Recreational and medicinal usage of marijuana has increased in the last decade, sparking a debate about the dangers and risks of cannabis. Advocates for legalization of marijuana claim that weed is non-addictive and different from drugs like cocaine or heroin, which have high risks for chemical dependency. Antagonists claim that marijuana is potentially mentally and emotionally addicting, citing long-term cognitive and developmental problems brought on by habitual usage. The various opinions over cannabis differ greatly. Potheads call it a “wonder drug” and point to alcohol as the real problem. Radically conservative thinkers claim marijuana only makes a person lazy, promotes crime, and leads to harder drug use. The truth about marijuana lies somewhere in-between these two polar opposite outlooks.
Marijuana en Masse
Not everyone who smokes marijuana becomes addicted. Just like alcohol, the majority of the population can use cannabis non-addictively. Drugs like opioids and cocaine can create a strong chemical and physical dependence in habitual users. Marijuana does not have many of these properties and physical withdrawal symptoms are mild. In this way, weed isn’t as addictive in the traditional sense.
However, the belief that marijuana is completely non-addictive is also a myth. While most people who experiment with pot do not become addicted, there is no denying that hundreds of thousands of people do become addicted. Similar to alcoholism or a food addiction, marijuana addiction seems to arise in a certain minority of the population and presents itself in various degrees of severity. Why does marijuana present a risk of addiction to certain people?
The Addicted Brain & Marijuana
The most commonly accepted theory on addiction is that there is a predisposed error or malfunction in the dopamine reward pathways of addicts. Simply put, people with addiction experience and process dopamine releasing chemicals differently than normal people.
“Marijuana, like caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and heroin, is associated with a release of dopamine”
Cannabinoids in marijuana indirectly increase dopamine by blocking the action of another neurotransmitter called GABA. Other drugs release dopamine in different ways. However the one trait that almost all addictive drugs have in common is that they release dopamine. Looking solely at the effect on the dopamine reward pathway, we can see that cannabis, alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and opioids have similar actions.
Who Becomes Addicted to Marijuana?
Theoretically anyone who smokes weed could develop a dependency upon marijuana. However people with a predisposition to addiction, roughly 5-10 percent of the population, are much more likely to become addicted. The truth is that most people who smoke cannabis do not become addicted. Approximately 70 percent of college-age people have tried marijuana. Out of that portion only about 18 percent report becoming frequent users of marijuana. A smaller portion, 8 percent, become very frequent users of marijuana. These statistics show that the majority of the population experiment with marijuana, possibly even become regular smokers, but generally cut-back or abstain completely in the future.
Research and experiential data shows us that people who suffer from addiction are not able to regulate or control marijuana consumption. Due to the dopamine releasing nature of marijuana, the potential for addiction must be considered. It is also possible that non-addicts can become “addicted” to marijuana. Just like anyone can become addicted to caffeine or nicotine if ingested frequently and regularly. Our brains become accustomed to the dopamine release provided by these substances. When a person stops using these chemicals they may experience cravings, withdrawals, and temptations to use. Marijuana is no different.