Marijuana is by far the most widely abused illicit drug in the United States. The drug is popular partly because it is affordable, easily accessible, and increasingly perceived as harmless. While it can’t be denied that the drug has fewer direct adverse effects than other illicit substances, such as heroin or crystal meth, individuals who abuse it can develop physical dependence and addiction and often need specific marijuana addiction treatment.
The effects of marijuana can also impede people’s ability to function in their everyday lives, maintain relationships, and advance in their careers. Many users of the drug struggle to recognize marijuana as the source of their difficulties, in part due to how widely accepted the drug is in our culture. However, for those struggling with abuse or addiction, treatment is available and recovery is possible.
What is Marijuana?
Marijuana, which goes by many different names, including cannabis, weed, pot, and bud, is a psychoactive drug that has been used for thousands of years for its mental and physical effects. In the United States, it first achieved mainstream popularity during the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s, during which time it was widely perceived as a way of improving consciousness. Today it is the second most commonly abused substance in the United States after alcohol, and it is the most abused illicit drug.
Marijuana is derived from a naturally occurring plant known as cannabis. Many people who regularly consume marijuana argue that the drug is inherently safe because it is natural. However, it is important to recognize that many dangerous substances are derived from natural sources, including heroin and other opioids, which are derived from the opium poppy, and cocaine, which is derived from coca leaves.
Present day marijuana users also frequently consume highly refined and processed forms of marijuana, including hash, wax, and shatter. These forms of marijuana are certainly not naturally occurring, and they are far more potent and physically addictive than the flower buds that for many years were the primary form that the drug took.
When people consume marijuana, they are likely to experience a wide assortment of mental and physical effects.
The immediate effects of marijuana consumption include:
- Altered perception of time (time seems to slow down)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Reduced coordination
- Impaired short-term memory
- Increased appetite
These effects usually begin within a few minutes when people smoke marijuana, though other routes of administration can alter this timeframe. People who eat marijuana products generally experience effects after approximately 30 minutes to an hour. Most of the immediate marijuana effects wear off in a few hours.
Higher doses of marijuana result in more intense experiences of the same effects listed above. However, high doses of marijuana can also produce other effects, including:
- Extreme anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Ideas of reference (the paranoid belief that innocuous events relate specifically to you)
How is Marijuana Used?
Marijuana can be consumed in a wide variety of ways. It can be smoked, vaporized, cooked into food, and used as an extract. Marijuana is most frequently inhaled in the form of smoke. Individuals who smoke marijuana can do so in a variety of ways. The drug is commonly rolled into cigarettes known as “joints,” and sometimes it is combined with tobacco in a product sometimes known as a “spliff.” This method of smoking marijuana required very little drug paraphernalia. Other methods of smoking, such as pipes, bongs, and dabs, require more equipment. In recent years, vaping marijuana has become increasingly common.
Individuals who consume marijuana by eating it often experience more extreme effects. This is because it is more difficult for users to determine the proper dosage. When people smoke or vaporize marijuana, they experience effects immediately, and they are free to stop when they are content with their dosage. Those who eat it, however, will have to endure a delay between consumption and the initial effects.
They may end up taking a far higher dosage than they are comfortable with. It is also common for the delay to cause people to believe that they haven’t eaten enough. As a result they may consume additional marijuana edibles, only to have the effects of the first one suddenly begin. For these reasons, consuming edible marijuana products increases the likelihood that a person will take an uncomfortably high dose.
The reasons why people use marijuana vary widely. Since ancient times, marijuana has been used for recreational purposes, but the drug also played an important role in medicine and spirituality. Today, marijuana is primarily used as a recreational drug by people who aim to get “high.” However, it is increasingly recognized as having legitimate medical uses.
Over the last few decades, medical marijuana has become legalized or decriminalized in a number of states. Medical marijuana can help people to some extent deal with pain, depression, anxiety, though it is most effectively used as a supplement to cancer treatment. Individuals going through chemotherapy often lose their appetites, and marijuana can help increase appetite, thereby allowing cancer patients to engage in healthier lifestyles.
Recreational marijuana users often use the drug on its own, but it is also common for recreational drug users to combine marijuana with other substances. This phenomenon is known as polydrug abuse. Marijuana is widely perceived as having the ability to enhance or “take the edge off” of other psychoactive substances. Similarly, other substances are often used to take the edge off of marijuana’s effects. Individuals experiencing marijuana-induced anxiety, for instance, might be tempting to drink alcohol or a benzodiazepine in order to calm down and relax.
In the past, authorities often warned young people that marijuana was a “gateway drug” that would cause people to turn to harder drugs. While it may not directly cause people to abuse harder drugs, the fact remains that polysubstance abuse and polysubstance addiction is common among marijuana users.
It may seem obvious, but recreational marijuana users like marijuana because it feels good. The main source of the euphoric feelings that marijuana produces is a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. When people smoke or consume marijuana, their brains release high quantities of this neurotransmitter. Dopamine plays an important role in the brain’s motivation and decision making centers. When it is released, it reinforces behavior. Dopamine is released normally during healthy activities, such as winning a game of basketball, having sex, or completing a task at work.
However, recreational drugs like marijuana release quantities of dopamine so high that these healthy activities simply can’t compare. As a result, after using marijuana, people tend to be drawn to it again, and each subsequent usage of the drug further reinforces this behavior.
Once a person develops a physical dependence on marijuana, they may only feel normal when they are high. The uncomfortable withdrawal effects that marijuana produces can cause them to take great pains to have a steady supply of the drug. Tolerance to the effects of marijuana can drive people to use it more frequently, at higher quantities, or turn to more potent forms of the drug, such as hash, wax, or shatter. Doing so is only likely to strengthen their initial physical dependence.
However, it is important to distinguish physical dependence from marijuana addiction. Not everyone with a physical dependence on marijuana develops an addiction, even if their use of the drug constitutes abuse. Some people are able to stop using marijuana, get through the withdrawal period, and move on with their lives. However, individuals who recognize the harmful effects of marijuana in their lives but find themselves unable to stop using the drug can be said to suffer from marijuana addiction.
People with marijuana addiction cannot control or manage their own intake of cannabis no matter how hard they try. They may successfully quit marijuana or reduce their usage for a period of days, weeks, or months, but inevitably they return to it. Addiction can not only lead to a wide variety of harmful consequences, it can be deeply demoralizing.
The reasons why people become addicted to marijuana vary from person to person. Some people are simply more prone to developing substance use disorders, including people who have a history of substance use disorders in their families. Research has also shown that individuals who suffered from trauma or adverse childhood events (ACEs) in their youth have an increased likelihood of developing addictions later on in life.
It is also common for people with untreated mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to develop substance use disorders. People suffering from mental illness may use marijuana to cope with the emotionally distressing symptoms of their condition. Unfortunately, the symptoms of marijuana addiction that ultimately develop can often be far worse than the symptoms that initially drove them to use marijuana.
Another likely factor that might be driving the recent spike in marijuana use disorders is the rising potency of marijuana itself. THC is the primary psychoactive component of marijuana. In the 1960s and 1970s, when marijuana achieved mainstream popularity, the average THC content of marijuana was far lower than it is now.
Sophisticated growing methods have resulted in a considerable increase. In the 1990s, the average THC content in marijuana was 4%, but today it is more than 15%. Processed marijuana products, including concentrates like hash or marijuana wax, often have much higher levels of THC. As a result, it is far easier for individuals to develop physical dependence on the drug today than it was in the past. The risks are especially high for young people, whose brains are not fully developed.
Is Marijuana Addictive?
The question of whether or not marijuana is an addictive drug is in many ways controversial. The United States’ War on Drugs has made it a priority to disseminate information about the harms of marijuana, which has led to a great deal of information. It is now clear that marijuana is in no way as physically addictive as heroin, cocaine, alcohol, or tobacco — and the immediate consequences of consuming marijuana are nowhere near as harmful either. However, it is important to maintain a balanced view of the matter. It is tempting for young people, who grow up hearing about the evils of marijuana, to reject all warnings once they try the drug and find their lives intact.
A number of other factors have contributed to a recent rehabilitation of marijuana’s image. Medicinal marijuana has become increasingly accepted as a legitimate treatment. Multiple states in the US have also legalized or decriminalized recreational marijuana usage, regulating and taxing it much like other legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco.
Marijuana also plays an important role in youth culture, with a constant stream of films, tv shows, and comedy specials glorifying marijuana’s effects and the “stoner” lifestyle. For these reasons, young people are often likely to dismiss warnings about the dangers of marijuana. Highschool and college-aged Americans increasingly use marijuana, believing that the drug is risk-free, harmless, and non-addictive.
Recent research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, however, shows that approximately 30% of people who use marijuana develop a marijuana use disorder — the clinical term for marijuana addiction. Young people under the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop such an addiction. In 2015 alone, 4 million people in the United States were diagnosed with marijuana use disorder. It is likely that a far higher number of people meet the criteria for the condition but have not received a clinical diagnosis.
Marijuana Withdrawal Effects
While it is true that marijuana is less physically addictive than many other recreational drugs, it does lead to dependence. Dependence is a phenomenon that occurs when a person’s brain and body have acclimated to the effects of a drug. When a person develops marijuana dependence, they require more frequent or higher doses of the drug to achieve their desired high.
At the same time, they will inevitably begin to experience marijuana withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the drug. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms, while nowhere near as extreme as opioid withdrawal symptoms or alcohol withdrawal symptoms, are enough to cause considerable discomfort.
Common signs, symptoms and marijuana withdrawal effects include:
- Mood changes
- Sleep difficulties
- Decreased appetite
- Physical discomfort
- Strong cravings for marijuana
Effects of Marijuana Addiction
While marijuana may make people feel temporarily euphoric and relaxed, individuals who regularly abuse the substance are likely to suffer from a number of negative physical and emotional consequences. Some of these consequences relate directly to the route of administration a person uses to consume marijuana, while others stem from the effects of marijuana itself. Common long term consequences of marijuana addiction include:
- Lethargy and a general decrease in energy levels. Marijuana use tends to make people sluggish in general, and the withdrawal effects can also cause people to feel lethargic and unmotivated. Some people even experience anhedonia, a condition that causes people to be unable to experience pleasure.
- Breathing problems. Like smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana damages the delicate cilia in the lungs. This is the reason many regular marijuana users have a persistent cough.
- Higher risk of lung cancer (for people who smoke marijuana). While many people vape cannabis in order to avoid the carcinogenic effects of smoking, there are no long term studies as of yet on the effects of vaping.
- Increased anxiety and depression. One of the effects of marijuana is increasing anxiety. This can cause people to have panic attacks or paranoid episodes while they are high. Cannabis also tends to decrease people’s energy and motivation, which can lead to depression. These effects become even more acute while a person is experiencing marijuana withdrawal symptoms.
- Cognitive impairment. Young adults are particularly susceptible to the brain-impairing effects of marijuana. Some studies indicate that regular marijuana use impairs neural connectivity in a variety of brain regions that are responsible for important executive functions, including memory, learning, and impulse control.
- Increased risk of a heart attack. Marijuana causes the heart to beat faster. For individuals with pre-existing heart problems, marijuana use can precipitate a heart attack.
- Increased risk of psychosis. High potency marijuana dramatically increases the likelihood of a psychotic episode, especially for people who are already prone to schizophrenia. Individuals in their teens and early twenties are particularly susceptible.
Signs and Symptoms of Marijuana Addiction
People who become addicted to marijuana are unable to control their usage, and the drug can rapidly become their top priority. As such, it is common for individuals suffering from marijuana use disorder to let their other priorities and interests slide. This may be a gradual process, though for some individuals this happens rapidly. Individuals who abuse marijuana are likely to stagnate in their careers or even lose their jobs.
Younger people who are in school tend to get worse grades or drop out entirely. Relationships tend to suffer, and individuals who are addicted to marijuana tend to isolate or only spend time with other people who want to get high. As marijuana becomes a person’s primary source of pleasure and comfort, they may drop their other interests and cease to enjoy other activities. This supposedly “harmless” drug can take over a person’s life.
Individuals who suffer from marijuana addiction often go to great lengths to hide their substance use disorder. However, for concerned family members and friends, some signs will always be apparent. Common behaviors to watch out for include:
- Using marijuana even when it is leading to significant social or relationship problems
- Continuing to use marijuana despite recognizing a physical or psychological problem related to marijuana
- Regularly experiencing strong cravings for marijuana
- Developing a tolerance for marijuana’s effects and needing more of it to achieve these effects
- Suffering from withdrawal symptoms when marijuana is not around
- Giving up on activities that were once enjoyable because using marijuana seems preferable
- Using marijuana in larger amounts or over a longer period than originally intended
- Using marijuana in situations that could be dangerous, such as smoking marijuana while driving
- Using marijuana so often, or using so much of it, that it is difficult to get important tasks completed
- Spending a great deal of time seeking out marijuana, getting high, and recovering from the effects
- Thinking about or trying to cut back or stop marijuana use, but failing repeatedly
The symptoms listed above are listed in the DSM-5, the manual that psychiatrists use to make diagnoses of mental health disorders. Suffering from at least two of the above symptoms is sufficient to be diagnosed with a moderate marijuana use disorder. Individuals who suffer from more symptoms are likely to have a more severe condition.
Marijuana use disorder, like other substance use disorders, is a spectrum condition. Not everyone suffers from the same degree of consequences. However, it is important to recognize that addictions are progressive in nature, and most people get worse over time if they fail to seek treatment.