Feds Scale Back Marijuana “Addiction” And “Overdose” Talk

By Tom Angell | August 28, 2017

The federal agency in charge of conducting research on the effects of marijuana and other drugs is significantly paring back rhetoric about cannabis’s supposed potential to cause addiction and overdose.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) quietly made several significant changes to its main webpage about marijuana last week, a MassRoots review shows.


While an earlier version of the page uploaded in February used the phrase “marijuana addiction” three times, that changed on Wednesday. That’s when NIDA edited the page to instead use the term “marijuana use disorder.”

Old version:

New version:

And whereas the older text simply stated that “30 percent” of people who use marijuana may develop overuse issues, the new copy broadens that to read “between 9 and 30 percent,” reflecting varied findings on the matter among different studies.


The earlier version of the page defines a drug overdose as when a person “uses too much of a drug and has a toxic reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms or death.”

The new edit seems to narrow the definition to include only instances in which a person “uses enough of the drug to produce life-threatening symptoms or death.”

The new version then says: “There are no reports of teens or adults dying from marijuana alone.”

While the older page states: “There are no reports of teens or adults fatally overdosing (dying) on marijuana alone.”

Whereas the older page used phrases like, “A marijuana overdose doesn’t lead to death,” the revised version more simply states, “There aren’t any reports of teens and adults dying from using marijuana alone.”

An earlier section titled, “How can a marijuana overdose be treated?” was completely deleted from the new page.

Taken together, the shift seems to reflect a narrowing of the definition of overdose to include only life-threatening situations and a desire by NIDA to avoid usage of the word in relation to marijuana.

What Does It Mean?

The changes are subtle, but they hint at the shifting conversation around marijuana, which a growing majority of Americans now believe should be legal. While NIDA didn’t say why it made the edits, it seems likely that the agency is concerned that using overly scary rhetoric like “addiction” and “overdose” — terms that many people believe should not be associated with marijuana — could cause the target audience to not take the rest of its advice on cannabis’s health effects seriously.

Other Changes

The new edit also downplays talk about marijuana’s role as a potential “gateway” to the use of other drugs. While even the older page made sure to note that “the majority of people who use marijuana don’t go on to use other ‘harder’ drugs,” it singled out cannabis use alone as “likely to come before use of other drugs.”

But the new version throws other, legal drugs into the mix, and now reads:

“Use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are likely to come before use of other drugs.”

The new update also adds sociological context that was missing from the earlier version:

“It’s also important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person’s risk for drug use and addiction.”

In the edit, NIDA is also more clearly stating that scientific research doesn’t support claims that smoking marijuana leads to lung cancer.

Old version:

“Researchers still don’t know whether people who smoke marijuana have a higher risk for lung cancer.”

New version:

“Researchers so far haven’t found a higher risk for lung cancer in people who smoke marijuana.”

[Underlined emphasis added.]

Separately, the addition of a few words in another section undercuts prohibitionists’ claims that legalization itself has led to dramatic increases in marijuana potency and that the trend is harmful across the board.

Old version:

“The amount of THC in marijuana has been increasing steadily, creating more harmful effects.”

New version:

“The amount of THC in marijuana has been increasing steadily in recent decades, creating more harmful effects in some people.”

[Underlined emphasis added.]

In another small but notable change that reflects the targeted public audience’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of marijuana, the page now refers to cannabis sativa and cannabis indica, whereas the February version only mentioned the former.

And whereas the earlier webpage used the outdated term “contact high” to describe the potential effects of secondhand marijuana smoke, the phrase “passive exposure” is now used instead.

This isn’t the first time that NIDA has updated its website to reflect shifting evidence and attitudes about marijuana.

MassRoots reported earlier this year that NIDA edited its page about medical cannabis to note several studies indicating that legal marijuana access is associated with reduced opioid overdose and addiction rates.

Separately, the agency edited another marijuana page on its site to read as slightly more open to the idea that cannabis has medical benefits.

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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