I Stopped Smoking Pot, and I Didn't go "Gaga"

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November 19, 2013 - By Amanda Reiman

Lady Gaga has been in the news a lot lately, and not just because of her SNL hosting stint. She has been making claims that she was addicted to marijuana, using 15-20 joints a day.

Of course, she also mentions that this was after a hip injury and during a time of anxiety related to said injury, so it’s entirely possible that her frequent marijuana use during this time was of the medical nature, and some might say its use prevented issues with having to take prescription drugs for the pain and anxiety.
Her, “my name is Gaga and I am a pot addict” moment has spurred all kinds of discussion about whether marijuana is addictive and the difference between “addiction” and “dependence” on a substance.

I won’t argue about someone’s personal experience, but before the Gaga article went viral, I had started my own little marijuana experiment that I would like to share. Now, this isn’t scientific. It is what we in the research field call a case study, which might provide some insight into the difference between addiction and dependence.

A few summers ago, I decided to give up caffeine. It was not causing any problems in my life, and there were no health reasons for me to stop my one cup of coffee in the morning. But, after waiting in a super long line at Starbucks the morning of a conference, I suddenly thought, “there are better ways to spend my time.”

So, I decided to stop with the coffee cold turkey. Within 24 hours I was going through withdrawals. Bad ones. Now remember, I was only drinking one cup per day, although I had been doing this for about 10 years. My head was throbbing, my mind was like a swamp, and I felt like I had just gotten over the flu, drained, tired, and grumpy.

I was teaching a summer school class at UC Berkeley at the time (on substance abuse) and I would lament to my students every morning about how “addicted” to caffeine I realized I was. I say addicted, because, without caffeine, my body was in very real distress.

The desire to use caffeine to alleviate this distress was very high. But, interestingly, I was not craving coffee for the effect it had on me or what it did for me, I was craving it to make the withdrawals go away. I do not think I was “dependent” on coffee to keep me awake, I was doing that just fine, but I was addicted to the chemical caffeine. After about 4-5 weeks, the withdrawals subsided and I have not returned to my caffeine habit.

A year later, I decided to do another experiment on myself. After using marijuana almost daily for 18 years, I decided to give it up cold turkey - for 3 weeks. Basically, I wanted to know what depriving myself of marijuana would do. For the first couple of days, a few things happened:

  1. My dreams became very vivid (we know that marijuana leads to dream suppression, which is one of its best qualities for those with PTSD)
  2. My sweet tooth was muted (I still had a healthy appetite, but did not find it hard to say no to sugary treats)
  3. Oh wait…that’s it

I originally started using marijuana to address symptoms of arthritis, but since then I have also started regular therapy and body work treatments, so stopping marijuana did not impact my health condition.

It didn’t really impact me at all. True, at the end of the day, when I am relaxing at home, the thought would enter my mind, “a joint would be nice right now”, but then I would think, “oh, I am not doing that”, and move on with my evening.

I have been to parties where marijuana is being used and I do not crave it, and, through my work, I talk about and write about marijuana constantly. None of this has brought on cravings or a strong desire to use again.

My point is, I was addicted to caffeine.

I was not addicted to marijuana.

Those who have stopped using a substance they found themselves addicted to know that there is a vast difference between addiction and the dependence on a substance for relaxation or pain relief. If Gaga understood this, she would have likely chosen the word “dependent” instead of “addicted.”

Amanda Reiman is the California policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.

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