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Marijuana Addiction Facts: Is Marijuana Physically Addictive?

Last Updated: June 21, 2019

Marijuana can be problematic for some users. Despite relatively widespread perceptions that would suggest otherwise, frequent marijuana use is associated with the development of physiological dependence, a distinct withdrawal syndrome, and addiction.

Signs of addiction include using more than intended, neglecting responsibilities in favor of marijuana use, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms.

About 4 million people struggled with marijuana addiction in 2017, and over 200,000 sought treatment for it in 2015.4,11 

Can You Get Addicted to Marijuana?

 The hallmark sign of an addiction is compulsive use despite adverse effects.

Both the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) identify marijuana as an addictive drug.

According to NIDA, marijuana users can develop problematic use, or what’s known as a marijuana use disorder (or marijuana addiction) in severe cases.1

Cannabis use disorder is listed as a diagnosable condition in the DSM-5. The DSM states that people who regularly use the drug may begin to exhibit the same symptoms and problematic behaviors observed with other forms of substance use disorder. Many people with cannabis use disorder do not develop additional substance use disorders. However, some people may also struggle with abuse of alcohol, cocaine, and opioids, among other drugs.2

People with marijuana use disorders often develop significant physical dependence to the drug, meaning that the person’s system comes to rely on the presence of the drug to function normally. When the person stops taking marijuana or reduces the dose, they may experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, trouble sleeping, cravings, loss of appetite, and restlessness.Dependence often develops in conjunction with tolerance, in which the user must use increasing amounts of marijuana to achieve the desired effect or experiences less of an effect if they continue to use the same amount of the drug.2

The presence of tolerance or dependence/withdrawal is not enough to make a diagnosis of marijuana addiction (for instance, not everyone who develops some amount of dependence to marijuana will necessarily begin to compulsively use it). But they are strong indicators that problematic use is already underway—the type of use that could ultimately lead to the development of a substance use disorder.

The hallmark sign of an addiction is compulsive use despite adverse effects. The person finds it difficult to control their use of the drug even though it is causing problems in their life, such as trouble with relationships, work, school, or the law.1

 

myths of drug use and addiction rehab

What Are the Signs of Abuse and Addiction?

In the earliest stages of marijuana use disorder, neither the drug user nor loved ones may recognize that there is a problem. But over time, the person who abuses marijuana may begin to show signs of physical dependence and addiction.

Some signs and symptoms used to make a diagnosis of a marijuana use disorder, or addiction, include:2

  • Using marijuana in greater amounts or over a longer period of time than intended.
  • An inability to control or reduce marijuana use.
  • Spending a large amount of time acquiring marijuana, using it, and recovering from its effects.
  • Cravings to use marijuana.
  • Difficulties meeting responsibilities at work, school, or home due to marijuana use.
  • Continuing to use marijuana even though it is causing social or interpersonal problems.
  • Neglecting social, occupational, or recreational activities in favor of marijuana use.
  • Using marijuana in situations where it is dangerous to do so, such as while driving a car or operating machinery.
  • Continuing to use marijuana even though it is causing physical or psychological problems.
  • Developing tolerance.
  • Developing withdrawal symptoms when use slows or stops.

To meet the criteria for a cannabis use disorder in the DSM, a person must exhibit at least 2 of the above symptoms in a 12-month period.2

Individuals who do become addicted to a drug will give it a high priority in their lives, even though doing so may lead to personal conflicts and an inability to fulfill important obligations. People who have reached this point may find it difficult to quit without seeking professional treatment.

How Many People Are Addicted to Marijuana?

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is one of the most comprehensive and reliable sources of information on patterns of drug use in America. According to the 2017 NSDUH, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the nation.3

The survey also found that:3

  • In the 12+ age group, an estimated 40.9 million Americans had used marijuana in the year prior to the survey (this represents 15% of that population).
  • An estimated 22.1% of young Americans in the 18-25 age group had used marijuana in the past month.
  • Roughly 2.6 million, or 7.6% of young adults in the U.S., reported daily or near-daily use of marijuana.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 30% of marijuana users have some form of marijuana use disorder. The age of initiation into marijuana use can influence the potential for addiction: People who begin using in their teens are 4 to 7 times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than people who begin using as adults.1

In 2017, about 4 million people age 12 and older had a marijuana use disorder in the past year, which is about 1.5% of that population. That percentage was lower than most years between 2002 and 2010, but it was similar to the percentages from 2011 to 2016.4

Legalization and Addiction

Some Americans may perceive the legality of marijuana to mean that this drug is not harmful or addictive.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) places drugs into schedules based on their medical use and potential for abuse. Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, which means that it has no recognized medical value and carries a high risk for abuse and severe dependence.5

The idea that marijuana does not have any legitimate therapeutic value may be surprising to many because several states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes. Additionally, there is some evidence of marijuana’s ability to help people with certain medical issues (e.g., neuropathic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea/vomiting, improving appetite in patients with HIV).6

Marijuana laws vary widely among states.6 As of June 2019, 33 states had legalized marijuana for medical use, 23 states and the District of Columbia had decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, and 11 states and the District of Columbia had legalized it for recreational use. Some states, such as Texas, have not passed any marijuana laws.7,8

Nevertheless, under federal law, marijuana is illegal to prescribe, possess, or sell. State marijuana laws continue to evolve, and the trend points toward more states legalizing the drug for recreational use. Legalization bills are currently advancing in New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Hawaii.9 Whether the drug’s status will change on the federal level remains to be seen.

The variation in laws is a potential source of confusion for the American public. Some Americans may perceive the legality of marijuana, at least in some jurisdictions, to mean that this drug is not harmful or addictive. However, as stated earlier, marijuana can lead to addiction in some users. Marijuana can also lead to short-term and long-term mental and physical health problems for users, including impaired memory and attention, anxiety, impaired coordination, learning problems, sleep problems, risk of bronchitis, and risk of other drug and alcohol disorders.10

The fact that states have legalized marijuana does not mean it is a completely safe drug. Users should be aware of the risks.

Help for Addiction

In 2015, 213,000 people age 12 and older cited marijuana as their primary drug of abuse when they were admitted to drug treatment programs. That makes marijuana one of the most common drugs for which people seek substance abuse treatment.11

If you think you or someone you care about may have a problem with marijuana, contact one of our admissions navigators today for more information about our treatment programs. We treat marijuana addiction as well as other substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Many people struggle with marijuana addiction, and there is no shame in reaching out for help.

Sources

[1]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Is marijuana addictive?

[2]. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

[3]. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health: 2017.

[4]. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

[5]. Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug Scheduling.

[6]. American Cancer Society. Marijuana and Cancer.

[7]. Berke, J. and Gould, S. (2019). Illinois is poised to become the first state to legalize marijuana sales through the legislature—here are all the states where marijuana is legal. Business Insider.

[8]. National Conference of State Legislatures. (2019). Marijuana Overview.

[9]. Angell, T. (2019). Marijuana Legalization Bills Are Advancing in Several States. Forbes.

[10]. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Is there a link between marijuana use and psychiatric disorders?

[11]. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS): 2005-2015.

 

Last Updated on June 21, 2019
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About the editor
Dan Wageneramerican addiction centers photo
Dan Wagener is a Senior Web Content Editor at American Addiction Centers.

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