Is there such a thing as cannabis addiction?

It’s harder to know as we shed the cultural baggage and stigma that comes with being a regular user

Young people smoking cannabis


Can you become addicted to pot? Two recent studies on “cannabis use disorder” among young people tell conflicting stories.

Both were conducted by Columbia University’s public health department. And both were released over the last two weeks. 

The most recent of the pair was published in Psychiatry, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The study looked at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That survey gathered information from more than half a million participants. It compared problem use among adolescents in states where weed is legal to states where weed is illegal.

The rate of young people under 18 developing cannabis use disorder in states where weed is legal has only increased slightly. That number went from 2.13 per cent to 2.62 per cent since 2008. The JAMA study found a negligible increase in problem use among young people between 18 and 26.

But then, consider a study published two weeks earlier, in a different journal, but from the same research department. In that study, researchers found that if you’re a regular stoner, your chances of developing a cannabis use disorder have dropped substantially — by nearly 38 per cent if you’re over the age of 26. 

What do the findings tell us?

The results taken together suggest that young people who smoke more weed are less likely to develop cannabis use disorders. Not the clearest narrative, but the numbers speak for themselves.

One thing the findings suggest is that cannabis use disorder is a slippery term.

It’s defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as “the continued use of cannabis despite clinically significant impairment.”

That definition was updated in 2013 to include various symptoms, including withdrawal. But it’s hard to diagnose.

One indicator used by physicians is whether smoking weed is causing social problems. But that’s an area normally outside a doctor’s area of expertise. Decades of reefer madness thinking have many doctors ready to blame pot for other underlying problems.

It’s an issue public health hawks have been exploiting as more states legalize cannabis. They say that there aren’t enough resources in place to help young people who develop substance use issues with cannabis. Governments have responded by throwing tax money from legalization at public service announcements, drug education programs and Just Say No revivals.

But what constitutes a cannabis use disorder – especially in studies that rely on historical and self-reported data? It’s harder to know as we shed the cultural baggage and stigma associated with pot use. One way to read these results is that governments are throwing money at a problem that doesn’t really exist. Or if it does exist, it’s on a scale too small to be all that significant.

What the Columbia results also suggest is that legalization is changing the way we think about our relationship to marijuana. The way we define problem use has been influenced by decades of cultural stigma. 

Lots of medical marijuana patients I know face this feeling. Despite the fact their quality of life has improved with marijuana use, they can’t escape the stigma that they are using pot as a crutch. Legalization could be part of the reason why fewer young people see their use as problematic. 

Your own relationship to weed and what it can do for your work and social life are important factors to consider when determining cannabis use problems – or when you’re reading headlines like this.

No side of the legalization debate is really able to claim a victory from the most recent findings. The facts are that fewer adults see their cannabis use as problematic. And teens are less likely to develop a problem is they start.

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