Is Marijuana Addictive? Does It Matter?

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on November 11th, 2010 - Last updated: September 19th, 2019
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As the effort by drug policy reform advocates to achieve their holy grail — the legalization of a formerly illegal substance (marijuana) in a leading-edge state (California) — was within reach, former Clinton Drug Czar, General Barry McCaffrey, bad-mouthed legalization in the most stark terms on Morning Joe — “The devastation wrought by addiction on both sides of the Border is intolerable,” the General intoned, saying he was now involved mainly with drug treatment.

Our ideas about addiction drive the drug war. That is, if your view is that people inevitably become addicted to drugs when they are exposed to them, you’re unlikely to support legalization. Every effort must be made, from this perspective, to prevent an ounce of drugs from reaching our borders, or to prevent people from taking them. That is why the essential effort by the National Institute on Drug Abuse to label addiction as an irreversible consequence of repeated drug use — addiction as a “chronic brain disease” — is essentially a politically repressive movement.

That legalization of marijuana is being seriously considered (albeit not by McCaffrey) is due to most people putting it outside the realm of addiction — despite its classification that way in the American Psychiatric Association diagnostic manual and by virtually all leading clinicians. (I have a drug treatment center, where people may be treated for marijuana addiction.) This is why, coming from the perspective of the treatment profession, McCaffrey hates the idea of legalization. You don’t meet casual drug users in treatment centers — despite individual stories of being railroaded into them due to strictly casual substance use.

I believe marijuana may be addictive — harmfully so. But, as I wrote in a paper entitled, “Marijuana’s Addictive — So What?“, there’s addiction and there’s addiction. Sure people’s lives can be totally dominated or unhinged by marijuana use, but the consequences of such addiction are not as inherently harmful as alcoholism or, ultimately, cigarette addiction. Obviously considerations of parenthood, not operating machinery, prevail. But people don’t believe marijuana addicts (like admitted daily pothead Willie Nelson, who discussed being high with Larry King on CNN, “I have a high level of tolerance”) are in the same category as heroin, cocaine and alcohol addicts.

And, oh, by the same criteria by which marijuana and smoking are classified as addictive, so is caffeine, which I also believe.

And, so, marijuana stands a strong chance of being legalized. Nonetheless, per McCaffrey, people who think of drugs — including marijuana — strictly in terms of their addictiveness are inherently opposed to this development, and always will be.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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