Is Marijuana Addictive?

Regular or heavy use of marijuana can lead to dependence and addiction. Despite widespread debate on the topic, research has confirmed that marijuana is habit-forming. In 2011, roughly 4.2 million Americans met the diagnostic criteria for dependence on or abuse of marijuana.
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As many states move to legalize marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes, use of the drug is on the rise across the country. Despite its increasingly mainstream acceptance, marijuana is not the harmless drug many think it is.

Nearly three out of every 10 people who use weed will develop some degree of problematic use of the drug and 9 percent will become dependent on it. Teens using marijuana face an even bigger risk. Approximately 17 percent of teens who smoke weed develop a dependence on the drug.

Weed Addiction vs. Dependence

While dependence and addiction often go hand in hand, there are key differences between the two problems.

Dependence is an actual physical reliance on a drug that develops with regular use. With dependence, a person actually requires the drug to function normally, and without it they experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

On the other hand, addiction is a chronic disease characterized by intense and uncontrollable cravings for a drug and compulsive use of the substance despite its negative impacts on the person’s life.

Marijuana can cause both dependence and addiction — although they don’t always occur together. A person can be physically dependent on marijuana without exhibiting the compulsive behaviors associated with addiction.

How Marijuana Causes Addiction

Marijuana use can lead to addiction in the same way other addictive drugs do — by acting on the brain’s reward centers.

When a person smokes pot, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana, triggers a release of the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine causes the euphoric sensations we recognize as the high. It also activates the brain’s reward pathways to remember the experience and repeat it.

Essentially, THC triggers a chemical cascade that conditions you to like pot and crave more.

Research indicates that younger people are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of marijuana, including dependence and addiction.

While one in 10 marijuana users will become addicted to the drug, that number rises to one in six for those who begin smoking pot before the age of 18. According to a 2012 study in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the risk of developing an addiction to marijuana is almost nonexistent after the age of 25.

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Signs of Weed Addiction

Marijuana addiction often comes on gradually, but several telltale signs indicate a problem.

Some of the common signs of marijuana addiction include:

  • Loss of control: an inability to quit using marijuana even when you want to stop
  • Neglecting activities, friends and family because of marijuana
  • Continuing to smoke weed even though it is causing problems in your life

Many people who are addicted to marijuana are also dependent on the drug.

As a result, they may have a higher tolerance and need to smoke larger amounts of weed to get high. They may also experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if they stop smoking weed.

Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal include agitation, decreased appetite and sleep problems. Withdrawal symptoms usually develop within a couple of days of quitting and go away in about two weeks.

Over time, marijuana use can cause other detrimental effects, including lung problems, memory loss and a decline in IQ. Chronic marijuana use can also increase a person’s risk of certain psychiatric problems.

Marijuana Addiction Treatment

Approximately 213,000 people sought substance abuse treatment for marijuana in 2015.

According to a 2007 study in the journal Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, by the time a person enters professional treatment for a marijuana addiction or dependence, they’ve usually been using the drug daily for a decade and have tried to quit at least six times.

Not everyone who enters treatment for a marijuana addiction does so willingly. More than 50 percent of those receiving treatment for a marijuana problem are receiving court-ordered rehab.

Most marijuana addiction treatment is on an outpatient basis. Treatment typically involves a combination of behavioral therapy and support group meetings.

Medical Disclaimer: aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

Amy Keller, RN, BSN
Content Writer,
As a former journalist and a registered nurse, Amy draws on her clinical experience, compassion and storytelling skills to provide insight into the disease of addiction and treatment options. Amy has completed the American Psychiatric Nurses Association’s course on Effective Treatments for Opioid Use Disorder and continuing education on Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT). Amy is an advocate for patient- and family-centered care. She previously participated in Moffitt Cancer Center’s patient and family advisory program and was a speaker at the Institute of Patient-and Family-Centered Care’s 2015 national conference.
Kim Borwick, MA

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