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Cannabis Addiction Is a Myth, according to Substance Abuse Expert

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Canada and several US states have taken a strikingly different approach to drug policy recently by legalizing cannabis, but not everyone is onboard with marijuana reform. An alarming report from the UK’s Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) recently claimed that legalizing recreational marijuana would lead to hundreds of thousands of residents becoming addicted to cannabis.

But that report took quite a few liberties with facts and figures, according to Dr. MJ Milloy — UBC’s inaugural Canopy Growth Professor of Cannabis Science. “[F]rom a quick skim of the report, it seems like they’re using a public opinion poll to estimate the number of people who might try cannabis following legalization in the UK and the estimated lifetime prevalence of Cannabis Use Disorder among people who have ever used cannabis (approximately 10 percent) to come up with the number,” Dr. Milloy told Civilized.

And that’s not a very scientific approach, according to Milloy as well as his colleague Rielle Capler — a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the BC Centre for Substance Abuse. Dr. Capler says the report’s claims are especially problematic because cannabis use doesn’t lead to physical addiction. So we shouldn’t conflate Cannabis Use Disorder with addiction, even though many news outlets and policymakers do just that. 

Sometimes it’s the wording used in news reports that suggests people are addicted to cannabis; however it is not physically addictive. When people have issues with cannabis use, it’s considered a Cannabis Use Disorder, rather than addiction per se,” Dr. Capler told Civilized.

Diagnosing Cannabis Use Disorder is also very tricky. Some of the factors considered as part of Cannabis-Use Disorder include a clear pattern of preoccupation with use, compulsive use with negative consequences and a pattern of use over time. One problem with that approach is that it looks at the frequency of use versus how much the person is actually using, Capler noted. And some of the questions relate to whether or not your cannabis use upsets family and friends, which can be skewed by the stigmas surrounding cannabis use. In other words, if your family and friends think that smoking a joint will turn you into a lazy stoner, then any amount of consumption will upset them.

Dr. Capler stressed that she doesn’t want to diminish the issue since some people do, in fact, have trouble with controlling their cannabis use. At the same time, the public needs to challenge their assumptions about Cannabis Use Disorder.

It’s important to understand that it’s very different than what we think of when we think of alcohol addiction, for example, in relation to how it is affecting your life and health.” For example, she noted that liver damage and violent outbursts are associated with alcohol addiction, but they aren’t common with with cannabis misuse. And withdrawal symptoms, if present, are milder for people with Cannabis Use Disorder.

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