Emailing: Setting the Record Straight on Marijuana and Addiction by Paul Armentano

Setting the Record Straight on Marijuana and Addiction by Paul Armentano

the Record Straight on Marijuana
and Addiction

by Paul Armentano
by Paul Armentano


The U.S.
government believes that America is going to pot –

Earlier this
month, the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse announced plans to
spend $4 million to establish the nation’s first-ever “Center on
Cannabis Addiction,” which will be based in La Jolla, Calif. The
goal of the center, according to NIDA’s press
, is to “develop novel approaches to the prevention,
diagnosis and treatment of marijuana addiction.”

Not familiar
with the notion of “marijuana addiction”? You’re not alone. In fact,
aside from the handful of researchers who have discovered that there
are gobs of federal grant money to be had hunting for the
government’s latest pot boogeyman, there’s little consensus that
such a syndrome is clinically relevant – if it even exists at

But don’t try
telling that to the mainstream press – which recently published
headlines worldwide
, “Marijuana withdrawal rivals that of nicotine.” The
alleged “study” behind the headlines involved all of 12
, each of whom were longtime users of pot and
tobacco, and assessed the self-reported moods of folks after they
were randomly chosen to abstain from both substances. Big surprise:
they weren’t happy.

And don’t try
telling Big Pharma – which hopes to cash in on the much-hyped “pot
and addiction” craze by touting psychoactive prescription drugs like
Lithium to
help hardcore smokers
kick the marijuana habit.

And certainly
don’t try telling the drug “treatment” industry, whose spokespeople
are quick to warn that marijuana “treatment” admissions have risen
dramatically in recent years, but neglect to explain that this
increase is due entirely to the advent of drug courts sentencing
minor pot offenders to rehab in lieu of jail. According to state and
, up to 70 percent of all individuals in drug
treatment for marijuana are placed there by the criminal justice
system. Of those in treatment, some 36
had not even used marijuana in the 30 days prior to
their admission. These are the “addicts”?

Indeed, the
concept of pot addiction is big business – even if the evidence in
support of the pseudosyndrome is flimsy at best.

And what
does the science say? Well, according to the nonpartisan
National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine – which published
a multiyear,
million-dollar federal study
assessing marijuana and health in
1999 – “millions of Americans have tried marijuana, but most are not
regular users [and] few marijuana users become dependent on it.” The
investigator added, “[A]though [some] marijuana users develop
dependence, they appear to be less likely to do so than users of
other drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), and marijuana
dependence appears to be less severe than dependence on other

Just how less
likely? According to the Institute of Medicine’s 267-page report,
fewer than 10 percent of those who try cannabis ever meet the
clinical criteria for a diagnosis of “drug dependence” (based on
DSM-III-R criteria). By contrast, the IOM reported that 32 percent
of tobacco users, 23 percent of heroin users, 17 percent of cocaine
users and 15 percent of alcohol users meet the criteria for “drug

In short, it’s
the legal drugs that have Americans hooked – not pot.

But what about
the claims that
ceasing marijuana smoking
can trigger withdrawal symptoms
similar to those associated with quitting tobacco? Once again, it’s
a matter of degree. According to the Institute of Medicine, pot’s
withdrawal symptoms, when identified, are “mild and subtle” compared
with the profound physical syndromes associated with ceasing chronic
alcohol use – which can be fatal – or those abstinence symptoms
associated with daily tobacco use, which are typically severe enough
to persuade individuals to reinitiate their drug-taking

The IOM report
further explained, “[U]nder normal cannabis use, the long half-life
and slow elimination from the body of THC prevent[s] substantial
abstinence symptoms” from occurring. As a result, cannabis’
withdrawal symptoms are typically limited to feelings of mild
anxiety, irritability, agitation and insomnia.

importantly, unlike the withdrawal symptoms associated with the
cessation of most other intoxicants, pot’s mild after-effects do not
appear to be either severe or long-lasting enough to perpetuate marijuana
use in individuals
who have decided to quit. This is why most
marijuana smokers report voluntarily ceasing their cannabis
by age 30 with little physical or psychological difficulty.
By comparison, many cigarette smokers who pick up the habit early in
life continue to smoke for the rest of their lives, despite making
numerous efforts to quit.

So let’s

Marijuana is
widely accepted by the National Academy of Sciences, the Canadian
Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
, the British
Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs
and others to lack the
severe physical and psychological dependence liability associated
with most other intoxicants, including alcohol and tobacco. Further,
pot lacks the profound abstinence symptoms associated with most
legal intoxicants, including

That’s not to
say that some marijuana smokers don’t find quitting difficult.
Naturally, a handful of folks do, though this subpopulation is
hardly large enough to warrant pot’s legal classification (along
with heroin) as an illicit substance with a “high potential for
abuse.” Nor does this fact justify the continued arrest of more than
800,000 Americans annually for pot
any more than such concerns would warrant the
criminalization of booze or nicotine.

Now if I can
only get NIDA to fork me over that $4 million


March 31, 2008

Paul Armentano [send him
] is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML
Foundation in Washington, DC. He is the author of “Emerging
Clinical Applications for Cannabis and Cannabinoids: A Review of the
Scientific Literature
” (2007, NORML Foundation).

Copyright © 2008 Paul Armentano

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