by Dr. Pinchas /Paul Herman
I have been reading posts and comments on COLlive lately, specifically relating to marijuana use. It was only a matter of time until it showed up in our circles. After all, marijuana is prevalent, and it has been part of American culture for decades. It also gets a lot of press due to medical marijuana dynamics, talk of legalization, and a lot of confusing messages as to whether it’s safe or dangerous, beneficial or detrimental, does lead to other drug use or does not – you get the idea.
We have been told that we are in the midst of a national opioid epidemic. Compared to that reality, marijuana use can sound like a relief … something like, “whew, at least it’s only weed.” What, in fact, is the big deal?
According to government data collection sources that keep track of this sort of thing, alcohol is the most widely used drug in the United States. We all know people who use alcohol, and we don’t necessarily see them abusing it. In fact, most people who do drink do not have an alcohol abuse problem. Some do, of course; however, they are the minority, though often a visible minority. So maybe the thinking is that marijuana is similar – that people can use it, not abuse it, and it falls into the “it’s not so bad” category.
Substances that get people “high” – including alcohol, are known as mood-and mind-altering. They are also addictive. Different drug classifications have differing rates of addictive potential. Drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, crack cocaine – high, very high. What this means is that these substances cannot be used without severe risk of developing an addictive relationship with them. Alcohol? Much, much lower. Again, most people can use alcohol and not develop a problem. Marijuana is a bit trickier.
Proponents of smoking weed or of eating marijuana-infused foods ignore the fact that present-day marijuana is remarkably more powerful than that of a generation ago. Growers have developed ways to increase the potency to provide a more intense high. For example, in the 1970’s, the level of THC – the chemical compound that results in feeling “high” – was typically between 0.5% – 2%, in generally available marijuana. Today, the same generally available marijuana has THC rates of 15 – 20% or more. In some alternate forms, it’s at 70%+ THC potency. What this means is that the user takes in much more of the drug, which also increases the addictive potential.
Now, what about the people who insist that marijuana is not addictive? They’re right … sort of. There are two components to addiction, physical dependence and psychological dependence. All addictive disorders include psychological dependence – that’s why people go to rehab. Typically, the drugs that also involve physical dependence – and may include admission to a detox unit – include alcohol, heroin and narcotic pain killers, and anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax and Valium. Other drug families, including marijuana, generally do not. People who like to downplay the detriments of marijuana use like to disregard these distinctions. The fact that you don’t need to go into the hospital to “come off” of marijuana does not mean that it is not addictive – just not physically addictive.
Marijuana use, especially chronic or early-onset marijuana use, causes what is known as “amotivational syndrome,” which simply put means that it is quietly slipping the smoker into neutral. The more the person uses, the more they risk developing this syndrome.
Another point to consider when looking at marijuana use is that it is one of the classic “gateway drugs,” those that pave the way for other substance abuse. This does not mean that anyone who smokes marijuana will go on to use other, stronger drugs. However, the overwhelming majority of people in treatment for addiction to heroin and cocaine began with using gateway drugs.
What does all of this mean to us? That no one is immune – not immune from the flu, or from heart disease, or from addiction. We’re also not immune from buying into a convenient theory. Our kids, the next generation of society, are being given the message that marijuana is natural and therefore safe to use. They’re also exposed to the confusion that accompanies medical marijuana, and the reality that legislators are making health-related decisions, instead of the FDA or the American Medical Association setting standards.
Finally, marijuana proponents want us to think that using weed is no different than having a beer or making a l’chaim, and that it’s harmless. Even if that were true 30 years ago, today’s marijuana is just not the same. The marijuana is different, the effects are different, and the risks are different.
Thought you should know.
Pinchas/Paul Herman, PhD, is a Psychotherapist in Pittsburgh. He is board certified in treating addictive disorders and in dual-diagnosis. He also holds board certification in substance abuse intervention. He is available for questions or consultation at 412-620-8060 or at [email protected]