Is Cannabis Addictive? You Be the Judge

Is cannabis addictive from a neuroscience view?

With the use of any drug, whether plant-derived or synthetic, there is concern about addiction.  Many who are against the legalization of cannabis argue that its use will cause addiction and drive users to harder drugs like heroin and cocaine; thereby, increasing the nation’s problems associated with it.  So, let’s take a look at what happens when a person uses a drug like heroin, how it affects the body, compare that to cannabis use, and decide for ourselves if the two are the same.

Our Brain-Reward System

As humans, when we participate in something that makes us feel good, a positive message is sent to our brains to encourage us to do that thing, again.  Just think about all the things you do, experience and feel that make you happy, bring you joy.  I know, for me, nothing gets my brain-reward system fired up like a delicious piece of birthday cake.  The enjoyment I experience when I bite into that moist cake along with its sweet, but not too sweet, creamy almond-flavored frosting is a pleasure that draws me in again and again.  You get the picture?

Well, there are many natural rewards like that: food, water, sex and feeling loved or nurtured.  They are the body’s way of making sure we repeat behaviors that a vital for survival such as eating, drinking, reproducing, etc.  So, let’s go back to my cake.  When that first bite hits my mouth, my brain goes into action signaling the release of the chemical, dopamine, which is responsible for the pleasure I experience as I eat my cake.  Swap cake eating for any other rewarding activity and, wah-lah, the Brain-Reward System is doing its thing.

Brain-Reward System and Drugs

It clearly makes sense that the Brain-Reward System works to encourage survival with the natural rewards; however, there are artificial rewards, like drugs that work on this

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system as well.  Let’s look at how using a drug like heroin works.

When a person uses heroin, the brain signals the release of dopamine just like it does when I eat cake, but with a key difference.  When I eat the cake, dopamine is slowly released and does not deplete my cells.  My body is able to provide more from what I did not use as well as replenish what I have; thereby providing more dopamine for the next pleasurable activity.  When a person uses heroin, however, my reward system is bum-rushed and my cells are depleted of all of it’s dopamine right then.  In other words, heroin causes dopamine to be used up faster than my body can make more.


In our example, a person is using heroin, it is depleting the dopamine; and, with repeated use, two things start to happen: tolerance of the drug increases and dependency occurs.  Simply put, with repeated use it takes more heroin to achieve the desired high (tolerance), and cells become dependent upon the heroin in order to function properly (dependency).  It is at this point that a user will experience withdrawal symptoms if the drug is not present.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as the state in which an organism engages in compulsive, rewarding behavior even when faced with negative consequences.  Therefore, while other things provide rewards (i.e. eating, sex, etc.), nothing provides the level of dopamine release as the drug.  Obtaining that drug/high becomes the top rewarding activity despite negative consequences like the inability to participate in daily functions, illness, and even death.

How is Cannabis Different

Cannabis, unlike heroin and other similar drugs, does not bum-rush the brain’s reward system.  It works with the body to regulate the release of dopamine and other chemicals in an effort to help the body maintain balance or homeostasis.  Compounds found in cannabis, called phytocannabinoids, mimic natural cannabinoids that are produced within our bodies and function the same way.

Our cells do not become dependent upon cannabis and can perform in their original manner in its absence.  Abstaining from cannabis also does not cause withdrawal.  In fact, there are studies as well as a growing number of people who can attest to cannabis’ ever growing list of therapeutic uses.

So you be the judge.  Is cannabis addictive?  Should it be in the same category as drugs like heroin, cocaine, morphine and others on the Schedule I list?  Tell me what you think.


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