America’s Invisible Pot Addicts


The proliferation of retail boutiques in California did not really bother him, Evan told me, but the billboards did. Advertisements for delivery, advertisements promoting the substance for relaxation, for fun, for health. “Shop. It’s legal.” “Hello marijuana, goodbye hangover.” “It’s not a trigger,” he told me. “But it is in your face.”

When we spoke, he had been sober for a hard-fought seven weeks: seven weeks of sleepless nights, intermittent nausea, irritability, trouble focusing, and psychological turmoil. There were upsides, he said, in terms of reduced mental fog, a fatter wallet, and a growing sense of confidence that he could quit. “I don’t think it’s a ‘can’ as much as a ‘must,’” he said.

Evan, who asked that his full name not be used for fear of professional repercussions, has a self-described cannabis-use disorder. If not necessarily because of legalization, but alongside legalization, such problems are becoming more common: The share of adults with one has doubled since the early aughts, as the share of cannabis users who consume it daily or near-daily has jumped nearly 50 percent—all “in the context of increasingly permissive cannabis legislation, attitudes, and lower risk perception,” as the National Institutes of Health put it.

Public-health experts worry about the increasingly potent options available, and the striking number of constant users. “Cannabis is potentially a real public-health problem,” said Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at New York University. “It wasn’t obvious to me 25 years ago, when 9 percent of self-reported cannabis users over the last month reported daily or near-daily use. I always was prepared to say, ‘No, it’s not a very abusable drug. Nine percent of anybody will do something stupid.’ But that number is now [something like] 40 percent.” They argue that state and local governments are setting up legal regimes without sufficient public-health protection, with some even warning that the country is replacing one form of reefer madness with another, careening from treating cannabis as if it were as dangerous as heroin to treating it as if it were as benign as kombucha.

But cannabis is not benign, even if it is relatively benign, compared with alcohol, opiates, and cigarettes, among other substances. Thousands of Americans are finding their own use problematic in a climate where pot products are getting more potent, more socially acceptable to use, and yet easier to come by, not that it was particularly hard before.

For Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, the most compelling evidence of the deleterious effects comes from users themselves. “In large national surveys, about one in 10 people who smoke it say they have a lot of problems. They say things like, ‘I have trouble quitting. I think a lot about quitting and I can’t do it. I smoked more than I intended to. I neglect responsibilities.’ There are plenty of people who have problems with it, in terms of things like concentration, short-term memory, and motivation,” he said. “People will say, ‘Oh, that’s just you fuddy-duddy doctors.’ Actually, no. It’s millions of people who use the drug who say that it causes problems.”

Users or former users I spoke with described lost jobs, lost marriages, lost houses, lost money, lost time. Foreclosures and divorces. Weight gain and mental-health problems. And one other thing: the problem of convincing other people that what they were experiencing was real. A few mentioned jokes about Doritos, and comments implying that the real issue was that they were lazy stoners. Others mentioned the common belief that you can be “psychologically” addicted to pot, but not “physically” or “really” addicted. The condition remains misunderstood, discounted, and strangely invisible, even as legalization and white-marketization pitches ahead.

The country is in the midst of a volte-face on marijuana. The federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule I drug, with no accepted medical use. (Meth and PCP, among other drugs, are Schedule II.) Politicians still argue it is a gateway to the use of things like heroin and cocaine. The country still spends billions of dollars fighting it in a bloody and futile drug war, and still arrests more people for offenses related to cannabis than it does for all violent crimes combined.


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