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Do You Believe That Cannabis Is Addictive?

Leslie kahn

Is cannabis addictive? That is a question that has been widely debated. The simple answer is that it depends on whom you ask and on the definition of addiction. I sought out many different sources who presented different opinions. Here is what I came up with so that you could draw your own conclusions.

What is Addiction?

Addiction may be defined as a chemical dependence that produces withdrawal symptoms when the consumer stops using it. It can also be defined as a psychological manifestation in the same way that food, gambling and sex are additive in which pleasurable responses are perceived by the brain. Yet another way to define it is a compulsive use of a substance despite the presence of continuous negative consequences which may result in tolerance or withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of use.

Psychologically or Physiologically Addictive? 

Many people believe that a cannabis addiction only has a psychological effect which causes cravings but not a physiological one. According to Dr. Nora Volkow, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a federal government run research institute, there should be no distinction between the two. Any type of addiction that occurs in your brain precipitates a physical change.

Roger Roffman, Professor Emeritus of Social Work at University of Washington, an authority on cannabis addiction, believes that the vast majority of cannabis users today are able to use it responsibly, without becoming addicted to it. In fact, it helps restore them to health, improving their lives rather than causing them harm. However, he does not believe that cannabis is completely harmless. Each individual user’s experience with cannabis depends on many factors and is unique. It is not useful to compare one user’s experience to another. He points out that there is a small minority of cannabis users who develop a moderate to severe disorder. He believes our focus, as a society, should be to provide treatment for them rather than punishment.

Dependency vs Addiction?

According to NIDA, there is a distinction between dependency and addition when it comes to cannabis usage. You can become dependent, where the consumer experiences withdrawal symptoms when not taking a drug, without becoming addicted. These include irritability, mood and sleep problems, a reduction in appetite, cravings and restlessness. Physical symptoms may manifest as abdominal pain, tremors, sweats, fever, chills and headache.

It becomes an addiction when the user is powerless to stop using a drug even when continued usage diminishes one’s quality of life. According to NIDA, consumers develop a dependence when the brain habituates to a large amount of cannabis. The end result is a decrease of a production of and a sensitivity to endocannabinoid neurotransmitters.

A more important question may be how does cannabis compare to the addiction rates of other drugs?

Caffeine 50-90%? (I did not find conclusive numbers so I extrapolated)
Sugar 75%
Tobacco 20-30%
Heroin 23-25%
Cocaine 15-20%
Alcohol 15%
Cannabis 9%

According to Stanton Peele, author of Love and Addiction, instead of asking if cannabis is addictive, we should be asking how harmful is it to the body and how disruptive is it to people’s lives. Cannabis is very low on the list compared to every other drug including caffeine and sugar which are highly addictive and commonly overlooked as drugs. 

Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD)

I was not previously familiar with this disorder, so I found this very interesting and wanted to share it.

Cannabis Use Disorder now appears in the DSM-V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The first DSM was published in 1952 and it has been updated 4 times. It has not been updated for almost 20 years. It is considered the gold standard in the US for definitions and treatment recommendations of disorders. 

There are a number of indicators which are used to assess the presence of the disorder, which are listed below. The requirement for CUD is when cannabis usage leads to significant impairment or distress by at least 2 of the indicators during a 12 month period. The higher the number of indicators, the more severe the disorder. 

1. Using more cannabis than was intended
2. Efforts to control cannabis usage are unsuccessful
3. Cannabis usage takes over the user’s life
4. The user experiences cravings or a strong desire to consume cannabis
5. The user fails to meet their work, school, social and family obligations
6. The user is powerless to stop even when its usage causes social or personal relationship problems
7. The user loses interest in or curtails previously important social or leisure activities
8. Cannabis usage leads to potential physical hazards
9. Cannabis usage continues even after the occurrence of physical or psychological problems likely to have been caused by cannabis
10. There is an increase in tolerance to cannabis which requires higher doses to achieve the desired effects
11. The user experiences either withdrawal symptoms or continues usage to avoid withdrawal symptoms

I will conclude with an very interesting insight into addiction by Johann Hari, a Swiss-British journalist and writer. He has written copiously on depression, addiction and the war on drugs. In his 2017 TED talk, Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong, his takeaway is that disconnection drives addiction. The average American has experienced a significant reduction in the number of close friends upon which they can depend. People have never been lonelier despite being surrounded by virtual friends. Instead of talking about personal recovery, we should be talking about social recovery. A very typical response by friends of addicts is to cut them off. That is absolutely the wrong approach. What addicts need is to be surrounded by friends and shown love.

Sources:, Is Marijuana Addictive? It Depends How You Define Addiction, Oct 19, 2019, Maia Szalavitz, Roger Roffman Chronices Society’s Long Struggle with Pot in “Marijuana Nation,” April 24, 2014, Doree Armstrong, Is Cannabis Addictive, Bailey Rahn, Nov. 22, 2015, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Is Marijuana Addictive?, Sugar Addiction, Everything You Thought You Knew About Addiction Was Wrong, Johann Hari, 2017