Marijuana Addiction Facts: Is Marijuana Addictive?
Marijuana (cannabis) can be problematic for some individuals who use it. 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 14.2 million people, aged 12 or older, struggled with marijuana addiction in 2020.1
What Is Marijuana?
Marijuana is a mind-altering substance derived from the flower of the Cannabis sativa plant.2 It is a greenish-gray mixture of dried flowers that goes by several other names, including cannabis, weed, pot, Mary Jane, bud, grass, herb, and ganja.2 In the United States, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance because it has a high potential for misuse, and it does not have an FDA-approved medical use.3
Individuals smoke marijuana in hand-rolled joints or blunts or using pipes or bongs. They may also brew the dried mixture to make tea, or mix it into foods such as gummies, brownies, cookies—referred to as edibles.2
Additionally, cannabis concentrates, made from the microscopic, mushroom-shaped outgrowths that surround the marijuana flower, can have very high levels of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (commonly referred to as THC), the ingredient in marijuana that produces the mind-altering effectss.2,4 These THC-rich marijuana products may be inhaled using vape pens or through a process known as dabbing.3
Although many states have legalized the recreational use of marijuana, it remains illegal at the federal level.5 Despite its illegality, there were approximately 49.6 million people, aged 12 or older, who used marijuana in 2020, making it the most used federally illicit drug.1
Effects of Marijuana
Depending on the route of administration, an individual may experience marijuana’s effects almost immediately as the THC and other chemicals pass from the lungs into the bloodstream and throughout the body and brain. Eating edibles or drinking it as tea will result in feeling its effects within an hour, since it passes first through the digestive system.6
The effects a person feels after using marijuana vary. Some experience feelings of pleasant euphoria, changes in sensory perception, an altered perception of time, and an increased appetite. Others may feel anxious, panicked, or fearful.2,7
Is Marijuana Addictive?
Yes, marijuana can be addictive.8 Although not everyone who uses marijuana becomes addicted to it, it is possible to develop a marijuana addiction or a cannabis use disorder. In 2020, approximately 14.2 million people aged 12 or older met the diagnostic criteria for a cannabis use disorder within the past year.1 It is estimated that 1 in 10 adults who use marijuana will develop a cannabis use disorder, with a higher risk for people who begin using marijuana before the age of 18.5,7 Marijuana accounts for nearly half of admissions into substance use treatment for youth between the ages of 12 to 17.7
An individual who regularly uses marijuana may develop a cannabis use disorder, where cannabis use becomes uncontrollable and begins to impact normal functioning, such as failure to fulfill role responsibilities at home or work, physical dependence, and health problems.9
Cannabis use disorder can range from mild, to moderate, to severe. Severe forms of cannabis use disorder are often referred to as marijuana/cannabis addiction due to compulsive drug use behavior despite the negative impact it has on aspects of an individual’s life, including significant impairment across life domains—like interpersonal relationships, work and/or school performance, and negative effects on psychological and physical health.8,9
Withdrawal symptoms, an indicator of physiological dependence, can occur when an individual who has used cannabis frequently—such as daily or almost daily—abruptly stops using cannabis or significantly reduces their use.9 Withdrawal from marijuana can cause significant discomfort and distress, which may lead the person to return to marijuana use to avoid experiencing withdrawal symptoms.9
Why Is Marijuana Addictive?
Chronic cannabis use is associated with physiological changes in the brain that may contribute to the continued use of marijuana. The main psychoactive ingredient, THC, appears to be responsible for marijuana’s reinforcing properties and a primary contributor to marijuana addiction.10,11 Results from empirical studies have shown that THC stimulates neurons in the reward system to release the signaling chemical (neurotransmitter) dopamine at levels higher than typically observed in response to natural rewarding stimuli. Alterations in dopamine signaling or levels of dopamine are generally associated with other drugs of addiction.10
Signs of Marijuana Abuse and Addiction
Signs that a loved one might be using marijuana may include changes to their overall demeanor—such as being unusually giggly or uncoordinated—finding it hard to remember things that just happened, or finding marijuana-related paraphernalia like pipes, rolling papers, and vape pens in their possessions.7,12
If their use progresses to regular, heavy use and continues for a prolonged period, they may develop cannabis use disorder. While only a healthcare professional can diagnose a cannabis use disorder, some of the diagnostic criteria for a cannabis use disorder includes:9
- An inability to control or reduce marijuana use.
- Spending a large amount of time acquiring marijuana, using it, and recovering from its effects.
- Difficulties meeting responsibilities at work, school, or home due to marijuana use.
- Neglecting social, occupational, or recreational activities in favor of marijuana use.
- Continuing to use marijuana even though it is causing physical or psychological problems.
- Developing withdrawal symptoms when use slows or stops.
People who use marijuana for an extended period and then abruptly decrease their marijuana use or stop completely may experience marijuana withdrawal symptoms, which may include irritability, anxiety, insomnia, cravings, decreased appetite, and disturbing dreams.2,6
Marijuana Addiction Statistics: How Many People Are Addicted?
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 2020 NSDUH, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the nation.1
The survey also found that:1
- In the 12+ age group, an estimated 49.6 million Americans had used marijuana in the year prior to the survey (this represents nearly 18% of that population).
- An estimated 32.8 million Americans aged 12 or older had used marijuana in the past month.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 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.2
In 2020, about 14.2 million people aged 12 and older had a marijuana use disorder in the past year, which is about 5.1% of that population.1 That percentage has increased in recent years.
Help for Addiction
In 2019, 11% of people who received substance use treatment reported marijuana as their primary substance of use.13 Treatment for cannabis and other substance use disorders should be tailored to the individual, easily accessible, and address any co-occurring conditions (including other mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression).14
Some of the available treatment options and settings include:
- Behavioral therapies. Behavioral therapies include cognitive-behavioral therapy, a type of therapy that focuses on learning new strategies to change substance use behaviors, increase self-control, and address co-occurring problems. Other behavioral therapies include contingency management, which involves frequently monitoring behaviors and rewarding positive behaviors like not smoking marijuana, and motivational enhancement therapy, which focuses on increasing an individual’s internal motivation to change and engage in treatment.15
- Pharmacological treatments. There are no FDA-approved medications to treat marijuana addiction. Medications may be prescribed to treat other problems related to marijuana addiction, such as medications for sleep-related problems or co-occurring mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression.15
- Detoxification. Detox is often an important first step for many people who want to stop their substance use. The focus of detox is to help manage an individual’s withdrawal symptoms as the drug is safely eliminated from their body.14
- Outpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment refers to the setting in which different treatment options are delivered, such as behavioral therapies. Outpatient treatment involves meeting regularly with a behavioral health clinician and attending individual and group counseling and therapy sessions, but returning home or to a sober living environment each day.14
- Inpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment requires the individual to live at the facility while in treatment and follow a structured treatment plan that includes behavioral therapies, individual and group counseling, education, and more.14
- Aftercare. Aftercare programs aim to continue care once a person completes formal treatment. Aftercare programs can include a number of different elements and are customized to meet a person’s individual treatment goals. Their primary objective is to reduce the risk of relapse.16
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. Call