Cannabis and Tobacco: A Study of Addiction
A new study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry has been widely reported in recent days. Its apparently groundbreaking conclusion? That tobacco is addictive.
Of course, this isn’t a story in itself. The devastating effects of tobacco consumption on health are well established, as is its overwhelming tendency to cause dependence in users. Why then is this story causing such a stir? The answer, as usual, is simple. It’s been dressed up to make cannabis look bad.
Allow me to explain – researchers from University College London, the University of Queensland, King’s College London, and the South London and the Maudsley NHS Trust undertook a statistical analysis of 33,687 cannabis users who participated in the 2014 Global Drug Survey.
The specific finding which has been the cause of so many misleading headlines revolved around the different methods of consumption of cannabis among the participants, and their likelihood of seeking help to quit cannabis and/or tobacco. Those cannabis users who reported favouring non-tobacco routes (vaporising, pure cannabis joints, bongs, etc) had 61.5% higher odds of wanting professional help to use less cannabis, and 80.6% higher odds of wanting help to use less tobacco, than those users who mixed their cannabis with tobacco.
The conclusion that has been drawn is that mixing cannabis and tobacco somehow makes cannabis more addictive, and that since this is the most popular method of consumption in Europe (but not elsewhere), cannabis users are at significant risk of developing a dependence to the drug because of their tobacco use.
This is a fair assessment, to a point. But what it fails to recognise is that cannabis users who prefer non-tobacco routes – particularly where the mixing of cannabis and tobacco is the most popular method of consumption – are necessarily going to be more likely to want to quit tobacco.
It also ignores the growth of medical cannabis, and concentrates, which necessitate not using tobacco. Users who are self-medicating with cannabis will not want to be smoking tobacco if they can help it.
As for why the statistics showed that non-tobacco users were more likely to seek help to stop their cannabis use, it seems logical to presume that this could be down to two factors. Firstly, the fact that they will almost certainly be consuming more cannabis than their tobacco-smoking counterparts, which necessarily puts them at a higher risk of developing some kind of dependence, and secondly that the highly addictive nature of tobacco means people are less likely to want to quit.
The likelihood of wanting to stop using a substance does not necessarily correlate with its actual addictiveness if that addictiveness is a strong enough barrier to wanting to quit. In other words, the assumption that the percentage of users seeking help to stop using a substance is higher the more addictive a substance is, is just that – an assumption. It is not necessarily correct.
What this study really shows is that more people are trying to quit tobacco worldwide than ever before. It should not be used as a stick to beat cannabis with, but instead should be seen as a vindication of good drug policy. Strong regulation and effective education have been successful in getting people to kick their tobacco habit, something that we are not seeing with the tried and failed methods of outright prohibition.
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