“Marijuana Exceptionalism” and Knowing When Your Cannabis Use Has Become Problematic

Written by Rory McPeak, SSDP chapter leader at Loyola University Chicago

While I was attending SSDP2017, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Conference in Portland, OR, I attended a panel focused on problematic drug use. It is common for people involved with drug policy reform and harm reduction advocacy to use the term “addiction” rather sparingly, due to its highly subjective application and ambiguous definition. A person could have a relationship with a particular substance that is not marked by a “physical dependence” but is still a significant burden on the person’s ability to meet life’s many personal, social, and professional obligations. Substances can affect each individual very differently in this regard, but many drug policy reform supporters understand that for any given substance, the social stigma and legal prohibition surrounding the drug’s use exacerbates, if not creates, many of the ills associated with its use.

That being said, people who see themselves as having an unhealthy relationship with a substance or habit should be able to address it and take steps toward their desired goals by using harm reduction strategies. This means something different to everyone who uses drugs: for some it could be limiting one’s own alcohol intake to the weekends, for others it could be going to a needle exchange to obtain sterile equipment and other harm reduction materials before injecting a drug, and for others it could be ending one’s drug use altogether. Whatever the case may be, the first step to reaching any solution is determining whether there is a problem. The panel on problematic drug use was also where I first heard the term “marijuana exceptionalism.” It was characterized by SSDP Executive Director Betty Aldworth as a certain attitude common among some cannabis users — including many within the drug policy reform movement — that cannabis is inherently and categorically different from other types of drugs. Culturally, marijuana exceptionalism promotes stigmatization of people who use other drugs; individually, it can lead to a belief that cannabis use is inherently unproblematic.

Because cannabis itself does not have many known negative effects on physical health, has a vast plethora of medicinal benefits for people with a number of physical and mental health conditions, and for some can be very pleasant to consume both in private and in social situations, it may be challenging for someone to identify whether their current cannabis use is problematic. Although the risk of physical dependence to cannabis is very low when compared to that of other commonly used substances, problematic use of cannabis does exist, and can negatively impact your health, finances, responsibilities, and enjoyment of the plant.

If you’re wondering whether your cannabis use has become a problem or could potentially become problematic, it might be prudent to ask a couple of questions:

How frequent is my use, and why? If you are a daily consumer and frequently consume psychotropic quantities of cannabis are you self-aware about why you choose to alter your state of mind on a daily basis? For some, cannabis use can frequently serve as a distraction from underlying issues that you may benefit from addressing. For example, if you are a healthy person using cannabis as an aid for sleep and appetite, you may consider whether exercise may provide similar benefits in place of cannabis. If you are a “social” user who consumes cannabis multiple times per day, do you become irritable, anxious, or depressed when you do not consume at that rate? If so, you may consider incorporating additional wellness and self-care strategies into your daily life, including strengthening personal connections, exercise, meditation, and counseling as an alternative or adjunct to your cannabis use.

Are there harm reduction strategies I can consider? Think about how you typically consume cannabis. Even though no causal relationship has been found between serious illness and isolated cannabis use, smoking anything can have negative effects on your respiratory system. This is especially true if you mix cannabis with tobacco (via “spliffs,” “blunts,” and “mokes/moles”) which then introduces every health risk associated with tobacco use. If you enjoy the sensation of smoking, you can reduce the negative harms associated with tobacco by ceasing or limiting the amount or frequency of tobacco use. There are plenty of smoke-free ways to consume cannabis including consuming edibles, using vaporizers, and applying topical solutions, which are much more widely available in areas where selling cannabis for adult use is legal.

How much money am I spending on cannabis? This is particularly aimed at my young peers, for whom current economic conditions are notoriously rough. We often do not consider the amount of money we spend on things over time, and if you review your spending habits over one month or more, you may be surprised by how much of your budget is used to purchase cannabis. After reviewing your budget, you can determine what might be a reasonable amount to spend in comparison to your other needs, and work to stick to that plan.

Do I have my shit together? Is cannabis making it easier or more difficult for you to meet your obligations? Has cannabis negatively interfered with your work, studies, or relationships in a significant way? For many, cannabis helps them to function better in these major facets of their life due to mitigating chronic pain, anxiety, or any number of conditions that prevented them from functioning at a level acceptable to them. However, everyone’s relationship with cannabis is different, and the way our bodies respond to cannabis varies wildly on an individual level. Reflecting honestly about whether cannabis aids or impedes your ability to meet your responsibilities can help you determine whether your relationship with it may be problematic.

Every individual has the right to reach the final verdict regarding their own cannabis use, and it would be absurd and hypocritical for anyone truly interested in cannabis policy reform to label, shame, or stigmatize another’s relationship with the plant. We can all benefit from occasional self-reflection on any behavior, and identifying room for improvement in any aspect of our lives can be positive. Understanding how to gauge whether you are in a problematic relationship with cannabis gives you the freedom to decide how you might make changes that meet your own life goals and priorities, and help you be a more sensible and effective reformer.