Almost Addicted

The slippery slope of recreational drug use

Legalize Marijuana? Yes.

Even though Marijuana can be Addictive, it ought to be Legalized

In a previous blog I wrote that because marijuana generally does not cause dramatic physiological withdrawal symptoms the way that opiates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol do, many incorrectly believe that it is not addictive.  Even though a small minority of cannabis users become addicted to it,  the vast majority of those who consume it do not and will never become addicted.  For those who do become addicted, their cannabis use can wreak havoc in their lives by coming to dominate their daily existence and causing them to forsake various arenas of their life that are important to their well-being, such as school, work, family responsibilities, and so on. 

But does the fact that marijuana can be addictive for some who use it mean that it ought to be illegal?  Not at all. 

For me, the two issues are mutually exclusive.

There are many substances and activities that individuals can become addicted to such as food, sex, alcohol, and gambling, and in most instances these things or behaviors are not illegal.  When done to excess, they can undoubtedly destroy lives.  For example, people can engorge themselves with food, gamble away their life savings, or have sex in ways that could kill them, but almost nobody clamors for these things to generally be outlawed.

Similarly, although marijuana can and does destroy some lives, most who use cannabis do so without jeopardizing any aspect of their existence.  Their jobs, housing, and family relationships are not thrown into question as a result of their marijuana use.  As a result, I can see no reason why something that most people use for enjoyment, responsibly, in a way that generally does not cause problems (other than the fact that it is illegal in most circumstances) in their lives should be illegal.

This is not to say that marijuana is harmless.  Heavy use can pose real risks for some users, especially teens and other younger users.  (See my previous blog post here along these lines.)  But despite some real risks, cannabis is far less dangerous and scary than some “hard drugs” and almost definitely is less dangerous than our biggest drug of abuse, alcohol, which apart from an age cutoff is legal throughout the US.

Thus, I support legalizing marijuana throughout the US.

Some will ask, with alarm, “but if we legalize marijuana won’t that lead to a slippery slope in which have to consider legalizing all drugs of abuse?”  The short answer is maybe, even though many drugs such as crack and heroin are dramatically more dangerous and terrifying than marijuana given that they frequently destroy lives in any number of ways, including the potential to overdose and die. 

But from a policy perspective—understanding that some will use drugs no matter what, that our prisons are overcrowded, that our courts are backlogged, and that we need far better treatment options for those actually addicted to drugs—asking whether we ought to legalize all drugs of abuse makes sense.

Legalizing all drugs would instantly eliminate the vast majority of crime around their use even though in and of itself it wouldn’t do much to alleviate the pain and suffering they cause.  If we were to tax drug sales and use that money to educate individuals about the realities of drug use, perhaps that’d go a long way to limiting drug use and the myriad problems therein.

So, is marijuana potentially addictive?  Absolutely.  Does that mean it ought to be illegal?  Absolutely not.   Would making marijuana legal lead us down a slippery slope?  Perhaps.  But I strongly believe that we as a society ought to consider the implications of that slope in a sane and rational way.

Wes Boyd is on faculty at Harvard Medical School and is an Attending Psychiatrist at Cambridge Health Alliance and Children’s Hospital Boston.

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