While the wave of sentiment favoring legalization of marijuana may be growing across the U.S., and several states have made recreational use of the drug legal, from the point of view of the federal government both possession and use of marijuana are still illegal.
And in spite of a widespread perception to the contrary, marijuana is an addictive drug.
Marijuana Addiction 101
As a Schedule I controlled substance under the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a federal agency, marijuana has a high potential for abuse. It can create severe psychological and/or physical dependence and in terms of federal law it has no currently approved medical use.
That said, as of June 2015, 23 states and the District of Columbia had put into place laws legalizing marijuana in some form. Four states — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — plus the District of Columbia have legalized the recreational use of marijuana in addition to marijuana for medical purposes. Medical use of marijuana has been made legal in 19 other states; these states do not permit legal use of pot in any other form.
Marijuana is the most commonly used drug of abuse in America. In 2013, there were 19.8 million current users of the drug and 5.7 million Americans 12 or older used pot daily, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The report also found that 4.2 million people are dependent on or abuse marijuana. As reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an estimated 9% of marijuana users will eventually become dependent on or addicted to the drug. That number rises to about 19% in those who start using pot young (as teenagers) and the rate of dependence or addiction is 25% to 50% among daily users.
According to the 2014 “Monitoring the Future” survey (MTF), over the previous five years past-year use of marijuana increased to nearly 26%, up from 21.5% in 2009. Daily use of marijuana in teens in 2013 was 3.9%. That’s on par with the highest recorded use of the substance in the 22 years of MTF monitoring.
Smoking marijuana can lead to addiction. Scientists have found that over time marijuana use changes the brain in ways that are likely to result in addiction for chronic users of the drug. This is due, says NIDA, to pot’s “overstimulation of the endocannabinoid system” in the brain. An estimated 9% of marijuana users will eventually become addicted to cannabis.
The primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — called delta-9-tetrohydra-cannabinol, and commonly referred to as THC — is much more potent in today’s strains of marijuana than the THC from a few decades ago. And new methods of pot use, including hash oil and dabbing, deliver even higher levels of THC to the user. The potency of pot can range from 50% to over 80%, cautions NIDA. This is of greatest concern to the young, as the brains of adolescents aren’t fully developed and researchers still don’t know how much damage long-term pot use can cause on the developing adolescent brain.
For more on the causes of drug addiction, including marijuana addiction, visit the Drug Addiction 101 section.
Symptoms of Marijuana Addiction
It’s easy to make jokes about the tell-tale signs of “potheads” and “stoners,” but as with all types of addiction, some addicts are able to hide their use and seem to be able to function mostly normally for a long time before the drug causes serious negative effects. So the truth is that there’s a range of symptoms of marijuana addiction depending on the individual.
In addition to a lack of concentration and coordination, forgetfulness, increased appetite, rapid talking, bursts of laughter, becoming sleepy (a later stage of intoxication), a distorted sense of time, marijuana smell on clothing and the person and the presence of pot paraphernalia (pipes, bongs, roach clips, rolling paper, etc.), the person who progresses to a full-blown marijuana addiction (what’s called cannabis use disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5) will display the following signs:
- Tolerance – the user will require more of the drug, more often, to achieve the desired effect (“high”)
- Taking marijuana in larger amounts or for a longer period of time than the user initially intended
- Withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop (including irritability, anxiety, depressed mood, changes in sleeping and eating, restlessness, chills, fever, headache, shakiness, abdominal pain and sweating)
- Obsessive desire to use marijuana and/or trouble trying to decrease or quit
- Spending a great deal of time trying to score marijuana, using marijuana and/or recovering from the effects of marijuana use
- Not seeing friends or doing activities formerly considered enjoyable in order to use marijuana
- Continuing to use marijuana despite experiencing physical or psychological problems due to the drug
Experiencing at least three of the symptoms above during a one-year period may signal marijuana addiction. A proper diagnosis can only be made by a qualified medical professional, so if you suspect that you or someone you love is addicted to marijuana, seek help immediately.
As with other drugs of abuse, there are multiple risk factors associated with starting to smoke pot, continuing to use it and going on to abuse this drug, possibly resulting in a dependence on or addiction to marijuana.
Using the drug as a teenager is particularly dangerous due to the ways pot changes the brain. NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow says that use by teens is of great concern because “the cannabinoid receptors [in the brain] that are stimulated by this drug are intimately involved with the development and connectivity of the brain.” Use, she says, could result in damaging changes to how pot users’ brains work once they reach adulthood. It’s also worth noting that marijuana is the primary drug for which adolescents seek addiction treatment.
NIDA lists the following as risk factors for any type of addiction, including marijuana:
- Home/family difficulties
- Mental health issues or conditions (such as ADHD, depression and anxiety)
- Difficulties at work, school and/or with making friends
- Associating with those who use drugs
- Starting drug use early (in adolescence or even before)
- Family history pertaining to drug or alcohol abuse
Overcoming addiction to marijuana is possible. Just as professional treatment can help those addicted to other substances, including alcohol, prescription painkillers, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and other drugs, treatment for marijuana addiction can help you not just begin the road to recovery but give you the tools to stay sober for the rest of your life.
The preliminary stage of treatment for marijuana addiction focuses on ridding the body of the drug. This process is called detoxification, or “detox.” When you’re withdrawing from pot you may experience anxiety, appetite changes, cramps, depression, insomnia, headaches, mood swings, irritability, dizziness, nausea and sweating.
Detoxification from any drug, including pot, should be monitored by a medical professional. If you decide to participate in residential treatment (rehab), your health care providers will do what they can to make you as comfortable as possible so you can safely complete the detoxification process and go on to the next phase of treatment.
Many people with an addiction choose inpatient, or residential, treatment to get the help they need to overcome dependence on a substance. Stays typically range from 30 days to 60 days, though much depends on the severity of the addiction and whether or not you’re dealing with another addiction (substance or behavioral) as well as a mental health disorder like depression, borderline personality disorder, anxiety and ADHD, among others. While you’re in residential treatment you’ll learn about the disease of addiction and develop strategies and coping skills designed to help you live without the crutch of drugs.
For those who cannot be away for the length of time required for inpatient treatment for marijuana addiction, outpatient treatment programs — during which you attend treatment during the day but sleep at home or somewhere other than a rehab facility — may offer the best way to get the help you need while still allowing you to attend school or go to work and/or tend to other obligations you may have.
There are no currently approved FDA-approved medications for the treatment of marijuana addiction, although there is a lot of research underway to find a safe, effective medication.
According to the NIDA, these drugs show promise:
- Buspirone (brand name: Buspar), an anti-anxiety medication
- Gabapentin (brand name: Neurotin), an anti-anxiety medication
- Zolpidem (brand name: Ambien), a sleep aid
Various forms of behavioral treatment therapy (psychotherapy) may prove helpful in overcoming a dependence on marijuana. These include:
- Motivational enhancement therapy
Self-help Support Groups
As with addiction to other drugs of abuse, participation in 12-step or self-help groups is often considered an integral part of maintaining long-term recovery. By interacting with others who are committed to remaining sober , your may find the support you need to ensure your recovery has a greater chance of success:
Sources: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5); Drug Enforcement Administration; Governing the States and Localities; Marijuana Anonymous; “Monitoring the Future”; National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists; National Center for Biotechnology Information; National Institute on Drug Abuse