NEW YORK (MainStreet) Claiming that marijuana is less addictive than chocolate, Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery County), also a Pennsylvania congressional candidate, has met strong opposition from addiction and drug policy experts.
Still, Leach has said on various occasions that marijuana is "a product less dangerous than beer, less risky than children's cough syrup and less addictive than chocolate."
But many drug addiction experts take exception to this - especially the chocolate claim.
"Chocolate isn't an addictive drug," said Dr. Stuart Gitlow, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). "It isn't addictive at all. There are no significant risks of chocolate intoxication, nor are there direct effects or long-term risks of chocolate use, nor do people demonstrate a gradually increasing amount of chocolate intake in order to overcome tolerance. Nor is there any significant withdrawal when chocolate is unavailable. Marijuana is very addictive. Chocolate is not."
Kevin A. Sabet, the director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and a former senior advisor for President Barack Obama's Office of National Drug Control Policy, also takes issue with this sweeping claim.
"Show me that data," Sabet said in reaction to hearing this. "Also, chocolate doesn't cause car crashes or IQ loss or mental illness."
Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America, a nonprofit that educates the public about the dangers of drug abuse, responded, "Unlike marijuana, I am not aware of anyone in treatment for chocolate addiction and it certainly is not a substance that sends people to the hospital or impairs one's ability to work or operate a vehicle or machinery."
Even a marijuana legalization advocacy group, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), could not ascertain the chocolate addiction claim.
"As far as the claim about chocolate, I can't find research showing its relative addiction quotient, but there is evidence ...showing that marijuana is less addictive than caffeine," said Morgan Fox, MPP's spokesperson.
MPP, while not being able to confirm Leach's chocolate allegation, did confirm Leach's thesis about alcohol being more dangerous than marijuana.
The organization maintains that alcohol is "more toxic, more addictive, more harmful to the body, more likely to result in injuries, and more likely to lead to interpersonal violence than marijuana." They noted that there are "hundreds of alcohol overdose deaths occur in the United States each year." MPP also said that "...alcohol use damages the brain" while marijuana does not.
After being asked to elaborate about his statement, Leach said, "Marijuana is safer than beer because unlike alcohol, marijuana has no lethal dose."
The consequences are usually lower stakes when it comes to pot use.
Further, people behave much more recklessly on alcohol than on marijuana," Leach said. "And you can become physically addicted to -- as opposed to psychologically dependent on -- alcohol, which you cannot do on pot."
Regarding the addictive nature of pot, Leach, skirted the chocolate issue and, instead, referred to an article, by Jamie Frater, from the January 26, 2009 Listserve.com blog, which said, "...Of the heavy users, a tiny minority develop what appears to be a dependence ...but there is nothing in cannabis which causes physical dependence and the most likely explanation for those who need assistance is that they are having difficulty breaking the habit not the 'addiction.'"
The blog referenced "the excellent work of the Drug Policy Alliance Network." The writers apparently got their data from seven studies, five of which were more than twenty years old.
Once again, addiction experts objected to Leach's assertions.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is a part of the prestigious National Institutes of Health (NIH), was unequivocal in its opinion of the addictive of nature of marijuana.
"Marijuana can be addictive," the NIH said in a statement to MainStreet. "If use initiates as a teen, there is a one in six risk of addiction.... If use initiates as an adult, the risk of addiction is 1 in 9."
The treatment people seek to cure their marijuana dependency tells a very different narrative from the one Leach spins.
"According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated 4.6 million people, 12 and older, met criteria for abuse or dependence disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (terms used to classify substance use)," the NIH wrote. "In 2012, approximately 957,000 Americans 12 or older reported receiving treatment for marijuana use -- more than pain relievers, cocaine, tranquilizers, hallucinogens and heroin combined."
Gitlow took on Leach's allegation about nonlethal doses of marijuana by saying, "The acute lethality of a given substance has never been the definition as to what makes a substance risky or safe -- marijuana is a dangerous drug that directly impacts cognitive function, both acutely and chronically, and which quite easily brings about physical addiction."
"Sen. Leach seems to forget that tobacco also has no lethal dose," Gitlow continued. "Would the Senator state that tobacco is safe despite its record of being responsible as one of the leading causes of death and illness in the world?"
Gitlow did pose a challenge to Leach.
"So why is the Senator a proponent of a product with no benefit to society and known risks to our population?" Gitlow said. "I invite the Senator to visit any addiction medicine specialist physician, my own office included, if he would like to meet patients with addictive disease based upon their inability to stop using marijuana despite its negative impact upon their lives."
This is a question that Pennsylvania voters would want answered as well.
--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet