The Current

Will legalized marijuana lead to more addictions?

As the government moves to legalize marijuana use, specialists in addiction say we need to confront the dependency issues we already face with the drug.
The legalization of marijuana has lit up the debate about dependency and addiction. Some critics warn the drug can be destructive. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Read story transcript

As the federal government introduces legislation on the legalization of marijuana as a recreational drug, former addicts are warning people that for some users, pot can have an an ugly side.

For many Canadians, pushback against marijuana feels like outdated moral panic — a throwback to the Reefer Madness era of the last century when toking was seen as a gateway to hard drugs.

But for Susan Shapiro, marijuana was destructive.

The author and journalist based in New York used to be addicted to marijuana and thinks it should be decriminalized. Shapiro says while medical marijuana can be an effective tool for some patients, she worries the drug's inherent risks are being minimized.

"Everybody says, 'It is not addictive. It is this fun, great thing,'" Shapiro says.

"It's not a fun, great thing. It can be very addictive."

Vanessa Markov knows this firsthand. Eighteen months ago, she was seeking medical help for what she thought was a mental health problem. 

"During the assessment, the discussion around substance abuse came up and that's when I was first introduced to the idea that perhaps marijuana was causing some of the symptoms that I was having," Markov tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. She was struggling with chronic fatigue, irritability, anxiety, and emotional instability from smoking marijuana almost non-stop. 
Studies show that 10 to 20 per cent of marijuana users will develop a dependency. (Shutterstock Professional)

At first, Markov tried to reduce the amount she was smoking, but struggled to keep her use down. So she decided to give up marijuana completely.

"It was a bit of a rocky road for the first six months, but then it worked. And I couldn't have made a better decision," she says.

"I am so much more calm. I can listen. I can focus. I get a lot more done in the day. I sleep better. Overall, my work life, my relationships and my ability to actually do what I set out to do every single day is completely back."

Dr. Benedikt Fischer says that Markov's experiences with marijuana are not typical, although also not exceedingly rare.

Data suggests that 10 to 20 per cent of users will become dependent on marijuana. That's less than with alcohol or nicotine.

Fischer, a senior scientist at the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research in Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says the medical community refers to it as a dependency issue rather than an addiction because of the stigma that has attached itself to the latter term.
Joe Schrank, founder of a rehab facility called High Sobriety, says cannabis is a good tonic to opioid addiction for people with chronic pain. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"Cannabis dependency definitely exists. It's part of the list of things we need to be concerned about when dealing with this drug now in a public health approach. But that's irrespective of whether it's legalized or not," Dr. Fischer tells Tremonti.

High Sobriety, an L.A. rehab facility, uses cannabis as an exit drug from harder and more dangerous addictions because it provides a "softer landing" for users. Founder Joe Schrank believes cannabis can be an ally in the fight against other drug and alcohol addictions. 

"Cannabis can help people move towards harm reduction, move towards a better life," Schrank tells Tremonti.

He says the clinic has seen drug users transition to marijuana to help get people off more dangerous opioids. Schrank explains that people have either stabilized with continued cannabis use, or weaned themselves off it. 

"There's a lot of evidence suggesting that people can circumvent the use of opiates by using cannabis for pain management and other ailments."

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal, Ines Colabrese and Seher Asaf.