We have recently read the article in British news “Legalising cannabis will create 100,000 addicts, think tank warns ”We tried to read the report from the think-thank “The Center for Social Justice” (CSJ) itself to familiarise ourselves with their methodology, but it is not available on their website, so we rely on the article publihed in The Telegraph. The article - with input from CSJ - claims that legalising cannabis in the UK would result in a million people trying cannabis, and because cannabis has around 10% addiction rate, this would result in 100 000 new cannabis addicts.
While it sounds right for the first sight, it operates with a faulty logic. The topic of addiction is more complicated than to be simplified by such generalisations.
The key to the question of whether decriminalising or legalising substances increases the percentage of drug addicts in the total population lies in understanding what really causes people to be addicted to substances. So let’s take a more in-debth look on the causes of addiction.
Why do people get addicted to drugs?
Dr. Gabor Maté, renowned addiction expert and psychologist claims that all addictions originate in trauma and emotional loss. Ref>>
He has received some critiques about his theory citing that he is focusing solely on one risk factor, so let’s look at some other sources.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse US states 3 main reasons for addiction:
Biology: the genes that people are born with account for about half of a person's risk for addiction. Gender, ethnicity, and the presence of other mental disorders may also influence risk for drug use and addiction.
Development: drug use in the early ages while the brain is still developing can increase addiction potential. Therefore it is very important to limit young people’s access to drugs.
Environment. “A person’s environment includes many different influences, from family and friends to economic status and general quality of life. Factors such as peer pressure, physical and sexual abuse, early exposure to drugs, stress, and parental guidance can greatly affect a person’s likelihood of drug use and addiction.”
The reason why “legality of drugs” is not mentioned as source of addiction is because it is not the easy availability of drugs that leads to addicition.
The rat park experiment
How availability of drugs plays no role in developing addiction is perfectly illustrated in The Rat Park Experiment. The experiment goes like this: If you put rats in a small cage where they have nothing to do (aka: miserable environment) and present them with water and water infused with heroin, they will choose heroin over water almost all the time, until they die.
BUT when you put them in a Rat Park where they have lots of space, they can play, eat and mate and you present them with water and heroin, they almost never choose heroin repeatedly.
To translate this to human society in the context of cannabis regulation: People who live a meaningful life and have emotional bond with other humans will not become addicted to cannabis even if they can buy it legally in a cornershop dispensary or coffeeshop.
When we talk about the easy availability of drugs in a legalised environment, it also worth mentioning that illegality of substances does not mean that it’s more difficult to get hold on them. It just means an unregulated, uncontrolled black marked where drugs are avaialable 24/7, and in some areas you can get get drugs delivered faster than pizza.
If you face a difficult situation and you search for escape in drugs, you will find them regardless of what lawmakers decided about the legality of one drug or another.
The phenomena that cannabis use disorder is not connected to regulations shows up in statistics too. Some US states began decriminalising cannabis already in the 70’s, followed by legalising medical cananbis from the 90’s, then recreational legalization in 2012. Cannabis use changed according to the following chart:
The chart shows cannabis use trend over the years. As you can see, while the non-problematic use fluctuates, the marijuana use disorder rate (red line) remains stable over the years. Ref>>
To wrap it up: Sensible cannabis regulations will probably result in rise in non-problematic use, but it would not increase the percentage of drug addicts in the population. It has complex reasons for why people can become addicted to drugs but regulative frameworks are not one of them.
About the author: Rita has been working with Normal Norway, an organisation for sensible cannabis regulations for over 1,5 years, having almost daily contact with users. Before that she lived in Amsterdam and worked in a coffeeshop where she experienced how regulated cannabis plays out in society.