You may have heard that medical marijuana is a non-addictive alternative to opioids to help with pain management. However, you also may have heard that marijuana is addictive – so what is the truth?

The answer lies in two definitions – addiction and cannabis use disorder. To understand any risks involved in taking medical cannabis for your chronic pain or other qualifying condition, you should understand the difference between these two terms.

What is addiction?

According to, an addiction is a chronic dysfunction of the brain system that involves reward, motivation, and memory. Addiction addresses the way your body craves a substance or behavior, especially if it causes a compulsive or obsessive pursuit of “reward” and lack of concern over consequences.

A person who is experiencing an addiction exhibits an inability to stop using the substance or engaging in the behavior. They pursue the addiction to excess, even though it is negatively affecting their health, their career, or their social relationships. An addict will most often deny that they have a problem, even as they consume the addictive substance in large doses. Their lives are often characterized by financial difficulty, irresponsibility and lack of interest in previous hobbies or activities. They often suffer with insomnia, experience disease affiliated with their addiction, and often manifest a marked change in appearance.

Experts agree that the typical cannabis user does not exhibit the above behaviors.  While cannabis may indeed have certain psychological components, a negatively life-altering dependency on it is exceptionally rare.

There is also an environmental aspect to addiction, however, as well. A human being needs bonding and connection; when we feel traumatized or isolated, we can form an emotional attachment to anything that provides relief. Therefore, one might wonder if there are circumstances under which someone may become emotionally addicted to cannabis.

What is Cannabis Use Disorder?

The medical community does not use the phrase “cannabis addiction.” Instead, the term “cannabis use disorder” (CUD) is used, and is listed as such in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM) which is the official manual of psychiatric diagnostics

Cannabis use disorder will entail the user exhibiting several or most of these indicators:

  • Cannabis ingested in larger doses than originally intended
  • Cannabis used for a longer period of time than prescribed
  • The user has a desire to control use but cannot due to strong cravings
  • A disproportionate amount of the user’s day is spent obtaining, using and recovering from cannabis
  • Cannabis prevents the user from fulfilling roles and responsibilities
  • Continued use despite social and relational negative effects
  • Recurrent cannabis use despite the knowledge that it is presenting dangerous physical or psychological problems
  • Increased tolerance necessitating more of the substance to achieve desired effect
  • Withdrawal when the substance is removed.

Although some people may develop an emotional dependence on medical marijuana, this is far different than the physical dependence that opioids and other medications may result in. Also, medical cannabis virtually never results in either physical dependence or death; unlike opioids, which have been related to up to 21,000 deaths per year as per the CDC.  According to the same report, in states like Florida which have legalized medical marijuana, deaths attributed to opiates are 25% lower.

There is no lack of evidence that medical cannabis is a safer and far less addictive option for pain relief than opioids. For more information on how medical cannabis may help you to combat your chronic pain or illness, call the Sarasota offices of Dr. Daniel. P. Stein – Neurology of Cannabis