Cannabis addiction is real

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“You can’t get addicted to cannabis.”

It’s a common belief that, at least anecdotally, I’ve long known isn’t true. I’ve watched a friend, fresh out of weed and desperate to get high, comb his carpet with a flashlight in hopes of finding tiny bits of bud. I’ve watched another friend, penniless from his daily toking habit, pawn his belongings so he could buy a few grams in order to sleep.

As someone in recovery from addiction to bath salts, hydromorphone, and other “hard drugs,” I see similarities between my behavior while addicted and the behavior of my aforementioned friends. I also know many people who consume cannabis regularly and lead successful lives that don’t involve searching carpets or trips to the pawn shop. Still, like people who drink alcohol, there are those who can use without issue and those who cannot.

Rand Teed, an addiction counsellor and the host of Drug Class, a Gemini Award-winning TV series about youth addiction, said cannabis addiction is real. It has a medical name, “cannabis use disorder,” and a number of symptoms.

“Cannabis impacts the endocannabinoid system, which is a system that activates reward and emotion. Typically, you will see a person [with cannabis use disorder] become less engaged in life [and have] more difficulty having positive responses to normal things,” Teed said.

“[Cannabis] becomes highly dependence forming and there’s significant withdrawal symptoms from it. Irritability, stomach pains, cramps, sleeplessness, lack of appetite, and nightmares.”

Cannabis use disorder is more common than you might think. According to a 2011 study in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, nine percent of people who use cannabis become addicted.

Teed said there are a couple of reasons why people underestimate the addictive potential of cannabis. Firstly, cannabis has become drastically more potent over a short period of time, which has increased its addiction risk.

A 2016 study in Biological Psychiatry analysed over 38,000 samples of illicit cannabis from 1995 to 2014. Samples from 1995 contained approximately four percent of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound in the plant that gets users high. Samples in 2014 contained approximately 12 percent, a threefold increase in only 20 years. Today, it’s possible to buy cannabis with over 20 percent THC.

Secondly, Teed said people’s thinking about cannabis has been “medicalized” and the benefits of cannabis have been “over-exaggerated.”

“There’s a belief out there now that cannabis cures cancer. Well, there was one mouse study a few years ago where micro amounts of THC slowed down a particular type of brain cancer. So all of a sudden, this became ‘marijuana cures cancer.’”

For people who have a problem with cannabis use, the public perception that cannabis isn’t addictive or harmful can make seeking help difficult.

“I was just at the Recovery Capital Conference doing a talk on cannabis, and I was followed up by a girl who is in Marijuana Anonymous, and she said that was really sort of tough for her to go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, which is typically [for] harder drugs, and say that her drug of choice was cannabis,” Teed said.

“It’s not dissimilar to people who used to go to Alcoholics Anonymous who hadn’t really lost everything. And then there’s that thinking, ‘well, you’re not bad enough,’ which just is bad thinking.”

Teed is concerned about Canada’s legalization of cannabis and the possibility of increased addiction rates.

“I think [legalization] affects accessibility and lower perceived risk because it’s legal. I think it opens up possibilities for people who normally wouldn’t have tried it to try it. And if they do have personal risk factor in terms of substance use disorders, that certainly could create an issue.”

Teenagers are most at risk for cannabis use disorder. According to a 2009 study in Lancet, one in six teenagers (17 percent) who use cannabis become addicted.

Teed said he has youth clients who do “dabs,” a type of cannabis extract that can contain more than 80 percent THC. The withdrawal symptoms are severe.

“I’ve had several kids who have been doing dabs, which is phenomenally stronger stuff…They’re having sweats. They’re having shakes—huge anxiety attacks.”

“So, again, if you think [cannabis] isn’t a big deal, that’s just not true.”