National News, Op-eds & Guest Essays

Marijuana addiction is real. Those struggling often face skepticism.

By David Ovalle and Fenit Nirappil

July 31, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

Courtney took her first marijuana puffs at 17. Two decades later, she was raising a toddler son and hiding her dependence from most family members. She would light her pipe more than a dozen times a day, sneaking to the garage of her Missouri home while her son napped.

She still loves the earthy smell. But weed long ago stopped making her giggly. It was not unusual for the 37-year-old to lose her train of thought mid-conversation or zone out while playing with her son. Many times, Courtney said, she tried to quit, flushing her stash and dumping her pipe to no avail, except for the nine months she was pregnant. Courtney felt she was addicted.

“It’s been frustrating because you’re not taken seriously,” Courtneysaid. “People say it’s not as severe as meth, or alcohol, that it’s not that bad. They think it’s not an addiction.”

At a time when marijuana has been legalized for recreational and medicinal use in more than 20 states — and the potency of the drug has been increased — many experts believe that most people can use it without significant negative consequences, not unlike enjoying occasional alcoholic drinks. But for users like Courtney, the struggles to quit are real and complicated by the powerful cultural perception that marijuana is natural and therapeutic, not a substance that can be addicting.

Courtney’s story reflects broader tensions about marijuana’s health consequences.

For decades, weed’s deleterious health effects were exaggerated, experts said, leading to excessive criminalization. But as legal recreational sales have expanded — Maryland in July became the latest state to permit sale of marijuana products for recreational use — the suggestion that marijuana is addictive has often met with derision, especially because science isn’t always clear on the benefits and harms. There can be reluctance to seek treatment. And other substances stir deeper fears and greater attention: Opioids are driving an overdose crisis killing more than 100,000 people each year in the United States.