Marijuana has been in the news a lot in the last few years, with a number of states approving it for medical use and a couple of them making it legal for recreational use as well. For some people, this growing legal approval of the drug may make it seem that marijuana is safe and has no abuse potential or health risks. In fact, some people even claim that marijuana, because it is a natural substance, is not addictive.
Whatever a person’s opinion about the need for legal marijuana, there are some facts regarding its behaviors in and effects on the human body and brain that people should be aware of. Most importantly, the idea that marijuana is not addictive is a myth. As described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), marijuana can be abused; in severe cases, this abuse can lead to addiction.
Information about Marijuana
The website Drugs.com explains that marijuana is derived from the leaves, stems, flowers, and seeds of a plant, Cannabis sativa. Most often, the drug is used by smoking the dried parts of the plant. However, the plant’s oils and resins may also be extracted for use, creating specific drug forms like hashish and hash oil. Sinsemilla is a highly concentrated form of marijuana made from female plants that are prevented from seeding, leading to high levels of the psychoactive element of the cannabis plant.
This psychoactive element of marijuana is a chemical called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It acts on receptors in the brain called cannabinoid receptors, which influence memory, focus and coordination, pleasure, and sensory perception, as well as the perception of time passing. The resulting high can include euphoria and perceptual shifts that can induce mild hallucination.
People Who Abuse Marijuana
Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the US, according to NIDA. As a result, people from all areas of life may use this drug. It is particularly known as an entry drug for younger people; many people with less experience do not consider use of marijuana to be risky. However, it is possible to abuse marijuana, which can lead to dependence and addiction, with a number of potential, detrimental health effects.
A study from the journal Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology demonstrates that about 9 percent of people who abuse marijuana will become addicted to it. This means that these individuals will continue using the drug even if it has negative effects on multiple areas of their lives. More than that, however – potentially more than 20 percent – may become dependent on the drug, meaning that if those individuals try to stop using the drug, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.
How Marijuana Abuse Starts
As stated earlier, marijuana use often begins in young people, and this is highly likely to lead to problem use and addiction. In fact, a study from Drug and Alcohol Dependence indicates that people who start to use marijuana before the age of 18 are 4-7 times more likely to develop problematic use of the drug.
This use often starts simply as social pressure from peers to use the drug. If marijuana is used regularly, the brain may build up tolerance to THC, resulting in the person using more of the drug or using it more often to produce the same level of high. This is often also why marijuana is referred to as a “gateway” drug; if tolerance develops and the person no longer feels an adequate high from using it, that individual may try stronger drugs to achieve a bigger high.
However, dependence, addiction, and potential use of other drugs are only some of the risks of continued marijuana use.
Risks of Marijuana Abuse
Marijuana abuse or addiction can lead to a number of potentially negative mental and physical effects, as described by NIDA. These may include:
- Breathing problems
- Heart and circulatory issues, including increased risk of heart attack
- Lack of concentration
- Decreased cognitive abilities
People who use marijuana also tend to report:
- Lower life satisfaction
- Poor mental and physical health
- Problems in relationships
Continued abuse of marijuana can also lead to disruptions in a person’s work or school life. Pregnant women who use marijuana may cause problems for the developing fetus, and some problems in child development after birth can be tied back to the mother having used marijuana during pregnancy.
Signs and Symptoms of Marijuana Abuse
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders lists signs that a person may have a substance abuse problem; these include:
- Lack of ability to control the amount or frequency of substance use
- Cravings for the substance
- Relationship problems due to substance use
- Neglect of or inability to keep up with responsibilities at work, school, or home
- Loss of interest in other activities
- Use of the substance in risky situations
- Inability to stop using the substance even when it has negative consequences
In addition to these signs of a substance abuse problem, NIDA lists a number of signs and symptoms that may indicate a person is using marijuana:
- Memory problems
- Bloodshot eyes
- Lack of focus or memory loss
- Increased desire for junk food or snacking
In combination, the above signs and symptoms may indicate that the individual has a marijuana use disorder, up to and including addiction.
How to Detox from Marijuana
According to Marijuana Anonymous, the perception or belief that quitting marijuana does not result in withdrawal symptoms is not true. In fact, for those who have become dependent on or addicted to the drug, withdrawal symptoms do happen. They include:
- Upset stomach and digestive issues
- Lack of appetite
- Muscle aches and headache
However, for the most part, these symptoms produce only mild discomfort. For this reason, medical detox is not usually warranted. Nevertheless, an addiction specialist or medical professional can offer good advice throughout the detox process about ways to ease these symptoms, which can also help to reduce cravings for the drug.
Treatment Requirements and Options
To treat individuals who wish to stop using marijuana, a number of therapies are helpful. Research, such as a study from The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, indicates that medications are not effective in supporting recovery from marijuana abuse. However, in some instances, medications may be used to address specific symptoms of withdrawal, such as antidepressants to ease sadness and mood fluctuations.
Behavioral therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, can help an individual who is motivated to stop using marijuana by teaching abstinence skills and alternative coping behaviors. Research-based rehab centers use these and other types of therapy to help the individual learn to manage cravings, avoid triggers, and maintain abstinence for the long-term. Seeking help from these types of programs is the first step on a path that is likely to lead to positive results in treatment and recovery. With the right help, the person who is struggling with marijuana abuse can move forward into an abstinent, healthier, and more satisfying life.