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Marijuana remains a lightning rod for controversy in the United States as more and more states legalize it for recreational use. While it is safe compared to many drugs, it still leads to addiction for thousands of users.

  • Drug Name Marijuana
  • Addiction Liability Moderate
  • Scientific Name Cannabis, Tetrahydrocannabinol
  • Street Names Pot, Weed, Grass, Ganja, Mary Jane
  • How It's Used Smoked, Swallowed
  • Side Effects Memory Loss, Dizziness, Breathing Problems, Lung Infection, Depression, Psychosis, Increased Heart Rate
  • Psychological Dependence Moderate
  • Physical Dependence Low

Is Marijuana Addictive?

Marijuana enjoys a surge in popularity in the United States as increasing numbers of advocates push for the legalization of medical marijuana and others urge an outright decriminalization of the drug, particularly in small quantities. The topic will be unavoidable as these measures are put to vote in more and more states.

Jar of legal marijuana

Smoking pot has long been a communal event at parties, concerts and social gatherings, making a major splash in the 1960s and ‘70s with the prevalence of rock & roll and the counterculture. The years of the “flower children” and images of Cheech & Chong eventually made way for more modern forms of pot, and big-screen images and personas from Seth Rogan and James Franco, among others. Weed culture is stronger than ever, with people flocking to Colorado and Washington to experience the recreational marijuana industry firsthand.

Regardless, society at large still considers marijuana – weed, cannabis, pot, etc. – an illicit substance. And it is indeed addictive, despite the hazy opinion on the matter.

Not only is addiction real, but there are individuals suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Clinicians and the public deserve to know this.

Dr. John Kelly, a Massachusetts General psychiatrist

Pot is the most widely consumed illicit substance in the world. In the United States alone, it attracts more than 6,000 new users each day. It may seem innocent enough on the very first puff. But studies suggest that at least 9 percent of these users will develop a conditional dependence on the drug at some point.

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Why Marijuana?

Chemically, marijuana addiction stems from an organic result of withdrawal syndrome. Pot smokers get hooked on the drug’s pleasurable effects – relaxation chief among them. Some turn to pot for its focus-inducing properties. They toke to get more done around the house, in the yard or sometimes even at work. Other marijuana smokers keep the drug on hand for its pain-relief. Cancer patients are among a growing number of people who push to legalize medical marijuana at the state level, hoping to bring a back-room treatment into the open.

Regardless of their reason for picking up the habit, once regular pot use is part of a person’s routine, they can exhibit a number of psychological reactions when they take a break from smoking. This can include decreased appetite, sleep difficulties, cravings and irritability.

9 Percent of pot smokers become addicted.

Dependence on marijuana, then, can come about stealthily in longtime users, as they actively avoid taking breaks to prevent the onset of these symptoms.

The traditional way to get high from pot is to smoke it in; through hand-rolled cigarettes, pipes or bongs. You can also digest it by eating food in which marijuana is a small but powerful ingredient. Chocolate brownies, also called magic brownies, are an especially popular – and potent – edible.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of marijuana addiction vary by age, frequency of usage and the form of consumption. That said, there are a number of telltale signs the average marijuana user will display. These can include, but are not limited to:

Additionally, the distinctive smell of pot smoke can cling to clothes and be easily detected on the breath of pot smokers.

Risks & Side Effects of Smoking Marijuana

Inhaling marijuana smoke impacts brain activity in as little as seven seconds. THC, the primary chemical in marijuana, alters senses and impairs judgment upon entering the central nervous system. Perception of time and surroundings can be compromised, and body movement and problem-solving abilities can be hindered.

Of all the 2010 traffic deaths, 12 percent involved marijuana, according to a Columbia University study.
A separate 2013 study showed marijuana use doubles the risk of car accidents – and that more car accidents are caused by pot than any other illicit drug.

Starting early can also lead to stunted growth. A study performed at a university in Pakistan revealed that boys who smoke pot before puberty grow to be shorter than their peers by up to four inches. Another study revealed that teenage marijuana users may stunt their brain’s development, damaging their learning abilities and memory functions, while lowering their IQ by several points with years of heavy usage.

Other long-term side effects of heavy marijuana use:

Short-term side effects include:

Marijuana Addiction Rates

Adolescents are the most at-risk individuals for marijuana addiction and its potential dangers. The risk of addiction is nearly doubled, from 9 to 17 percent, for those who begin regular usage as teenagers.

The common view that smoking cannabis is nothing to get worked up about needs to be challenged more effectively. Instead of classifying and reclassifying, Government time and money would be much better spent on educating young people about how smoking cannabis is essentially playing a very real game of Russian roulette with your mental health.

Wayne Hall, World Health Organization advisor Professor

Types of Treatment

Anyone with a pot-smoking problem can get help through traditional counseling and therapy and also through local or national treatment centers. Yet while treatment is available, it won’t always be easy.

It is often harder to get people who are dependent on cannabis through withdrawal than for heroin.

Wayne Hall, World Health Organization advisor Professor

Although the road to recovery may not be pleasant, the benefits are worth the time, effort and pain to get through it.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy and contingency management all prove effective in helping adults with marijuana use disorder. Originally developed to treat alcohol and cocaine dependence, the three therapies utilize a non-confrontational approach to educate patients, motivate them towards quitting the habit and reward them for their progress. Treatment specialists can combine the therapies for an increased possibility of success.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

CBT explores the relationship between a user’s actions and the underlying thoughts and feelings that cause them. The risks associated with certain habits are explored, and therapists will help their patients find ways to manage these risks. In successful cases, this therapy can build constructive and positive beliefs in an addict that can drastically improve their desire or need to pursue drug use.

A recent Canadian study found that a group of at-risk teenagers reduced their use of cannabis after just two sessions of CBT.

Motivational Enhancement Therapy

young women during MET therapy session

During a MET session, a therapist will ask the patient open-ended questions and listen as they work through them, while avoiding arguments or injecting their own beliefs. This method gives the patient control of the situation and, when successful, will spark a realization in the addict of their problem and a feeling of empowerment in their ability to improve themselves.

This form of treatment has a good success rate in cases of marijuana-dependency, especially when paired with CBT.

Contingency Management

Part of addiction is the feeling that smoking a joint, say, is a reward for your mind and body after completing a hard day of work or school. Weed-dependent people will start to look forward to this and find cause to treat themselves more and more often.

Contingency management is a method of treatment that creates a system of prizes, which will be given to patients as they show progress in getting clean. Over time this can rework the brain’s reward pathways and help wean the patient off their predilection or need for marijuana as a reward.

Network Therapy

Teen boy talking in network therapy

Network therapy is another type of treatment, during which close friends and family members of an addict get involved in group counseling sessions and are made partially accountable for his or her real-world actions. Combined with more standard therapies, network therapy gives patients the added benefit of a committed and caring support group on their path to recovery. A 2004 study from the New York University School of Medicine study showed network therapy participants are twice as likely to succeed in abstinence from their addiction.

12-Step Help

Modeled closely after the steps put forth by Alcoholics Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous offers a 12-step program to people battling with a dependency on the drug. The group holds in-person meetings around the country as well as online and over the phone. Founded in 1989, the group has expanded to reach thousands of people in 11 countries.

Medication

No widely accepted pharmaceutical exists that prevents or corrects marijuana dependence. A handful of medications have gone through clinical trials, including divalproex, bupropion and nefazodone, though none of them have shown great promise in curing addiction outright.

Some encouraging results have come from studies that administered pure THC, in small doses, into the body of addicts. Test subjects displayed a decreased anxiety level and generally suppressed withdrawal symptoms. Similar findings were uncovered from trials of cannabidiol – another chemical in cannabis – and nabilone, a synthetic form of THC.

Withdrawal

Dependent users of marijuana are prone to experience withdrawal syndrome, which will often impede or prevent altogether their attempts to quit the drug. While the symptoms involved with this withdrawal may not always be as intense as those related to some heavier drugs, they are still notable and very relevant in the marijuana addiction cycle.

The withdrawal symptoms are similar to sedative withdrawal. You’ll see more hyperactivity, restlessness, and sleep problems.

Dr. John Kelly, a Massachusetts General psychiatrist

Marijuana withdrawal can also lead to depression, irritability and loss of appetite, in addition to cravings for the drug. Symptoms can appear as soon as 24 hours into a period of abstinence, and last up to several weeks.

More Rehab for Marijuana, Not Less

Marijuana has a reputation for being both a non-addictive drug and one that, if abused, is easy to kick; but these ideas are simply not true. If the current trend of more marijuana use in society continues, pot smokers and researchers are both likely to continue testing these myths.

While more city, state and federal governments contemplate issues of legalization, they also must consider the rehabilitation — and the cost of it on both the public health system and on those who want to stop using pot.

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