Health

The Myth Behind This Anti-Marijuana Meme

Nearly half of American adults have tried marijuana at least once in their lives, national surveys showed. Efforts to legalize cannabis are advancing, so opponents of legalization are really pushing the idea that the substance is addictive in the same way that drugs like heroin are addictive.

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This meme from the Facebook page "Stop Pot 2016" is only the latest example. It makes fun of a common argument among marijuana users.

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At first glance, the logic behind the meme seems sound. If you ask stoners if they're addicted to the plant, they'll frequently reject the notion — even if they are regular users. A national survey found that 6 percent of marijuana users report daily or near-daily use, and those same people are likely to tell you that they're not addicted.

About 30 percent of marijuana users have "some degree of marijuana use disorder" — i.e. marijuana addiction — according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

But the meme misses the point. It comes down to a misunderstanding about addiction and the difference between physical and psychological drug dependence.

I'm part of that 6 percent, for example. Yet even as a daily marijuana user, I'll adamantly deny that I'm suffering from any form of marijuana addiction. Am I contradicting myself? No, because addiction is not defined by frequency of use; it's defined by a physical dependence on the chemicals in the drug.

It's true that you can be psychologically dependent on cannabis; the same is true of legal substances such as sugar. But that's not the same thing as physical addiction. Here's the thing: I've repeatedly stopped using marijuana for extended periods of time without experiencing any withdrawal symptoms, the defining feature of physical addiction.

ATTN: previously reported on the difference between physical and psychological drug dependence.

Now ask me how long I can go without a cigarette before withdrawal symptoms take effect. (The answer is less than 24 hours.) Nicotine, unlike THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana), is known to be physically addictive.

This is where the anti-marijuana meme falls flat. Marijuana users boast of daily use as an argument against the idea that the substance is addictive because there are very few drugs that allow users to consume daily without becoming physically addicted.

Here's a chart from Jack Henningfield, a researcher who compared levels of dependence that the average users experience for six common drugs.

The chart shows that caffeine is more addictive than cannabis, as are nicotine, heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. That actually raises another interesting point. Daily coffee drinkers are more likely to experience withdrawal effects after cutting out caffeine than are daily cannabis users. Yet the stigma — and the dismissive memes — do not exist for coffee lovers. It's all about perspective.

To recap, here's how former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders described the issue in a 2010 interview with CNN: "Marijuana is not addictive, not physically addictive anyway."

RELATED: The Truth About Marijuana and Addiction