Is Cannabis Addictive?

As Canada moves towards legalization next year, many who show concern about cannabis legalization are asking the question, “Is cannabis addictive”?

It’s not a straightforward answer, but simply, it depends on who you ask and depends on who you are.

The Two Schools of Thought

Generally, there are two schools of thought about cannabis:

First, many who take an anti-cannabis stance believe that cannabis is a substance that has addictive properties can be habit-forming, and can create a cannabis dependence disorder similar to addiction;

The other, more pro-marijuana school of thought believes strongly that cannabis is not chemically addictive and those who use cannabis do not experience the withdrawal symptoms experienced by addicts of other controlled substances. It’s for this fact that cannabis is usually regarded as non-addictive.

These are two important dichotomies worth exploring as cannabis becomes part of the regular discourse in our communities.

School One: Cannabis is Addictive

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), cannabis is addictive, but most of the discourse surrounding marijuana addiction talks about it in a mental rather than physical way.

While many will generally subscribe to the thought that cannabis isn’t chemically addictive, it is habit-forming, and those who use it frequently can develop a dependence.

While there isn’t really such thing as “cannabis withdrawal”, those who use marijuana on a regular or chronic-basis may experience withdrawal-like feelings or cravings as they would other addictive substances. Common reports of cannabis withdrawal include headaches, difficulty sleeping, or other mood-altering effects.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is considered the ultimate-guide for psychiatrists in the U.S. healthcare system recently added a condition called “cannabis use disorder”. The condition is described by a list of 11 symptoms, including:

  • A great deal of time spent in activities necessary to obtain cannabis, use cannabis or recover from its effects,
  • Recurrent cannabis use in situations in which it is physically hazardous,
  • Craving or a strong desire or urge to use cannabis

…and 8 more conditions that will describe someone to conclude that cannabis use is a problem.

For psychiatrists to diagnose a patient with cannabis use disorder, they will need to meet 2 of the 11 listed symptoms, and then it would be treated like a psychiatric disorder that may or may not warrant treatment.

Can it be Physically Addictive?

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Cannabis Use Disorder becomes addiction when the person cannot stop using the drug even though it interferes with many aspects of one’s life. Since dependence is often used as a proxy for addiction it is hard to say, but leading research suggests that around 9% of people who use cannabis will become dependent on it.

An October 2017 study from Brigman Young University further found that prolonged cannabis use in mice alters the way the brain keeps serotonin and dopamine levels in check. If problems with GABA cells (cells connected to the brain’s’ reward circuit) are repeatable and also occur in humans, it could be an indication of how and why people suffer from what has been coined “cannabis use disorder”. It is important to keep in mind that prolonged use of almost any substance, like coffee or sugar, can cause changes in the brain. this is especially true for pleasurable activities.

School Two: Cannabis Isn’t Addictive

Those who subscribe to the school of thought that cannabis isn’t addictive look at cannabis in comparison to other drugs like heroin and cocaine, where frequent users experience agonizing and painful physical withdrawal symptoms.

Any cannabis user who stopped using cannabis will likely report feeling different, maybe not quite like themselves, but for the most part will be able to perform the everyday functions of life.

They likely won’t need to go to a rehabilitation program to kick a marijuana habit like those experiencing an alcohol or narcotics addiction. In fact, there is a lot of movements supporting marijuana as an effective treatment method for the opioid epidemic facing North America.

When you look at the criteria for cannabis use disorder described above, critics of the inclusion of this disorder in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the U.S. will say that this is in light of financial obligations to pharmaceutical companies and different biases that may exist behind why certain things get classified as disorders over another. For instance, the publication doesn’t include caffeine addiction as a condition although empirical evidence would suggest North America is in a coffee craze.

At the same time, those who are labeled as having a “disorder” based on two of eleven criteria may be the result of an overreaction or over exaggeration of the problem and may lead one to believe cannabis use is more severe and harmful than it really is.

So, Is Cannabis Addictive or Not?

It comes down to this: whether cannabis is addictive depends on the person. Cannabis does not have the physical properties present in heroin, cocaine, or even tobacco that lead people to a physical dependence, but dependence is possible.

If a user is used to smoking a certain amount of times per day or has tied their cannabis use to ritualistic experiences, it can start to take on the habits similar to a cigarette smoker.

A general rule of thumb would apply for cannabis use if you want to avoid any risk of addiction: moderation is always key. There is too much of a good thing if something starts to interfere with your ability to function through your daily life.

How to Curb Cannabis Dependence

Feel like you may be using a bit too much cannabis? Here are a few ways that you can dial down your use:

1. Cut down in frequency of use. For instance, if you usually smoke 3 or 4 times a day, bring that down to just two, and decrease your use over time.

2. Tolerance breaks. If you are becoming desensitized to the effects of cannabis, a tolerance break can help reset your body’s tolerance and dependence.

3. Don’t Go Cold Turkey. While some people may want to just quit using cannabis cold turkey, doing so can feel a bit like a punishment.

4. Disassociate cannabis with activities. If you’re a habitual smoker and usually use cannabis in certain contexts, try to take the association away so that certain activities don’t become synonymous with weed.

5. Seek help. For some, cannabis is actually an addiction. If you find you might be in a situation where your cannabis use is out of your control, talk to your doctor or a counselor about how you can curb use.

The key is to be safe and sensible when using marijuana. If you can maintain a productive, healthy and fruitful life with marijuana, keep blazing, but when it comes to any substance, we all need to do our own checks and balances to regulate ourselves from excess.