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Experts warn of increased pot addiction in light of legalization

Experts say despite conventional wisdom, marijuana can be as addictive as alcohol or other drugs. (AP image)

When MG tried smoking pot for the first time as a 14-year-old, he could never have imagined what it would do to his life.

“You know, before the next year had ended I’m smoking pot on a daily basis. I’m getting high on the way to school. I’m getting high on free periods. From that moment on, from just around when I turned to 15 I was addicted,” he says.

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It would lead to decades of dependency. No matter how hard he tried, MG couldn’t stop. For the now 50-something Snoqualmie Valley dad and thousands of others, marijuana was as addictive as alcohol or other drugs.

Although it’s been argued for years pot isn’t habit forming, experts say a number of studies have proven it is both psychologically and physically addictive.

“If they’ve been smoking a lot, when they stop smoking they will actually go through a protracted withdrawal. If it’s not addictive, you wouldn’t go through the physical withdrawal,” says Paul Weatherly, Director of Drug and Alcohol Counseling at Bellevue College.

Some of the withdrawal symptoms include hot and cold sweats, irritability, severe headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and insomnia.

“It was terrible,” MG says. “I wound up not really being able to sleep for more than a couple of hours for I think three months.”

MG ultimately sought treatment eight years ago at a Kirkland in-patient drug rehab center. It turns out he was far from alone.

“We see a lot of people coming in today to treatment because they’ve tried repeatedly to stop smoking pot,” Weatherly says.

Many of them are young people. Experts find the young addicts most troubling in light of a number of recent studies, including one out of New Zealand that found teens who smoke pot heavily, at least four days a week, saw IQ levels drop an average of eight points between the ages of 13 and 38. It also found heavy use led to increased problems with memory and concentration.

“I would have a list of three things to buy at the grocery store and I live a five minute drive away,” MG says. “Sometimes I wouldn’t remember I was going to the grocery store on the way. I was like, ‘What am I doing in the car?’ I’d get to the grocery store and I couldn’t remember the three things.”

Luckily, most people who consume marijuana won’t get hooked and won’t have any more adverse effects than perhaps the munchies. Research finds about 9 percent of pot users get addicted. Weatherly says with so many people likely to start getting high now that it’s legal, it’s important to sound a cautionary note.

MG couldn’t agree more. Even though he’s been clean and sober for nearly a decade, he worries about the temptation for him and the ultimate impact of the drug’s increased availability. Pot shops expected to pop up everywhere won’t help.

“I mean I am a pot addict. I have no doubt about it that I am addicted to that drug.”

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