Huffpost Fifty

Is Marijuana Addictive? (DEBATE)

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Marijuana ranked number one in a recent article on the top five most commonly abused prescription drugs used by post 50s. According to a 2011 report from The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 3 million adults older than 50 have illegally used the drug and "out of 4.8 million older adults who used illicit drugs, marijuana use was more common than non-medical use of prescription medicines among the 50-to-59 age range."

This led to cries of distinguishing between "addiction" and "dependency," with many readers claiming marijuana isn't actually addictive at all. So Huff/Post50 asked some professionals to weigh in on the matter. Doctors Robert DuPont and Andrea Barthwell are members of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and say that marijuana is addictive. Laurel Dewey -- who says marijuana is not addictive -- is the author of "Betty's (Little Basement) Garden," the first fictional novel that deals with medical marijuana in Colorado from the patient/caregiver perspective.

What do you think? And will their arguments change your mind?

CORRECTION: An earlier version of Laurel Dewey's post referenced a 1974 study from the University of Virginia. The study was actually conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University.


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Marijuana is addictive.

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Who makes the better argument?

Robert DuPont, M.D. Former White House Drug Chief, Member Of ASAM

(Dr. Andrea Barthwell is a former Deputy Director for Demand Reduction at the Office of National Drug Control Policy co-authored this post.)

There is a major disconnect between what medical science knows and what the public believes about the addictiveness of marijuana.

Conventional wisdom from the 1960s held that marijuana addiction did not exist. Such beliefs were reinforced by observation and experience. Back then, many people who tried marijuana did so in their late teens and early adulthood, using low-potency ditch weed. They experimented, dropped‐out in protected environments, and re‐joined their non‐drug-using peers years later with Cheech & Chong-infused memories of halcyon days, although some dropped out permanently, either trapped in a time-warp or whose drug-use escalated, usually shortening their lives.

But conventional wisdom and experience must give way to scientific fact when several decades of research show that marijuana does produce dependence, and that, in fact, it's relatively common. About 9 percent of people who try marijuana become addicted to it, and that figure approximately doubles as the age of initiation drops into adolescence. These rates are very close to the percentage of people who ever drink who become alcoholics. Rates of marijuana dependence rise to 20 percent ‐- 30 percent for people who have used it at least five times, and 35 percent -‐ 40 percent for those who use marijuana daily. Aside from the legal drugs of alcohol and tobacco, marijuana dependence is the most common type of drug dependence in the United States.

As doctors who have practiced addiction medicine for decades, we are seeing levels of marijuana addiction today that are unprecedented. Admissions for marijuana use disorders have dramatically increased at state‐funded treatment facilities, accounting for 18 percent of admissions in 2010. Since the early 2000s, admission for treatment of marijuana abuse ranks higher than heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and prescription painkillers.

marijuana legalization

Of 7.1 million people with dependence or abuse of drugs other than alcohol or tobacco in 2010, 4.5 million had cannabis dependence. That's 63 percent of everyone with illicit drug dependence or abuse. And, the percentage of marijuana users who are dependent has been climbing for the last two decades, which may be caused by the astounding increase in marijuana potency, over 760 percent higher than the marijuana of the 1960s.

In the last two decades, research found that a neurobiological system associated with cannabinoid receptors in the brain are activated by cannabinoids, including those in marijuana, creating the reward and dependence-producing mechanism for the drug. Even more convincing than finding the neurobiological apparatus for marijuana dependence is the withdrawal syndrome seen when dependent people or lab animals stop using. The main indicators of dependence to any drug are withdrawal symptoms, unsuccessful attempts to control use, increased tolerance (needing ever greater amounts to attain the same high) and using larger amounts of the drug or for a longer time than intended. These markers have been measured in people with marijuana dependence.

Withdrawal is a classic indicator of drug dependence, and several placebo‐controlled inpatient studies of marijuana withdrawal have been conducted. They show that daily marijuana smokers, upon abstinence of from three to 45 days, show withdrawal symptoms that include anxiety, depression, irritability, restlessness, sleep difficulty, strange dreams, anger and aggression. Sound like heroin, cocaine or alcohol withdrawal? Precisely, these are the same symptoms seen with other drugs. Indeed, studies of brain responses in animals after exposure to and abstinence from cannabinoids show neurochemical changes that are very similar to responses from other drugs.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine recently issued a white paper outlining our position against marijuana legalization, including the November ballot measures in Colorado, Washington and Oregon. One reason we oppose legalization is that it will inevitably lead to rising levels of addiction. As an organization of physicians dedicated to treating and preventing the disease of addiction, we cannot support a massive social experiment that will increase the very disease we strive each day to reduce.

One of the major variables in drug use is increased access, which leads to increased use. A RAND Corp. study of California's 2010 marijuana legalization ballot measure concluded that rates of marijuana use would substantially increase after legalization. In turn, the more people use it, the higher number of users who encounter problems caused by heavy use.

Legalization would quickly lead to creation of a high-powered, multi-billion-dollar global marijuana industry -- modeled after the global tobacco industry -- sure to include production, distribution, marketing, wholesale and retail sales and, no doubt, government lobbying. This would undoubtedly cause the number of people using and addicted to marijuana to rise. Alcohol is not the No. 1 addictive intoxicant because it has more addictive properties than heroin or cocaine. Alcohol is the No. 1 addictive intoxicant because it is so readily accessible -‐ available on almost every corner at markets, convenience stores, gas stations, grocery stores and bars. If cocaine were legal and similarly marketed, we might have as many cocaine addicts as alcoholics.

Legalization proponents claim that addiction and other health problems from legal marijuana would be addressed through heavy taxation to pay for prevention and treatment, as well as regulations to keep it away from kids. That has not worked with alcohol and tobacco, our two legal drugs that do not come anywhere near paying for themselves because their powerful industries kill attempts at taxation and regulation. Commercial marijuana would quickly become a very profitable industry. What powerful industry in this country simply allows itself to be heavily taxed and regulated?

In the legalization debate, we often hear the rationale that alcohol and tobacco cause more addiction and other health problems than marijuana. This is a curious argument to those of us dedicated to protecting health. If an illegal drug is not causing as many health problems as legal drugs, we should not legalize it so it can cause more health problems. Instead, we should try to reduce the health problems caused by all drug use. Legalization does the opposite. Because marijuana is an addictive drug, and legalization will increase use and addiction to marijuana, the marijuana legalization movement is a clear threat to public health.

Dr. Robert DuPont is a former White House Drug Chief and former Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Dr. Andrea Barthwell is a former Deputy Director for Demand Reduction at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Both are members of ASAM.

Laurel Dewey Author, Betty's (Little Basement) Garden and the Jane Perry mystical crime thriller series

What if everything you were ever told and believed about a subject wasn't true? What if the well-meaning, trusted and respected people who told you those lies were just parroting the propaganda that they heard?

That's the exact dilemma I found myself in about three years ago. For most of my life, I bought into the grim and terrifying stories I heard about -- dare I say it? -- marijuana.

Whether they called it doobie, reefer, pot, Mary Jane or plain ol' weed, I believed all those ominous voices when they warned me that marijuana could cause everything from brain damage to a craving for stronger drugs (i.e., the "gateway" theory.) And so as I got older, I just kept repeating the same marijuana mantras to others, convinced that I was right. "Marijuana is dangerous," I told others. "Only brain dead stoners use it."

Someone once said to me, "the further you get away from the facts, the easier they can turn into a myth." Boy, is that the truth. It all started three years ago when I decided to finally research marijuana. If anything, I was determined to prove to myself and others that my concerns were valid. Living in Colorado where medical marijuana was legal to possess and grow once you qualified for a "red card", I was surrounded by "pot shops." Thanks to Amendment 20 in our State Constitution, these dispensaries grew and flourished faster than it takes a medical marijuana bud to mature. In Denver County alone, there are around 400 medical marijuana dispensaries, outnumbering the 375 Starbucks statewide. I freely admit that I mocked these businesses and rolled my eyes at the people who frequented them. So, on that summer day nearly three years ago, I decided to dig into this controversial plant and arm myself with even more information that would support my anti-marijuana stance.

But a strange thing kept happening. The more I dug into what some opponents refer to as "the green menace," the more I continued to find research studies I wasn't aware existed. Some of these studies had been buried -- perhaps purposely -- and made scientific claims about Cannabis Indica and Cannabis Sativa that I found almost too good to be true. For example, I read a 1974 study (published in 1975) that was conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University that proved that the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant shrunk cancerous tumors and killed cancer cells, leaving healthy cells alone. Even though it was there in black and white, I still didn't buy it. So I kept investigating. I found that when I used the Internet search terms "cannabis+indica+healing+benefits," I got a whooping 220,000 websites. When I added the word "medical" to that group of words, the field increased to 452,000.

For the next six months, I spent every spare moment researching "the Devil Weed." Putting it bluntly, I was shocked. There was absolutely nothing "devilish" about it. All this remarkable information had been out there, waiting to be discovered and all I had to do was agree to view it with an open mind. I learned that Cannabis Indica had been compounded into liquid extracts in the late 1800's and up until the early 1900's. These extracts were recommended by medical doctors to alleviate everything from teething pain in infants to reducing the pain of arthritis and menstrual cramps.

I found out that contrary to what I'd been told, nobody has ever died from using marijuana in the thousands of years this plant has been available. In fact, I had no idea that its medical use dated back to around 2700 B.C. and was called a "superior" herb by the Emperor Shen-Nung (2737-2697 B.C.). I discovered that while I had been demonizing marijuana, thousands of people worldwide had been quietly and effectively curing or relieving a multitude of health problems, including Crohn's disease, migraine headaches, chronic depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), insomnia, dementia, epileptic seizures, Parkinson's disease and even AIDS. The more I researched and talked to pro-cannabis physicians, patients, researchers and historians who studied the plant, the more I heard incredible testimonials of recovery from illnesses and mental imbalances in addition to, as one patient told me, "just a better outlook on life."

And that's when I uncovered information that really challenged the stories I'd been told. People were using this "weed" to get off of opiates, alcohol, tobacco, heroin, cocaine and other powerful drugs. Thus, it was gaining traction as "an exit drug," instead of the "gateway drug." Seniors were also secretly using it to improve their cognition. Wait...what? How is that possible? Didn't marijuana make you a "brain-dead loser"? No, not according to the scientific data I discovered. The opposite was true as researchers found that the plant allowed neurogenesis in the brain -- the growth of new neural pathways, even when the brain had been damaged by age or trauma.

I understood that smoking the herb was the least effective way to gain the vast array of medical benefits from its use. I learned that doctors, lawyers, CEOs of major companies, accountants and other highly trained professionals used marijuana daily and felt it vastly improved their wellbeing and ability to handle stress. I found out that a respected medical doctor, Dr. William Courtney, encouraged patients with chronic illnesses to juice 10 to 20 fresh marijuana leaves daily. This concentrated green drink was not psychoactive and flooded the body with cannabinoid nutrients that helped reverse degenerative diseases.

Putting it mildly, the information was mind-boggling. And that's when I realized that there was a story to be told. Nobody had ever written a fictional novel about medical marijuana that didn't include "stoner" stereotypes or pander to fear. It took me another five months and hundreds of hours of one-on-one interviews with medical marijuana patients, caregivers, growers, dispensary owners and experts within the cannabis industry to develop what would become Betty's (Little Basement) Garden.

The book focuses on 58-year-old Betty Craven, a strikingly beautiful former Texas beauty queen who is a staunch Republican and widow to her equally conservative career military husband, Frank. Betty's only child, a son, died in his mid-20s from a drug overdose. When we meet Betty, her life is in suspended animation. The walls are closing in around her. All she has left that she loves is her award-winning flower garden and the remnants of equipment left over from her failed gourmet chocolate store. When she comes to the shocking conclusion that her entire life has been wasted, a rebellious spirit that Betty has kept hidden, explodes to the surface. Her conservative world spins 180 degrees around as she comes face-to-face with her biggest fears. And one of those fears is marijuana. The path she chooses is paved with secrecy, eccentric characters, toe-curling love, life-changing events, and a connection to her unconventional, basement garden that she never could have imagined.

My intention when I wrote Betty's (Little Basement) Garden was to show the truth about the medical marijuana industry in Colorado. It's not all sunshine and lollipops. I don't sugarcoat the realities of working in the cannabis world, nor do I romanticize what it means to be a grower for a seriously ill patient who depends upon your green thumb to make his or her medicine. The book illustrates a massive shift in the "anti-pot" propaganda that I grew up hearing and believing. My hope is that it's not just an entertaining story; my hope is that it's also enlightening for those who read it and believe the way I used to about this ancient herb. As Betty Craven says, "There's nothing more liberating than releasing a limiting belief."

To read or download an extensive, 840 page compilation of published medical studies that show the proactive use of cannabis in various forms, please click on this link.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of Laurel Dewey's post referenced a 1974 study from the University of Virginia. The study was actually conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Author website:

Join Laurel on her official Facebook author page.

Buy Betty's (Little Basement) Garden on Amazon



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