Cannabis has been vilified in the US since the early twentieth century when missionaries returned from Mexico with the plant. Locals noticed changes in the disposition of some of the town’s people at social functions—especially in church—and dubbed the plant “locoweed.” Not long after that, state after state banned the drug. A heap of recent research, however, is suggesting that the drug isn’t as harmful as people once believed.
Addictive Quality of Cannabis
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the handbook that most mental health professionals consult for information on mental illnesses, informs practitioners that there is no clear-cut indication that a person becomes dependent on cannabis. Instead, the patient must meet a wide variety of criteria to be considered addicted. This is in sharp contrast to other drugs such as cocaine, in which patients exhibit marked withdrawal symptoms and even physiological changes if deprived.
Over the years, many researchers have tried to pinpoint just how much of the population is at risk for developing cannabis addiction, and the general consensus is that approximately 10% of those who take the drug regularly will become addicted. It’s important to note, however, that cannabis use does not equate to cannabis abuse. Several factors go into determining whether a person will become addicted to a substance, and practically all substances have the potential to be addictive. However, some drugs are simply more addictive than others on a chemical level. Marijuana is not one of these drugs. According to a report by the US Institute of Medicine all the way back in 1999, “few marijuana users become addicted.”
In order for a substance to carry a high risk for dependence, it must have a high “dependence liability.” Dependence liability is a blanket term for acute and chronic tolerance, psychological dependence, potential for withdrawal and physical dependence. If this medley of symptoms sounds similar to what “hard” drugs can deliver, there’s a good reason for that. Of these five, marijuana has potential for causing two: psychological dependence and minor withdrawal symptoms in susceptible individuals.
Quantitative Comparison to Other Compounds
Dr. Andrew R. Morra, in his paper Reassessing the Marijuana Gateway Effect for the journal Addiction, found that a gateway effect isn’t required to explain why some individuals graduate to harder drugs. His research suggests that individuals who become dependent on drugs are likely to start with marijuana because it is relatively available, and that sadly, these individuals would have become addicts anyway.
In a study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, C. A. Haertzen found that drugs that provide an initially pleasurable high or “reinforcing experience” were harder to kick than those that did not. Interestingly, the drugs that had the greatest initial reinforcement scores were cocaine, heroin, and opiates. All three of these drugs also have high dependence liability scores.
In yet another study, this one led by Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London, researchers ranked substances by their addictive potential. The study suggests that virtually all “hard” drugs are more addictive than marijuana. In a shocking twist, the study also found that caffeine and tobacco were more addictive than cannabis. Dutch researchers have substantiated the results and suggested methods of fine-tuning the research even further.
Caffeine and Withdrawal
Though caffeine wasn’t on Professor Nutt’s list of highly addictive substances, a slew of research has pointed to its addictive qualities. Some studies suggest that as high as 30% of casual caffeine consumers become addicted. Like high-fructose corn syrup, caffeine is so prevalent in our society that it’s hard to avoid. Some foods, such as energy drinks and colas, list caffeine as a “flavoring agent.” Yet caffeine is a powerful central nervous stimulant, and yes, it is a drug.
Roland Griffiths, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, has stated that individuals that consume 100 mg of caffeine per day are at risk of developing a physical dependence that can pack quite a wallop in the form of withdrawal symptoms should those individuals kick the habit. Symptoms include lethargy, nausea, vomiting, sadness, irritability, headaches and muscle pain. In comparison, when withdrawal symptoms are observed in individuals who abruptly cease consuming cannabis, irritability is frequently the only symptom observed. It is an irony, then, that marijuana remains illegal for recreational use in most areas while caffeine and alcohol—both demonstrably more addictive—are legal.