Pubdate: Wed, 23 Jul 2014
Source: SF Weekly (CA)
Column: Chem Tales
Copyright: 2014 Village Voice Media
Author: Chris Roberts

Marijuana Is Addictive, Whether Legalization Backers Admit It or Not


Three or four nights a week in San Francisco, a group of people 
shuffle into an anonymous meeting hall. The bitter scent of freshly 
stamped-out cigarettes follows them inside where, sitting on 
function-hall furniture with cups of cheap coffee in hand, they tell 
their war stories. Getting stoned and missing work. Or getting stoned 
and being thrown out of school, and losing their grip on life, thanks 
to the world's most common drug.

They're marijuana addicts. To some, the idea of "Marijuana Anonymous" 
is farcical. Getting hooked on weed is a setup toward a cheap 
punchline, like Bob Saget asking Dave Chappelle, playing the 
pot-crazed Thurgood in Half-Baked, if he ever sucked dick for 
marijuana. "Marijuana's not a drug!" the joke goes. The problem is 
that it's not a joke at all. Marijuana is a drug, and people can get 
hooked. Just ask the people who go to Marijuana Anonymous meetings every week.

David Smith knows. There was a time when Smith would have called 
bullshit on the young addiction specialists, back when they were 
surrounded by an earlier generation of American dope-smokers. Now, 
almost 50 years later, the founder of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic 
has a different problem.

As a physician, Smith believes the medical potential of the drug is 
exciting. And the march towards legalization means that cannabis 
might be removed from Schedule I, eventually. But more marijuana will 
also take a toll on people's lives, which worries Smith as a father 
and grandfather.

"I've had a lot of patients," Smith says, "where pot really screwed 
up their lives." Smith still practices medicine in the neighborhood, 
and from the window of his Stanyan Street office, he can see the 
15,000 or so eager pot smokers converge on Hippie Hill every April 
20. Of them, about 1,500 - 10 percent - are, or will be, addicted to the stuff.

Cannabis dependency is real. It's in the DSM, it's in every medical 
textbook. Yet a real, sober conversation about it has gotten lost in 
the reefer madness that's consuming marijuana legalization 
supporters, as well as prohibitionists, as they make their last stand 
before legal weed overtakes America.

And meanwhile, the questions of who gets addicted, why, and how to 
help them, aren't getting answered.

Last month, slipped into the United Nations' annual drug report 
between the tales of synthetic drugs, ketamine in China, and 
prescription pill abuse in the United States was a troubling fact: An 
increasing number of young people are seeking treatment for cannabis 
dependency in the U.S., Australia, and everywhere else pot use is 
rising (which is almost everywhere).

Common among the drug's users, the U.N. found, is a notion that weed 
is safe. It's easy to see how they arrived at that notion. 
Legalization backers used this simple, effective message to turn 
Colorado and Washington green: Among the panoply of drugs available 
to Americans, cannabis is the safest choice. It's less toxic than 
tobacco, less dangerous than alcohol, and less addictive than 
caffeine. Marijuana is no doubt "safer."

Safer, however, does not mean it's safe. The teenage boys filling up 
the treatment center at Muir Wood Adolescent and Family Services in 
Marin County illustrate this statistic well: Nearly all of the boys 
between 13 and 17 years old, residing in a mostly white, affluent 
area, are seeking treatment for cannabis dependency. That hearkens 
back to the Half-Baked idea - how are we supposed to worry about a 
stoned kid flunking algebra when there are hardened dope fiends roaming about?

"They don't have the same war stories, sure," says Smith. But that 
doesn't mean they're not addicts. Loss of control, failure to stop 
despite a desire to stop, and consequences at work or school - 
"that's an addiction," he says. "And it needs to be treated as such."

Making the situation worse is the criminal justice system. Among all 
drug users, marijuana's addicts are the least likely to check 
themselves into rehab and the most likely to get court referrals to 
rehab, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services 
Administration. Judges are doing well by referring drug users to 
treatment rather than prison, but at the same time they may be 
padding "treatment" stats - and creating a Half-Baked-like scenario 
with faux addicts sitting through meetings per a court order.

So who will get addicted, why, and how can they be cured? That's 
Smith's last problem. He's not certain, just as he's not certain why 
some people can sip wine for a lifetime and never be hooked. It could 
be partially genetic. It almost certainly has a lot to do with how 
early a marijuana user starts - the younger a cannabis user is, the 
more likely he or she will seek treatment for dependency.

Now the marijuana addiction issue is reefer madness in reverse. For 
decades, Americans have been bombarded with poisonous nonsense about 
the drug's supposed harm on people. But with public acceptance of 
medical cannabis and legalization at all-time highs, there's reason 
to doubt stories about reefer addicts. The truth is in the middle. 
It's science, and, as Smith says, "it's getting obscured."
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