Is marijuana addictive? This question is especially relevant right now, as our society, in general, has shifting views on the use of the drug. Also, marijuana laws are changing rapidly.
While marijuana remains an illegal drug at the federal level in the United States, many states have created laws surrounding its use. States allow it for medical purposes only, and there’s also a significant portion of legal recreational marijuana.
In 2012, Colorado voters approved an initiative legalizing the recreational sale and use of marijuana. Colorado was the first state to do so. Eighteen other states, as well as Washington D.C., have since done the same.
Smoking marijuana is in some ways like alcohol. Even though the stigma surrounding its use is declining, that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful and doesn’t have potentially adverse consequences. No matter the laws or the perception, it’s essential to recognize the reality of the risks of marijuana and what they can entail, including its addictive quality.
How Does Marijuana Cause Addiction?
To explore the answer to “is marijuana addictive,” it’s helpful to have at least a general understanding of how it affects you.
Marijuana can have THC, a psychoactive compound and mood-altering substance. THC is what makes you feel high when you use marijuana. Regions of your brain that affect memory, learning, coordination, appetite, and pleasure have cannabinoid receptors. Those receptors are affected by the use of marijuana.
In the short term, THC alters the function of your hippocampus in your brain, as well as the orbitofrontal cortex. These parts of your brain influence your ability to learn and do complex tasks. There are effects on memory and focus too.
This also happens because marijuana’s impact on cannabinoid receptors affects your brain’s reward system.
The reward system includes brain regions controlling pleasurable actions that are healthy, such as eating and sex. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drugs and alcohol can activate the reward system in unhealthy ways.
As with other drugs of abuse, THC will stimulate the neurons in your reward system. That stimulation then leads to the release of dopamine. The dopamine release occurs at much higher levels than stimuli that are naturally rewarding. As there’s a surge of dopamine in your brain, it’s learning to repeat the activity leading to the reward, giving the drug its addictive properties.
That all means that, yes, marijuana addiction can develop similarly to other types of drug abuse.
Marijuana isn’t necessarily as addictive as some substances of abuse. For example, alcohol and opioids might be more addictive, but that doesn’t mean marijuana doesn’t have addiction potential.
- Around 1 in 10 adults who use marijuana develop an addiction.
- Even more significant risk for addiction exists in young people.
- If you use marijuana before you’re 18, the addiction rates go to 1 in 6.
- If you’re addicted, you may have what’s technically called a cannabis use disorder. Someone with a cannabis use disorder will experience physical, social, or emotional problems because of their marijuana use.
- You may also hear it called a marijuana use disorder. As with other substance use disorders, it can be mild to severe.
According to the National Institutes of Health, cannabis use disorder is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is the gold standard for the diagnosis of psychiatric and addiction disorders.
The Symptoms of Cannabis Addiction
According to the DSM-5, for a diagnosis of a marijuana use disorder, there should be the presence of at least two of the following symptoms.
These symptoms should occur within 12 months, indicating problematic long-term marijuana use.
- Continuation of use, despite adverse effects in your life. For example, you might keep using it even if you have psychological or physical effects you know are related to your usage.
- Creating health problems
- Having intense cravings for marijuana.
- Developing a tolerance and needing more and more for the same effects.
- Having marijuana withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the drug, which is a sign of physical dependence.
- Giving up other activities or interests in your daily life.
- Use more marijuana than you intend or use it for a more extended period than you initially intended.
- Dangerous use, such as using marijuana and then driving.
- Impacts on other priorities such as work or school, social life, or your family life. You might have a decline in school performance, for example.
- You spend a significant amount of time getting the drug, using it, and recovering from the effects.
- You’ve tried unsuccessfully to reduce your use or stop.
Marijuana Use and the Young Brain
As mentioned above, young marijuana users are at the highest risk of developing a substance use disorder involving marijuana.
- Marijuana addiction also puts young people at risk of permanent brain damage. Marijuana affects many areas of the brain.
- Sometimes when those effects occur on the developing brain of a young person, they may not be reversible, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
- Our brains are in a state of development until we reach our early 20s. During this time, we’re particularly susceptible to environmental influences, including substance use.
- The earlier someone begins their abuse of marijuana; the more detrimental the effects of cannabis are likely to be on their brain. For example, currently available data suggest vocabulary and information measures of what’s known as crystallized intelligence are lower in young people who use marijuana. Crystalized intelligence is a measure of the knowledge you gain through learning or experience.
What Determines Whether You Develop Marijuana Dependence?
Some people can use recreationally and never develop symptoms of addiction. For other drug users, using addictive drugs just a few times can lead to problematic patterns. As with different types of addiction, there isn’t one particular risk factor relevant to marijuana use disorders.
There are often multiple risk factors playing a role.
- Genetics is a strong predictor for the development of addiction, based on what we know from the National Institute On Drug Abuse.
- Mental health is another risk factor when it comes to addictive substances. It’s relatively common for people with an addiction to drugs or alcohol to have a co-occurring mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression. You may use marijuana to self-medicate the symptoms of a psychiatric disorder, for example. You have underlying mental health issues that can also make you more prone to developing an addiction.
- The issue of marijuana potency is something that we talk about more now too. The more potent marijuana is, the more it affects your brain, especially if you’re under the age of 25. The drug is getting more robust based on marijuana samples.
What Can You Do?
Is marijuana addictive? Yes.
How does marijuana cause addiction? It’s a complex effect that occurs on your brain and primarily your brain’s reward system that leads to the addictive nature of marijuana. Marijuana can also lead to withdrawal symptoms similar to other illicit drugs as well as alcohol.
If you feel like marijuana use is problematic in your life, what can you do?
The most important thing is being honest with yourself and potentially your loved ones about what you’re experiencing. Again, because the stigma of marijuana is gradually reducing, we may think that it’s perfectly fine to use it. The reality is that it can have very real negative consequences.
Once you’ve recognized the symptoms of a marijuana use disorder in yourself, treatment programs and support groups are available to help with your dependence. We encourage you to call 855-953-1345 and talk to a care coordinator at Silicon Valley Recovery to learn more about marijuana addiction and how you can explore treatment options like marijuana detox to improve your quality of life.