As with any other medicinal prescription, patients should always educate themselves and consider what potential side effects may come with their treatment plan. While cannabis has a lower risk profile than commonplace substances like alcohol and even coffee, there are always nuances for particular people that can give some substances more or less potential for addiction.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding cannabis. Differentiating between medicinal cannabis and street cannabis can be difficult, and reframing in Australia is still relatively new. Street cannabis is still connected to illicit drugs and has very real and rational concerns surrounding it pertaining to addiction and dangerous use. Medicinal cannabis, however, is now in a regulated realm of its own.
Helping you to understand the risks and realities of medicinal cannabis use, we have compiled some of the most frequently asked questions surrounding addiction. With this, we also hope to clarify the differences between street and medical cannabis so that all of your personal research can consider whether studies and thought pieces relate to the regulated goods you’re being prescribed by a doctor or studies done on unregulated cannabis.
Is medical cannabis addictive?
There is no yes or no answer to this question. Addiction profiles are complex. Some people are more prone to addiction than others, and genetics, mental health and environmental factors can play a role in whether or not someone is at risk of forming an addiction.
What is clear is that medicinal cannabis has a lower risk profile for addiction than all of the common stimulants and depressants that Australians have legal access to, namely alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.
Medicinal cannabis does not have physical addictive qualities like caffeine, opioids or tobacco. E.g. you need to keep increasing the dose to get the benefits. However, some patients can form an addiction to the feeling of cannabis. While the risks are low, it’s important to be mindful that this can affect certain people.
Does medicinal cannabis have a lower addiction profile than regular cannabis?
It’s fair to say that medicinal cannabis has a lower addiction risk than regular cannabis; there are a number of factors that lead to this.
Firstly, medicinal cannabis is grown in a controlled environment, regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Association in Australia to guarantee its safety and efficacy. Under these guidelines, the process of production is extremely strict. Growers and producers have to uphold high standards of production to ensure the medicinal qualities of the cannabis are nurtured, and there are no additional chemicals that could be harmful to patients’ health.
Comparatively, regular cannabis, or street cannabis, is grown in a huge range of different ways. Some use sprays and additional chemicals to alter the profile of the plant for a greater high or even specifically to make it addictive, making it potentially dangerous. Due to the unregulated way that street cannabis or marijuana is grown and produced, it comes with greater risks. Studies have found that black market products are not accurately labelled and often inconsistent in their composition thus carry a higher risk of dependence. The uncertain makeup of the final product means the side effects can be unpredictable, and it’s impossible to know whether the cannabis you get is safe or high-risk for addiction and other negative side effects.
Given the illegal vs legal and regulated nature of the market in Australia, the illegal side will very seldom have a consistent product with which we can compare the qualities.
Medicinal cannabis is produced for health and safety 100% of the time.
Another critical consideration is that medicinal cannabis is provided through a medical professional who provides a medical consultation. Illegal cannabis, of course, is not. This matters because addiction profiles can be genetic or psychological. Particular people, depending on their family environment, inherited genetics, lifestyle and mental health factors, can be more or less likely to form addictions. Working with a medical professional to discuss your health prior to trying medicinal cannabis is the most effective way to prevent risks of addiction.
All elements considered, medicinal cannabis is a far more safe and supported avenue to ensure that addiction risks are identified and mitigated before they have any potential to occur.
Does tolerance cause addiction?
With many substances, like caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and opioids, for those who are prescribed opioids for pain, addiction often occurs when tolerance is built up, and you need to take more to get the effects you have grown to rely on.
Interestingly, the tolerance journey for medical cannabis is not the same as described above. While users will gradually, often quickly, develop a tolerance to the side effects of medical cannabis (lethargy, dry mouth and other common side effects), the beneficial effects do not reduce as tolerance is built. This means that a patient using medicinal cannabis may reach a point where they don’t feel much of the side effects mentioned above, but they still get the therapeutic effects their treatment was designed to offer, such as reducing anxiety, reducing the frequency of epileptic fits, limiting headaches, and reducing chronic pain.
Are there different addiction risks for CBD vs THC?
In 2017, the World Health Organisation released a report, in which they state:
“Current evidence shows that cannabidiol is not likely to be abused or create dependence as for other cannabinoids (such as Tetra Hydro Cannabinol (THC), for instance).”
“In general, clinical studies have reported that even high doses of oral CBD do not cause those effects [addiction or potential for abuse] that are characteristic for THC and for cannabis rich in THC.”
These findings indicate that patients using cannabidiol (CBD) are extremely unlikely to form an addiction to this treatment.
On the other hand, TetraHydroCannabinol (THC) — although still a much lower risk profile than caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine — is the form of medicinal cannabis that medical experts are particularly careful to prescribe for patients who have a high risk of addiction.
What are the signs of cannabis addiction?
Cannabis addiction manifests through an increase in dependency. Common signs are:
- Using it even when you’ve recognised that it’s causing problems in your daily life
- Increasing use to maintain the feeling it produces
- Withdrawing from activities you once used to enjoy
- Using cannabis in situations where it could be dangerous
- Thinking excessively about cutting back but struggling to do so.
How to manage a medical cannabis addiction
Whether you are taking prescribed medicinal cannabis or have sourced illegal cannabis for self-treatment, you should contact your doctor at the early signs of addiction. Treating addiction is always best dealt with early.
Early intervention with a medical cannabis expert can help to identify the best way to stop it in its tracks while also ensuring you have support to find alternative avenues that can help you handle your illness or ailment. Feeling as though you have no other means to treat your suffering is dangerous to trap you into situations that are not serving you as they should. Support and guidance to find alternative treatments will help you to feel on top of your situation and maintain confidence that there are other avenues to explore.
Working with a medical cannabis doctor is the most effective way to ensure that addiction remains an extremely low risk. Any signs even close can be identified, and treatments can be tailored accordingly.
Take Home Message
Weighing the potential harm against benefits should always be considered with any type of treatment. In examining the risk vs benefit of medicinal cannabis, most patients ultimately conclude that, guided by a health professional, they feel confident in using medicinal cannabis as a therapeutic treatment and find that its benefits far outweigh adverse effects and problems of abuse often experienced from other medications, such as opioids.