The way that marijuana is perceived is changing fast in the United States. In the past decade, several states have legalized the drug, and it seems that momentum is building towards federal legalization. But as marijuana becomes more popular and less frowned upon, new research is showing that the drug may not be as harmless as some people think it is.
Many marijuana users consider the drug’s effects to be ‘milder’ than other drugs. While marijuana is not as immediately life-threatening as heroin or cocaine, it can still be problematic for users. Marijuana can have many adverse long-term effects, including the development of addiction.
How Do We Define Addiction?
In order to determine whether marijuana really is addictive, we need to understand how addiction is actually defined. Addiction to a drug can be defined as the inability to stop using a substance even though it is causing mental and physical harm to the user.
Usually, addiction is thought of in two parts: psychological dependence and physical dependence. When a person becomes both mentally and physically dependent upon a drug, they are addicted.
Mental dependence occurs when a person can’t function normally without the substance. In the case of marijuana addiction, this would mean someone has strong cravings for marijuana when they are not high. They obsessively think about getting high, and this obsession affects their ability to live normally.
Physical dependence to marijuana happens when someone experiences withdrawal without the drug, and when their tolerance increases. We commonly think of withdrawal when it comes to addictions to substances such as heroin and alcohol, but marijuana addiction can lead to withdrawal symptoms also. Withdrawal is a set of symptoms that arise when someone who is addicted to a substance stops taking it or greatly reduces their dose. These symptoms could include physical effects such as headaches and nausea, as well as mental impacts like confusion and dizziness.
Tolerance to marijuana can increase rapidly. When someone has an increased tolerance, they need more of the substance to feel the same effects. This is dangerous because the risk of side effects increases with higher doses and more frequent use.
Can You Get Addicted to Marijuana?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that Marijuana can, in fact, be addictive. According to the NIDA, marijuana use can be problematic and, in the most severe cases, result in addiction. Marijuana addiction starts with marijuana use disorder, and develops when dependence on the drug forms.
The NIDA states that 30 percent of people who use marijuana have some kind of cannabis use disorder. 9 percent of users are estimated to develop a full-blown addiction. The difference between addiction and cannabis use disorder is that people with an addiction compulsively use the drug even though they know it is causing them harm. In addition, this number rises to 17 percent if the person started using marijuana in their teens.
While 9 percent may seem like a small percentage, consider this: Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. In 2015, over 11 million people between the ages of 18 and 25 used marijuana. Because the drug is so commonly used, the number of people who have a cannabis use disorder is actually around 4 million.
One of the factors that plays a role in marijuana use disorders today is the potency of the pot that is available. NIDA reports that the average content of THC (the main psychoactive substance in marijuana) rose from less than 4 percent in the early 1990s to more than 12 percent in 2014. This means that someone smoking, vaping, or ingesting a given amount of weed is actually taking in more than three times as much THC today than they were 20 to 30 years ago.
Today, you can find just about every form imaginable to get THC into your system. Some of the extracts and oils that are sold for use today contain more than 80 percent THC. Because of the increased potency of the products available today, people are developing a tolerance to marijuana at alarming rates.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Marijuana Addiction?
It is important to know the signs of marijuana addiction so that you can know when you or someone else might need marijuana addiction treatment. With a more accepting culture around recreational cannabis use, it might be difficult to draw a line between ‘normal’ use, and a serious problem. Look for the following signs of marijuana addiction:
- Using more of the drug than intended or using the drug for a longer time than intended.
- Inability to manage, regulate, or control use of marijuana.
- Spending an unusually large amount of time seeking out and using cannabis.
- Strong cravings to use pot.
- Negative change in ability to function at work, school, or home due to using the drug.
- Skipping out on social, work, or even fun events to use marijuana instead.
- Using weed in dangerous situations like while driving a car or taking care of a child.
- Continuing to use weed even after it is causing social, mental, and physical problems.
- Developing a higher tolerance.
- Experiencing withdrawal when use stops or slows.
The CDC states that being addicted to marijuana can also lead to a higher risk of experiencing negative longer-term effects of using this drug. These effects can include issues learning and trouble paying attention or remembering things.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that when people start using pot as teenagers, the drug might lead to long-term problems with thinking, memory, and learning ability. Research is still going on to determine whether these effects may be permanent.
Harmful Physical Effects of Marijuana
In addition to the potential long-term mental effects of using cannabis, there are harmful physical effects that can take place as well. They include:
- Trouble breathing. Tobacco is not the only kind of smoke that is bad for the lungs. Marijuana smoke can lead to the same types of breathing problems if it is smoked regularly. As those who are familiar with tobacco’s breathing effects know, these problems can include frequent hacking and coughing, as well as more frequent illness of the lungs and greater risk of infection in the lungs.
- Pregnancy complications. Marijuana use during pregnancy can lead to birth problems. Marijuana use has been linked to lower birth weight, and a higher risk of brain problems and behavioral problems for children. The drug can affect the fetus’s brain when used during pregnancy. Even after pregnancy, THC has been found to make its way into breast milk. This could become a problem if it happened regularly.
- Nausea and Vomiting. The type of drug use that is seen with marijuana addiction can lead to intense stomach sickness. Regular use of the drug over a long period of time might result in vomiting and nausea that happens frequently. It can be so severe that it requires medical attention.
With the recent increase in the potency of marijuana available, there has not been enough research to know what the effects of that trend will be. It could be that this rise in THC content means that marijuana is even more addictive now than it used to be, and that its negative effects could come sooner.
Treatment for Marijuana Addiction
Dependence on marijuana is a serious condition that can lead to critical long term effects. The next time you hear someone ask “can you get addicted to weed?” you will know what to tell them.
Treatment programs, both inpatient and outpatient, do exist to handle this serious substance abuse disorder. If you think you or a loved one has developed a marijuana addiction, do not take it lightly. Rehab centers can provide the treatment a person needs to get and stay clean, while getting their life back on track.