Further Reading

Is marijuana addictive?

Dear Stanton:

I keep reading that marijuana is addictive. Yet, although I have smoked it, I haven’t known many marijuana addicts (maybe a few people who overdo it). Isn’t it wrong to say mj is addictive? Also, won’t this hurt efforts to create more sensible drugs laws and policy?


Dear Eloise:

People who are familiar with marijuana users, because they use it casually themselves, know that the drug can be easily controlled. But, here is the remarkable thing, this is true of all drugs.

On the other hand, you can find highly compulsive marijuana users. But they tend to hang together in subcultures of heavy, destructive users. Likewise, they have few connections to ordinary society where you would run into them.

How do I know these things? Well, first, I get around. Second all collections of data from normal groups of people – including the high school drug use survey (called Monitoring the Future) and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse find that, of all the people who have used any drug, very few currently use it (that is, most have used it casually or have quit, even if they once used it heavily).

Moreover, very, very few people in these surveys use any drug daily (other than cigarettes, followed at a distance by alcohol). Thus, we really don’t encounter many addicts when we go out and look for them in the regular places. On the other hand, people could say, addicted drug users are not likely to remain in high school, or to have a household where they could be surveyed.

This is true enough. But, in general, users of any and all drugs will quit or control its use. And, it is quite difficult to find addicted drugs users, even users of heroin, who look like the “typical” addicts we imagine based on films we see – the ones who get “cold shakes’ and climb the walls because they can’t get their dose.

As a result, diagnostic tools like the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV don’t really require drug users to go through withdrawal in order to classify them as addicts. Instead, the criteria for what is called “drug dependence” looks how deeply people are immersed in drug use, for its negative consequences for their lives, and for its disturbances of their normal life functioning, including family, work, and health.

But by these kinds of criteria, marijuana users score as being dependent about as often (more, since there are more users of marijuana than of any other illicit drug).

So, I never speak of marijuana as being not addictive, just as I never speak of heroin as being addictive. That’s not how addiction works. People become addicted to a range of substances and involvements. The measure of addiction is the degree to which an involvement usurps people’s life, and yet they cannot curtail the involvement.