Is Marijuana Addictive?

Regular marijuana users are known to develop tolerance, dependence, and experience signs of withdrawal when they stop taking the drug. Many marijuana users develop compulsive patterns of problematic use—finding it difficult to stop using the drug, even when they want to do so. All of these features are hallmarks of addictive drugs.

The addictiveness of a drug is characterized by a compulsive drive to seek out and continue using the substance despite harm caused by the drug to the user’s health, relationships, financial well-being, or other areas of life. Many drugs of abuse have a restricted status under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1990. Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug, which means that it has no recognized medicinal value while at the same time carries a high risk of abuse.

The idea that marijuana does not have any legitimate therapeutic value may be surprising to many because several states have legalized marijuana for medicinal or even recreational purposes. Additionally, there is some case report evidence and numerous personal/anecdotal accounts of marijuana’s utility in helping people with certain medical issues such as cancer (e.g., cancer-related pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea/vomiting). In order to reconcile the Schedule I classification with the different public views on marijuana, it is necessary to understand that this drug is highly politicized. Under federal law, marijuana is illegal to produce, distribute, or consume; however, different states have different laws on marijuana.

Marijuana laws continue to evolve but, as of the start of 2019, 33 states (plus Guam and Washington, D.C.) had laws in place that had at least partially legalized certain aspects of cultivation, distribution, and consumption of marijuana. States have taken different approaches to marijuana laws; some states have opted for decriminalization, whereas others restrict marijuana to use for medical purposes (e.g., New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, and others). The most permissive states have legalized recreational use of marijuana (these states include Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, and others). Some states, such as Texas, have not passed new marijuana laws, which means that federal laws prevail, and marijuana is therefore illegal.

The variations 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 addictive. This is not true, as marijuana can lead to addiction in some users.

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The Prevalence of Marijuana Use

Silver Afghan Medicinal Medical MarijuanaMarijuana has many street names, but “cannabis” comes closest to the botanical name of the plant source (Cannabis sativa) from which the primary psychoactive substances in marijuana and marijuana-related products are derived. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, the main psychoactive component in marijuana is THC (delta-9-tetrahydro-cannabinol). The cannabis plant produces THC, which can be found in the plant’s leaves and buds.

THC mimics a naturally occurring chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) called anandamide. Both THC and anandamide are classified as cannabinoids. THC, like anandamide, binds with the brain’s cannabinoid receptors. This complex of receptors is involved in activities such as short-term memory, learning, and coordination. THC’s interaction with the endocannabinoid system results in the intoxicating effects associated with marijuana use, as well as certain side effects like dulling of mental abilities and memory recall.

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. Despite the fact that marijuana remains illegal in many jurisdictions, according to the 2017 NSDUH, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the nation.

The following provides statistical insight into marijuana use in the US:

  • In the 12+ age group, an estimated 40.9 million Americans had used marijuana in the year prior to the survey (this represents 15 percent of the population).
  • Individuals who use marijuana may be more likely to use other drugs as well. In fact, the 2013 NSDUH results indicated that 80.6 percent of current illicit drug users consumed marijuana in combination with other drugs of abuse.
  • An estimated 22.1 percent of young Americans in the 18-25 age group had used marijuana in the past month.
  • Roughly 2.6 million, or 7.6 percent of young adults in the US report daily or near-daily use of marijuana.
Smoking marijuanaNational surveys like these make clear that there is little likelihood marijuana use will cease in America. Not only is marijuana use prevalent, but it also manages to recruit an estimated 6,600 new users each day. The lack of a unified legal view on marijuana as well as its common usage may be used as a defense among illicit users. It is important, however, to understand the biological nature of marijuana and the potential harms associated with problematic use.

Despite this drug’s controversial politics and widespread popularity, it is important to keep in mind that marijuana is a drug with addiction potential.

Marijuana’s Addictiveness

Marijuana Macro Two indicators of what’s known as a substance use disorder are tolerance and dependence/withdrawal—both are factors to consider in association with marijuana use. Over time, individuals who consume a drug will typically need more of it to achieve the desired effects (this is known as building a physical tolerance). As use continues and, perhaps, increases (in an attempt to overcome tolerance) over time, physiological dependence will additionally take hold. At this point, when the drug use ceases, or the familiar amount is significantly reduced, regular users of drugs, including marijuana, will likely experience withdrawal symptoms.

Though the presence of tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal on their own 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), together they are strong indicators of the type of problematic use that could ultimately lead to the development of a substance use disorder.

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 successfully fulfill important obligations. People who have reached this point may find it difficult to quit without seeking professional treatment.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 9 percent of marijuana users will become dependent on this drug. The age of initiation into marijuana use is relevant to the potential for addiction. Approximately 17 percent of individuals who began using marijuana in their teens will become dependent. If marijuana use occurs on a daily basis, the likelihood of forming a dependency increases to 25-50 percent. To place marijuana dependence in the context of other drugs, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, of the 6.9 million Americans who abused illicit drugs or were dependent on them, 4.2 million were marijuana users.

Signs of Abuse and Addiction

A reality of American life is that many adolescents, young adults, and older adults experiment with illicit drugs. While occasional use of marijuana may not lead to compulsive misuse, it is still a hazardous activity because of marijuana’s addiction potential or the association of marijuana use with incidental harms, such as drugged driving or being arrested for other substance-related criminal activities. In the earliest stages, neither the drug user nor loved ones may recognize that there is a problem developing. But over time, the person who abuses marijuana may begin to show signs of physical dependence and addiction. Physical signs of marijuana use can occur immediately after use and include:

  • Dizziness.
  • Unprompted laughing (i.e., the giggles).
  • Bloodshot eyes.
  • Forgetfulness of recent events.
  • Increased appetite or eating more than usual.

The physical signs of marijuana use alone may not indicate that addiction has developed. The presence of a withdrawal syndrome, though it is often mild, is an indication of physical dependence, however.

Withdrawal symptoms may include bad mood, nervousness, problems sleeping, and cravings for marijuana. Although these symptoms may have a lack of medical urgency, they should not be ignored, as for some people they could serve as the impetus for continued use turned compulsive use and, eventually, a marijuana use disorder or addiction.

People with a marijuana use disorder may continue to use it in spite of personal, family, work, and/or school problems. These people may socialize around this drug and decline the company of others who forbid its use. In other words, using marijuana becomes the most important part of the person’s social life.

Denial of the extent of the marijuana use may occur as a way to protect the ongoing use. Individuals who are addicted to marijuana will not want anyone to interfere with their continued ability to obtain and use the drug, which have become their main priorities.

At this point, loved ones will likely notice the changes and may want to think about next steps, such as helping the person to get into treatment.

Last Updated on May 13, 2019
About the editor
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Kristina Ackermann, B.A., is a professional writer and editor. Her professional experience includes evidence-based research for peer-reviewed medical journals, with an emphasis in prehospital care.

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