Think marijuana isn’t addictive? Former users say think again
By John Keilman, Chicago Tribune, March 8, 2020,
A person smokes marijuana at a private residence in the West Loop on Jan. 25, 2020 in Chicago. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
CHICAGO — In the basement of the Mustard Seed, a red brick building in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood that hosts dozens of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings each week, a handful of people gathered on a recent night to discuss a different addiction.
They were members of Marijuana Anonymous, a rapidly expanding 12-step organization that serves those struggling with a drug that is now legal in Illinois and 10 other states, and that many people view as innocuous.
“When you’re in rehab for weed, you don’t say you’re in rehab for weed,” said Robb, a 30-year-old who lives in Chicago. “Half the people will laugh you out of the room.”
But treatment specialists say marijuana’s addictive potential is well-established. About 1 in 10 people who use the drug end up with the condition known as cannabis use disorder, meaning they continue to use compulsively even when it messes up their lives.
The Chicago Tribune spoke with people in recovery from marijuana addiction about those problems, the complexities of treatment and the reluctance of others to recognize the seriousness of the habit (as is customary for participants in 12-step programs, they asked to be identified only by their first names or no name at all).
Guillermo, a 19-year-old Chicagoan, said the first time he got stoned “felt like I was a piece of butter melting on a stack of pancakes.” But the rapture faded quickly, and smoking weed soon became a joyless reflex akin to brushing his teeth in the morning, he said.
Potent marijuana frequently put him into hangoverlike “kush comas,” he said, and sapped his motivation and alertness so thoroughly that his mother threatened to put him into a mental hospital.
“I was just stoned all the time,” he said. “I was barely even there.”
Dr. Itai Danovitch, chair of the department of psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles and a member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said the hallmarks of cannabis use disorder are similar to those of other addictions.
People become physically dependent on the drug, needing more to achieve the same effect, and they suffer withdrawal symptoms if they stop using. They lose control over their consumption. And they keep going even after their use causes them to suffer adverse consequences.
Robb entered a similar program and said it helped him get through surprisingly intense withdrawal symptoms.
“I got headaches, dry heaves, extreme emotions and mood swings,” he said. “The first two weeks were bad. THC kills your ability to dream, so I was dreaming again for the first time in four years. My mind was catching up on everything I had repressed. Many of the reasons I started getting high in the first place were coming out in my dreams.”
Some experts question the efficacy of 12-step programs, which, given their anonymity and fluctuating membership, are notoriously hard to study. But Danovitch said they have proved helpful for many people, even if they can’t be considered formal treatment.
“We think of it as a community intervention,” he said. “It’s undoubtedly powerful and effective, but not everyone is willing to participate in it.”
Rick, 54, said Marijuana Anonymous helped him give up the drug when he started attending meetings about a decade ago. Since then, he said, the sense of fellowship has provided strong motivation to stay sober.
“These meetings have given me an accountability I could never maintain on my own,” he said. “They just keep me focused.”