Dr. Drew Pinsky, that doctor you probably recognize from television, recently told The Cannabist that marijuana “acts like an opiate and causes severe addiction” and that withdrawal symptoms can include serious mood and sleep disturbances.
C’mon, Pinsky. Really?
My professional experience — where I worked as a residential addiction counselor and studied cannabis pharmacology in university — tells me differently. And when my Crohn’s Disease was in remission I quit using marijuana and never experienced a single withdrawal symptom.
So trust me, good doctor, you couldn’t be more off base.
Every single textbook and study I’ve read amounts to a vast body of evidence that proves Pinsky is absolutely wrong. Cannabis does not cause severe addiction or extreme withdrawal symptoms.
And it’s disturbing to see celebrity doctors perpetuate misinformation and fear — especially when it flies in the face of common sense and scientific research. Perhaps most distressing is the fact that Pinsky made these misleading statements at a luncheon with frontline addiction workers in attendance — frontline workers who will now surely bring this misinformation to their clients and colleagues.
Maybe Pinsky has never considered the possibility that his patients struggled with their mood and sleep before they started using cannabis. Mark Ware and his colleagues completed a study in 2003 on medical marijuana as a pain reliever and found chronic pain sufferers also found improvements in the quality of their sleep and mood.
If the subjects in Ware’s study stopped using marijuana and then struggled with mood and sleep disturbances again, is that withdrawal? I don’t think so. Cannabis alleviated some of their symptoms, and these symptoms returned when they discontinued use — not the same thing as withdrawal.
I once had a patient who presented as though he was experiencing cannabis withdrawal, as he had self-medicated with marijuana for nervousness and sleep issues for years. My solution? Cognitive behavioral therapy and good sleep hygiene practices — and it fixed him right up.
A study completed by J. Michael Bostwick in 2012 found that marijuana has about a 10 percent addiction rate, which is lower than alcohol and opiates. The risk of addiction and physical dependence with prolonged cannabis use, compared to that of commonly prescribed opiate painkillers, is therefore negligible.
Maybe Pinsky has never bothered to read anything Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a Harvard Medical School professor, has published about cannabis? I think Pinsky should begin by reading Grinspoon’s “History of Cannabis as a Medicine,” which begins, “A native of central Asia, cannabis may have been cultivated as much as 10,000 years ago.”
One last thing to think about: Methadone is a synthetic opioid used to help people get off opiates. It’s necessary because people feel intensely, often unbearably ill when they discontinue opiates. I’ve never experienced opiate withdrawal, but I’ve studied it and witnessed it and am certain it isn’t fun.
But if cannabis is as addictive as opiates, as Pinsky claims it is, why is there no Cannadone — or a synthetic drug to help ween addicts off marijuana?
It does not exist because there is no need for it. Cannabis does not cause severe addiction or extreme withdrawal symptoms, unlike opiates.
Jane Coxwell was a residential addictions counselor at one of Canada’s most prominent inpatient treatment programs and studied drug and alcohol counselling, social service work and sociology. Her studies included designing and completing a course on the sociology of cannabis and a research project on stigma and drug use. She has spent the past five years working and volunteering in the field of palliative and long-term care. She currently resides in Toronto, Canada.