Pretty much everyone who has spent time smoking marijuana knows at least one diehard stoner. The guy whose eyes are always red, the girl who doesn’t use the term “wake and bake” ironically, the person who just can’t seem to ever get it together. These heavy smokers might work at a low-level job or they may be unemployed—but everyone who knows them well knows that they are capable of much more, if only they had any ambition.
Is this really addiction? I believe that it is (and I don’t think that’s an argument against legalization). In fact, the reasons why marijuana is addictive elucidate the true nature of addiction itself. Addiction is a relationship between a person and a substance or activity; addictiveness is not a simple matter of a drug “hijacking the brain.” In fact, with all potentially addictive experiences, only a minority of those who try them get hooked—and people can even become addicted to apparently “nonaddictive” things, like carrots. Addiction depends on learning, context and psychology, not just neurotransmitters.
With two states having already legalized recreational marijuana use and several more considering doing so, understanding the nature of addiction is more important than ever. Partisans on both sides of the debate have made extreme claims here; some legalizers saying there’s no such thing as marijuana addiction, while some prohibitionists claim “cannabis as addictive as heroin.”
Our concepts of addiction, however, come primarily from cultural experience with alcohol, heroin and, later, cocaine. No one has ever argued that opioids like heroin don’t have the potential to cause addiction because the withdrawal symptoms—vomiting, shaking, pallor, sweating and diarrhea—are objectively measurable. Opioids cause physical dependence that is evident when they become unavailable. The same is true for alcohol, where withdrawal is even more severe and can sometimes even be deadly.
So early researchers focused on these measurable symptoms related to alcoholism and opioid addictions in defining addiction: Using a drug could lead to becoming tolerant to it, tolerance could lead to dose escalation, which could in turn lead to physical dependence, and then the addiction could be driven by the need to avoid the painful symptoms of withdrawal. It was simple and physical.
In this view, however, cocaine and marijuana were not “really” addictive. While people can experience withdrawal symptoms like irritability, depression, craving and sleep problems when quitting these drugs, these are much more subjective and therefore can be dismissed as “psychological” rather than physical. You might really want coke or pot, but you didn’t need it like a real junkie, the thinking went.
– Read the entire article at Substance.