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    Marijuana Addiction? Depends Who You Ask

    As election day looms across the country and in California, where voters will decide on Proposition 19 — a measure that would legalize sale and possession of marijuana in the state (at least for those inclined to ignore federal law) — one of the questions being debated is whether or not pot is addictive. A short piece on points out that the experts and the general public don?t define addiction the same way.

    You’d probably do best to read the original piece to get the nuances of the argument, but here’s my gloss: in the popular view, the hardest part of kicking an addiction is beating the physical withdrawal symptoms (usually depicted on TV and the movies as the shakes, vomiting, terrible sweats, and sometimes hallucinations). The mental torment that comes with ceasing to use drugs or alcohol isn’t thought to be as hard to deal with, since non-specialists tend to believe that conquering those cravings is just a matter of a little determined effort.

    Experts, however, don’t see it the same way. They define addiction as continuing use of a substance despite the physical and social harm it may be doing to you, and if you stop, you’ll suffer withdrawal symptoms. Furthermore, they say that the line the general public draws between physical vs. psychological withdrawal isn’t relevant. “The distinction is completely arbitrary,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Psychological addiction occurs in your brain and it’s a physical change.”

    In other words, the mental side of withdrawal’s no joke, and overcoming it is not just a matter of willpower. The author of the TIME article corroborated this from her personal experience. Formerly addicted to heroin, she stated that the physical withdrawal symptoms were much easier to overcome than the mental cravings.

    Under the experts’ definition, about 10 percent of pot users get addicted. Marijuana’s addictive aspect is generally discounted by non-specialists, in part because the physical withdrawal symptoms are comparatively minor. “You can actually die from alcohol withdrawal,” said Carl Hart of Columbia University, where he is an assistant professor of clinical neuroscience. “Heroin withdrawal you can’t really die from; it’s more like the flu. Marijuana withdrawal is annoying, but it isn’t life threatening.”

    By comparison, marijuana is not as addictive as other substances. At the top of the list is tobacco, since 20 to 30 percent of smokers become addicted, as many as 25 percent of heroin users get addicted, up to 20 percent to cocaine, and about 15 percent of drinkers become dependent on alcohol.

    The larger takeaway from the article, though unstated, seemed to be the need to change public perceptions about what it takes to overcome an addiction. As long as most people think willpower is enough to kick a habit, they will continue to blame users for not stopping, rather than helping them ? and supporting treatment that works.


    October 2010