The party line is that all drugs are addictive, and cannabis, being a drug, is therefore addictive too. The counter to this usually comes from the pro-cannabis camp, who say that cannabis is in no way addictive – especially physically addictive – and that withdrawals are actually the reemergence of symptoms that were being suppressed by cannabis.
But what’s the truth? Is cannabis addictive? Is cannabis addiction a real thing?
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time (I wrote a book about it) and I’ve come to the conclusion that cannabis addiction (mental and physical) is a very real thing. However, I do not believe that cannabis is intrinsically addictive.
This may sound like a contradiction but it’s not. To explain my thinking on this topic, we first have to understand what addiction is…
What is addiction?
An addiction is a habitual behaviour that provides a source of gratification or security in response to certain uncomfortable feelings, but that also leads to negative life outcomes.
It is a habitual way of coping with life that we can become so attached to it holds us back from acting on other priorities. When this happens, a coping habit (such as substance use) becomes problematic.
Everyone has habitual behaviours, or habits as they’re known. On the whole, they are immensely helpful to us and have helped us get to where we are now as a species. However, they can get in the way of what we really want.
Habits form as a way to make common behaviors automatic, and thus save energy. Habits can form without a person intending to acquire them, but they can also be deliberately cultivated (or eliminated) to align with one’s personal goals.
This trick of behaviour automation is efficient, but having a brain that leans toward cutting corners can backfire on us.
Habits that provide the most gratification tend to be the most powerful. Think mind-altering substances (aka drugs), sex, food, social validation, achievement, etc. These things provide comfort, security and general good feelings – and for very important evolutionary reasons.
However, our primal biology is not prepared for the modern world, where avoiding uncomfortable feelings and accessing pleasure has never been so incredibly easy – think potent drugs, porn, fast food, playstations, our phones, social media, etc..
When a certain habit gets in the way of someone’s true priorities, many people will recognise that the habit is no longer serving them and make efforts to change or stop the habitual behaviour. When the person fails to change or stop the habitual behaviour despite its negative effects, it gets labelled as an addiction.
When a person becomes addicted, it is not to a chemical but to an experience. Any trigger that a person finds sufficiently gratifying and that seems to give them something they need can serve as an addiction.
Therefore, no substance or behaviour is intrinsically addictive. The addictive potential of a substance or behaviour lies primarily in the meaning it has for a person.
If a person feels a lack of satisfaction in life – an absence of intimacy or strong connections, a lack of self-confidence or compelling interests, or a loss of hope – they are more likely to find meaning in rewarding behaviours that are easier to come by (because we’re so damn efficient).
That’s not to say happy, healthy and well-loved people are not susceptible to addiction. They are. All humans are. It’s just that being part of a strongly-bonded, loving family and community gives people healthier strategies and more resources for coping with stress.
The principles underlying cannabis addiction are no different to those at the root of any other addiction – whether it’s to cocaine, porn, shopping, gambling, etc. They are the same principles that explain why most people can’t go five minutes without checking their phone.
Is cannabis addiction real?
Many people argue that cannabis addiction is not real or that it is only psychological because cannabis does not produce severe physical withdrawal symptoms when long-term users stop consuming. This downplays the seriousness of a problematic cannabis habit and implies it should be easy to get over. However, many people find this is not the case.
The truth is that cannabis, especially when smoked or dabbed, can be very habit forming for some (not all) people. This is because the main psychotropic compound in cannabis, THC, exerts its effects by acting like a neurotransmitter and stimulating receptors in the brain and body.
Many of the obvious effects of cannabis use can be attributed to THC’s direct stimulation of the CB1 receptor – think euphoria, pain-relief, increased appetite, red eyes, among other effects. However, acute (short-term) CB1 stimulation also leads to increased dopamine production.
This is why chronic (long-term) cannabis use can lead to the downregulation of dopamine production, meaning you need more THC for the same effects. This is known as building tolerance.
By acutely increasing levels of dopamine in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, cannabis shares an activity that all “drugs of abuse” have in common. Effectively, this makes consuming cannabis a rewarding and reinforcing behaviour that can result in an addiction.
Is there a difference between physical addiction and psychological addiction?
Many people will tell you that a cannabis addiction is only psychological, not physical, and is not comparable to, say, a heroin or nicotine addiction.
However, in actuality the difference between a physical and psychological addiction is non-existent. All addiction is both physical and psychological due to the fact that psychological compulsions are reflected in the physical neural pathways of the brain.
Additionally, even though an addiction may be thought to not be physical – for example, to cannabis or video games – abstinence from the stimulus can still lead to physical withdrawal symptoms. In the case of cannabis, these can be seen in bouts of anxiety, night sweats, lack of appetite, irritability and general discomfort.
Try as we might to find a distinction between physical addiction and psychological addiction, the truth is that the mind and body cannot be separated and both must be considered when trying to understand compulsive behaviours.
Is addiction still a problem if it leads to no negative consequences? You could argue over the semantics all day, but clearly a habit with no negative effects is better than one that does have some.
For example, many people are openly addicted to caffeine yet do not see it as much of a problem as they experience little to no negative effects. Same with vaping nicotine – yes, it’s an addiction, but by avoiding cigarettes and combustion you are minimising and possibly eradicating any negative health effects.
Therefore, I believe that it is possible, with a few harm reduction techniques, to reframe an unhealthy cannabis addiction into a pretty harmless habit. Here are some harm reduction tips that will enable you to enjoy the benefits of cannabis while minimising any negative effects:
- Don’t smoke, use a dry herb vape or edibles instead
- Low doses, or microdoses
- Add CBD and other non-psychotropic cannabinoids
- Take tolerance breaks
- Eat seafood
- Meditate/conscious breathing
- Get sunlight
- Reduce screen time at night
It’s hard to talk about addiction. The word itself conjures up all sorts of connotations and associations. This is especially true when discussing cannabis addiction.
After researching and considering this topic for a number of years, I’ve come to believe that cannabis addiction is very real even if cannabis itself is not intrinsically addictive.
I qualify this by recognising the habit forming potential of any rewarding behaviour for a subset of people (those feeling a lack of satisfaction in life) but clearly not everyone.
However, I also believe that cannabis addiction can be easily reframed, using numerous harm reduction and health-promoting techniques, into a harmless (even positive) habit.
I am currently working on a course that aims to lead you through this process. It’s going to be called “Reframing Your Relationship With Cannabis In 30 Days’. Rather than encouraging abstinence and focussing on supposed problems, it will show you how to direct your energy into creating a life you love in which cannabis can be a helpful addition.
If this sounds like something that may be of interest to you, sign up to our newsletter below and I’ll send you more details as it nears completion.