Is Cannabis Addictive? Cannabis Class: Special Edition

Is Cannabis Addictive?

This is another post in my series exploring cannabis and CBD out of my own curiosity in the face of a changing legal landscape. It’s intention isn’t to make statements about cannabis good or bad. I’m only posting them because they are a good way for me to catalogue my thoughts as I explore, and share with anyone who has a similar interest.

About Addiction

What does addictive mean anyway? When I was growing up in the eighties there were all sorts of commercials about drug addiction and the effects it can have on your life. That coupled with the DARE program led me to believe that the instant anyone used cocaine, marijuana, or heroin that they would instantly become a drug addict. The message was so powerful that, like many people I know, I thought that becoming an addict was a choice because of the belief that using just once made someone an addict.

I also didn’t believe alcohol was a drug, because it wasn’t illegal and you could buy it in the store. I had never met anyone who was solely an alcoholic at that point in my life. Now I see things very differently. Obviously alcohol is a drug; a powerful, addictive dangerous drug. I’ve seen it ruin people’s lives, 100% legally. I also see many other things as drugs.

Drug: A medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body.

By this definition, sugar is a drug, fish oil is a drug, green tea and coffee are drugs. People consume “drugs” on a near constant basis.

When Drugs Become Damaging

Based upon the above definition, almost any food is a drug, and could be abused the same way, and so they are. People succumb to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes as a result of their poorly regulated interactions with foods. Foods can be very damaging when consumed inappropriately, but we still consider heart disease, diabetes, and obesity as diseases rather than choices. Even though someone must choose to eat the wrong foods for their activity levels and genetics.

Even more interesting is the statistics on how many people become addicts after using. The story I was told in DARE turns out to be false.

In brief, this study’s estimates are consistent with the idea that an estimated 4.9% (roughly 1 in 20) extra-medical stimulant users develop a clinically recognizable stimulant dependence syndrome within 24 months after first onset of EM stimulant use.

By no means does this mean that I recommend anyone go out and develop a recreational cocaine habit. It’s an awful substance and I recommend not using it. And there is that small percentage whose lives are absolutely destroyed by addiction to it.

Why We Become Addicts

It’s a fantastic question. Why do 95 out of 100 people seem to be able to use a substance with a certain degree of self control and others simply lose it and destroy their lives for one more at a time? Even with heroin, when your grandma breaks her leg, she gets the purest opiates the medical community can offer her. Their is little different between the pain medication doctor gives grandma and pure heroin, were it available.

Hydromorphone was about 5 times as potent as heroin on a milligram basis… The study supports the view that hydromorphone and heroin produce similar clinical effects, and that either drug may adequately substitute for the other. 

But grandma doesn’t come home a heroin addict. Why?

Since this post is about cannabis I’m going to direct you to the work of Johann Hari on this topic. His take on the subject is fascinating and matches my own personal experience. This interview with Johann and Daniel Vitalis on the Rewild Yourself Podcast is a good one that explores a lot of taboo subjects around addiction. It’s raw and real, which makes for an engaging interview.

Is Cannabis Addictive?

To get straight to the point – cannabis is addictive but to a lesser degree than most other drugs of concern.

Regular cannabis users can develop a dependence syndrome, the risks of which are around 1 in 10 of all cannabis users and 1 in 6 among those who start in adolescence.

These stats are much lower than the averages for all users of heroin or cocaine when compared using similar methods. (what’s that they say about statistics?) By comparison the stat for nicotine was 32% and 17% for cocaine. The differences between these numbers and the 5% previously sated probably have to do with how the sample populations were gathered, statistics, length of data collection etc, all the things that allow for some fudgeability in the data. Either way the stats aren’t the 99% like I was taught back in the 80’s.

What really sealed the deal for me on the addictive potential for cannabis was the following quote.

Recent studies have resolved a long debated argument about the addictive properties of cannabinoids (for a thorough review, see Maldonado and Rodríguez de Fonseca72). Rodents previously exposed chronically to high doses of THC and then treated with a CB1 receptor antagonist such as SR141716A do, in fact, show signs of withdrawal syndrome.72

The somatic signs of withdrawal include wet dog shakes, front paw tremor, body tremor, hypolocomotion, ataxia, mastication, piloerection, excessive licking, scratching, and rubbing. It has been suggested that the failure to observe severe withdrawal symptoms in humans chronically exposed to marijuana may relate to the long half life of THC and its metabolites. This is compounded by the fact that THC and its psychoactive metabolites are extremely lipophilic. Thus, they are stored in fatty tissues and released slowly into the blood stream once abstinence is experienced. Collectively, these factors could counter acute withdrawal symptoms when chronic use of cannabis is terminated in both non-humans and humans.32,73

So it is very likely that cannabis would show the signs of being physically addictive if it cleared form the body as fast as drugs like heroin. Which also means some people may become addicted physically rather than just psychologically.

In Summary

To sum it all up, it appears as though cannabis has the potential for addiction. Certain people are more likely than others to become addicted to any substance with addictive potential. Cannabis doesn’t present as physically addictive because the withdrawal symptoms are masked by the slow release of cannabinoids stored in fatty tissue. Essentially, cannabinoids stored in fat wean you off the plant by slowly time releasing over an extended period.

This is also why people who use cannabis have more difficulty concealing their habit on drug tests than users of other drugs. Cocaine clears the system rather quickly, in days for most people. Heroin typically only lasts 6 hours in blood test while cannabis is commonly detectable in a blood test for two weeks.

What is astonishing about all of this to me is the amount of stigma and misinformation about the causes of addiction, why people are susceptible, and how to deal with it as a society. I’m not interested in painting a rosy picture of cannabis as a harmless substance if that isn’t the case. I am studying this topic to find out the truth about the plant, and share as I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize how politicized and complicated the whole subject of substance policies in the USA are.

Some studies show beneficial health effects from conservative alcohol consumption, cannabis is approved for medicinal use in many US states now, psychedelics are being explored for their potential to mitigate autoimmune conditions. While in the past the argument was that these substances have no benefits to mankind and therefore any risk of addiction should banish them beyond the bounds of polite society, the reality is that humans evolved in the presence of these substances and they appear to provide us with benefits when we interact with them appropriately. Especially substances in their natural form without further purification and concentration.

What I learned form DARE in high school wasn’t true, and perhaps that is part of the problem. If you’re from a family or a community where the use of illicit substances is commonplace, and you see people living functional (ore relatively functional) lives while using substances that you are told by cultural authorities will have you living in a cardboard box in a back alley and stealing change from parked cars to get your next fix, you’re not going to listen to those authorities because their rhetoric doesn’t match your lived experience. That’s a dangerous place for a culture to be.

Main Photo Credit: by Mpumelelo Macu on Unsplash



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