Can Weed be Addictive?

As a cannabis enthusiast and an aspiring entrepreneur in this industry, this is a question that I ponder on a daily basis. On the one hand, while I’m not the most health-conscious person out there, I do care about what I put in my body (hoping to make it past 60 you know). On the other hand, I want to start an ethical and socially equitable business. Sure, most of us don’t want to be another Sackler who started a nationwide opioid crisis. But more importantly, I want to start a business that I can be proud of, one that does more good than harm.

As a believer of science and like a typical grad student, I went to the library (figuratively) and looked for scientific research on cannabis addiction. TLDR: In health sciences, it’s possible that the existence and extent of cannabis addiction is presumed to be true and isn’t critically questioned. Sound like it’s bad news? Beware, research on this topic is extremely limited and one-sided. So just like what I would advise as you read this article: Take everything with a grain of salt!

What Does the Research Say?

I painstakingly combed through a number of research papers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and summarized a few key findings:

  • “Among people who used cannabis, 22% (18-26%) have cannabis use disorder, 13% (8-18%) have cannabis abuse, and 13% (10-15%) have cannabis dependence. Estimates from cohort studies showed that the risk of developing cannabis dependence increased to 33% (22-44%) among young people who engaged in regular (weekly or daily) use of cannabis. However, note that there was a lack of data from cohort studies to estimate the risk of cannabis use disorder or cannabis abuse among regular cannabis users.” (link)

  • “Cannabis withdrawal syndrome appears to be prevalent among regular users of cannabis.” (link)

  • Marijuana substance abuse treatment admissions have been on the rise but remain significantly lower than alcohol and other drugs in non-adolescent age groups. (link)

Source: SAMHSA

But How Addictive is Cannabis versus Other Substances?

As it turns out, cannabis has similar dependence potential to caffeine, but rather lower than alcohol and nicotine (at low active doses). At the same time, it can be as addictive as stimulants such as caffeine or MDMA (again at lower active doses) or more addictive than hallucinogens.

Source: Gable, R. S. (2006). Acute toxicity of drugs versus regulatory status. In J. M. Fish (Ed.),Drugs and Society: U.S. Public Policy, pp.149-162, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Why Can’t We Take Existing Cannabis Research at Face Value?

Since one of the characteristics of defining addiction is continuing habitual use of a substance, rather than any particular impact or harm, regular use is going to be defined as “addiction” by default. In addition, cannabis users who come into contact with people doing health research are not necessarily broadly representative - they’re coming into contact because of a problem or a problematic encounter.

As I read the fine print of cannabis research, there is often a disclaimer that cannabis use has not been thoroughly researched regarding frequency and dose of use, and how other factors, such as symptoms, are associated with cannabis use disorder, abuse, and dependence. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, puts it best when it comes to challenges associated with doing cannabis research:

“First of all, you need marijuana. And marijuana is illegal. You see the problem. Scientists can get research marijuana from a special farm in Mississippi, which is astonishingly located in the middle of the Ole Miss campus, but it is challenging. When I visited this year, there was no marijuana being grown.

The second thing you need is approval, and the scientists I interviewed kept reminding me how tedious that can be. While a cancer study may first be evaluated by the National Cancer Institute, or a pain study may go through the National Institute for Neurological Disorders, there is one more approval required for marijuana: NIDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is an organization that has a core mission of studying drug abuse, as opposed to benefit.”

So What?

As we have always been clear with our blog posts - we are not trying to convince everyone to consume cannabis. We are trying to present you with all the facts (to the extent of our knowledge) so that you can make a decision that is in your best interest. Much of the impact that cannabis has on our mind and body is still unknown due to limitations in scientific research. My personal POV? Don’t start consuming cannabis (or at least not regularly) until your brain is fully developed in your mid-20s. As far as whether cannabis is addictive, if we go with the rigid medical definition today, it can be! Though with the same definition, if you drink a glass of wine everyday, is that addiction?