A clear majority of Americans – 69%, according to a 2014 Pew Research study – believe that alcohol is more detrimental to a person’s health than marijuana. A 2010 survey of more than 2,000 college students done by researchers at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, in Atlanta, found that most of the students thought marijuana was least harmful to health compared to tobacco products, hookah and electronic cigarettes; they also largely believed pot was among the least addictive of these products.
These are just two examples indicating that, as drugs go, marijuana continues to enjoy a fairly benign reputation. The reasons why are, no surprise, complex. But there’s little question that this is partly because marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the U.S., and many people are able to use it casually without becoming hooked. Some experts also point to the growing trend of legalization and decriminalization across the country; greater acceptance may lead to more relaxed views about the drug.
But the ubiquity of marijuana and the changing legal landscape don’t change the facts when it comes to addiction. The perception that pot is completely safe to use – with little risk of addiction – may be fairly common, but it’s also flawed, say addiction experts. “Some studies have shown that as many as 33% of users may go on to develop a diagnosable addiction, especially with strains of marijuana that have a higher content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active ingredient in marijuana,” explains Michael Weaver, MD, medical director of the Center for Neurobehavioral Research on Addiction at the University of Texas Health Science Center, in Houston.
Telltale Signs of Marijuana Addiction
While it’s true that marijuana is not as addictive as, say, tobacco, some people do lose control over their use, leading to increased use and higher tolerance to the drug. This means they will need to use more and more of the drug to get the same effect. What’s more, “withdrawal symptoms – including irritability, restlessness, appetite disturbances or sleep problems – can happen when heavy marijuana users quit,” explains Patrick Fehling, MD, an addiction psychiatrist in Denver.
Tolerance and withdrawal – both signs of addiction – make quitting the drug more difficult, of course. “Regular use can also lead to psychological dependence, which means that if you don’t use marijuana, you don’t feel ‘normal,’” Dr. Weaver adds. Dependence may lead people to “do things they might not otherwise do to be able to keep using marijuana,” he explains. These out-of-character behaviors can include:
- Spending reckless amounts of money on the drug
- Ditching work, school, or family responsibilities to get high
- Using the drug in dangerous situations such as while driving
“These risky behaviors and their consequences — and continuing to use [the drug] despite those consequences — are also signs of addiction,” Weaver notes.
Who’s Vulnerable and Why
As with other types of addiction, some people are more likely than others to become dependent on marijuana. This may be partly because they have a genetic predisposition toward addiction to this drug; still others are more susceptible because they have poor coping skills and come to rely on the drug to achieve an altered state of mind. In addition, people with certain mental-health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, are at a higher risk of developing a dependency. A recent study from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, found that teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) whose symptoms of inattention worsened over time had higher levels of marijuana use in early adulthood. And those who abuse other drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs, are also more vulnerable, Weaver says.
In any case, the risk of marijuana addiction is very real for adults and teenagers alike. “Adults who try marijuana have a 9% chance of meeting the criteria for cannabis use disorder at some point,” Dr. Fehling says. “Teens who try marijuana have double that risk — or an 18% chance — of developing the addiction.”