Marijuana addiction: MJ lobby vs. science

Is marijuana physically addictive or not? The MJ lobby says no. But medical science says otherwise. Who do you believe?

Like almost all ballot measures and new laws, Proposition 19, California’s marijuana legalization initiative, includes many one-sided arguments and conjecture to support proponents’ way of thinking. But the proposed language for a new law, should Prop. 19 pass, also contains these words: “Cannabis is not physically addictive.”

That’s not a one-sided argument or conjecture. It’s just plain untrue. Anybody familiar with the basic criteria for substance dependence knows it, and anybody with access to the basic text for mental health diagnosis can find it out for sure. When Californians or anybody else considers the arguments about marijuana legalization, they should learn the medical science about the drug’s addictiveness.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fourth Edition of the American Psychiatric Association, also known as the DSM-IV, is the standard criteria for doctors making clinical diagnoses. The DSM-IV says that the criteria for cannabis dependence, or marijuana addiction, can be with physiological dependence or without physiological dependence. So right from the outset, we know that there is a condition of cannabis dependence with physiological dependence.

Elsewhere, the DSM-IV  describes physiological dependence, which is the same as with any drug. It includes tolerance, which is the need for increased amounts of a drug over time to achieve the same high, and/or withdrawal, which is physical and mental changes that occur when blood concentrations of a drug decline after prolonged heavy use. People who get addicted to marijuana can have physiological dependence.

How many marijuana smokers become addicted? According to “Marijuana Dependence and Its Treatment,” published in Addiction Science & Clinical Practice:

“… Marijuana produces dependence less readily than other illegal drugs. Some 9 percent of people who try marijuana develop dependence compared to, for example, 15 percent of people who try cocaine and 24 percent of those who try heroin. However, because so many people use marijuana, cannabis dependence is twice as prevalent as dependence on any other illicit psychoactive substance.”

Another factor is that the younger you are when you begin using marijuana, the more likely you are to become addicted. According to the California Society of Addiction Medicine’s (CSAM) statement on marijuana legalization:

“Because the brains of adolescents are still undergoing significant structural development, onset of marijuana smoking earlier than 18 results in increasingly higher rates of addiction (up to 17% within 2 years) and disruption to an individual’s life. The younger the use, the greater the risk.”

But perhaps the most persuasive proof about marijuana’s


Percentage of substance abuse treatment admissions due to marijuana nearly doubled from 1993 to 2005


addictiveness is that there are so many people in treatment for it. Check out these charts from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) that show the increase in marijuana treatment and the age of


Marijuana accounts for most drug treatment admissions for people under 20, and particularly for adolescents


people receiving treatment. Marijuana accounts for most admissions for treatment among people under 20 years old, which is the group that we’re really worried about regarding marijuana use.

The MJ lobby argues that if we legalize marijuana and then restrict it, people under 21 won’t be able to use it so readily. Yes, look how well that’s worked with alcohol…

This entry was posted in Addiction, Drug abuse, Marijuana, Marijuana legalization, MJ lobby, Recovery, Substance abuse, Treatment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Marijuana addiction: MJ lobby vs. science

  1. Nick C says:

    Interesting article. I always understood MJ to be psychologically addictive and not physically addictive. Regardless of the dangers to individual users of MJ, it should be legal. Too many people are being slaughtered in cross-border violence and our jails and prisons are overflowing with non-violent offenders.

    • jgogek says:

      The dangers of addiction are never only to the users. In later blog posts, I’ll look at the impact of MJ on the maturing brain, driving under the influence and violence. As bad as alcohol? Probably not. But that’s a false choice. Also, in California and a dozen other states, personal possession of marijuana by adults has already been decriminalized, so these people aren’t causing our prisons to overflow.

  2. Peter Reynolds says:

    The drugs issue is gaining huge momentum. Government policy looks increasingly ridiculous. More and more people are “getting it”. Prohibition just doesn’t work. Cowardly politicans have failed to grasp this nettle for years. Change is coming.

  3. Lynn B says:

    Thank you so much for pointing this out. This proposition contains so much incorrect information and has so many problematic legal aspects, but the media is ignoring or representing the scientific facts. I also have read that people who use marijuana also use alcohol, and people can be addicted to multiple substances, so it is not a choice between marijuana and alcohol but adding another addictive substance to problems we already have. Using both marijuana and alcohol together can be even more harmful.

  4. Peter Reynolds says:

    Listen, I cannot let this pass. You are distributing misinformation and lies.

    I’ll give you £10,000 if you can quote any properly conducted scientific study that says marijuana is addictive.

    • jgogek says:

      Let’s start with these, tho I’m sure you won’t like them:

      Budney, Alan, et al, Marijuana Dependence and Its Treatment, Addiction Science
      & Clinical Practice, Dec, 2007

      Hall, W. and Degenhardt, L., “Adverse health effects of non-medical cannabis use”, Lancet, Vol 374, Issue 9699, pp 1389-91, 2009

      Winters, Ken, and Lee, Chih-Yuan, Likelihood of developing an alcohol and cannabis use disorder during youth: Association with recent use and age, Drug and Alcohol Dependence 92 (2008) 99–247

      I’ll take my £10,000 in small bills, please. No cheques.

  5. MM_McGee says:

    Interesting. The DSM is a manual by and for psychiatrists who proscribe addictive drugs like SSRIs, which are made by companies that stand to lose billions of profits if psychiatrists are empowered to proscribe marijuana. It’s not a diagnostic manual for “doctors,” as you claim, but for psychologists and psychiatrists. You really ought to find evidence from some source that’s actually based on science. Sorry, but most of psychiatry is based on sociology and not biology, and I’m not particularly interested in what a bunch of non-biologists’ opinions are on biological addiction. You’re going to need a better source than that to start your argument with. And you should really do some reading on how the DSM is put together. It’s basically a popularity contest of new “disease” categories that are voted on at an academic conference.

  6. Carol Ripley says:

    Nobody is saying there are no risks associated with marijuana or any drug for that matter; however, it is not in the same league of alcohol in terms of destruction to individual, families and society in general. Alcohol is far more addictive than marijuana; alcohol addiction withdrawal symptoms can kill you; alcohol poisoning can kill you; the aggressive effects of alcohol greatly fosters violent altercations with family members and innocent bystanders, including the police. While heavy alcohol use has been proven to cause permanent brain damage, out of 17,000 scientific studies on marijuana, there has yet to be study showing conclusively that even heavy marijuana use causes permanent damage to the brain. Even moderate long term alcohol use has been shown to cause bodily damage. Unlike marijuana use, drinking greatly fosters aggression and these people are far more likely to get into violent altercations with family members and innocent bystanders, including the police. In weighing the taxpayer cost to society, alcohol floors the scale. There’s simply no good reason why we should not tax and regulate marijuana, like you proposed recently we should do with alcohol.

    Wasting billions of dollars trying to eliminate the marijuana market, and arresting people for mere possession, sidetracks our efforts to deal with the very real and dangerous problems attributed to the alcohol market.

  7. egghead says:

    I think the reason there are kids and adults in for “chemical dependence” is strictly because of the fact that pot is illegal. When a kid gets caught at school with marijuana the penalty is, they have to go to rehab. When an adult gets caught with a positive drug test, the same, in some cases, it’s required by Federal Law. Are these folks addicted? Perhaps, if you can’t make it through a school day without pot, or you are quote, “under the influence” at work, however remember most drug tests are by urine which can detect pot up to 45 days past the last day used if the user was a heavy smoker. A fairer test would be to use oral fluid, which detect marijuana just within a 24-48 hour window.

  8. egghead says:

    PS I also think it may be “too late” to legalize marijuana. It’s all ready a full scale industry and I am sure the bad guys who run this business, have no desire to share their profits with the US Government by paying taxes. Also, what will happen when thousands of individuals decide to grow their own plant or two for their own personal use, who is going to police all of that? No one.

  9. Peter Reynolds says:

  10. Ben says:

    I am afraid that the graphs you displayed discount the very point you are attempting to make. While there may be a few people who do have some psychological dependence on marijuana, the fact of the matter remains that a physiological addiction is unfounded. Notice in the second graph which you display that every other drug rehabilitation, including alcohol, increases as age increases. Marijuana is the only one to decrease. Not only does it decrease, but it almost falls by 50% in every age group. Since marijuana is not a new substance it can safely be said that, if it were as addictive as you believe it to be, the graphs should show at least a steady hold in those being rehabilitated for marijuana over the age groups. But, as the graphs show, those who are older use it (and are treated for it) less. Therefore, if we are to believe this graph in any way, we must conclude that marijuana is not only less addictive than the other substances, but it is so far less addictive that only around 6% (guessing on the graph) of those in rehabilitation are there for marijuana by the age of 35. Marijuana is a novelty among youth. As people age, most grow out of its use, or at least use it less often. They are able to grow out of it, and stop using it in most cases, because the substance is non-addictive. A “withdrawal” from marijuana (in terms of side effects) is somewhere between missing your morning coffee, and not being able to take an aspirin for a headache.

  11. Pingback: ATODblog in 2010 in review | alcohol, tobacco and other drugs

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