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Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the world.
Aly Gulamhusein/the Gauntlet

Cannabis addiction research at U of C

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Have you had a problem with marijuana use in the past? A PhD candidate in the University of Calgary psychology department is conducting research into recovery from marijuana dependence.

"We're looking at an investigation into the recovery process from cannabis use disorders," said lead researcher Jonathan Stea. "We're trying to recruit individuals who live in or near Calgary who have once had a marijuana problem in the past, but haven't had a problem for at least a year."

Stea said there is not enough research on the recovery process for problem users of marijuana. His research will focus on exploring how people recovered.

Cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug in the world. According to Statistics Canada, in 2002 about three million Canadians aged 15 or older admitted having used cannabis at least once in the previous year.

Of those who have smoked, about one in 10 will at some point meet the criteria for cannabis use disorder, said Stea.

He notes that a minority of people who try marijuana develop a dependence.

"That risk increases with frequency of use, so you will find that among people who are daily or near daily smokers, there is somewhere between one in two to one in three of those who will meet the criteria."

Public ideas vary on what constitutes dependence and addiction.

"Typically when people say dependence, this could be used in a more narrow way to just mean a kind of physical dependence. When we're talking about dependence, we are talking about a substance dependence disorder, and so the model we use really encompasses both physical and psychological symptoms."

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual -- a manual used by the medical community to assess mental health problems -- describes the criteria of cannabis use disorder as physical and psychosocial symptoms individuals experience related to the drug.

In general, psychosocial symptoms include changes in an individual's life pattern because of the drug. Physical symptoms include withdrawal -- where people feel irrated or have trouble sleeping when not using the drug.

A National Institute of Drug Abuse report states that attention, memory and learning can be negatively affected for days or weeks after smoking marijuana. Students who smoke marijuana regularly receive lower grades and have a lower rate of graduation. Heavy marijuana users tend to report reduced life satisfaction and achievement compared to those who are not heavy users.

Stea takes issue with the idea of cannabis as a harmless substance.

"There is the misperception that cannabis can't be harmful at all, and I think this can be extremely misleading. Quite frankly, it can be harmful, and it can lead to physiological dependence."

Volunteers for the study will go through a 15 minute phone screening by a researcher. If accepted, there will be a two hour interview conducted at the university. Subjects are not required to be abstinent from marijuana, but should feel that they are no longer problem users.

"The abstinence versus moderation variable is one we will be looking at," said Stea.

The U of C Students for a Sensible Drug Policy club provides students with information about the effects of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and marijuana -- the substances students use most heavily. They also advocate for scientifically-informed policy making with regards to these substances, especially marijuana.

"I would have a hard time saying 'dependence disorder.' [Cannabis use] is not necessarily an acute disorder that we have to worry about like alcohol or tobacco, which are highly addictive. But when you look at cannabis use, there is definitely potential for abuse and addiction," said SSDP member Carlos Negraeff.

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