Cannabis Addiction To the members of Marijuana Anonymous (MA), an offshoot of the addiction recovery program Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), cannabis is a dangerous drug, as destructive as crack, more callous than cocaine. But is this the right way to think about cannabis? Is it contrary to the ongoing research that demonstrates the health benefits of marijuana?
What is Addiction?
In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defined addiction as a “chronic brain disorder” that propels an addict to pathologically pursue reward and/or relief from a substance or activity to the detriment of their wellbeing and interpersonal relationships. ASAM arrived at this definition after four years of deliberation with input from more than 80 experts.
On its website, ASAM stated: “Research shows that the disease of addiction affects neurotransmission and interactions within reward circuitry of the brain, leading to addictive behaviours that supplant healthy behaviours, while memories of previous experiences with food, sex, alcohol and other drugs trigger craving and renewal of addictive behaviours.”
Dr. Raju Hajela, chair of the ASAM committee on the new definition, said: “Addiction is not a choice. Addictive behaviours are a manifestation of the disease, not a cause.” His colleague, Dr. Michael Miller, former president of ASAM, who oversaw the development of the new definition, added: “Many chronic diseases require behavioural choices, such as people with heart disease choosing to eat healthier or begin exercising.” He advised “creating opportunities for individuals and families to get help.”
Marijuana Versus Alcohol Addiction
In a recent article for Merry Jane, Nikki and Swami, The Cannabis Couple who have been campaigning for cannabis rights from their base in California for decades, talk about how they’d never have survived the “decadent 80s” if it wasn’t for weed. They lament how many of their friends, the ones who were big drinkers or into hard drugs, did not make it, and praise weed for saving their lives. If anyone called them marijuana addicts, no doubt they’d take a long pull on a fat one, and laugh about it for a while.
The Cannabis Couple, and other cannabis celebrity faces such as Snoop Dogg, Joe Rogan, and Rihanna are living proof it’s possible to use cannabis and live busy and productive lives that have far-reaching benefits. I mean, Willie Nelson has been stoned every day of his life, is still going strong and causing all sorts of controversy, and he’s 85 with no signs of fading out.
George Carlin, the comedian, is another celebrity who was open about his cannabis use, as well as his problems with alcohol and Vicodin. He had heart issues from a young age, and died of a heart attack at age 71. In a recent Vice article, most members of MA admit to abusing other substances with cannabis, usually alcohol, a known depressant. How differently would they feel if they’d only been consuming cannabis? Is that a fair question?
That’s not to say the members of MA don’t experience real addiction. One member compared his cannabis habit to “being kicked to death by a bunny.” So in his eyes marijuana is deadly, but his opinion doesn’t stack up against the stats. In America, excessive alcohol use leads to almost 90,000 deaths a year; in Australia it’s closer to 6,000 deaths per year, but the figure has increased by 62 per cent in the last ten years. 175 Americans die every day from opioid use.
No one has ever died from cannabis use, and that’s according to a 2017 report by the DEA. That’s not to say there are no adverse effects with cannabis. Matt Hill, an associate professor at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Calgary, Canada, compares a cannabis overdose to a panic attack or, in rare cases, a psychotic episode. But he doesn’t like the word “overdose” as it doesn’t accurately describe the condition, which technically results in a death. He prefers the term “cannabis toxicity.” In Ontario hospitals, the latest term is “greenout.”
The Problem with AA
AA defines addiction as the point where life becomes unmanageable due to destructive behaviour fuelled by alcohol. AA asks its members to admit they’re “powerless” over alcohol, and once they do, to submit to the dogma of the Twelve Steps, which includes apologizing to the people who’ve been hurt, and serving the AA community. In this way, AA prompts remorse for past wrongs, and keeps members busy with community tasks.
However, if addiction, in all its guises, is due to faulty wiring in the brain, what exactly are members apologizing for? By that logic, overweight people should apologize to their families for eating too much junk food. Or it’d it be okay for doctors to ignore a man dying of a heart attack because he refused to stop eating beef. Point being, their thinking is at best out-of-date, and at worst, predatory.
Full disclosure: I spent a few weeks in a room in 2017, and experienced first-hand the workings of AA. What I saw there was the vulnerabilities of broken people exposed with little in the way of support bar a hug, and a phone call. No matter how much members reached out to each other, they never seem to feel connected to anything bar their own addiction, and how could they when they lived in its shadow, utterly “powerless” over it. I bolted from the rooms and embraced my cannabis habit, which has served me much better.
How to Treat Marijuana Addiction
But there’s another key issue here that cannot be overlooked: alcohol abuse affects every body in the same way, and cannabis does not. Anyone who abuses booze will experience a range of side effects including cardiovascular disease, liver disease, respiratory infections, nerve damage and ulcers. A 2013 study into the effects of cannabis use found that different genes influence how cannabis interacts with the brain.
In short this means that because no two genetic maps are the same, no two people will experience cannabis the same way, just like some people can eat a bowl of pasta and feel fine, whereas a person with gluten-intolerance would be floored. Where cannabis is concerned it’s up to each individual to find the dose that works for him or her, and yes, getting it wrong can result in some unwanted effects.
Cannabis may not be like other drugs but that doesn’t mean it’s not addictive, or can’t be abused. Health experts estimate that around 10 per cent of cannabis users are addicts. I’d say the number is probably higher, but not all of them will consider themselves addicts, and if their lives are not adversely affected in any way, should it matter?
Moving forward, smarter thinking is needed, as well as more relevant questions like what does healthy cannabis use look like, and what kind of communities do we want to create to support users who need help? Also, is it possible to use cannabis to treat other addictions? The time for viewing cannabis through a stigmatized lens that closes options has passed; it’s fair to say we’ve had enough of that.