We hear this question a lot and the answer is simple: kind of. Some parts of the plant are addictive while others may actually be an antidote to addiction. Here’s our deep dive into everything you need to know with facts straight from reputable sources so that you can explore cannabis in a safe and fulfilling way.
What is Addiction?
When it comes to addiction, what do you think makes the cut? Is it just drugs, alcohol and nicotine or do you think humans can also be addicted to caffeine, exercise, and gambling? How about sex, shopping, and food? How about another person?
Surprisingly, the concept of addiction has a few different definitions. The most basic belief is that addiction is a chemical dependence in the brain that signals withdrawal symptoms when not fulfilled. The American Psychiatric Association lays out a list of culprits here to include drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine.
The next level up is a belief that addiction can also be psychological, incorporating euphoria and emotional dependence. This includes exercise, gambling, food, or even another person.
Lastly, some argue that addiction can be attributed more to the person’s environment than their biology. As Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Screams: The First and Last Days of the Drug War states:
“Human beings have an innate need to bond and connect. When we are happy and healthy, we will bond with the people around us. But when we can’t because we’re traumatized, isolated, or beaten down by life, we will bond with something that gives us some sense of relief. The path out of unhealthy bonds is to form healthy bonds, to be connected to people you want to be present with. Addiction is just one symptom of the crisis of disconnection.”
We like combining all three beliefs to assert that human beings, when in an unsatisfactory environment, may turn to any number of vices to create a dependence that can stir up physical or emotional withdrawal when abstaining. This may include hardcore addictions like alcohol and drugs, but may also include gambling, caffeine, exercise, or love.
Another vice on the list? Cannabis, but only a very specific part of the plant.
CBD Is Not Addictive
In nearly all conversations about the benefits and drawbacks of cannabis, we should first take a minute to ask – does this pertain to the whole plant or just THC? In the case of addiction, it’s important to know that CBD is not addictive. Licensed pharmacist Dr. Cidambi Min An explains why:
“Our body naturally produces CBD in the ECS to maintain balance when we encounter stress. We can’t become addicted to our own body’s naturally produced compound.”
Even more, CBD is actually showing signs of being an antidote for addiction and substance abuse. Scripps Research Institute in San Diego recently ran a study where they administered CBD to rats after they were given alcohol and cocaine. Five months after CBD had left their systems, the rats no longer engaged in “drug-seeking behaviors.” Researchers believe this was due in part to CBD igniting the brain’s serotonin receptors.
CBD oil has also proven effective in breaking the smoking habit. The University of London conducted a study where habitual smokers were given an inhaler filled with CBD and a placebo. The participants who used the CBD inhaler showed a radical reduction in tobacco consumption, and their craving for nicotine decreased.
One of the most exciting uses for CBD is to treat opioid addiction. The Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai in New York City recently reported on a study of 42 patients addicted to heroin (a type of opioid) who were given either CBD or a placebo. They found that CBD reduced drug cravings and anxiety in the participants. Yasmin Hurd, Director of the Institute, says “Our findings indicate that CBD holds significant promise for treating individuals with heroin use disorder.”
THC Can Be Addictive
Unlike CBD, THC is a psychoactive ingredient in cannabis and the main cause of concern for addiction possibilities. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) coined the term “Cannabis Use Disorder” to refer to a dependence in which a person feels withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse, taking the definition and measurements of “Cannabis Use Disorder” as reported by the APA, reports that “studies suggest that 9 percent of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it.”
This is where things get hazy. Cannabis addiction is often measured by level of dependence, but dependence doesn’t necessarily mean addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse backs up this contradiction:
“Estimates of the number of people addicted to marijuana are controversial, in part because epidemiological studies of substance use often use dependence as a proxy for addiction even though it is possible to be dependent without being addicted.”
This means there are cases (medical or otherwise) where people are using large amounts of THC and, unlike alcohol, nicotine, and even caffeine, they can stop at any time with their own free will.
Amidst all this uncertainty and lack of research, there is one widely agreed upon school of thought as it relates to THC addiction: people who use marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a Cannabis Use Disorder than adults. In fact, while 9 percent of adults are dependent on THC, the number rises to 17 percent for those who start using in their teens.
Monitor THC Addiction Like Alcohol Addiction
As with all things cannabis, research around addiction is still evolving, especially as more Americans have access to it. That said, there are a few things we do know. Firstly, CBD is not addictive and can actually act as an antidote to wean off certain vices in some situations. Conversely, THC is a concern for addiction, and those in an unstable environment (as Johann Hari mentions) should consult with a medical professional before and during use. Parents especially should keep THC away from children 18 years old or younger.
For the remaining majority of adults, THC addiction can be thought of more in line with alcohol than with scary hardcore drugs like heroin. Just like opting for a glass of wine versus a swig from the tequila bottle, cannabis can be consumed in a responsible, measured way for a controlled and pleasurable experience.
Because of this, we believe THC, like alcohol, is safe to consume so long as you are approaching it in a mature way. Every so often, we recommend taking breaks or fasts from THC in the same way you may already do with alcohol, caffeine, and fatty foods, just to ensure that you’re in control.
If you or a loved one have concerns about cannabis addiction, please call the SMAHSA National Helpline at 1-800-622-HELP.
Is Cannabis Addictive? Leafly
Is CBD Addictive? Popsugar
What is CBD Oil? Unraveling the Mystery, Recovery Connection
Is Marijuana Addictive? National Institute on Drug Abuse
Could CBD Treat Opioid Addiction? WebMD
Marijuana Can Be Addictive, Who Gets Hooked and Why, Healthline