Whether you are an advocate for marijuana or not, the very first question you had when you came across it for the first time was probably, “Is Marijuana Addictive?” Well, that depends on your definition of addiction.
To answer this question, let us begin by understanding how cannabis works in our brains and bodies. Cannabis is known for its potent chemical, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is primarily responsible for the “high” that users look for in marijuana. Your brain has special cannabinoid receptors that respond to THC by absorbing it. The THC then goes on to interfere with the normal interactions of neurotransmitters within your brain. When THC is bound to these receptors, the subsequent event is the experience users describe as the light-headed haziness of a “high.”
By learning the science behind how marijuana works within your brain, we hope this article will help you better understand the debate of whether or not marijuana is addictive. We will start by discussing the difference between cannabis dependence and addiction.
Cannabis Dependence & Addiction
Dependence on cannabis is characterized as more psychological than physical. Heroin and cocaine addicts tend to suffer from severe physiological withdrawal symptoms, while long-term cannabis users tend to exhibit mild mental withdrawal symptoms. With that in mind, is weed addictive?
Addiction and dependence are difficult to differentiate because, by definition, dependence relates to the harmful physical symptoms that develop when a substance is withheld from the body.
A cannabis user is deemed addicted when he or she exhibits a change in behavior caused by the continuous use of the substance. While you can be dependent without being addicted, dependence can lead to addiction over time. Here we will review some facts in the debate of whether weed is addictive:
Proponents for Marijuana’s Addictiveness
- Cravings for cannabis can be addictive in much the same way that sex, alcohol, food, and gambling can be addictive, as they are all able to produce a dependence on the “feel-good” factor.
- Marijuana’s addictiveness, by scientific definition, is very different from the public stance on addiction. Scientifically, marijuana abuse is a complex disease that involves many layers; the fact that there may not be physical withdrawal symptoms does not exclude the possibility of addiction.
- Any tolerance and withdrawal symptoms, whether severe or mild, within a 12-month period are deemed indicative of problematic addiction by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. (1)
- If there is a need to use marijuana to feel good and the individual has a hard time stopping regardless of their social, career, and family obligations, they are considered addicted.
- Compulsive use of marijuana despite adverse consequences and an increased tolerance is a sign of addiction.
Proponents Against Marijuana’s Addictiveness
- Cannabis dependence is only mental; it does not cause the life-threatening physical symptoms necessary to be deemed addictive by definition.
- Without the harsh withdrawal symptoms common with substances like heroin, marijuana is much easier to quit and therefore difficult to become addicted to.
- Only nine percent of marijuana smokers become addicted; a vast majority of those who experiment with it do not develop an addiction. (2)
- The term “cannabis use disorders” is now used in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in place of “cannabis dependence” and “cannabis abuse.” Marijuana has the potential to negatively impact its users, but that does not necessarily mean they can become addicted.
- Compared to other addictive substances, marijuana is much less problematic; only nine to ten percent of users develop a psychological addiction, compared to 20 to 30 percent of tobacco users and 23 to 25 percent of heroin users. Alcohol addiction weighs in at 15 percent of its users, while 15 to 20 percent of cocaine users will become addicted. (3)
Real Concerns of Marijuana Use
Perhaps the issue to be concerned with is not whether weed is addictive, but rather the prospective harm its use can cause. As overdosing on marijuana is impossible, the most potentially harmful consequences of cannabis use involve social and psychological factors.
Marijuana dependence can cause minor discomforts with psychological withdrawal symptoms for up to two weeks after quitting. Overall, only one in eleven marijuana users will become addicted, but the number increases to one in six among teenagers. (4)
Cannabis has increased in potency for personal use since its initial popularity in the 1960s, with higher THC levels today leading to higher tolerances. (5) Thankfully, there are many new and safer methods of ingestion, such as “dabbing” (which involves vaporizing THC-rich oils), to deliver higher concentrations with less potential harm.
Lastly, among those seeking treatment for cannabis dependence, the average addicted user only perceives him or herself as simply unable to quit. Users report that their reasons for seeking help for their addictions include problems sustaining relationships, feeling guilty, financial difficulties, low energy, low self-esteem, dissatisfaction with productivity, challenges with memory and sleep, and overall dissatisfaction with life. These problems can be quickly resolved with minor counseling, and dependence can be overcome relatively easily.
How Does Marijuana Addiction Develop?
Most marijuana users utilize pot for its pain-relieving properties and consider it a potential replacement for prescription drugs. Marijuana helps the individual eliminate or reduce the need for stronger substances, allowing users to experience fewer side effects and a healthier management of symptoms.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), only nine percent of marijuana users develop cannabis use disorders, while many other marijuana users never experience any reoccurring problems or side effects. (6)
But how, exactly, does marijuana addiction develop in this nine percent?
Studies have recognized several factors present in those who are more susceptible to marijuana addiction, including: (7)
Addiction is especially apparent in those with a genetic likelihood. A person can inherit addictive behaviors from a parent who has suffered from addictions. Genes play a significant role in whether an individual will come to be dependent on marijuana.
Specific stressors from work, school, social circles, and spouses may not be the condemning reason people become addicted to marijuana, but how they handle this stress can determine whether they are more vulnerable to dependence on cannabis than other users.
Mental health issues can lead to dependence for users who rely on cannabis to manage their diseases. At first, marijuana may be able to provide relief from a person’s illness; however, tolerance may eventually build to the point where the individual begins to rely on cannabis indefinitely, and trying to quit will only bring their illnesses back with a vengeance.
According to the American College of Pediatricians, 70 to 72 percent of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 enter drug treatment programs primarily because of marijuana addiction. (8) These young people are considered at risk of marijuana addiction mainly due to their difficult situations at home. Often, these high-risk youth have chaotic friendships and harmful family environments where emotional support is non-existent. In addition to these factors, high-risk youth often are not presented with the same opportunities as their peers. As such, they are more likely to find comfort and happiness in controlled substances than activities that fulfill and enrich their lives.
Individuals with few or no social networks
Addiction and dependence often stem from a lack of healthy relationships that teach the individual to take responsibility for his or her actions. Responsibility skills are strengthened by being tightly tied to one’s career, family, and social networks. Individuals who are more susceptible to addictions often do not have the same sense of responsibilities to a job and loved ones as those with wide social networks.
Trauma victims who suffer from depression, PTSD, and even anxiety are more likely to become dependent on and addicted to marijuana. Those who experienced trauma at a young age, especially sexual trauma, are very likely to form an addiction to cannabis.
An unexpected reality is that the abuse of marijuana can take months or even years to fully develop. When users suspect that they have become dependent or addicted, they will often resist any suggestions to seek help because they don’t think it’s necessary for them. They may play it off as inconsequential due to their belief that their dependence does not cause catastrophic complications.
If there is one reason to be cautious of marijuana abuse, it is that marijuana dependence becomes more difficult to both recognize and overcome when paired with other substance abuses. This is especially true if a user tries to replace another substance abuse with marijuana use.
Symptoms of Marijuana Addiction
Marijuana use is only deemed a problem when it causes multiple significant impairments that occur within a year’s time. These events and incidents include:
- More time being consumed to recover from, use, and acquire marijuana than time spent on regular day-to-day activities
- Quantity and potency of cannabis increases over time
- Longing for and craving marijuana usage
- Attempts to quit or reduce marijuana usage are unsuccessful on multiple occasions
- Having a hard time quitting despite unwanted strain in relationships with family and friends
- Difficulties giving up or limiting cannabis use despite wanting to spend time on leisure, social, and professional activities
Cannabis addiction is marked by a user’s tolerance level and withdrawal symptoms. Psychological withdrawal symptoms may include depression, nightmares, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, anger, and emotional ups and downs. Although cannabis addiction results mainly in psychological withdrawal symptoms, there have been noted instances of possible physical withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches and loss of appetite, for long-term marijuana users when they try to quit.
How to Overcome Marijuana Addiction
In many cases, those who seek help for marijuana addictions are treated differently than others, depending on the cause of their addiction. Many users, as previously noted, try marijuana as a replacement for other drug abuses and prescription alternatives; as such, there may be other underlying trauma and issues to overcome alongside their cannabis dependence. Here are some of the most common options for help in overcoming marijuana addictions:
Much like Alcoholics Anonymous, support groups for marijuana addictions focus on recovery models and mentoring as the primary sources for helping those who want to commit to sobriety.
With marijuana dependence, many users have a hard time learning how to feel happy without their chronic cannabis use. Working off of a reward-and-recovery goal-setting plan, individuals learn new coping skills for their marijuana addiction through community reinforcement.
While working with a therapist, specific methods of treatment are used to help addicts change their way of thinking so they can stop depending on marijuana to deal with their issues.
These therapy sessions reintroduce positive behaviors back into the addict’s life. The program allows them to become more productive and less likely to use pot when they are bored or do not know how to cope with their emotions.
Outpatient treatment programs
Sessions that take place either daily, weekly, or semiweekly are carried out by professionals to help the addict deal with dependence on marijuana. Therapy and counseling sessions help ensure that the addict receives adequate assistance to learn to recognize and avoid situations where they will use cannabis again.
Long-term and short-term residential treatment
Residential inpatient programs are a rare choice for marijuana addicts mainly due to the lack of physical withdrawal symptoms. Unless the patient is battling other underlying mental illnesses or potential for self-harm, marijuana addictions do not require the 24-hour surveillance of an inpatient facility.
Currently, there is no reliable research available that encompasses the full extent of cannabis addictions. Studies have yet to find any detrimental consequences to the brain and bodily functions from long-term marijuana dependence with high concentrations of THC. As such, many cannabis-dependent users may continue to use marijuana, as it is not a detriment to their lifestyle or social relationships. The reality is, very few cannabis users go on to become addicts – of those who become dependent, many find it more beneficial to continue their long-term use than to quit. Cannabis may provide far better and safer relief from both physical and mental ailments than any other options users may have available, so it makes sense that they would continue. Do you have any experience with marijuana addiction, either for yourself or with a family member? Leave a comment and tell us about your experience!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is marijuana addictive?
Psychologically, yes; while there are little to no physical withdrawal symptoms, a person can become psychologically addicted to cannabis because of the “high” it can provide to the brain. Over time, marijuana addictions can develop when a user cultivates a tolerance for the quantity and frequency of its use. Chronic users may experience mild mental and physical withdrawal symptoms that will make dependence on cannabis much more appealing than quitting.
How is marijuana addictive?
Marijuana can become addictive if the user develops a dependence on it as either a relief from maladies or a substitute for other substance abuses. It can become addictive over time, but it is not addictive from an immediate standpoint.
Is weed addictive for recreational users?
Yes, marijuana can be addictive for recreational users who may have underlying emotional and psychological problems that they have not dealt with and the “high” they get becomes a craving to fill voids in their lives.
How dangerous can marijuana addiction become?
All facets of a person’s life can be affected when cannabis dependence begins to change his or her career, family, and social obligations. When an addict chooses to use marijuana despite the knowledge of its detriments, such as broken relationships, financial burdens, and depression, the addiction can become a serious issue.
What are the signs of marijuana addiction?
Simple signs include choosing to use marijuana over other enriching recreational, social, and occupational activities.
How does one withdraw from marijuana addiction?
Irritability, insomnia, depression, and intense mood fluctuations are some common signs of psychological withdrawal from marijuana addiction.
Is marijuana less addictive than beer and cigarettes?
Yes. 15 percent of alcohol users and 32 percent of nicotine users become addicted, while marijuana addiction accounts for nine percent of cannabis users. The percentages are significantly lower regarding less-intense cannabis dependence.
How can I overcome my marijuana addiction?
There is a lot of support available for marijuana addictions. Most services are available upon request from a therapist or marijuana dependence support group. Seeking professional help is the most effective way to overcome marijuana addiction. Through cognitive and behavioral therapies, cannabis addicts may gain skills to recognize their habits and start working towards recovery. A quick search on the Internet will yield some beneficial local resources to get you started.
How can I organize an intervention for a marijuana addict?
Most marijuana addicts do not agree with or understand their dependence; as such, the best method is to privately partake in open communication about how the dependence is affecting you and your relationship with the individual. You may come to find that their dependence is not as detrimental as you had perceived and that a solid conversation about it may resolve any issues you have.
How do I curb marijuana addiction?
Knowing your underlying reasons for cannabis use is the first step to curbing marijuana addiction. Understanding why you use and recognizing the resulting behaviors that can cause you to depend on marijuana will help you avoid heavy and chronic use.
Are there any treatment facilities in the U.S. that specialize in marijuana addiction?
No. Marijuana addiction alone usually does not require inpatient treatment, so there aren’t any specific marijuana addiction treatment facilities. However, marijuana addiction is often paired with other illnesses such as abuse of other dangerous substances and/or mental health problems, which can benefit from inpatient programs. Based on marijuana addiction alone, your best resources can be found online. (8) (9)