'Reefer Madness' Redux, Is Pot Addictive?

Cannabis withdrawal syndrome is new worry with stronger pot, lax attitudes.

ByABC News
August 4, 2009, 5:29 PM

Aug. 5, 2009— -- Vicki, a 53-year-old former rock promoter married to a stand-up comic, started smoking weed when she was just 13.

"I had an older brother who was already getting high, hanging out with his friends and they invited me," said the New York City mother of two teenagers. "Unlike most people, I got high the first time and fell in love."

"I was a daily smoker, 24/7 for over 30 years," said Vicki, who did not want to share her last name. "The only time I stopped was when I was pregnant. Otherwise, I was high all my adult life."

Then nine years ago, after standing on a radiator and hanging out a window to hide the smell of pot from her visiting father, she finally realized she was "an addict."

But quitting was harder than she had ever imagined. Even though Vicki rarely got the high anymore, she experienced withdrawal -- "complete sleeplessness," as well as anxiety, dry mouth, sweats and the shakes.

Since the 1970s, when marijuana was the symbol of political protest, the risks of marijuana dependency have been clouded by the legalization debate and long-held beliefs that the illicit drug is harmless.

But new thinking on old scientific research has now prompted the American Psychiatric Association to consider including "cannabis withdrawal syndrome" in its next Diagnostic and Standards Manual for Mental Disorders, due to be revised in 2012.

Those who have enjoyed pot for years with no ill effect, say it echoes the cult film, "Reefer Madness" that was made in 1936 when the drug was first demonized and made illegal.

In the film, high school students are depicted being lured by pushers to smoke the drug and a deadly hit-and-run accident, suicide and rape ensue.

Others, just think the new debate is a "gross exaggeration, triggered by fears surrounding the movement to legalize marijuana.

"Some research has shown that people who are heavy, regular users actually do have a physical addiction," said Herbert Nieberg, a forensic psychologist and professor at Mitchell College in Connecticut.

"There are very few cases and not more," he told ABCNews.com. "Alcohol, opiates, ocycontin and vicodin, those are the biggies."

Studies dating back to 1984 have documented a clinical syndrome characterized by "restlessness, anorexia, irritability and insomnia" that begins within 24 hours of discontinuation and can last for up to 10 days.

Today, there are no FDA-approved drugs to counteract withdrawal symptoms, although the synthetic cancer drug Marinol shows some promise.

Though withdrawal is not life-threatening, as it can be with opiates and alcohol, patients can experience high levels of anxiety, depression, become aggressive and even report referred pain, especially if they have been using marijuana to self-medicate.

"For me, the biggest withdrawal was emotional," Vicki told ABCNews.com. "I went into a total depression and severe mood swings that took a very long time to get over."

For Vicki, who confessed her long-time marijuana use to her father, it took 18 months to come clean with the support of Marijuana Anonymous.

Though withdrawal is not life-threatening, as it can be with opiates and alcohol, patients can experience high levels of anxiety, depression, become aggressive and even report referred pain, especially if they have been using marijuana to self-medicate.

\"For me, the biggest withdrawal was emotional,\" Vicki told ABCNews.com. \"I went into a total depression and severe mood swings that took a very long time to get over.\"

For Vicki, who confessed her long-time marijuana use to her father, it took 18 months to come clean with the support of Marijuana Anonymous.","publishedDate":"2009-08-04T21:29:47Z","contributors":[{"name":"ABC News","url":"","role":"","logo":"","logoAlt":""}],"modifiedDate":"2009-08-06T14:28:18Z","section":"Health","wordCount":515,"relatedTags":{"heading":"Related Topics","tags":[]},"lead":{"ratio":"16x9","disableForMobile":false,"type":"xl","mediaType":"image","alignCaptionToBody":true},"ads":{"Sticky":{"kvps":{"test":true}},"RightRail":{"kvps":{"test":true}},"InlineBox":{},"InlineOutstream":{"disabled":false},"Taboola":{"position":"bottom","pageType":"article","config":{"network":"abcnews-abcnews","mode":"thumbnails-a","container":"taboola-below-article-thumbnails","type":"article","targetType":"mix","placement":"Below Article Thumbnails"}}},"featuredVideo":null,"dateline":"Aug. 5, 2009—","seo":{},"LivePromotion":{}},"autoUpdate":{"enabled":false,"topics":["general-elections-2020-balance-of-power"]}},"upw":{"balanceOfPower":{"electoral":{"header":"Biden Projected to be President-Elect","candidates":{"democrats":{"id":1036,"displayName":"Joe Biden","shortDisplayName":"J. 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