Whether physical or psychological, addiction is a primary disease epitomized by cravings and compulsion, while physical dependence is a condition in which the body starts to rely on an external source of chemicals to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Physical dependence is usually the precursor to physical addiction, but the two terms are not interchangeable, and the progression from dependence to addiction only occurs with certain substances. Opiate and benzodiazepine drugs produce notoriously severe dependence that can lead to physical addiction, but many dependence-producing substances do not involve a credible risk of physical addiction. Examples include antidepressants, caffeine, blood pressure medication and, yes, cannabis.
Excessive, long-term cannabis consumption can lead to dependence, and stopping use will likely produce withdrawal symptoms. For heavier drugs, the symptoms can include hallucinations, increased blood pressure and seizures, but common cannabis symptoms include insomnia, irritability and decreased appetite. Most people agree that these symptoms are not on par with each other, and even the U.S. government agrees. The generally anti-cannabis National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes the plant as producing a “mild withdrawal syndrome” that lasts two weeks or less, and several clinical studies back this up. Addiction Science and Clinical Practice in 2007 noted that “the marijuana withdrawal syndrome does not appear to include major medical or psychiatric consequences,” while Psychology Today in 2013 wrote, “Marijuana is different from a lot of other drugs of abuse in that although there usually are some subtle physiological signs of withdrawal when a chronic user stops smoking—mildly elevated pulse, irritability, and so on—these physical effects are generally fairly mild, and they are dramatically less obvious or powerful than those seen when a habitual user of alcohol, opiates (either heroin or any of the opioid pain pills), or benzodiazepines (such as Xanax or Klonopin) abruptly ceases use.”
Cannabis can result in a physical dependence—which differs from physical addiction—and involves mild withdrawal symptoms that differ significantly from those associated with alcohol, opiates and sedatives. As noted in a 2007 study published in Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, “Many people in treatment for other drugs all say their cannabis use doesn’t matter.” In fact, many studies found that cannabis can actually serve as a “replacement drug” that helps recovering addicts refrain from more serious addictive substances.