I started smoking marijuana at age eighteen immediately after graduating from high school. I did not drink or get high during my high school years. I did fairly well academically. I tested at an IQ of 127. I was very ambitious, outgoing, creative and focused. I wanted to be a published author, and also enjoyed photography and working in local radio broadcasting. My extracurricular activities included a local history project, sports photography and yearbook. I was on the debate team. I lettered in tennis in j-v. Having some issues with self-worth, and not liking confrontation, I stayed away from things like running for class president.
Marijuana has been in the news a lot lately. It seems every month a new state passes legislation that makes pot legal for medicinal purposes or, sometimes, for recreational use. Interestingly, the possession and sale of marijuana remains a federal crime. With all of this legislative activity, I can’t help but wonder if lawmakers are opening Pandora’s Box. Is marijuana a safe recreational drug? Can it lead to use of other substances? Is it addictive? How hard is it to quit smoking pot if you’ve been smoking it in large quantities or for a long time? Let’s start this discussion by talking about what pot is and what it does to those who use it.
Marijuana is the smokable part of the cannabis plant. It is usually sold in small plastic bags. When the drug comes from a medical marijuana facility, it may be packaged in a pill bottle or a vacuum-sealed package. When the resins of this plant are collected and compressed into blocks of dark brown material, that is called hashish. Most of the world hashish is made in Morocco. It is far stronger than marijuana. Hashish ranges from medium brown to almost black, and may have a sticky or crumbly consistency.
The dark, sticky oil of the resin or marijuana plant may also be sold in small bottles. This is called hash oil. It can be added to a marijuana cigarette to make it more potent, or it can be smoked in a pipe, a piece of aluminum foil or spoon. It can also be added to a tobacco cigarette to make it intoxicating. I smoked marijuana so heavily that when I ran out and needed to get high, I would scrape the pipe or bowl to scoop out concentrated amounts of resin. I would then smear the resin on cigarette paper and smoke it in the pipe. It was very potent, and I would sometime pass out from a big hit of the resin.
So let’s get right to the major question: Is marijuana addictive? Groups that are in favor of medical marijuana or broad legalization sweep this question under the carpet. The fact is that, yes, it is addictive. You are unlikely to hear this fact on the nightly news, in the newspaper or anywhere else. Marijuana is addictive. Of all the people that use marijuana, about one in eleven will become addicted. I was one of those who became addicted. When a young person begins smoking marijuana in his or her teens, that person has a one in six chance of becoming addicted. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in 2010, more than 360,000 people were admitted to treatment for addiction, with marijuana being listed as the primary drug they were abusing. That is, they went into rehab because of marijuana and its effects on their bodies and minds. Twenty-eight percent, or approximately 103,000, were between twelve and seventeen years old. Forty-three percent were under twenty-one.
Because of greatly increased potency in marijuana, mental distress, panic attacks and other problems have also increased. In 2011, there were nearly half a million visits to the ER related to problems with marijuana use. Common symptoms were severe nausea, vomiting, high blood pressure, anxiety, panic attacks and paranoia. According to the 2013 World Drug Report, an estimated one in fifteen high school seniors is a daily or near-daily user of cannabis. For parents who used to smoke pot on the weekend or at parties, they can understand what daily use by a high school student would do to his ability to do his school work or to retain what he hears in a class lecture.
Some people argue that because marijuana does not have dramatic withdrawal symptoms like alcohol or heroin, it is not addictive. I see two errors with this thinking. One is that the pot being smoked today is far more potent than it was twenty or thirty years ago. That makes withdrawal a far different matter. Also, it is simply not true that quitting marijuana does not put you at risk for withdrawal. The most likely withdrawal symptoms include irritability, insomnia, anxiety, nightmares, anger and fluctuating emotions, headaches, depression, loss of appetite, and craving to use the drug. The degree to which the withdrawal symptoms are serious depends on how much pot the person was smoking, for how long they used the drug, and their own unique physical and emotional makeup.
I think a better measure of addiction is whether or not the person experiences harm from the use of the drug but is so compelled to use it and the cravings for it are so strong that he uses it anyway. This was true for me. I used marijuana in large amounts from the age of eighteen until the age of 48. My cravings were so strong that I used the drug despite failing health, difficulty making bill payments while buying the drug, inability to concentrate on the job as a paralegal, strained or broken interpersonal relationships, bounced checks, and an inability to sleep or relax without getting high. An addicted cannabis user will continue to get high despite the occurrence of these types of consequences. It is common for a heavy pot smoker to stop caring about the damage and just focus on staying stoned. This applies to heavy marijuana use, as well as crack cocaine or meth or pain pills.
Marijuana is not the harmless, safe substance many might like to think it is, especially for those under age thirty. According to some of the Internet research I conducted, neuroscience has now shown us that the brain continues to develop until the late 20s, and using drugs while the brain is still developing can influence how it develops and result in moderate to potentially significant problems down the line. When adolescents use marijuana, for example, the white matter of their brains can undergo changes that are similar to the brains of individuals with schizophrenia. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that marijuana smoking in adolescence significantly increases the risk for eventually becoming psychotic and/or developing schizophrenia. This risk is even greater for people who had psychiatric symptoms before their first experience with marijuana and those with schizophrenia in their families. And furthermore, more and more data are confirming the fact that marijuana users are also at increased risk for developing anxiety and depression later in their lives, as well as having memory deficits.
All of this proved true in my own life. I had no idea I was suffering from an underlying psychiatric problem. I didn’t know I had bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and major depression. The constant use of alcohol and marijuana kept the symptoms hidden. As you’ve probably heard it said, I was self-medicating. Marijuana masked some of my difficulties, and distracted me enough that I didn’t understand what was going on. Not only did my psychiatric problems increase, my cravings for pot greatly increased. I knew no other life. It had become perfectly normal for me to be high. Anything else seemed abnormal. So when I hear people say marijuana is perfectly safe, I strongly disagree. I know what it did to me over the years, and I’ve seen it do the same thing to others. I went to my five-year high school reunion. I ran into people I used to get high with. You probably won’t be shocked to learn that they had not grown in any significant manner, and were still smoking pot.
Back when I went to high school in the mid 1970s, about thirty percent of the students I knew were using marijuana regularly. They called it “partying” or “getting stoned.” It wasn’t hard to recognize when someone started using pot. Almost instantly, their overall attitude changed. Many who had been good students, engaged and talented, started to withdraw, and adopt a passive aggressive viewpoint. Regular pot use by them, from what I observed, caused a kind of lethargy. Activity levels dropped off drastically. They developed a “who cares” attitude, and became non-compliant. The look on the face of most pot users is sort of vacant and dull. Their eyes glaze over and don’t seem to focus. If you’re not also high, conversation with them is particularly difficult.
Typically, marijuana users tend to believe pot is harmless. That there are far more dangerous drugs they could be using. In fact, pot is “all natural,” so it must be okay. Pot users do not see the gradual increase in tolerance and a need for smoking more and more. Once a pot smoker is convinced he or she cannot live without marijuana, this is addiction. When the person uses even though he or she promised themselves they wouldn’t, this is compulsion. It is the nature of addiction that addicts don’t believe they are ill. They do not have a problem. Addiction is a physical, mental and spiritual disease. It doesn’t matter what the substance is.
I remember years ago realizing I was getting high too often, and I told my “dealer” I might need to go to rehab. He laughed, saying I would be bullied in the facility for merely being a marijuana user. I told him I was having a very difficult time stopping, that I was spending all my money on pot, that my interpersonal relationships were suffering, and that I was a wreck when I wasn’t high. This was a sure sign of addiction and compulsion. Not only was I psychologically dependent on pot, I had also become an alcoholic, drinking nearly a fifth of Vodka per day. My behavior became so antisocial that I ended up serving a three year sentence in state prison. It is definitely my opinion, based upon research and my personal experience, that chronic pot smoking leads to many problems. It is not simply a harmless “natural” recreational drug. It has the potential to create emotional, physical and financial problems, and often leads to using other substances once smoking pot becomes boring or doesn’t do the trick anymore. Marijuana is not a safe recreational drug.