Marijuana is Addictive, but Not Like You’re Thinking

September 9 Jake Irl Park, M.S.

People with limited knowledge on drugs like to talk about addictive substances and their varying degrees of “addictiveness.” Meth and heroin have their place at the top, followed by cocaine, speed, nicotine, alcohol, and so on. It’s as if we are at the mercy of autonomous chemical compounds who seek to imbed themselves in our brain chemistry and do unconscionable harm. 

There are other strange things people say, like, “addiction is a disease.” 

No, addiction is a behavior. Sure, some may be more predisposed to such a pattern of behavior, but sober people do not ‘catch’ addictions. In other words, there is a zero percent chance that I will wake up tomorrow with an addiction to intravenous methamphetamine. 

The way we conceptualize these drugs and their effects does nothing to account for responsible drug users. For every addict, there a wealth of responsible (i.e., infrequent) users of the very same drug. If a drug is unequivocally addictive like alcohol or cocaine, how are some able to escape the grips of such a vicious “disease?”

In therapy, a question we often aim to answer is, “What is the function of this behavior?” 

In other words, why is my client engaging in this maladaptive behavior? That behavior might be nail-biting, incessant hand-washing, refusing to go out in public, or even marijuana abuse. 

If you’re a nail-biter, you know it’s not because you enjoy doing it, or how it looks (my wife hates it, so does yours). You don’t do it while you’re in a good mood, or while you’re doing something productive - you do it in response to negative emotions. It is a (negative) coping mechanism, and one that is universally understood as a “bad habit.” 

You don’t do it because it feels good. You do it because it gives the illusion of doing something in the face of the anxiety that is telling you to do something. Anxiety is not pathological; it is a quintessential part of the human experience, but it is not always helpful.

No matter its medical benefits, cannabis is used recreationally by a lot of people -- that much is irrefutable. It’s fun to smoke, eat, and vaporize. It makes you feel good and can create a state of relaxation and ease pain. More importantly, it can diffuse negative emotions.  

What’s wrong with that? On the surface, not so much. People do all kinds of things to alleviate their anxieties: They run, watch Netflix, go out with friends, or wind down with a glass of wine. These behaviors are also addictive, and for similar reasons addicts love heroin:

They can act as an escape from internal conflict.

Alleviating negative emotions is of course preferred over experiencing them ad infinitum. However, if you rely on a specific coping mechanism to regulate your emotions, you are sacrificing your ability to self-regulate.

You are not wrong to use marijuana as a hedge against chronic anxiety or other emotions, but you are doing yourself a disservice if you are not implementing techniques to improve your self-regulation. It is imperative that you be able to recognize and respond to emotions appropriately as opposed to relying on an external stimulus to do it for you. 

In other words, don’t be a slave to your coping mechanisms. 




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