Is using cannabis oil for medicinal purposes addictive?

A nuanced response to a tricky, but important, question

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Is it addictive? It’s a question that researchers, healthcare professionals, advocates and skeptics have been asking about cannabis and its active ingredients for decades.

The rapidly evolving science of addiction improving understanding of chemical addictions versus habitual dependencies, alongside the speedy development of products like cannabis oil containing CBD and/or THC, make it a difficult question that may not have a yes or no answer.

This is partially due to the fact that cannabis oil may contain any number of active ingredients, or cannabinoids, including, but not limited to, the two most common: THC and CBD.

What’s the addiction potential for CBD and THC?

Consider the recent article, published by TheGrowthOp, tackling the question, Is it possible to become addicted to marijuana’s CBD? The coverage notes the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that CBD, the non-psychoactive component within cannabis, is not physically addictive. By comparing those administered doses of active CBD to those given a placebo, researchers concluded: “while the number of studies is limited, the evidence from well-controlled human experimental research indicates that CBD is not associated with abuse potential.”

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Is it addictive? It’s a question that researchers, healthcare professionals, advocates and skeptics have been asking about cannabis and its active ingredients for decades. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

THC, or the psychoactive component in cannabis and a common ingredient in many medicinal cannabis products, may be a different story. It’s been said to be habit-forming to the point of causing some withdrawal symptoms among some heavy users, whether they inhale it through a vape pen or joint, ingest it in an edible or use it as an oil. An evidence brief compiled by the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) states “cannabis is addictive, though not everyone who uses it will develop an addiction.”

The statement leaves quite a bit of grey area, but as far as it pertains to cannabis oils, method of consumption has less to do with the potential for addiction than the amount being consumed.

So while using cannabis oil with THC has the potential to become addictive for some users, but habit-forming for others, cannabis oil with only CBD will not become addictive.

Importance of psychological and physical

For clarification, we tapped Susan Marks, aka Nurse Susan, a California-based registered nurse, cannabis nurse and member of the American Cannabis Nurses Association.

“Heavy cannabis users can become dependent on cannabis on a more psychological level rather than a physical level,” Marks explains.

“For example, people who are addicted to opioids have a strong physical dependence and can become extremely ill (sometimes life-threatening) without it. Cannabis users who have used high dosages of cannabis over a long period of time may have headaches, irritability and difficulty sleeping for approximately two weeks if they suddenly stop consuming it. More commonly, those who use cannabis to enhance their creativity may feel they need it in order to connect with their muse, which is psychological, not physical,” she notes.

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An exhibitor describes a mechanical press, used for extracting oil or potentially hashish from cannabis at the Cannabis Expo on April 6, 2019, in Cape Town. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images

However, as Marks points out, most medicinal users are unlikely to be after the heady “high” effects commonly pursued by recreational users. Rather, they’re seeking just enough of the cannabinoids to alleviate symptoms of their illness, using it “at the lowest effective dose.”

History matters when it comes to addiction

Still, there are those who may be at higher risk of developing a dependency on THC cannabis oil. “A prior history of addiction or substance abuse puts someone at a higher risk for addiction to any substance,” says Marks. “With any health decision, the risks and benefits should be considered. If you have cancer or intractable epilepsy that is actively damaging your body, the benefits of cannabis outweigh the risks. If you are perfectly healthy and have a history of substance abuse, then the benefits probably don’t outweigh the risks and should, therefore, be avoided,” she advises.

So, is cannabis oil for medicinal purposes addictive? Though the science continues to improve understanding, the answer remains the same: it depends.

 

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