Many years ago the former head of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Alan Leshner made this statement when forced to confront the fact that tens of thousands of patients were successfully using cannabis as a medicine:
“The plural of anecdote is not evidence.”
Someone ought to pass on Lesnher’s cop out to ABC News, whose recent feature, “Reefer Madness Redux: Is Pot Addictive?“, is little more than a series of anecdotes from folks claiming that it’s becoming harder and harder for some individuals to quit weed.
Here’s a typical example:
The biggest hurdle in treating these patients is that marijuana “still has a positive spin to it,” he said. “People don’t believe it’s a problem.”
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“Plenty believe that they can’t get addicted or hold on to the idea that it’s only psychologically addictive and ‘I can think my way out of it,’”said Massella. “But once you develop a dependency, there is always a dependency.”
Naturally, John Massella, like many of the so-called experts quoted in the ABC story, has a financial incentive to promote the “marijuana is seriously addictive” claim. After all, he runs a drug rehabilitation center. Claiming that many of his clients are “pot addicts” is far more socially acceptable than admitting that most of his so-called ‘marijuana treatment admissions’ are really just young people who were busted for pot possession and ordered there by the court as a condition of probation.
But putting the anecdotes aside, what does the science actually say about pot and dependence?
Well, according to the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine — which published a multiyear, million-dollar federal study assessing marijuana and health in 1999 — “millions of Americans have tried marijuana, but most are not regular users [and] few marijuana users become dependent on it.” The agency added, “[A]though [some] marijuana users develop dependence, they appear to be less likely to do so than users of other drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), and marijuana dependence appears to be less severe than dependence on other drugs.” (In fact, more recent research indicates that marijuana use may actually help some people kick their hard drug habits!)
Just how less likely? According to the IOM’s 267-page report, fewer than 10 percent of those who try cannabis ever meet the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of “drug dependence” (based on DSM-III-R criteria). By contrast, the IOM reported that 32 percent of tobacco users, 23 percent of heroin users, 17 percent of cocaine users and 15 percent of alcohol users meet the criteria for “drug dependence.” In short, it’s the legal drugs that have Americans hooked — not pot.
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But what about the claims that ceasing marijuana smoking can trigger withdrawal symptoms? (According to ABC, these symptoms include “sleeplessness”, “anxiety,” and — shudder! — “dry mouth.”) Once again, it’s a matter of degree. According to the Institute of Medicine, pot’s withdrawal symptoms, when identified, are “mild and subtle” compared with the profound physical syndromes associated with ceasing chronic alcohol use — which can be fatal — or those abstinence symptoms associated with daily tobacco use, which are typically severe enough to persuade individuals to reinitiate their drug-taking behavior.
The IOM report further explained, “[U]nder normal cannabis use, the long half-life and slow elimination from the body of THC prevent[s] substantial abstinence symptoms” from occurring. As a result, cannabis’ withdrawal symptoms are typically limited to feelings of mild anxiety, irritability, agitation and insomnia.
Most importantly, unlike the withdrawal symptoms associated with the cessation of most other intoxicants, pot’s mild after-effects do not appear to be either severe or long-lasting enough to perpetuate marijuana use in individuals who have decided to quit. This is why most marijuana smokers report voluntarily ceasing their cannabis use by age 30 with little physical or psychological difficulty. By comparison, many cigarette smokers who pick up the habit early in life continue to smoke for the rest of their lives, despite making numerous efforts to quit.
So let’s review. Marijuana is widely accepted by the National Academy of Sciences, the Canadian Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs, the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and others to lack the severe physical and psychological dependence liability associated with most other intoxicants, including alcohol and tobacco. Further, pot lacks the profound abstinence symptoms associated with most legal intoxicants, including caffeine.
That’s not to say that some cannabis smokers don’t find quitting difficult. Naturally, a handful of folks do. And it appears that ABC News has found them all.