According to the Pew Research Center, about six-in-ten Americans (62%) say the use of marijuana should be legalized.1 But should more people be wary about its addictive qualities? And who is most at risk of developing marijuana addiction?
Is Marijuana Addictive?
Not everyone who uses marijuana will become addicted but some may develop a tolerance, physical dependence, and withdrawal symptoms, which are all distinct signs of addiction.
What Makes a Drug Addictive?
Addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease that causes a person to compulsively use a drug without regard to the negative consequences it may bring about. Certain drugs can cause addiction because they change the way the brain works by interacting with natural chemicals found in the body, called neurotransmitters, and then hijacking the brain.2
The use of drugs like marijuana interrupts the delicate balance of chemicals and communications in the brain and regularly using addictive drugs heightens the brain’s sense of reward. Most addictive drugs influence three main parts of the brain, which affect how we think, feel, and act:
The limbic system
The brain stem
The cerebral cortex
Once they have reached the brain, addictive drugs trick the brain by imitating its natural chemical messengers (neurotransmitters). This triggers an exaggerated release of dopamine, making the drug user feel a powerful sense of euphoria, happiness, and elation. Repeated use of addictive drugs can cause physical cravings for it, tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms when they abruptly stop using. All drugs are different, but addictive drugs can be characterized by their ability to cause those effects.
Marijuana is a mixture of the dried flowers of the Cannabis sativa plant. It can be smoked in hand-rolled joints, blunts (cigar wraps), pipes, bongs (water pipes), or it can also be used to brew tea. Sometimes, marijuana is also mixed into food products called “edibles.” A stronger, concentrated form of marijuana, called resin, is also frequently used for recreational and medical purposes.3
Marijuana contains the mind-altering chemical delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, more frequently just called THC, which can cause noticeable physical side effects when it reaches the brain. Side effects of marijuana use can include:
Heightened sensory perception
Altered perception of time
If a person uses a very high dose of marijuana, he or she may also experience more negative side effects like feelings of anxiety, fear, panic, paranoia, hallucinations, or delusions. The side effects of smoked marijuana can last anywhere from one to three hours but side effects caused by marijuana edibles may linger much longer.
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Although marijuana is still federally illegal and is classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, recreational marijuana is legal in 10 states and medical marijuana is legal in 33 states as of March 2019.5
However, just because the recreational use of marijuana is legal in some states doesn’t mean it’s safe. Research shows heavy marijuana use (or daily use) can damage a person’s memory and ability to learn and pay attention. It can also harm a baby during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, it has been linked to anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia, and smoking it can damage your lungs and cardiovascular system.6
Marijuana use among youth is also linked to poor academic performance and higher dropout rates, a decline in IQ that doesn’t recover even with cessation, and increased risk for psychotic disorder in adulthood.7
Is Marijuana Addictive?
With all the recent legalization and increased positive public opinion surrounding marijuana use, it’s not surprising that more people want to know about its ability to cause addiction. Despite some claims that argue otherwise, scientists believe marijuana can be addictive.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), marijuana use can lead to marijuana use disorder which can escalate into marijuana addiction in severe cases. While many people can use marijuana without becoming addicted or developing problems with chronic use, 30 percent of marijuana users will develop marijuana use disorder. People who start young are even more likely to have problems with marijuana use.8
Most often, marijuana use disorder is associated with dependence and withdrawal, where a person feels physical discomfort when they stop using the drug. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms may include irritability, mood swings, insomnia, reduced appetite, cravings for marijuana, restlessness, and overall physical discomfort that can range from mild to severe.
Marijuana Use Disorder vs. Marijuana Addiction: What’s the Difference?
Marijuana use disorder becomes marijuana addiction when a person feels like they can’t stop using the drug, even if it interferes with their daily activities, relationships, and overall personal well-being.
While marijuana may be addictive, not all people who use it will become addicted. There isn’t a set “addictive personality,” rather, there are many different factors that can contribute to the development of addiction, including:
According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, marijuana is the most widely used drug in America.7 The survey also detailed the following 2017 marijuana statistics:
7.6 million young adults used marijuana sometime in the past month and 2.6 million used it daily.
16.8 million adults used marijuana in the past month and 5.3 million used it daily.
557,000 teens, 1.8 million young adults, and 1.7 million adults ages 27 or older had marijuana use disorder.
69,000 pregnant women and 2.1 million non-pregnant women used marijuana daily.
Frequent marijuana use is associated with opioid misuse, heavy alcohol use, and depression in youth ages 12-17 and young adults ages 18-25.
Signs of Marijuana Addiction
Although medical marijuana is touted for its many benefits and is used to treat a wide range of issues, including epileptic seizures, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and opioid and alcohol dependence, among others, chronic recreational abuse can cause more harm than good and may lead to addiction.
Here are some of the common signs of marijuana addiction:
Needing more marijuana to achieve the same high (developing a tolerance)
Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you suddenly stop using marijuana
Using more marijuana than you intended to
Having intense cravings to use marijuana
Being unable to cut back or stop using marijuana
Spending the majority of your time getting high
Foregoing activities and interests to get high instead
Continuing to use marijuana despite the problems it’s causing
Using marijuana to relax, “escape” from life problems or circumstances, or to feel normal
Being unable to attend to daily responsibilities at school, work, or home as a result of your marijuana use10
Marijuana Addiction Treatment
If you think you might be addicted to marijuana, there is no shame in asking for help and it’s okay if you don’t know where to start. At Nova Recovery Center, our compassionate addiction treatment specialists and drug therapists are here for you. We understand the agony, pain, and darkness of addiction but we also know there is hope for recovery. Let us help you discover the life-changing healing that comes with sobriety. Call (512) 605-2955 today to learn more.