People tend to think pot is not addictive, yet many regular users still struggle to quit. We spoke with an expert and pot-smokers across the stoner spectrum to figure it out.
Photo by Bedtime Champ via Flickr
"At one point I remember thinking, 'I'm gonna get high every day'," Andrew*, 32, a self-described addict whose primary drug of choice is marijuana, told Broadly via email. "And that's exactly what I did."
Ten years passed—three thousand six hundred and fifty days—and during all of them, Andrew was stoned. He thought it was cool when he started. He was 12 years old, maybe 13. Back then, he would get high in a ditch, next to a parking lot, in his hometown.
With the proliferation of twelve-step recovery programs, the burgeoning rehab industry, and media coverage, the concept of addiction is well known. Data released in January by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism shows that there are 88,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States every year, making it "the fourth leading preventable cause of death" in this country. But as awareness of, and research into the science behind, addiction to hard drugs and alcohol has increased, marijuana is often seen as benign. Many people believe that marijuana is not harmful at all, focusing instead on the benefits it can provide to users. The media suggests this too; countless articles list the reasons why smoking pot is good for you. But what about when it's not?
It is commonly accepted that you cannot be addicted to marijuana, but recent studies have contested this. A report published in the New England Journal of Medicine states that "despite some contentious discussions regarding the addictiveness of marijuana, the evidence clearly indicates that long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction. Indeed, approximately 9 percent of those who experiment with marijuana will become addicted." Understanding weed addiction requires nuance: While weed may not create a physiological dependence in most people, it is a mood-altering drug, and it's possible for regular users to become psychologically dependent on it.
"I was almost completely removed from reality," Andrew told me of the decade he lost to weed. During those years, he felt that, without pot, life was too painful. He used marijuana as an escape. "Since reality is where emotions generally occur," he told me, "I found a great deal of relief [in smoking] from a lot of the shitty feelings I was having around that time." Andrew's story is extreme, but it mirrors many tales of addiction.
Not all tales of addiction, however, are the same. If Andrew is the extreme, then Samantha*, 27, represents another, perhaps more common, form of marijuana dependence. "I don't need to get cripplingly stoned all the time," she tells me as she slides two slender chopsticks into a mountain of golden pad thai. We met at a restaurant in Bushwick. She looked impossibly cool; her red lip stain didn't smudge as she devoured the greasy noodles. "I don't rip bongs. I roll joints [and] smoke a little weed over the course of the whole day. Like an eighth of weed will last me two weeks."
I know 'technically' weed is not addictive, in that it doesn't form physical dependence. Maybe that's true, but I was as addicted as anyone ever has been to anything.
She's not sure if she qualifies as an "addict" because she is able to abstain from pot for periods of time if she has to. "But if I have weed on me, I'll smoke it every day," she says. She tells me that when she's high for prolonged periods of time, she also has a tendency to spend money on weed that she would otherwise, and perhaps ought to, save. "I think that qualifies as some sort of addiction," she shrugs.
According to Dr. Norman Hoffmann, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and a specialist in drug addiction, that may be true. "Addiction is a condition characterized by a 'loss of control' over use," he explained to me in an email. "This means that the individual cannot moderate use resulting [in] a range of problems and negative consequences," he said. If that applies to alcohol, Dr. Hoffmann told me, then it applies to pot too—despite what lots of people believe. "Cannabis addiction does exist," Dr. Hoffmann assured me. "Our data show that people who use marijuana can manifest most of the same diagnostic criteria as those for alcohol and other addictive drugs."
How do you find out if someone has an addiction problem? "Probably the dumbest way of attempting to identify whether someone has a problem with any substance is to ask 'Is your ____ use a problem?'" Dr. Hoffman said, explaining that the method is often ineffective because "people are likely to deny a problem." According to him, the most effective diagnostic tool for addiction is a structured interview that seeks to identify behaviors and events that are specifically associated with addiction, like missing work or disrupted sleep patterns.
"Inability to stop or moderate use to avoid problems is a hallmark of an addiction," Dr. Hoffmann continued, acknowledging the difference between addiction and regular drug use. "One method for distinguishing misuse from an addiction or severe substance use disorder is to try a behavioral contract." Dr. Hoffmann says to truly determine if you are addicted to a drug you can set a rule for yourself to use the drug at least once a week, "but never exceed a specified amount in any twenty-four hour period." With alcohol, that "amount" might be two drinks. With cannabis, it might be a single normal-sized joint. The other task, Dr. Hoffman says, is to abstain from the drug one day out of the week. "If the individual can follow this contract for three months," Dr. Hoffman explained, "the individual is probably not addicted. In clinical practice, I never had a person I had identified as addicted make it past the second week."
Andrew would certainly have failed Dr. Hoffmann's test. At the height of his marijuana use, he would regularly consume at least an eighth of "good weed" every day, and would have consumed far more if only he could afford it. "Whether I was sick, well, broke, employed, [it] didn't matter," Andrew told me. He smoked pot regardless of life's circumstances. "A few times, I tried to take like a week off to air out or whatever," he says. "I just remember that the first day was OK, the second day was unbearable, and the third day never happened."
Samantha assumes she technically qualifies for marijuana addiction, but does not consider it a big deal. "I don't really know that I believe in the notion of [being] drug-free, especially in twenty-first century America," she says, explaining that she considers alcohol and antidepressants to be far more destructive than pot.
She also considers pot to be the antithesis of caffeine. "The legality of caffeine and the fact that everyone does it is such a distraction from the fact that it affects your body so immensely," she says, pointing out that caffeine is a drug our culture has embraced rather than vilified. She believes this is because "caffeine is beneficial in a capitalist society."
I don't rip bongs. I roll joints [and] smoke a little weed over the course of the whole day. Like an eighth of weed will last me two weeks.
In Samantha's view, weed, contrary to caffeine, "makes you slow down a little bit; makes you want to take the scenic route." This has been incredibly helpful for her in dealing with anxiety, which was was severe when she first tried pot. She had just come out of the closet (Samantha is transgender) and her parents sent her to a psychiatrist, who she says had an agenda and put her on antidepressant medication that was wreaking havoc on her body and mind. At the same time, Samantha was hearing about medical marijuana being prescribed to treat anxiety and depression in some states. "So I was like, I guess if I have to be medicated, I might as well choose something that I enjoy that doesn't make me feel like a different person," Samantha told me about her decision to use pot to treat her anxiety.
Read More: The Broadly Guide to Sobriety
She even sees her pot use as something that intersects with her queer identity. "I would say that it's a queer thing to smoke a lot of weed, definitely," she tells me, because "it's kind of perspective-altering over time." She thinks that "part of queerness is uncovering truth, a change in perspective, seeing difference in things." According to her, "weed really vibes with that. [...] It makes you see truth in a different way."
For Samantha, pot encouraged a change in perspective that has ultimately been positive, but that's not the case for Andrew. For many years, Andrew tells me, he was simply unable to function in society. "I was really nuts, and eventually ended up going on a bunch of psychiatric drugs to treat my 'anxiety'," which, like Samantha, he is affected by. (However, while Samantha uses marijuana to treat her anxiety, Andrew tells me that pot makes his worse.)
"I was literally delusional about a number of things," Andrew said. "At one point I thought I could control the weather." He considers the delusions to be negative side effects of marijuana use. "I couldn't interact normally with anyone, ever."
Cannabis addiction does exist.
Samantha is not affected in quite the same way. "It is a plant that you just smoke," she says, laughing at the idea that pot has serious side-effects. "I can function completely and be in a good mood when I'm high. That renders it harmless to me." Andrew told me that he was rendered insane by his extreme marijuana use, but Samantha's small-dosage, perpetual intake seems to be less consequential. "There's nothing that I can't do stoned, except perhaps like have complete control over my words," Samantha told me. "Maybe my mental processes are slowed down a little bit," but that's about it.
Dr. Hoffmann told me that this is typical of weed use. While addiction to pot, he says, is real, the symptoms of addiction differ from alcoholism and tend to be less severe. But, Dr. Hoffman says, "there are very pronounced side-effects of regular marijuana use—especially for adolescents." These are often "less obvious" than those associated with addiction to other drugs, such as alcohol and meth. "One reason may be that the effects may not become obvious until much later," Dr. Hoffmann said. The problems include memory loss, damage to reasoning and judgment skills, and reproductive issues related to sperm production.
Andrew, all too aware of the negative side effects that marijuana can cause, has been sober from all drugs and alcohol for a few years. He believes that addiction science is complicated, but that has an addictive nature and is susceptible to any intoxicating substance.
And Samantha? Although, on some days, she "will end up feeling like a sorry stoner," she has no intention or desire to end her "weed addiction."
"I don't care what other people do, I really don't," Andrew told me. "I hope everyone else is able to get high and not have it ruin their life. This was not the case for me."
"I know 'technically' weed is not addictive, in that it doesn't form physical dependence. Maybe that's true, but I was as addicted as anyone ever has been to anything."
*These names have been changed.