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Is Cannabis Addictive?

November 22, 2015
(Photo by Bailey Rahn)

If there’s a question that can’t be answered with a straightforward yes or no, it’s this: is cannabis addictive?

Before joining Leafly, I wrote for a website that connected people with addiction treatment, and shortly before that I began using medical marijuana. It was a constant challenge finding harmony between my close relationship with cannabis and the struggles of our readers, many of whom were diagnosed with a thing called “cannabis use disorder.” How could I bring myself to write about the risks of cannabis when I used it on a daily basis for my own health, and what negative consequences would my words bring to the legalization movement I was passionate about?

At that ethical crossroad, it eventually occurred to me that my stance didn’t come down to taking one path or the other, but instead understanding the massive gray area between the two. That ambiguity begins with a single word that many spend their entire lives trying to define and refine.

What is Addiction?

addiction defined

If someone asked you to define “addiction,” what would you say? If you’re of the belief that addiction is a chemical dependence characterized by withdrawal symptoms that you’ve never experienced personally, you might be of the mind that cannabis is in fact non-addictive. Some subscribe to the belief that addiction manifests psychologically and that cannabis can be addictive in the same way that gambling, sex, or food might be considered addictive, as they all produce pleasurable responses in the brain. I’m no doctor, so I recruited the help of Roger Roffman, Professor Emeritus of Social Work at University of Washington, to help tease out a more standardized definition.

“The language of addiction, dependence, and disorders is one thing when you talk to scientists and it’s another when you talk to the public,” Roffman said. “Addiction results from a combination of biological and psychological factors that contribute to conditioned behavioral patterns that are very difficult to stop or resist.”

And of course, there’s an environmental component to addiction as well. Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Screams: The First and Last Days of the Drug War, presented his definition of addiction – one that emphasizes environment over biology:

“Human beings have an innate need to bond and connect. When we are happy and healthy, we will bond with the people around us. But when we can’t because we’re traumatized, isolated, or beaten down by life, we will bond with something that gives us some sense of relief. The path out of unhealthy bonds is to form healthy bonds, to be connected to people you want to be present with. Addiction is just one symptom of the crisis of disconnection.”

From this perspective, the question isn’t whether or not cannabis is addictive, but rather under which circumstances might one become addicted to cannabis?

What is Cannabis Use Disorder?

Rolling a cannabis joint

You don’t often hear people say “cannabis addiction” in the scientific and medical communities. Instead, you’re more likely hear the term “cannabis use disorder,” and that’s the condition you will find listed in the official manual of psychiatric diagnostics – the DSM-V. This manual’s definitions and criteria are universally recognized in the U.S. for treatment recommendations, and it characterizes cannabis use disorder using 11 indicators. These markers describe various behaviors relating to cannabis use, including cravings, time spent using, dose, and life impacts. The number of factors experienced by an individual determines the severity of the disorder.

The accuracy of these criteria markers is critically important in determining necessity of treatment, especially in states where rehabilitation programs are mandated for drug-related crimes. A person who meets as few as two criteria – let’s say #4 (has a strong desire to use cannabis) and #10 (needs markedly more cannabis to achieve desired effect) – would be diagnosed with minorly severe cannabis use disorder. Wait a minute – I just described myself, as well as many of my friends and colleagues who function perfectly well, so do we all have a “disorder”?

“If there’s a difficulty with [the DSM-V’s diagnostic criteria], it’s overreacting when just one or two of these indicators are present,” Roffman explained. This overreaction dilutes instances of legitimate need for help with situations in which cannabis is neutrally or positively impacting someone with no desire to quit.

“While we need to acknowledge that cannabis can be used moderately and responsibly, can enrich lives, and, of course, can be healing for a lot of people, the fact of the matter is we have a substantial minority of cannabis users who experience far more than one or two of these diagnostic criteria,” Roffman said. “We need to be compassionate to people for whom a moderate or severe disorder exists, and we need good science to understand it and find ways of helping.”

But getting good science on cannabis and other illicit drugs is nearly impossible in a country whose prohibition restricts research on their benefits. If cannabis were legal, or at least rescheduled under the Controlled Substances Act, how much more might we learn about addiction and its causes?

What’s the Relationship Between Cannabis Legalization and Addiction?

Cannabis plant against a hazy yellow background

The United States’ solution to drug abuse and addiction is criminalization. Punish the drug users and make them suffer by incarcerating them. Send them to mandated in-patient treatment. Less drugs will be out on the streets endangering our society and the drug users will learn their lessons. Right?

Most Americans know by now that this approach to drugs and addiction doesn’t work. In fact, it’s made things remarkably worse. Prohibition imposes a social environment in which recovery becomes even harder. You’re removed from any friends and family. Job prospects dwindle. Life becomes more challenging than before, and even then drugs were a necessary escape, something to bond with.

Despite the obvious failure of this policy, it continues to feed public opinion. Legal restrictions over research provide an easy out for policymakers to claim that we don’t know enough about the risks to legalize it, and that attitude readily bleeds into the public sector.

“All of the messages about health risks under prohibition are skewed in terms of overstating and sometimes blatantly misrepresenting science,” Roffman said. “Under legalization, we have an awful lot more room to speak about the continuum of health benefits, possible health risks, and how to make good decisions.”

Roffman’s history with cannabis is an unconventional medley of government-funded risk studies and advocacy efforts. Heading NORML’s Washington chapter in the mid 70s and co-sponsoring the state’s recreational marijuana law in 2012, his work demonstrates that acknowledging risks associated with cannabis does not necessarily undermine a strong rationale in support of legalization.

Just as public opinion can swing problematically far to the oppositional side, ardently proclaiming its harmlessness can cause issues as well. This is a conflict I’ve grappled with personally, and being immersed in a community of avid activists and patients can certainly cause passion to burn so brightly, it blinds. We need that strong community to speak about the ways cannabis has changed our lives, but we need to do so without losing sight of the fact that people with different circumstances can be impacted differently. With our collective efforts and voices, cannabis legalization is now visible on the horizon, and now it’s our duty to not only help those who need cannabis medicinally and those who want the freedom to use it recreationally, but those who need help quitting or moderating their use so they too can become counter-examples of negative stereotypes.

As our conversation came to a close, Roffman ended with the following:

“We’re a long way – a long way – from effectively educating the public about the health risks. We have a long history of Reefer Madness, we have a whole slew of people who are really angry about marijuana myths and lies, and we have a bunch of people who say that if you’re going to argue for legalization, you cannot acknowledge there are risks. For this movement to eventually mature so it’s serving the undoing of injustice but also promoting public health, we’re going to have to find ways of bringing accurate, non-judgmental information about health risks to the public.”

That process begins with acknowledging that your relationship to cannabis is unique to you and can never be used to define others’ experiences. It requires lending support to those who need it, providing them with an environment in which there’s more to bond with than just cannabis. And, of course, it requires that we never lower our supportive voice for cannabis, so that policymakers and the public never forget how much this War on Drugs has failed patients and citizens who only ever wanted to feel a point of connection with the world.

  • $parkle Puss

    Yes. Anything enjoyable has the potential to be abused and cause addiction: junk food, gambling, sex, video games, drinking, drugs & shopping to name a few. Will abusing weed cause physical withdrawals like heroin or alcohol? Nope. Not even on a bad day. Maybe some mild irritability or loss of appetite, but that’s it.

    The potential for addiction lies within the individual, not external objects and activities.

    • CHRIS Cooper

      You are incorrect as a medical card holder if I do not smoke my anxiety shoots. I won’t. Eat. Extreme mood swings! Cold sweats! My body needs cannabis it has become addicted!
      And when we say addiction we don’t mean it in a bad way but when we do not take our medicine we do feel with drawls we have been taking the medicine on it every day base! And then you compare the withdrawals to alcohol and heroin why would you compare cannabis to such a severe withdrawing drug it doesn’t make any sense you’re just going from 1 to 3000 really quick Smh

  • Cameron Robison

    Far from addictive. I smoke and can drop it like a fly with no withdrawal symptoms. When I was prescribed pain pills, I was on them for about a year before I did not want to take them anymore, well needless to say I ended up becoming immune to them, and had the worst withdrawal symptoms ever. My DR prescribed me tramadol for withdrawal symptoms, and that was barking up the wrong tree. If anything needs to be illegal its pharmaceutical pain pills! I will never touch another pain pill in my life.

    • Nick Ross

      Did you even read the article?

  • Larry Seinfeld

    Gotta love ya, Leafly 🙂

  • sleepyindica

    I recently requested a copy of my medical records to renew my medical marijuana card and they stated that I have a cannabis use disorder, along with my other aliments. I was so mad. My primary doctor won’t even talk about cannabis and how much it has helped me get off of pills with negative side effects. This has to change. I don’t know if it’s ignorance or money involved or what but it is really hurting the lives of people who find relief from the use of marijuana. Thankfully, my medical marijuana certified physician can see through this non sense and make accurate determinations as to whether cannabis helps me or not. I’m not going back on pills and I know how much cannabis has helped me. I take like one pill now, that is out of the realm of the cannabis healing properties, that I have to take. I was prescribed 8 pills at one time. I wonder how smart doctors really are and if they even know what they are doing sometimes. I quit growing and using cannabis for four years once in my life and when I did, I had a headache for one day and didn’t touch it again for five years. I didn’t even miss it. There were no withdrawals and no negative effects, after smoking and using it for 12 years.

    • Ima Straight

      Your medical records are yours. Might look into the qualifications of the person who put that diagnosis in there. If they are not qualified in mental health, then they are practicing outside their expertise. A written inquiry to the legal dept might fix it. It should take more than a simple judgement of something you self-reported. Doctors have just as many prejudices as anyone else.

  • Marine223

    It has a very favorable side affect> NO HANG OVER! AND, people who use it enjoy themselves without worry of a dead Liver!

  • american chinese

    Not addictive. Should be legal!

    I’ve enjoyed the pleasurable benefits of marijuana for over 15 years now. It’s a wonderful recreational drug when used in moderation. I’ve personally never understood the fight to keep drugs away from me at all cost.

    As of now, marijuana money is going into the wrong hands. Marijuana is stronger and easier to get than ever before, albeit much more expensive than it should be… and all that money is going back to the cartels!

    To smoke casually from the “black market”, it will run you $100/month. This is much more expensive than it needs to be. More expensive than my cell phone ($20/month from Tmobile), car insurance ($25 per month from Insurance Panda), netflix ($10/month), and gym ($15/month) COMBINED!!! Would you rather put money into the hands of violent gangs and drug dealers… or into taxes for schools, hospitals, public infrastructure, etc.???

    I work very hard for a living and should be allowed to do whatever I want to my own body in the privacy of my own home. Arresting me for using marijuana in my own home would be like arresting me for playing “box the clown” in my own home. They both make me feel good and I’m not hurting anyone else doing it. Seriously, what’s the harm and why should I go to jail for it?

    • jagolden912

      I completely agree with you in the sense that you should not be penalized for using marijuana in the confines of your own home, although, you cannot just say marijuana is not addictive. I just decided to take a tolerance break from weed as I am starting my last semester of college next week and I figured it’s about time I took a break for my bank account and lung’s sake.

      While I do not feel any real withdrawal symptoms and my mood is stable, I still crave weed throughout my days and nights because, well, weed makes me feel good! I do feel that it is psychologically addictive and that the association most every day users have with weed is prevalent in their everyday tasks, it is not fair to just say it is not addictive.

      Maybe you have never had any addictive tendencies towards marijuana, but I would say that most everyday users would beg to differ, especially after taking a break from the substance for even 3-5 days.

  • Sherry Tomlinson Johnson

    I love the statement “your relationship to cannabis is unique to you and can never be used to define others’ experiences.” and ” this War on Drugs has failed patients and citizens” I suspect that the continued classification of cannabis at Level 1 has less to do with the “evils of marijuana” and more to do with profit and alcohol lobbyists who understand that cannabis is arguably considerably less dangerous than alcohol in terms of side effects and “addictibility” and medical benefits. If this were to be generally accepted as a healthier alternative to drinking or being “drunk”, instead of being dishonestly vilified, it might put a sharp and well deserved dent in the pockets of alcohol corporations who have built their empires on all our alcohol cravings. It has a unique and interesting history that says a lot about us as a people who are willing to believe anything if presented in a way that can incite our fears and confirm our biases. We should educate ourselves instead of blindly trusting. This is a good place to start.

  • Jane Hunt

    Thanks for the information I love Marijuana it helps my pain

  • MisterMobius

    It’s not physically addictive but it is psychologically addictive.

    When addicted to any substance, the users in question always have an air of denial about them, as well as listing off justifications for use.

    The best test to see if you’re addicted to marijuana or not, is to stop smoking it and if in those first sober days you become a little grumpier, you have an addiction my friend.

    • Ima Straight

      Clearly you are not a medical professional.
      Ceasing cookies, sex, sleep, caffeine, running, newspapers, music would all produce grumpyness if you had developed a routine use because you found some benefit from it. That makes them “addictive”? Hilarious!
      Leave the definitions to better minds, my friend. Do take your own advice, if it works for you, but leave off giving it. It’s a horribly over-used word.

      • SCHEISSE

        Clearly you are not a medical professional either.

        While I normally don’t respond to old comments, nothing is more annoying than condescending people who quite frankly are wrong. MisterMobius is also wrong since physical dependence =/= addiction. Addiction generally refers to psychological dependence. Cannabis does seem to cause physical dependence via tolerance, withdrawal, and it’s effect on the reward system but overall cannabis’s ability to create physical dependence fairly mild and of course withdrawal is non fatal.

        In a general sense substance or behavior that causes a dopaminergic response is psychologically addictive to an extent. Among other pharmacological agents, Cannabis’s addictiveness is much more similar to Cocaine and Amphetamine than Opioids, Benzodiazepine, and Ethanol, and among non-pharmacological agents: gambling, video games, and food. Not saying cannabis is equal to any of them in terms of addictiveness just that they’re comparable.

        • Ima Straight

          A ” dopaminergic” response is based on dopamine chemistry in the brain. Yet you want to claim psychlogical effects. You are also applying this weak link to such a broad Ispectrum of activities that it is laughable.
          Guess I’m “addicted” to protein, pets and ocean air then.
          What are you two so angry about? You are not any kind of experts in anything other than your own personal respose to these substances and/or activities, so why be so nasty about things you do NOT have a body of research to refer to? Are you just PO’d that people are not doing their life according to your ‘rules’?
          Equating cannabis to cocaine or amphetamines in addictive terms is just ridiculous. BS agendas like yours are exposed for the junk they are when you start throwing out terms you don’t fully grasp. You must profit from addiction to be spouting such laughable lingo!

          • SCHEISSE

            Well I never said you were addicted to anything. Nor do I loosely throw the term around. Consuming an addictive doesn’t make one addicted to it.

            While I am not an expert myself I do follow many experts. I do have a fair understanding of chemistry and pharmacology as I’m currently studying chemistry on an undergraduate level. I do have references for every claim I make.

            I’m not the least bit concerned with how other people live their lives. I am concerned when I hear objectively false statements perpetrated. Cannabis is comparable to amphetamine and cocaine as their addictiveness mostly comes from an psychological need for the drug rather than a physical.

            IDK what sort of BS Agenda I have. Care to explain what it is?

  • wicked king

    enjoy ur life/ your body/ fuck the rest!

  • Travis Cesarone

    Cannabis is no more Addictive than a Cedar forest! THC does have recreational value and opens the reward pathway, so yet is addictive for some people. Caryophyllene opens the reward pathway through the same non-intoxicating cannabinoid receptor, so it is addictive, but it has no recreational value, so caryophyllene shows huge promise in being used to treat addictions like cocaine, or even THC…Cannabis has it’s own self-defenses 🙂 You can use CBD strains mixed with caryophyllene to replace reward pathway addictions, rather safely 🙂 CBD also helps opiate addiction through another mechanism, which also slows down your endo cannabinoids from metabolizing, hosting many great positive health benefits. 🙂

  • Travis Cesarone
  • Donna Bann

    Pot smells so bad I don’t know how you all can stand it. When I pass people on the street who smell that way I just want to get away. I’m sad for people who can’t connect and I hope you can figure out a way that doesn’t affect your lungs and potentially your brain so negatively. I also feel sad for kids who have to live in a pot smoke environment. It’s not fair. Kids should have fresh air and clear headed parents. I know these thoughts are not popular here but there really are better ways to feel healthy.

    • Greg Gasiorowski

      I think its one of the most pleasant smells on the planet, defiantly #1 of burnt fragrances.
      Whenever I hear this notion I think the person must be cross-wire in the head thinking shit smells like roses & roses like dung.

  • tom c

    I have used mj since 1970. and I’m doing very well. However, my teen use impacted me negatively, school and such so I would never recommend it to anyone until mid-twenties.