While there is no conclusive scientific evidence that marijuana addiction exists, scores of Angelenos regularly meet up to address their dependency on cannabis. These Marijuana Anonymous gatherings, modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, support attendees through a 12-step program.
While the benefits and risks of consuming marijuana remain contested, Jim Anthony, a Michigan State University professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, says cannabis dependency — also called “cannabis use disorder” — is becoming accepted among the scientific community. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, says this diagnosis involves meeting at least two criteria on a list of behavioral symptoms, including frequency of marijuana use, cravings and repeated failed attempts to cut back use. A large-scale survey from 1994, and a follow-up from 2010, found a 9 percent transition rate from cannabis use to dependence. (This compares with a 67.5 percent addiction rate for nicotine and a 22.7 percent addiction rate for alcohol.)
Despite the common narrative that cannabis can create a psychological rather than physiological dependency, Anthony says his colleagues have “abandoned that distinction.” For some who tried to quit cannabis, there are withdrawal symptoms, he says, which could be classified as physiological — such as appetite disturbance and insomnia — and psychological, such as depression and anxiety. Either way, a cannabis craving is likely caused by a brain process, Anthony says.
According to Nadia Solowij, Ph.D., a researcher who studies cannabis and the brain, there’s little known about how marijuana dependence plays out neurologically. She says it’s likely some people are more vulnerable to cannabis dependency than others. For instance, a study published in the peer-reviewed Addictive Behaviors journal suggests that about one in six people who consume marijuana as teens become dependent. Yet another study found an exceptionally low rate of dependence among people who use only cannabis, compared with those who also use other drugs.
While researchers continue to explore “cannabis use disorder,” Marijuana Anonymous attendees have made the personal choice to re-examine their relationship with the substance.
Like many MA attendees, Marcy says she never “hit rock bottom.” She graduated from college and eventually became a producer. But she speaks of her past with a resigned complacency, lamenting that she never had children or fulfilling romantic relationships. Among the recovery stories told by MA members, many share the subtle toll cannabis dependency has had on them. Ron R., 28, says he started going to MA four years ago when he realized he had “given years of his life away to marijuana.”
MA doesn’t take an official stance on whether marijuana should be legal, but some meeting attendees agree that cannabis is important for medical purposes and that it’s possible to use it recreationally. But there remain many unknowns about how Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use for Californians older than 21, will affect dependency rates.
As of 2009, 525,000 Californians met the criteria for marijuana abuse. According to Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, cannabis consumption in Los Angeles following legalization will be dependent on yet-to-be-written regulations influencing retail price and advertising, among other variables. Additionally, surprising new data show that legalization doesn’t necessarily increase consumption. While legal marijuana use increased 11 percent in Colorado between 2013 and 2015, it decreased by 12 percent during that same time in Washington. Kilmer pointed out dependency won’t necessarily rise proportionally with consumption, either, because legalization will change the potency and types of products available.
Meanwhile, with or without scientific backing, MA will continue to provide support across the globe. The organization, which began in California in 1989, hosts meetings everywhere from Japan to Canada. And for cities without chapters, MA hosts virtual gatherings. Yet Marcy says the biggest challenge for people facing cannabis dependency continues to be that it’s not taken seriously. “This is a gripping addiction for people, and people don’t even think it’s real,” she says.