Is Marijuana Addictive? It Depends How You Define Addiction

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Does marijuana cause addiction? As Californians prepare to vote on Prop 19 — which would legalize recreational use of the drug, at least under state law — the question is more pertinent than ever. The answer, however, is less than clear: addiction experts tend to agree that pot is addictive, but nonspecialists and much of the public see it differently. It all depends on what you mean by “addiction.”

The definition most commonly accepted by addiction experts is a boiled-down version of the one laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV TR), psychiatry’s handbook of all mental conditions. By the book, addiction is the compulsive use of a substance despite ongoing negative consequences, which may lead to tolerance or withdrawal symptoms when the substance is stopped. By this definition, about 10% of people who smoke marijuana become addicted to it. (More on PHOTOS — Cannabis Conventions).

However, nonspecialists (including many doctors) still tend to use an older perspective, now seen as outdated by experts. From their point of view, some drugs may be considered physically addictive — producing severe withdrawal — while others are psychologically addictive and only cause craving; those that are both are the hardest to quit.

Former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders characterized marijuana succinctly on CNN recently, while declaring her support for legalization: “Marijuana is not addictive, not physically addictive anyway.”

In this view, the paradigm for addiction is heroin: the shaking, puking heroin junkie who can’t quit because the withdrawal sickness is impossible to bear. Because marijuana cessation is not linked with such severe symptoms, the drug isn’t seen as physically addictive. And considering that most people view physical addiction as uncontrollable, but psychological addiction as manageable with proper willpower, marijuana tends not to be regarded as addictive in general. (More on Addiction Files: Recovering From Drug Addiction, Without Abstinence).

But virtually all addiction experts disagree with that stance. “The distinction is completely arbitrary. Psychological addiction occurs in your brain and it’s a physical change,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Different brain processes may be involved in the psychological drive to take drugs and in the physical withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped — but both are brain changes.

As it turns out, the psychological drive is much more powerful than the physical experience of withdrawal. Cocaine, which also produces little withdrawal sickness but does create extreme craving, was once seen as nonaddictive — that was before America was introduced to crack in the 1980s. More than a century ago, Mark Twain summed up the essence of the problem, in reference to the addictiveness of tobacco: “Giving up smoking is easy,” he said. “I’ve done it thousands of times.”

I personally had the same experience with heroin. I got through the nausea and chills at least five different times, but avoiding the psychological draw of the drug long-term was much harder than suffering through a few weeks of withdrawal symptoms. Quitting cocaine is similar. (More on Best of ‘Stoner Cinema’).

So the question is, how does marijuana compare to these classically addictive drugs? Estimates vary, but compared with tobacco, which hooks about 20% to 30% of smokers, marijuana is much less addictive, coming in at 9% to 10%. In contrast, 23% to 25% of heroin users get addicted, along with 15% of alcohol users and 15% to 20% of those who use cocaine.

Marijuana is the most heavily used drug in the country — by their 20s, 56% of Americans have tried it — but only 16% of people who are in addiction treatment report that marijuana is their primary drug. In contrast, just 2% of young adults have ever tried heroin, but heroin addicts make up 14% of treatment admissions.

Overall, then, addiction rates for marijuana are significantly lower than for other drugs, both legal and illegal. What about withdrawal symptoms? “You see mood effects, irritability. Food intake decreases. There are sleep disruptions. It looks like nicotine withdrawal,” says Carl Hart, associate professor of clinical neuroscience at Columbia University, who has studied marijuana withdrawal. “You can actually die from alcohol withdrawal. Heroin withdrawal you can’t really die from; it’s more like the flu. Marijuana withdrawal is annoying, but it isn’t life threatening.” (Full disclosure: Hart and I are currently collaborating on a new book.)

According to Stanton Peele, author of the classic book Love and Addiction, the real question is not the substance’s addictive quality, but its potential for harm. “I wrote an article on this titled ‘Marijuana is addictive — so what?'” he says. “How harmful is this addiction compared to other addictions? It can be disruptive to people’s lives; I have a treatment center, and some people end up there because of marijuana. On the other hand, in terms of physical assaults to your body, it’s better than smoking and better than alcohol.” (More on The Marijuana Number That Was Too Good to Check)

As Dr. Elders also said on CNN, marijuana is nontoxic. You can fatally overdose on alcohol, heroin or cocaine, but the only way a dose of marijuana will kill you is if someone crushes you under a bale of it.

In fact it may be the social consequences of using marijuana that are more harmful than the physical ones. Peele notes that being convicted for marijuana possession can make a college student ineligible for federal student aid. “No psychologist in the universe could possibly say that smoking marijuana is worse for you than being deprived of the opportunity to get an education,” says Peele.

Hart agrees. “I’ve studied the effects of marijuana withdrawal and effects on cognition. I was ambivalent about it for a long time,” he says. “I now have a 15-year-old son. I am far more concerned about him interacting with law enforcement than I am with marijuana, based on the research.” (More on Is Drug Use Really on the Rise?).

And the debate over new ways to regulate addictive substances may only just be beginning. The forthcoming fifth edition of the DSM will include gambling addiction as well as drug addictions under the broader category of addictions. “We are recognizing that addiction is broader than we thought. It’s not just the concept of some heroin addict living in a cardboard box on the street,” says Peele. Anything that is absorbing and pleasurable — from the Internet to sex, pornography, food, shopping and even, for some people, eating carrots — can be considered addictive in this view. It may be impossible for regulators to keep up.


Regular normal cannabis is ok. Synthetic cannabis is the Devils brew, stay away at ALL COSTS! Had a severe bout of cannabis hypermesis trying to get off the syncans, still struggling through it. There are VERY REALLY and BAD consequences of using syncans. Please only use regular, normal cannabis if that's what you want to use, I know syncans will allow you pass every drug test but trust me it's soooooooooo not worth it, get a job that doesn't drug test OR just use on occasion. I'm telling you right now at very low levels I can barely function, lots of throwing up, lots of feeling like I'm going to die, all for nothing. It's extremely easy to over do it on the syncans, and before you know it the levels in your blood are too high to safely stop. Right now I've gone 3 days max and still no light at the end of the tunnel. I'm at such a low level now that if this doesn't work I'm going to have to admit myself to the ER. Please please please do not use synthetic anything, it's really dangerous.


To me a drug addict is someone depend on drugs be it legal or illegal.

If you take pills everyday you or a DRUG ADDICT, be it for high blood pressure, for cancer for diabetes.

You are a drug addict and the biggest drug dealer in the world or DOCTORS!





We should focus on the over-prescribed synthetic heroin pills, not this incredible, innocuous plant that makes people nice. It's not up to others what you can put in your body, and if you're going to put something in it that improves your life, we should all prefer the one that has NEVER KILLED ANYONE EVER: Cannabis. 7,000 deaths a year from Caffeine overdoses, nobody brings that up. Cigarettes murder half a million every year, still legal. This debate is OVER. Stop dancing around it, they just want profit and it's so easy to grow they know they'll lose their precious fiat currency when it becomes legal. Those in charge are scum. 


The National Institute for Mental Health had to lower the bar for addiction so marijuana could be "listed" as addictive,until that time it was considered to cause a dependency. Even withing that lowered standard it is considered less addictive than caffiene with less severe withdrawel side effects,,in other words missing you am coffee will upset you more than missing smoking a joint.


@NormanGooding Its not one size fits varies with individuals but make no mistake the info is there about the positives just do a little research.


'Dependency' is NOT 'addiction'.

Dennis Hill is a retired Biochemist who researched cancer for decades. He's now famous in the 'Cannabis / cancer world', for having cured his own Stage 4 Prostate cancer using Cannabis oil.

Dennis states in his youtube interview that only by chance did someone suggest he try Cannabis oil to cure his cancer, having researched it for many years and not coming across this concept before, and being a Scientist, he went on a mission and was shocked to find that it has been known to Science, but kept as hidden as possible, that Cannabinoids in Cannabis kill cancer cells.

On his website, Dennis goes into brief detail on exactly how Cannabis kills cancer: ttps://

He also covers the topic of 'addiction', given that he was taking highly potent Cannabis oil, every day, for over 6 months! Here's what he had to say about it:

" Six months ago when I started taking massive amounts of cannabinoid extract, the burning question in my mind was, “What will happen when I quit taking this stuff? Will I become dependent. What will withdrawal be like?” I was a little afraid. At the end of the six month treatment I abruptly stopped the medication—and waited for withdrawal to happen. There were a couple of days I was a little cranky; but mostly, withdrawal was a non-event. I just didn’t feel any different. Contemplating this I wondered, 'Why wasn’t it more traumatic?'

The answer is simply this: in our normal physiology there is already the full array of endocannabinoid channels that the additional dosage supports. When the additional extract is withdrawn, the existing anandamide (our natural cannabinoid) metabolic pathways resume their normal function. The adjustment is very slight.

Now that the cancer is gone, continuing metabolic support with pomegranate and tocotrienol, or cannabinoid support, will assure that it will never return. I’ve been given a new life; it’s thrilling to contemplate the possibilities.

~Dennis Hill."

More info & updates from Dennis here!


Could you define "user"? When you say that X percent of people who use a drug get addicted, do you mean people who have tried the drug once, people who use it every day, or what?