More than 20 million Americans use weed on a regular basis. For the most part, these people experience few problems from smoking up.
But what, exactly, is a marijuana addiction? How serious is it? Is it going to happen to you if you light up?
Addiction vs. dependence
First, let’s make a distinction. Many substances produce chemical dependence, in which your body adapts to the chemistry of the drug and has a hard time recovering after it’s removed.
Even some simple over-the-counter medications can lead to dependence. The same is true of many of the safest prescription medications on the market. But this isn’t the same thing as an actual addiction.
There isn’t much agreement among scientists as to what specifically constitutes an addiction, as opposed to a dependence. But most definitions focus on the harm the drug causes. If it’s substantial, you have an addiction. If not, you may be dependent but you’re not really addicted.
Over 1 billion ‘dependent’ on caffeine
Consider caffeine. About half the world’s caffeine users become dependent on the drug. That amounts to more than 1 billion people, all of them dependent on the same substance.
That doesn’t mean there are 1 billion or more caffeine addicts, though. Unless the caffeine causes health, legal, work, family, or other significant problems, it’s just a dependence, not a full addiction. The same distinction applies to marijuana.
Roughly 9 percent of cannabis users become dependent on the drug, the smallest percentage of any major recreational substance, including booze. These people can experience a range of symptoms, including tolerance and withdrawal, which are all relatively minor. And they’ve never caused a death.
A real pot addict, meanwhile, would experience major life difficulties because of the weed. If you’re racking up possession busts, DUI arrests, and unemployment benefits, all because you smoke pot, it’s a good bet you’re dealing with a genuine addiction.
So, is marijuana addictive?
No one knows exactly how many stoners become full-fledged addicts, but the drug’s low dependence rate suggests there are very few cannabis addicts in this country. By comparison, booze has a 15 percent dependence rate, while cocaine’s is 17 percent, heroin’s is 23 percent, and tobacco’s is a whopping 32 percent.
When you’re hooked on tobacco, it’s almost always a real addiction. The odds that nicotine will end your life are unbelievably high: A full half of all smokers die from the habit. Smoking causes other significant problems, too, including job discrimination, social stigma, and the outrageous cost. A lifelong cigarette habit can easily cost north of $100,000.
Those problems all add up to addiction. However, none of them plague potheads, at least not to any great degree. And most of the problems stoners do face could be resolved with simple legislation.
You will see marijuana users in addiction rehab centers from time to time. In fact, they make up one of the fastest-growing groups of people to seek help for drug abuse.
But that only tells us that people are more attuned to their cannabis use and more aware of the potential dangers. This is a good thing. We also know that these people tend to have a much easier time with recovery than hardened alcoholics or coke addicts.
It shouldn’t be surprising that more people are talking about marijuana addiction, since we’re all talking more about marijuana in general. And it shouldn’t be surprising that a small number of potheads experience addiction.
It would be surprising, however, if those numbers grew substantially. There is such a thing as weed addiction, but it’s rare, it tends to be mild, and the treatment is relatively easy. That’s a lot more good than bad.