If you’ve seen the 1936 film “Reefer Madness” you know that authorities at the time equated cannabis with far more addictive drugs. In fact, the movie’s cannabis-smoking protagonist – played by actor Dave O’Brien – ends up displaying symptoms exaggerated even for heroin withdrawal.
Both the movie and O’Brien’s performance have long been derided for their efforts at portraying cannabis consumption as an act that, as critic Alan Jones described it, “turns its users into hysterical monsters driven by their basest desires.”
“Modern audiences think of ‘Reefer Madness’ as pure camp,” Jones wrote in an article for Hazlitt.net – “that is, an unintentionally ridiculous bit of institutional propaganda, godparent of the after-school special.”
But, it turns out, there may be at least some truth to the movie’s allegations.
A professor of psychiatry named Laura Coughlin, who participated in study conducted at the University of Michigan, stated that “while weed is indeed less dangerous than some other drugs, it is not without risks.”
In an article for the nonprofit news website The Conversation, Coughlin wrote that the UM study indicates that “59 percent of people using medical cannabis for chronic pain experienced moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms if they stopped ingesting weed for hours or days.”
According to Coughlin, the range of those symptoms varied but included “irritability, depressed mood, decreased appetite, sleep difficulties, a desire or craving to use cannabis, restlessness, anxiety, increased aggression, headaches, shakiness, nausea, increased anger, strange dreams, stomach pains and sweating.”
Coughlin maintains that the symptoms typically diminish within a couple of weeks as, she wrote, the cannabis use is stopped and “as the body adjusts back to its own natural production of cannabinoids.”
“Unlike withdrawal from some psychoactive substances – such as alcohol – cannabis withdrawal is not life-threatening or medically dangerous,” Coughlin wrote. “But it does exist.”
Similar information can be found on the health and wellness website Healthline.com. An article titled “What to Expect from Marijuana Withdrawal” cites a warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “1 in 10 Americans who use cannabis will become addicted.” And, it added, that number “jumps to 1 in 6 if you begin using marijuana before the age of 18.”
Determining who is most at risk to become addicted to cannabis is a tricky proposition. Writing in Emerald Magazine, Claire Covino states that – according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse – genetic predisposition may be a key, “though the person’s environment is just as influential.”
“However,” Covino added, “a person with no genetic predisposition might not fall victim to addiction given the same environment.”
The increased THC potency of today’s cannabis may also be a factor. The journal Biological Psychiatry published a study in 2016 that indicated THC potency had risen from 4 percent to 12 percent over the previous two years alone.
And, of course, the mental health of the individual cannabis user has to be considered.
“The cycle of addiction is much more likely for those who use cannabis as a form of self-medication, whether they know they’re doing it or not,” Covino wrote.
To avoid the worst of the withdrawal symptoms, Healthline.com cautions, it’s best to taper off slowly while under the care of a physician.
Other advice when trying to reduce or eliminate cannabis consumption:
• Stay hydrated, making sure to avoid “sugary, caffeinated beverages like soda.”
• Eat healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats, and avoid junk food “which can make you feel sluggish and irritable.”
• Exercise at least 30 minutes a day.
• Seek out others to provide emotional support.
Like many indulgences, overconsumption can lead to problems – and cannabis is no different.
As Michigan researcher Coughlin noted, “Cannabis may not be the demon drug from ‘Reefer Madness,’ but neither is it a wonder-plant with limitless upsides and no downsides.”
Dan Webster is a former Spokesman-Review staff writer who is a community producer for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for Spokane7.com.