The Sticky Issue of Marijuana Dependence Isn’t Going Away

The Sticky Issue of Marijuana Dependence Isn’t Going Away

Marijuana has been classified as a Schedule I controlled substance since the 1970s. All the substances on Schedule I are classified as having a high potential for dependence but no known medical benefit. This presents a conundrum to the medical cannabis community. Even as they promote what they believe are legitimate medical uses for marijuana, the sticky issue of dependence isn’t going away.

There are several issues at the heart of the marijuana legalization debate, including the interchangeability of the terms ‘dependence’ and ‘addiction’. The two words probably should remain distinct so as not to cloud the issue.

  • Biological vs. Behavioral

‘Dependence’ is more of a biological and medical term whereas ‘addiction’ pertains more to behavioral patterns. In that sense, it is possible to become physically dependent on marijuana as a medicine without exhibiting the social and behavioral problems associated with addiction.

Moreover, questions about marijuana dependence and addiction will never be fully settled until society is ready to tackle the subject had on. Instead of doing so, we try to skirt the issue. We even invent terms intended to soften the blow. Instead of saying that a person is dependent on or addicted to marijuana, we say that person is suffering from cannabis use disorder (CUD).

Psychiatric medicine has developed a list of clinical symptoms defining CUD. Interestingly enough, those symptoms pretty much align with the standard symptoms of most chemical addictions. In addition, some of the symptoms also reflect the reality of physical, biological dependence.

  • Extreme Positions Are Unhelpful

Digging into the realities of marijuana dependence reveals that groups on both sides of the debate often take extreme positions. Those positions are unhelpful. They only add fuel to the fire of debate, causing it to burn hotter with each disagreement.

On the one side are those who attempt to compare marijuana to drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. They attempt to paint a picture of marijuana users being strung out on drugs for days, destroying everything and everyone in their paths. Marijuana can lead to dependence and addiction, but rarely do users end up in really bad shape.

On the other side are marijuana proponents who vehemently cling to the belief that marijuana is completely harmless. They laugh at the very idea of users being physically dependent on or psychologically addicted to the drug. To them, any warnings of dependence or addiction amount to little more than prohibitionists trying to clamp down even harder.


  • Both Conditions Are Real

When you set aside the rhetoric and actually talk to psychiatrists and medical professionals who treat marijuana users, you discover that both dependence and addiction are real. The conditions are not as severe in marijuana users compared to users of other substances – including alcohol, by the way – but they do exist, nonetheless.

As a case in point, Utah Marijuana says medical providers and cannabis pharmacists in Utah routinely encourage their patients to take a break from medical cannabis for a few days every month. Why this recommendation? To break any existing physical dependence. They know physical dependence is real, and they know it is not good for patients.

At the same time, the psychiatric community decided to define CUD because they found themselves actually having to treat it. It is very real to them and their patients. They may have assigned it a polite name that takes the edge off, but what they are treating is cannabis addiction.

In the end, the lesson is one of treating marijuana with respect. Whether it is used recreationally or medically, pretending that it is completely harmless is not a wise idea.