When people use marijuana recreationally, they could find themselves among the users who can pick it up and put it down whenever they want. Or, they could become chronic users and fall into the nine percent of people who develop marijuana dependence with regular use, a figure that rises to 17 percent if use starts in the teen years, data show. While the number of people who become addicted is small, the risks are there every time the drug is used.
Marijuana remains the most commonly used and abused illegal drug in the United States among teens and adults. Its legalization in some parts of the country and growing social acceptance can make it difficult to determine when use has become a marijuana addiction.
Despite the public’s perception that regular marijuana is not as harmful as other drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and even alcohol, it is still a Schedule I drug in the U.S., which means it has no accepted medical use and has high potential for abuse. Abusing it can lead to cannabis use disorder, as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5), which can, in turn, lead to addiction.
Marijuana is a leafy green and brown mixture of dried leaves, flowers, stems, and seeds of the hemp plant Cannabis sativa or the Cannabis indica plant. People commonly smoke, eat, drink, or inhale it. While marijuana contains more than 500 chemicals, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is believed to be the main ingredient responsible for the drug’s mind-altering effects on the brain. Once consumed, the user feels marijuana’s effects within minutes, and highs tend to peak after a half hour. Highs; however, can last anywhere from an hour to a few hours.
As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, when marijuana is smoked or vaporized, THC quickly passes from the lungs and into the bloodstream, which carries it to the body’s organs, including the brain. Once THC enters the brain, it attaches to the cannabinoid receptors of nerve cells that control learning and memory, movement, coordination, and judgment. THC also stimulates neurons in the brain’s reward system that release dopamine at higher levels.
Immediate effects of marijuana use include euphoria, relaxation, and detachment. Heightened sensory perception, an altered perception of time, and a hearty appetite are other effects. Pot smokers also can experience not-so-pleasant effects, such as mood changes, anxiety, paranoia, distrust, fear, and panic. When the drug enters the body via foods or beverages, its effects take longer to appear, because it must be processed through the digestive system first.
The presence of THC can be traced up to three days after marijuana was last used. If used moderately (four times a week) or heavily (every day), it can stay in the body anywhere from five to 10 days. Evidence of chronic heavy use can remain in the body for a month.
Marijuana’s other physical effects include:
Researchers do not yet fully know how high concentrations of THC affect the body and brain, but there are symptoms that signal when a chemical dependence has developed.
Marijuana is also called pot, weed, herb, hash, grass, bud, ganja, Mary Jane, MJ, reefer, and other names. It should be noted that “synthetic marijuana” and “fake weed” are not the same thing as marijuana. Those slang terms refer to Spice or K2, which is a mixture of shredded plant material that is sprayed with harmful, mind-altering chemicals. The drug has no medicinal benefit and is used recreationally.
While it affects the same areas of the brain as marijuana does, the drug is more powerful than traditional weed because of the manmade chemicals in it. K2’s effects are unpredictable and can be life-threatening.
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When people find it difficult to stop using marijuana despite how such use is affecting their lives, a psychological dependence has developed. Here are common signs and symptoms that indicate marijuana addiction is underway:
Not everyone who tries or uses marijuana at least once will become addicted to it. This is the case with alcohol as well. One drink or drinking occasionally does not mean someone has an alcohol problem. Many people believe marijuana isn’t addictive, but the opposite is true. Marijuana is an addictive substance. Many regular users may find it a challenge to get through the day or the week without, which means they likely have a marijuana addiction.
According to Governing.com, 38 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws that broadly legalize marijuana in some form. There’s no doubt that marijuana’s legality may contribute to the perception that marijuana isn’t as addictive as other drugs. However, marijuana legalization, or the controversy surrounding the drug, does not change that the substance is addictive.
According to NIDA, “Marijuana dependence occurs when the brain adapts to large amounts of the drug by reducing production of and sensitivity to its own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters.”
Some people think because marijuana withdrawal symptoms are milder than those of other substances, such as alcohol or heroin, that addiction to marijuana isn’t possible. But that’s not true.
As Dale Archer, M.D, writes in his Psychology Today article, “The bottom line is this: As with everything, moderation is key. Anything can be abused, and everything should be respected. If you have become dependent on marijuana and have tried to stop but failed, even with the threat of going to jail or losing your family, friends or career then yes, I think it’s safe to say you have an addiction.”
One sure way to know if marijuana addiction could be or is the case is the presence of withdrawal symptoms when one isn’t using the drug. If you find that you can’t stop using marijuana or feel different when you do stop your use of it, you may have a marijuana dependence that requires professional help at a licensed treatment center.
Marijuana users may feel mild withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the drug. Symptoms include irritability, sleepiness, appetite loss, weight loss, anxiety, and drug cravings. Some people may seek treatment at a drug rehab to end their dependence.
There are no medications available to treat marijuana addiction or marijuana withdrawal. However, behavioral therapies may work. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, can help recovering marijuana users learn and apply skills and coping strategies that can help them identify and correct problematic behaviors that contribute to their drug use. Behavioral support such as this can be effective, NIDA says.
Researchers continue to explore the dangers of chronic marijuana use and abuse, but studies do offer evidence that constant use can be problematic.
When marijuana enters the body, it affects nearly all of the organs, immune system, and nervous system.
According to WebMD, smoking marijuana can speed up the heart rate twice as much for up to three hours. When this happens, the risk of having a heart attack increases. Marijuana use also can increase bleeding, reduce blood pressure, and affect a person’s blood sugar, and lungs as well.
The amount of THC found in marijuana has increased in recent years, the medical site reports, making the drug more potent—and perhaps more harmful to one’s health—than before.
“Most leaves used to contain between one percent and four percent THC. Now, most have closer to seven percent,” according to the website. The increase in THC has some experts concerned that higher amounts of the chemical could make marijuana more addictive and enhance its psychoactive effects.
Marijuana use can worsen health problems such as low blood pressure and diabetes, among others, and over time, it can contribute to the worsening of mental health disorders.
“The biggest risk related to the use of marijuana is the increased risk of psychosis,” said Dr. Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, told Live Science for its report, “7 Ways Marijuana May Affect the Brain.”
WebMD explains on its site, “Research shows a link between marijuana use and mental health problems like depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, short-term psychosis, and schizophrenia. While it’s not clear if marijuana causes these conditions, it can make them worse.”
Marijuana-impaired users who have ingested large doses of the drug are at risk of experiencing hallucinations and delusions, a condition known as acute psychosis. This means they have lost touch with the world and may act strangely in reaction to seeing things that aren’t there or smell things that aren’t there. This can be especially dangerous when driving, operating machinery, or supervising children.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, February). Marijuana. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive
Scarola, Cory. (2017, April 20). More Americans Than Ever Support Legalizing Marijuana. from https://www.inverse.com/article/30579-more-americans-support-legal-weed-than-ever
Genen, Lawrence, MD. (2017, March 23). Cannabis-Related Disorders Clinical Presentation. from https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/286661-clinical
Blaszczak-Boxe, Agata. (2016, July 1). 7 Ways Marijuana May Affect the Brain. from https://www.livescience.com/55258-how-marijuana-affects-the-brain.html