Marijuana Addiction Is Real, but It Still Defies Definition


As legal marijuana spreads, science can address marijuana addiction without the cloud of social stigma.

The old saw that pot is not addictive has run hard into scientific consensus of late. Marijuana does cause dependency and addiction. But as the science improves — and laws let weed users relax a bit — we’re left with some major questions. For instances: Is marijuana addiction physical or psychological? How many recreational marijuana smokers become dependent, and how does that happen? Will the definitions of addiction change as the country slowly but surely legalizes cannabis? And of course, how can we best treat those with a marijuana dependency?

To answer them we’ll have to clear hurdles, not least the subjective, inconsistent ways we define addiction. The criteria for what constitutes dependency can include the ease of which people can stop using a substance; the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms associated with withdrawal; the frequency with which the substance is used; increased spending on the substance over time; whether use and/or overuse of the substance causes negative effects (and the severity of the impact of those effects) on the user; social and personal sacrifices the user is willing to make to continue using; and altered behavior that correlates directly with frequency of use.

By these measurements, people can become addicted to just about anything: harder drugs like crack or meth, cigarettes, alcohol, fast food, shopping, sex, porn — hell, even a substance as innocuous as water can be considered addictive, depending on who renders a diagnosis. In most recovery circles, a statement like “I can quit whenever I want to, I just don’t want to today!” points to an addiction. For most medical practitioners, any noticeable change in mood, behavior, and/or physical health associated with changes in use are considered withdrawal, which subsequently signals some level of dependency.


Science and common sense tell us that not all addictions are created equal. We know that addictions to hardcore drugs like methamphetamine or even smoking tobacco are mainly physical in nature; these substances do a number on our brains by raising levels of substances like dopamine and noradrenaline. When the levels of these “pleasure” chemicals return to normal, our brains in essence demand more and more of the drug in an attempt to recreate the initial feeling of euphoria, causing intense feelings of craving.

Addictions to things like water, on the other hand, are mainly physiological. We know that tap water does not contain chemicals that directly affect the brain’s dopamine levels, yet “aquaholics” more or less “trick” their brains into releasing the same chemicals that produce similar levels of euphoria — and subsequent cravings and withdrawals — as tobacco smokers and coffee drinkers. (The addictions to shopping, eating, and sex can owe to similar experiences.) Though incredibly rare, it is possible to overdose on water: hyponatremia (also known as “water intoxication”), which means that something as seemingly benign as drinking water can have incredibly negative consequences if overused, thus qualifies as a serious addiction by most metrics.

So far marijuana addiction has fallen in a grey area within the addiction spectrum — somewhere between substances like alcohol and sugar. We know that THC and other cannabinoid chemicals affect brain chemistry by mimicking chemicals that occur naturally in the body; it’s the reason that smoking pot makes us feel good, gives us the munchies, and also why really bomb dank can put us on our ass for hours.

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