Drug addiction is a widespread problem in both the United States and the rest of the world. According to Addiction Center, about 21 million Americans suffer from at least one addiction.

Is Weed Addictive?

Addiction isn’t limited to drugs. People can be addicted to sex, pornography, food, gambling and a myriad of other things. Addiction isn’t as simple as using a substance or having a habit, it’s much deeper than that. According to Addiction Center, “Addiction is a mental disorder which compels someone to repeatedly use substances or engage in behaviors even though they have harmful consequences.” Is marijuana addictive?

Marijuana Use in the United States

Marijuana is a commonly used drug. According to Addiction Center, around 30-40 million Americans smoke marijuana every year. They’ve also stated that almost half of the American population (43%) has admitted to trying marijuana. Many people believe that marijuana can be addicting like other drugs and others are just not convinced. Is weed addictive? Let’s ask science. 

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Is Marijuana Physically Addictive?

Yes, it can be. According to a research report done by the National Institute for Drug Abuse, 30% of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder also known as Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD). People who suffer from CUD may eventually take the form of addiction in severe cases according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In addition to that, they’ve stated, “Marijuana use disorder becomes addiction when the person cannot stop using the drug even though it interferes with many aspects of his or her life.”

What Is Marijuana Addiction or Cannabis Use Disorder?

According to Healthline, “CUD is a problematic pattern of cannabis use that causes clinically significant impairment or distress”. Official diagnosis takes places after meeting several criteria over the period of a year. 

It’s not a common disorder. Only 1.5% of the US adult population have “met the criteria” for having CUD and it may be on the decline, according to a study cited in Healthline. 

What You Need to Know About Marijuana Dependence

Dependence, though not unique to marijuana, can play a role in the development of addiction but not necessarily. According to the book Marijuana as Medicine? The Science Beyond the Controversy “ While physical dependence can lead to substance abuse, it does not necessarily do so.

Tolerance and Withdrawal

If someone who is physically dependent on a drug stops taking it, he or she is likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. Most abused drugs produce tolerance, physical dependence, and withdrawal. However, so do caffeine and nicotine as well as many nonaddictive drugs for pain, anxiety, and high blood pressure.”

According to Healthline, “Dependence on marijuana happens when users build up a tolerance for the substance and need more and more of it to experience the same effect.” Dependence may follow after tolerance is established. 

Difference Between Tolerance and Withdrawal

There is a difference between tolerance and dependence. Tolerance, according to Marijuana as Medicine? The Science Beyond the Controversy happens when“ increasing amounts are required to produce a given effect” while physical dependence is “the body’s adaptation to frequently used drugs”. 

Healthline notes that once you use a drug enough, it’s likely that you’ll develop some type of tolerance to it. 

Marijuana and Dopamine Effects

How does marijuana affect dopamine? Marijuana as Medicine? The Science Beyond the Controversy also posits that the better a drug makes you feel is the more likely you’ll abuse it. It’s no secret that THC activates the reward center in the brain. However, the book made sure to note that drugs aren’t the only thing that activate the reward center in our brain and release dopamine. 

Healthline notes that there can be issues with dopamine regarding marijuana users. Dr. Nora Volkow is the director of NIDA and an author in a study on dopamine . She said in Healthline that marijuana users may have a decreased response to dopamine. In other words, those who abuse the drug may have naturally had a less responsive dopamine system. The drug can start to activate other areas of the brain such as those associated with habit and routine. This essentially means people may stop using the drug because it gives them pleasure and use it out of habit. 

It’s important to mention that Healthline posits that dependence may not cause a problem. The article says that are people who use marijuana daily, still experience withdrawal when quitting but are still functional. 

How Common is Marijuana Addiction?

It’s not common.

According to a study cited in the Washington Post, “The life-time risk of developing dependence among those who have ever used cannabis was estimated at 9% in the United States in the early 1990s as against 32% for nicotine, 23% for heroin, 17% for cocaine, 15% for alcohol and 11% for stimulants.”

Is Marijuana Addiction Becoming More Common?

It appears as though things may be changing. According to Addiction Center “The average batch of marijuana in 1990 contained less than 4% THC, but that percentage has since risen to over 12%. The average batch of marijuana has become more powerful.”

According to Healthline, recent studies indicate that about 4 million people in the United States meet the criteria for marijuana addiction in 2015. 

Marijuana Abuse Risk

In comparison to other drugs, marijuana carries a lower risk of abuse. According to Marijuana as Medicine, “[C]compared with alcohol, tobacco, and several prescription medications, marijuana’s abuse potential appears relatively small and certainly within manageable limits for patients under the care of a physician”

Risk Factors for Marijuana Dependence

Of course, not everyone who uses marijuana will develop any form of dependency to the drug. With just about any other addiction, there are risk factors that influence why some people get addicted and some don’t. Some risk factors for marijuana dependence are age and mental disorder. However, it’s worth noting that genes and environmental factors may play a role. 

Marijuana and Age

According to National Institute on Drug Abuse, “People who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults”. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that almost 1 in 5 adolescents who start using marijuana will develop an addiction. 

What’s concerning is that young people, though at risk for dependence, are using marijuana. According to Addiction Center, “In 2018, 13% of 8th graders, 27% of 10th graders, and 35% of 12th graders had used marijuana at least once in the past year. Less than 1% of 8th graders, about 3% of 10th graders, and about 5% of 12th graders reported using it every day.”

Due to the effects it can have on the developing brain, marijuana use is not recommended for young people.

Dr. J. Wesley Boyd, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School told Healthline “Cannabis use, especially when heavy, is potentially very harmful for developing brains”.

Kevin Sabet, PhD, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana said in Healthline that, “Use of the drug is indeed addictive, can dramatically harm the developing brain, increases the risk of severe mental illness, and can even predict future substance abuse”. He explained further that the younger the person is when they start using marijuana is the more likely they’ll be addicted. 

Unfortunately, there seems to be an increase in CUD in younger people. According to Heathline:

  • CUD has increased by 25% in children ages 12-17 in legalized states since it was approved for recreational use. 
  • Adults over the age of 26 have also seen an increase in usage and CUD. The rate of CUD increased by 37%.

Marijuana and Mental Health 

The development of mental health issues is tied to both genes and the environment. Dr. Alex Stalcup, medical director of the New Leaf Treatment Center in Lafayette, California said in Healthline that, “Mental health is a huge risk factor for addiction,” he continues “Drugs work very well, at first, for mentally ill people. If you’re anxious, it’ll go away with a couple of hits, a beer. It’s like magic. But then, the tolerance sets in.” 

He posits that around 50-60 percent of those treated for marijuana addiction in his clinic have a mental condition. The most common ones are: depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia.

Am I Addicted to Weed?

Can you get addicted to marijuana? According to  Dr. Kevin P. Hill, director of addiction psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, it’s harder to identify someone with CUD. Unlike someone addicted to another drug like alcohol, marijuana users are less likely to overdose or be arrested for drunk driving. Healthline also noted that marijuana misuse can take several years to develop. This makes it difficult to know if someone is truly addicted to weed.

Marijuana Addiction Symptoms

According to Healthline, early signs of Cannabis Use Disorder are: 

  • A preoccupation with obtaining, using, and getting over the drug’s effects.
  • Starting to use marijuana alone instead of socially.
  • Avoiding places where marijuana use isn’t allowed
  • Avoiding people who object to their marijuana usage 
  • Memory impairments,
  • Missing work or school 

Marijuana Withdrawal Symptoms List

Since marijuana addiction is linked to dependence, a user might experience withdrawal symptoms. Stalcup believes: “Withdrawal is the mirror image of what the drug does, if cannabis makes you mellow, then you’re irritable, grumpy.”.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s report, people who have stopped using marijuana have reported feeling:

  • Irritability
  • Mood and sleep difficulties
  • Decreased appetite
  • Cravings
  • Restlessness
  • Various forms of physical discomfort

The report mentioned that these symptoms peak during the first month after quitting and may last up to two weeks. 

Treatment for Marijuana Addiction

There are actually options for people who have developed marijuana use disorders. Eric Patterson, a professional counsellor, mentions in his article “ Generally, treatment will occur in either a residential rehab or outpatient setting depending on the needs and wants of the individual and the recommendations of the treatment team.” He says the following treatment options are effective:

  • Patient education.
  • Talk therapy interventions.
  • Motivational incentives.
  • Family education.
  • 12-step supports.

Who Generally Seeks Help?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, those who have often tried to seek help are people who have used marijuana almost daily for more than a decade and have tried to quit more than six times. 

Since many people who require treatment have a mental illness, the mental illness is treated through medication and behavioural therapy. This may decrease marijuana usage.

Research for Future Marijuana Addiction Treatment

According to Healthline, there are no available drugs to successfully  treat cannabis use disorder. There are medications like sleeping aids that have shown success in early trials that could improve sleep and executive function.

Scientists are currently looking into N-acetylcysteine which is a nutritional supplement and FAAH inhibitors to see how they decrease the breakdown of the body’s own cannabinoids. It’s their hope that that will reduce withdrawal symptoms. There is also research focusing on allosteric modulators that interact with cannabinoid receptors, to inhibit the rewarding feeling caused by THC.

Conclusion 

Marijuana addiction, while uncommon, is still possible. Delaying marijuana usage until after adolescence may reduce the risk of addiction as well as taking care of your mental health. While research is ongoing, there are treatment options available to those who need it.

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