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The Addictive Risks of Cannabis

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The drug czar’s office, terrified lest parents be insufficiently terrified about the risks that their children will use cannabis, has a long, bipartisan history of overstating the drug’s risks. (Of, course, there’s a strong tendency on the other side to understate those risks, for example by denying that pot has any addictive potential whatever, but you’d like to expect better, rather than worse, behavior from federal agency.)

Consider, if you will, this factoid, from an “open letter to parents” signed by John Walters and run in 300 newspapers as part of the “anti-drug” ad campaign:

…more teens are in treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than for all other illicit drugs combined.

Now comes CESAR (the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research, not by any means a generally dovish source in drug-war terms) with a little corrective fact: of all referrals (not broken out by age) for marijuana treatment, more than half come from the criminal justice system. And that fraction has been rising, reflecting another fact: marijuana arrests have roughly doubled over the past fifteen years, with the vast bulk of those arrests are for simple possession. Other studies show that for juveniles, most non-criminal-justice referrals reflect parental pressure.

It’s a beautifully circular system: Step up enforcement against marijuana users, leading to more criminal-justice referrals to treatment. Tell parents cannibis is more dangerous than ever before, encouraging them to force their kids into treatment for even casual pot use. Then use the resulting increase in juveniles getting treated for cannabis as evidence of how dangerous the drug really is, supporting more enforcement and more propaganda aimed at parents to generate still more treatment referrals.

Cannabis, like any reinforcing drug, has some addictive risk. (See Anthony, J.C., Warner, L.A., & Kessler, R.C. (1994), “Comparative epidemiology of dependence on tobacco, alcohol, controlled substances, and inhalants: Basic findings from the National Comorbidity Survey”, Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 2, 244-268.) The most recent comprehensive literature review summarizes the findings of the Anthony et al. study thus: A[n} … estimate of the risk of meeting DSM-R.III criteria for cannabis dependence was obtained from data collected in the National Comorbidity Study. This indicated that 9 per cent of lifetime cannabis users met DSM-R-III criteria for dependence at some time in their life, compared to 32 per cent of tobacco users, 23 per cent of opiate users and 15 per cent of alcohol users.” Hall W, Room R, Bondy S. Comparing the health and psychological risks of alcohol, cannabis, nicotine and opiate use. In: Kalant H, Corrigan W, Hall W, Smart R, eds. The health effects of cannabis. Toronto: Addiction Research Foundation, 1999, pp. 477-508.

I don’t have the Anthony, Warner, and Kessler study handy, but if memory serves they found that those 9% averaged 44 consecutive months of daily heavy use before quitting or cutting back for the first time. That’s not, in my view, a small problem, especially if those 44 months are from, say, the fall of the ninth grade to the spring of the 12th grade. So the widespread belief that the opiates and stimulants are addictive but cannabis isn’t simply doesn’t fit the facts.

Still, cannabis has a lower addiction potential, and in general a less fearsome pattern of addictive behavior, than any other widely used recreational intoxicant. In particular, drinking creates a much higher risk of a much nastier addiction, and parents in general should be much more worried about their children’s drinking behavior than about their children’s pot-smoking. Those are facts not in legitimate dispute, and I wish I didn’t have to pay people in Washington to try to pretend to dispute them.

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About Mark Kleiman

  • Frank Zappa once famously said, in response to people going on about marijuana leading on to other drugs that even more people started off taking Milk.

    Got Milk, Man?

  • If booze was illegal, it would be the gateway drug. The problem with booze is that it leads you down the spiral of doom. At least people who smoke dope reflect on themselves. Smoking can be extremely constructive, while drinking takes you down the one way alley of self destruction ?

    Really, the arguement about dope being the gateway drug is as convincing as the argument that america has nothing to gain from making marijuana illegal !!!!@! American government is really threatened by this weed because they know that their bum chums will loose their market once dope becomes a industrial and medical standard.

  • Joey

    I guess parents really have to worry about lawsuits after THEIR kids fuck up on dope.

    The parents are on the hook until Junior turns 18. That could get ugly when the attorneys get on a roll, with the eyeball’s turned towards the assets and a settlement.

    Ugly business and probably not a laughing matter.

    Oh, and the IRS will definately make sure the government gets paid.

  • billy

    by legalizing dope and closing down revenue that keeps the illicit drug trade open, including the lawlessness and political assasinations at the mexican border, we would be in an infinitely better position even if there is some small effect on use.

    a few more dopeheads, but no drug lords and killers sounds fine to me.

  • nice article, love it . bookmark it