuana. Frankly, there are bigger fish to fry.
Per a panel made up of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (as well as forensic scientists, chemists, and pharmacologists) and a study published in The Lancet,
The most addictive substance in the world is heroin; one in four people who try it become addicted
It’s also very deadly, with the line between a high and an overdose easy to cross. Death from relapse is common too.
The second more addictive substance is cocaine. Cocaine interacts with the level of dopamine in the brain and activates the reward pathways. This makes the user feel great as long as they’re high (and crave it when they’re not).
The third most addictive substance is nicotine. In America, it’s the most common addiction though the dangers of cigarettes and chewing tobacco are well publicized. The effects of nicotine are short-lasting, priming the user to use more often.
The fourth most addictive substance is barbiturates (also called downers). These are sedatives used to calm the anxious and bring on sleep. Many people are prescribed them for medical purposes, but they’re popular on the streets as well.
The fifth most addictive substance is alcohol; like cocaine, it influences the level of dopamine in the brain and alters the brain’s reward system. Per the World Health Organization, alcohol abuse kills 2.5 million people per year.
It makes you wonder why you can go into any liquor store in the country and buy as many bottles of whiskey or tequila as you want, but you must do so much of your weed shopping behind the liquor store, in the back alley.