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Marijuana Advertising and the Power of Conditioning

October 23, 2014

Illustration of a billboard with a question mark in it

As social acceptance and public policy around marijuana shift, and especially if legalized recreational use becomes more widespread, we will need to consider the influence and potential regulation of its marketing.  For this, we should use what we already know from the science to guide our decisions and policies to minimize harm, because inevitably, advertising is going to reach children and adolescents, people who are addicted to marijuana, and those of all ages who are on their way to becoming addicted.

Ads for addictive substances—including tobacco and alcohol and fattening foods—have the obvious intent of generating new customers as well as enticing current users to use more, but that’s not all they do. Marketers know that by associating such products with other pleasurable stimuli and situations, ads contribute to reinforcing those positive associations in the brains of users, and thus contribute to the process of developing an addiction. 

Drug addiction is a disease of learning—learning to associate drugs with positive feelings and to associate cues that signal drug availability with similar feelings, ultimately leading to craving for the drug.  This part of the addictive progression is known as conditioning, discovered in the 1890s by Pavlov. Today we also understand the brain mechanisms that underlie the phenomenon: Once a person becomes conditioned to drug-related stimuli, those stimuli independently become associated with increases in dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway (i.e., without the drug even being present). These dopamine bursts fuel drug-seeking and craving. The same process can cause such stimuli to act as triggers contributing to relapse in those who are already addicted and are struggling to recover.

When there are salient advertisements for a product, it’s very hard to contain them, because images don’t even need to reach the level of conscious awareness to stimulate the urge to use that product. Recent neuroimaging research has confirmed the brain's extraordinary sensitivity to "unseen" rewarding stimuli: A 2008 fMRI study by Anna Rose Childress and colleagues confirmed that limbic circuitry respond to drug (as well as sexual) reward cues that are too fleeting to be consciously registered. Also, because of the reach of the Internet, it will be hard to restrict exposure to marijuana advertising just to people in states where it is legal, or just to people old enough to purchase it.

For decades we have seen the harmful effects that alcohol and tobacco ads can have, especially those that target young people; similar associations have been found between exposure to food advertising and obesity. The relative harm of marijuana compared to other legal drugs remains hotly contested, but its potential addictiveness—especially to young people—is undisputed. Thus, it is crucial that states consider the lessons learned from tobacco and alcohol policy research and restrict (or preclude) marijuana advertising to reduce as much as possible the development of newly addicted individuals and avoid inducing relapse in people who are already addicted.

This page was last updated October 2014


Family abuse and violence vs. Drug adictions

I will like to know a resource about how come the violence in family produce sons with marijuana and alcohol abuse

Many factors contribute to

Many factors contribute to the risk for substance use problems, including genetics, whether drugs are present in a person’s neighborhood or school, and the family environment--including early physical or sexual abuse and exposure to violence in the home. A recent study found that childhood maltreatment and exposure to violence between domestic partners contributed to risk for substance abuse indirectly, by increasing a child’s anxiety, anger, and dissociation (disconnection from their emotions). These results of trauma can lead children or adolescents to use substances such as marijuana or alcohol as a way of feeling better.

Really?"The relative harm of

Really?"The relative harm of marijuana compared to other legal drugs remains hotly contested, but its potential addictiveness—especially to young people—is undisputed".
I have never met anyone that has been "addicted" to Cannabis. Never. Consider this my dispute. #Cannabis is a healing plant. Non-lethal and non-addictive. Focus on alcohol. Focus on pharmacuticals. Those can kill. Those put an enormous burden on our health systems - alcoholism, addiction to Oxy (just ask Rush). Addiction and Cannabis just don't go together.

Read the Research about Addiction

1 in 6 teens and 1 in 10 adults who use marijuana regularly will become addicted. Research has proven this. Google it. It may not kill someone upon first use but it is not the dream plant that some people tout it to be. At least educate yourself on the facts instead of spreading misinformation. Our youth, especially, need the truth.

Marijuana recreational versus medical use

I am living in Spokane WA, which is riddled with poverty, glamorized prostitution, domestic violence, and high school (and younger) pot heads. They smoke before school, and some use it after. It affects my children going to school everyday because the young people are allowed to speak of pot smoking in the class room like they are the coolest generation of all time for their "medical" marijuana use. They claim that because it is a "medical drug" that it is harmless to their developing brains and bodies. They do not consider that if they were using it medically versus recreationally that they would have been prescribed its use. They do not consider that it is a blessing to be healthy and young and not need drugs prescribed or other drugs to be vibrant. They do not care about the effects that it will have on memory formation, appetite and potential weight gain, arthritis or brain development disruption such as the myelin sheath integrity. Perhaps young people do not know that the full myelination of the brain does not occur until the 20's, and probably these same young people do not know that poor myelination of neurons results in slow movement and thinking as seen in mentally handicapped individuals. I am frankly so grateful for this article because it is young people who are the future of our country and yes who are becoming addicts and who are persuaded by advertising. Seeing first hand the wide spread effect of marijuana legalization on young people makes me very very sad. I wish children with no education would reserve their ignorant comments about marijuana not being addicting, and leave the coolness of marijuana outside of the school and classroom. I have first hand experience with the addictive nature, having been neglected as a child myself because smoking was more important to the adults in my life. I honestly hope legalization of the drug does not spread for the sake of the youth and educational goals of our country.

Benefits of marijuana

Addiction to marijuana is an overblown concern primarily because it is far less addictive than other legal substances such as alcohol, tobacco, coffee and sugar-laden foods. Another reason that marijuana addiction is far less concerning than addiction to other substances is that frequent marijuana use does not harm vital organs and systems as do alcohol, tobacco, refined sugar and other illegal substances. In fact, regular use of marijuana is associated with significant protection from developing: bladder cancer, head and neck cancers, lymphomas, lung cancer, Types 1 and 2 diabetes, age-related dementia including Alzheimer's disease, inflammatory bowel illnesses and more because marijuana's THC very effectively short-circuits the inflammatory and oxidative damage which are the foundations of most if not all degenerative diseases. Each month more and more research emerges revealing how marijuana's supplementary cannabinoids contribute to an improved state of health in humans. Even the so-called "brain damage" study that was terribly misreported on by the media found not the type of atrophy caused by alcohol and cocaine use but an increase in volume and density similar to that seen in intense gamers who spend long hours in focus and concentration. In those subjects the similar changes are interpreted as positive, but not with marijuana users. We see increases in functional connectivity in the brains of frequent marijuana users likely because the reduction in neuroinflammation triggered by the THC allows for greater neurogenesis, healthy new brain cell production, which is one way in which cannabis lowers Alzheimer's risks. It is time for NIDA to stop slanting the science for a political agenda and deal with what science is saying, marijuana improves human health by lowering systemic inflammation and by attenuating oxidative damage to tissues throughout the body. It looks like any addiction to marijuana might be the only addiction that improves health.

Conditioning and Cannabis

What does NIDA think? I heard of a guy in Washington state today who was just arrested for murder. Apparently he was a prior drug user, namely marijuana, as shown by his arrest records. My friend says he was maybe mentally crazy because of pot- maybe got crazy ideas while stoned, ie conditioning. With pot legal now in Washington, how can this happen? The criminal part is not there anymore. But wouldn't pot make you peaceful and non-aggressive? I think he used to smoke pot, but then later if he had just been smoking enough, this murder would not have happened. What do you think?


I sent this letter to Gov. Rick Scott back in July hoping he would understand the benefits of medical mairjuana, but I was ignored.

Dear Gov. Scott,

In 1998 I was in a car accident and received severe whiplash in my neck. Not enough to hospitalize me, not even enough for the many doctors who had treated me over the next many years to be able to offer me a diagnoses or proper treatment. As each year went by with worsening conditions such as severe neck pain, upper, middle, lower back, shoulders, and on and on, with no clear diagnosis, and having tried every drug on the market to limit my pain and severe muscle spasms, each one with horrendous side effects, I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia and disc degeneration. Because of my severe reactions to every pain, muscle, anxiety, and depression medication on the market, I'm left with no alleviation from the pain and a poor quality of life. My days and nights are spent at home with a heating pad, taking medications that don't take the pain away, but do destroy my liver, heart, and kidney function. I go out early in the morning to run errands, if I need too, before the pain from simply walking, sitting, or laying down starts to settle in for the day. Of course, I'm tired because I toss and turn all night due to the pain from being in a certain position for too long, but I wouldn't call this "quality of life". I'm 60 years old and I pray that I won't make my 70th birthday because just the thought of another 10 years of pain fills be with dread. The thought that my liver or kidneys will shut down due to harmful pharmaceuticals is a daily nightmare.

Yet, you tell me that you will vote against a bill that would give me just a small measure of comfort. People are flocking to Colorado just to get medical care that should be available everywhere. You talk about your trials and tribulations of dealing with alcoholism in your own life. Well, let me tell you mine!

I grew up with alcoholic/pill-popping parents who physically, emotionally, and sexual abused me. I married a man just like my daddy, who put me in the hospital more times than I'd have liked, held me at gunpoint with a double barrel shotgun, shot at me when I tried to run away from his drunken rage with our month old baby. After four and a half years of marriage, my prayers were answered - he died from a heart condition due to alcoholism, just as my daddy did.

You know nothing of alcoholism! I not only lived through the disease from my own family, but when my husband died, I started drinking and taking drugs. And yes, I smoked marijuana, too, but my favorites were prescription drugs; the kind that would numb the emotional pain.

Nora, I have been clean and sober for 32 years, yet I am able to take Valium as prescribed, even though this is a drug I abused 40 years ago. Why? Because I'm not that 20 year old anymore who just wants to get high. I am a 60 year old woman who simply wants pain relief!

Alcoholism obliterates lives, smoking cigarettes causes cancer, and people are dying every second due to these two legal substances, but no one cares about that. No one wants to accept the fact that marijuana is the least of all the evil drugs out there, legal and illegal. Make it legal, tax it, regulate it, and it's one less drug for the drug dealers to peddle while the government makes money. And just think... People who, like me, that live with a daily debilitating disease can find finally find a measure of relief.

I now believe that people should be able to grow, cultivate, and use healthy cannabis in their own homes. It has been considered a natural herb that provided relief for all kinds of ailments for thousands of years, just as Valerian (compound for Valium) is still a legal herb used by millions of people around the world. Marijuana is natural, has many medicinal uses, and is less carcinagetic than cigarettes and less harmful than alcohol. When is someone going to research marijuana for its benefits rather than trying to find ways to keep it illegal? It should be removed from all DEA and FDA schedules as a "drug" and classified as a natural herb. Maybe then, the drug dealers will stop killing over marijuana, maybe they will stop lacing it with harmful chemicals, and maybe people will have the freedom to work with their physicians to find the best treatment for their ailments. After all, shouldn't we give our doctors the credit they earned by going to medical school and practicing medicine in their individual specialties?

I don't expect any feedback because I haven't had any from my letters to Gov. Rick Scott, AG Pam Bondi, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, or local media outlets.

In Pain In Florida

marijuana and advertising

first off every comment on here is way off subject. i do not condone nor do i promote the use of marijuana. i am in my mid 30's and often read blogs such as this for entertainment but i will say that absoultly should we have laws protecting our people not just youth from marketing of this nature lets be honist do you really have to advertise i think in this day and age we are all smart enough to make propper decision on this subject depending on our lifestyle and belives simple as that much like tabbacco and such unfortunatly american greed will take over and it will happen that a billboard will be sprung or commercial on tv will slid thru our vision i say keep it away as long as you can but try to worry more about teaching your children right from wrong teach them the price of a dollar and for god sakes even try to teach them respect witch is a far bigger problem than some advertisment teach them that dr.'s dont need to stuff them full of meds and give them a rediculas excuse to depend on the gov for sapport such as disabuitlty its called lazy plan and simple so back to subject yes by all means fight to slow advertising i agree stop it will never happend greed will overcome eventually but from a man from all walks of life with a child teach them so they are not easly taken by advertising and we might as a whole be doing a lot better then argueing on here while your kid watches the next commercial

Marijuana and Education

With the legalization of marijuana in several states, there is a tendency that everyone can acquire marijuana easier despite the several restrictions that the government has set on who should buy and use medical marijuana legally. To prevent the abuse of these medical herb, it's high time for us to educate ourselves, our kids, our brothers and sisters, our parents, and our friends, on the benefits of marijuana. Educating them on how the marijuana can benefit us if used properly may not totally solve the drug addiction and abuse issue, but, definitely, it will help in the reduction of the number.

Conditioning via re-wiring

Recent MRI research (Filbey et al) discovered that the gray matter of the orbito frontal cortex shrinks with repeated marijuana use. Additionally, heightened functional and structural neuro connectivity occurred with chronic abuse perhaps as a way to compensate for this GM loss. This later process was said to diminish over time and was offered as an explanation why most users of marijuana feel they "are doing just fine."

My question is can this neuro adaptive process with prolonged marijuana abuse function as a conditioning process from whatever external stimuli exist during marijuana intoxication?

That is to suggest that chronic abusers of marijuana are in essence re-wiring their brains in a manner dictated be their environment.

If this were to be the case, then this process might offer causal insight into why so many violent criminals domestically and abroad are also heavy cannabis users. Perhaps prolific hashish use under continuous ideological bombardment the Middle East for instance explains much of the erratic and militant behavior there. Their brains are shrinking and re-wiring while being conditioned to adopt militants ideas. In Mexico perhaps the masterminds of the vicious drug cartels are also conditioning their minds via marijuana abuse that begins in youth, yet the rivalry in a tough Barrio environment. A similar process may exist for the ruthless drug gangs in the U.S. as well as the vast majority arrested in certain areas tested positive for narcotics. If a person would do a modicum of research he or she would also find an astonishing correlation with so so many of these seemingly senseless and vicious acts of violence we are seeing almost daily and the current or prior use of drugs- specifically marijuana.
Unfortunately, very few in society comprehend that marijuana abuse has two components. They understand current or acute intoxication and it's most often innocuous, sedative affects, and then erroneously conclude marijuana use is no more harmful than alcohol. Most fail to understand the long term affects of mental illness from chronic abuse. Adverse affects may present months or years later, even when a former abuser of marijuana is said to be "clean and off" drugs. They are not because their brains have been permanently altered. If they were subjected to adverse external stimuli during prior use, it could be they become violent at later dates to reflect their brain' re-wiring- like little time bombs.
This process might explain why the majority of marijuana abusers are non-violent and seem just fine. Their environments during abuse are merely fun and recreational. There is not an environment of adverse external stimuli. However, a minority of others (radical Islamists, Tsarnaev Loughner, Holmes, Rudolph and thousands of others) who perhaps already have predispositions anyway, are subjecting themselves to external stimuli that have the neural adaptive affect of brain re-wiring and conditioning that may later present as acts of extreme violence.


Addiction of marijuna

I have been smoking weed for about 6 years, and let me tell you this, it is addictive but not in the way you think it is. I see marijuana as an emotional addiction unlike nicotine which is a physical addiction. I smoke both and nicotine all day every day claws at my veins begging to get in no matter what I'm doing, but marijuana has no such quarrel, the only time I feel addicted to it is when I actively think about it, if I go to work or do something that takes my mind off it, its as if I've never smoked weed in my life.

Find Help Near You

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/find-treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.orgExternal link, please review our disclaimer.. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

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    Cite this article

    NIDA. (2014, October 23). Marijuana Advertising and the Power of Conditioning. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2014/10/marijuana-advertising-power-conditioning

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