Experts Tell the Truth about Pot

Marijuana use can be problematic but only rarely leads to addiction

Researchers have also demonstrated that heavy marijuana use can lead to increased tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop. In addition, heavy use can contribute to respiratory and cardiovascular problems as well as impairments in short-term memory. Marijuana may also trigger certain disorders, such as schizophrenia, in vulnerable persons [see “A Mind in Danger,” by Victoria Costello], although researchers continue to debate the evidence on this issue. Finally, because marijuana is still illegal in most states and under federal law, people who possess or sell marijuana may face legal consequences.

On the other hand, marijuana has significant upsides for individuals with certain illnesses. In glaucoma patients, it can reduce the dangerously high eye pressure that can lead to vision loss. In addition, pot can provide relief from chronic pain, reduce nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy, and limit the severe weight loss that results from AIDS and other diseases.

When a person does become addicted, several types of psychotherapy can help him or her kick the habit. One of the more effective types is a form of cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) tailored to the addictive mind-set. Using CBT, therapists teach patients practical coping skills that lead to a change in behavior. They also try to modify the thoughts that contribute to a person’s addiction. Two faster treatments are motivational interviewing and the closely related motivational-enhancement therapy. The goal of these methods is to boost a person’s drive to stop or reduce their use of pot.

Unfortunately, relapse rates remain high for all addiction psychotherapies. In a study published in 2003 psychologist Brent A. Moore, now at Yale University, and his colleagues found that 41 percent of successfully treated marijuana addicts had relapsed within six months. Scientists are searching for ways to bring about long-term abstinence more consistently.

The public needs to be aware of the facts about marijuana so that it can dismiss fictions about the drug’s effects. Only by knowing when marijuana pre­sents a real threat and when the risk is minimal can people properly weigh its dangers and benefits in specific situations. Both our health and sound social policy depend on it.

(Further Reading)

  • Comparative Epidemiology of Dependence on Tobacco, Alcohol, Controlled Substances, and Inhalants: Basic Findings from the National Comorbidity Survey. James C. Anthony, Lynn A. Warner and Ronald C. Kessler in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, Vol. 2, No. 3, pages 244–268; 1994.
  • Cannabis Dependence: Its Nature, Consequences, and Treatment. Edited by Roger J. Roffman and Robert S. Stephens. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
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This article was originally published with the title "Facts and Fictions in Mental Health: The Truth About Pot."

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