Marijuana’s Addictive Potential Often Underestimated, Overlooked

Marijuana legalization is on the agenda of several states, and the Democratic Party recently endorsed a “reasoned pathway to future legalization.” But advocates for legalization rarely mention the risk of marijuana addiction.

Many advocates for marijuana legalization say it doesn’t have the addictive potential of alcohol or other illicit drugs. However, 15 percent of Americans who used marijuana in the past month met the clinical criteria for marijuana addiction, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.

“We know from other research that the public generally sees marijuana as a substance that poses little risk to health or to the likelihood of addiction,” lead author Linda Richter, the center’s director of policy research and analysis, told “What our research showed was that, contrary to this belief, a significant proportion of marijuana users, especially youth, are at risk for having a marijuana use disorder, even at relatively low levels of use.”

The researchers found youths who use marijuana were more than twice as likely to develop a marijuana use disorder as adults. The study was published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse. The researchers analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to determine demographic patterns of marijuana use.

The study’s key findings included:

  • People who used tobacco products or had another substance use disorder were at increased risk for developing a marijuana use disorder, even if they consumed marijuana infrequently.
  • 26 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 who used marijuana at least once in the past month had a marijuana use disorder.
  • 35 percent of Americans ages 12 to 20 who used marijuana daily had a marijuana use disorder.

The stats revealed a greater potential for addiction than most marijuana proponents realize or promote.

“The statistic that gets tossed around the most — 9 percent of people who have used marijuana in their lifetime will develop dependence on the drug — is based on data collected about 25 years ago,” Richter said. “That was years before the dramatic increases in marijuana potency that we’ve seen in recent years had taken place, and it does not speak to the increased risk of addiction to kids.”

She said current or past-month use is a much better indicator of risk for addiction than lifetime use, and the study’s findings “should be a wake-up call to parents and to policymakers considering the effects of legalization on young people.”

Democratic Party Endorses Path to Marijuana Legalization

In response to pressure from advocates for marijuana legalization, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has been evaluating marijuana’s place on the agency’s schedule of controlled substances.

Cannabis has been classified as a Schedule I controlled substance since 1970, meaning federal funding for research on marijuana’s potential health benefits is extremely limited.

In June, eight Democratic senators told the DEA that the drug’s classification was a barrier to research and conflicted with state decisions to approve medicinal marijuana. DEA spokesman Russ Baer told The Wall Street Journal that the agency was in the “final stages” of deciding on the issue.

In July, the Democratic Party officially endorsed a “reasoned pathway to future legalization” and renewed its call for downgrading restrictions on marijuana research. But some members worried that the bill would undermine state efforts to study decriminalization.

Several jurisdictions across the country have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. For example, the penalty for possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana in Orlando or Tampa, Florida is a fine instead of arrest.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana use. Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and D.C. have legalized marijuana for recreational use and are still evaluating the effects of the new legislation.

Addiction Absent in Marijuana Legalization Debate

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use. The first reports of the impact of legalization were released earlier this year.

A national study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found teen perceptions of marijuana’s risks were dropping, and teen consumption of marijuana was climbing.

One of the first reports on Washington state’s marijuana use found deadly car accidents involving marijuana doubled after the drug was legalized.

A study on marijuana tourism in Colorado found the number of emergency room visits involving marijuana and out-of-state residents was increasing rapidly.

Another Colorado report found adult marijuana use, teen marijuana arrests, marijuana DUI arrests and emergency room visits involving marijuana were increasing. That report also found admissions for marijuana substance abuse treatment were slightly increasing for the 21-and-older age group, the only group legally allowed to consume recreational marijuana.

“I think people are talking about the risks of impaired driving, and there’s a general awareness that legalization might result in more kids using marijuana,” Richter said. “But the notion of marijuana as an addictive drug has been seriously downplayed in the debate, particularly in terms of the risk to kids.”

Richter also said it’s important to educate parents directly because they have the most influence on their child’s decision to try alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.

“While we hope these findings will help inform the debate about marijuana legalization and its potential downsides, proponents of legalization have a much louder voice than researchers do,” Richter said. “We try to use our findings to educate policymakers and health professionals, as well as the public. But in this case, our best bet may be to get this information into the hands of parents.”

Medical Disclaimer: aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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