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Is Marijuana Addictive?

by Cedric Dent

May 27, 2022

Studies have shown that the potency of marijuana in circulation today is higher than what it was even a decade ago. New legislation and discussion about the efficacy of weed may not adequately reflect those findings. Legal restrictions surrounding marijuana use in the U.S. are becoming more flexible, and there’s a prevailing sentiment that it’s not as harmful as other drugs.

The fact is marijuana is addictive, especially for people who become exposed to it at a very young age. In an article addressing the question of marijuana addiction, the American Institute on Drug Abuse cited that marijuana potency, as detected in confiscated samples, has steadily increased over the past few decades, with the average tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in these samples – Delta 9 THC – rising to more than 15% in 2018 from about 4% in the early 1990s. 

People Can Be Addicted to Marijuana

Undoubtedly, people can become addicted to marijuana, otherwise known as cannabis, and it is also possible for marijuana users to be dependent on the substance without being addicted. According to the American Institute on Drug Abuse, estimates of the number of people addicted to marijuana are controversial. This is partly because epidemiological studies of substance abuse often use ‘dependence’ as a proxy to determine addiction, even though it is possible to be dependent without being addicted. In other words, the potential for addiction doesn’t begin and end with chemical inducement.

In essence, when it comes to marijuana use, whether for recreation or medicinally, addiction is a risk that should be considered. A common diagnosis used to measure the impact of marijuana use on people who smoke, inhale, eat, or use the substance medically is called marijuana use disorder. Marijuana use disorder, or cannabis use disorder, refers to when the use of marijuana negatively impacts a person’s health or life, but they continue to use it anyway.

“There are a lot of factors in this equation, but roughly 10% of cannabis users will develop compulsive behaviors consistent with marijuana use disorder,” said Dr. Jason Kirby, DO, MBA, FASMA, chief medical officer at Landmark Recovery. “The consequences can be as equally devastating as an addiction to other substances.”

In severe cases, the individual becomes dependent on the substance and is unable to withdraw even after repeated attempts. In 2015, about four million people in the U.S. met the diagnostic criteria for marijuana use disorder, but only 138,000 sought treatment for the condition voluntarily. 

Does Increased Potency Have a Significant Effect?

Although researchers have yet to fully understand the extent of the consequences of exposure to high concentrations of THC (the psychoactive substance in marijuana), it is believed that marijuana addiction or marijuana use disorder is often associated with increased exposure and consumption of high concentrations of THC. This leads to dependence on the substance, such that when the individual withdraws, they often relapse over and over, even though the substance clearly hurts many aspects of their life. 

This dependence isn’t the result of chemically addictive properties inasmuch as chemicals identified in certain substances as inherently creating a physiological need for the substance like the elements of processed tobacco for example; however, dependence commonly yields a similar result. 

Scientists have revealed that the high concentrations of THC in cannabis can overpower our endocannabinoids – naturally occurring cannabinoids within our own bodies – with the effects noticeable both in the brain and body. This is particularly observed in teens and young adults who have used cannabis. The long-term effects of THC on adolescents include stress sensitivity, as well as interference with decision-making.

“Unfortunately we don’t have enough scientific data to fully understand the long-term consequences of cannabis use,” Kirby said.

Is Drug Addiction the Same as Dependence?

Often used interchangeably, there’s a thin line between addiction and dependence, but they are actually different. Drug addiction occurs when a person who uses a substance, such as alcohol or marijuana, and exhibits a compulsory change in behavior marked by consistent use of the substance no matter the impact it has on them. 

Substance dependence, on the other hand, distinctly refers to the state of being physically or psychologically dependent on the substance, regardless of whether they are also addicted to it or not. People who have used a particular substance or medication for a long time often experience physical or mental withdrawal symptoms when they stay away from the substance for a while.

While addiction can have a physical or psychological dimension, or both at the same time, symptoms of dependence are typically a trifecta of cognitive, behavioral and physical. It becomes or at least seems harder to think optimally without the substance. The absence of that substance can be felt physically and can impact how you react to environmental stimuli.

Is Marijuana Addiction Treatable?

Marijuana addiction and dependence are treatable. A medical doctor or psychologist can diagnose the symptoms and prescribe different treatments, such as psychotherapy, medications and drug rehab at a treatment center. Patients can be taught how to live without drugs and alcohol. With the Landmark Recovery approach to addiction treatment — involving a safe space to discuss mental health, medical detox using suboxone for minimal discomfort when coming off drugs, addiction therapy and outpatient rehab — dependence can be corrected.

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