Marijuana Addiction: Not So Harmless

Joyce started smoking marijuana when she was 15. It started as a pleasant escape and then turned into an obsession, something she needed just to get through the day. She found herself hiding her addiction from her family, friends, and co-workers.

“I would come home from work, close my door, have my bong, my food, my music, and my dog, and I wouldn’t see another person until I went to work the next day,” Joyce told the New York Times. “What kind of life is that? I did that for 20 years.”

Joyce tried to stop but experienced withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, and insomnia. At one point, she took morphine that she found at her dying father’s bedside and almost overdosed.

Two years ago, Joyce checked herself into the Caron Foundation, a treatment center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. She said that some other addicts downplayed her dependence, but that in reality, she was as sick as them. Smoking pot, she said, “was a slow form of suicide.” Now 52 and recently married, Joyce is a writer in Manhattan.

Joyce’s story, along with others’, is chronicled in an article in the New York Times called “Marijuana Is Gateway Drug for Two Debates.” The article points out that marijuana, the country’s most widely used illicit drug, is typically not thought to destroy lives and has often been romanticized by writers, musicians, and movies. Experts agree that marijuana is not as threatening to public health as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, and that it cannot lead to fatal overdose on its own.

However, marijuana can be up to five times more potent than it was in the 1970s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. With the growing support for legalization of marijuana, many public health officials worry that this stronger marijuana has increased addiction rates and is potentially dangerous to teenagers, whose brains are still developing. In addition, officials say the movement to legalize the drug plays down the dangers of habitual use.

Dr. Richard N. Rosenthal, chairman of psychiatry at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan and professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University said warns that “most people who become chronic users don’t have the same lives and the same achievements as people who don’t use chronically.”

According to a 2007 reports by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more adult are now being admitted to treatment centers for primary marijuana and hashish addiction than for primary addictions to cocaine, heroin, and amphetamine.

Milo is a 60-year-old man who recently attended his first Marijuana Anonymous meeting in Los Angeles. He said he started smoking marijuana when he was 13 and has struggled to quit. He is also an alcoholic, but has not had a drink since the early 1980s. He is trying to quit marijuana because his girlfriend is threatening to leave him and he says the drug no longer alleviates his depression and anxiety.

“I’m losing things and people,” Milo said. “I’m estranged from my children. I’ve lost two houses and I’m living in my R.V., basically homeless.”

Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says that the new potency of marijuana is “like drinking beer versus drinking whiskey. If you only have access to whiskey, your risk is going to be higher for addiction. Now that people have access to very high-potency marijuana, the game is different,” she said.

A 2004 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that the stronger cannabis is contributing to higher addiction rates. The study compared marijuana use in 2001 and 2002 with use ten years earlier.

Government statistics also show that the number of emergency room visits linked to the use of marijuana, which can lead to psychotic episodes, has risen significantly. “It’s going to take some real fatalities for people to pay attention” to marijuana, said Dr. Volkow. “Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes.”