Are You Really Addicted to Marijuana? Is Anyone?
More Americans are becoming aware that drug addiction is a disease and not a character flaw, but many continue to find it difficult to believe that marijuana addiction is real. This could be because they experimented with marijuana at one point and didn’t develop a problem, but more Americans than ever are entering treatment for marijuana addiction.
Although smoking marijuana certainly can’t be recommended, there are several misconceptions about its use. While some argue that there is no “safe dosage” of marijuana, no deaths due to a marijuana overdose have ever been substantiated, though it should be noted that risk for death by other causes (car accidents, reckless behavior) increases while intoxicated.1 It’s estimated that you would need to smoke 19 pounds of marijuana in 15 minutes to die from pot, a likely physical impossibility.1 Others have argued that marijuana can cure illnesses. Although it can address symptoms such as nausea, muscle spasticity and a lack of appetite, there is no proof to date that marijuana alone can cure a sickness.2
The most common debate centers around whether marijuana is addictive. Although pot use does not spark a physical addiction, withdrawal symptoms from the substance can definitely be physical.3 And while fewer people are addicted to marijuana than cocaine or alcohol, marijuana addiction is very real.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that 9% of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it, and that number jumps to 17% when use begins at younger ages (notably, teenagers).4
If you factor in marijuana dependence, that number increases to 20%, or 4.2 million users. However, partly because many don’t consider marijuana addiction to be real, they are reluctant to seek treatment for it. The number of people who voluntarily entered treatment for marijuana addiction in 2014 was 138,000, a mere fraction of those addicted to the drug.4
How Does Marijuana Affect the Brain?
THC, the main compound in marijuana, interacts and activates brain proteins called cannabinoid receptors, which are critical in the areas of learning, memory and reward processing. It also causes the brain to release a chemical known as dopamine, which is often associated with positive emotions.6 The increase in dopamine also takes place for those who use heroin and cocaine.
Regular marijuana use starting in adolescence led to an average loss of eight IQ points by mid-adulthood. But for the developing brains of adolescents, this interaction and activation with brain proteins can have adverse effects. A longitudinal study in New Zealand found that regular marijuana use starting in adolescence led to an average loss of eight IQ points by mid-adulthood. Furthermore, those who quit using pot as adults did not recover these IQ points.7
Warning Signs & Withdrawal Symptoms
For those concerned about whether they or a loved one are addicted to marijuana, there are some clear warning signs to look out for. These include an inability to stop smoking pot even after earnest attempts to quit, using marijuana as a means of relaxation or escaping reality, and having your social circle revolve around your pot use. Negative changes in school or job performance, as well as relationships with loved ones, are also warning signs for a potential marijuana addiction.
Just like any drug addiction, withdrawal symptoms are often an inevitable factor when a user stops “cold turkey.” Some of the psychological symptoms include:
- Insomnia and related fatigue.
Physical symptoms include a loss in appetite, shakiness and chronic headaches. Although many of these symptoms don’t warrant medical attention, they typically last for 1-2 weeks. Sleeping problems can last for as long as 30 days and tend to be more severe in adults.3,8
Marijuana Legalization & Public Opinion
Despite some of the documented risks of marijuana use, 23 states and Washington, D.C. allow for medical cannabis use. This legal permission is typically reserved for patients suffering from terminal cancer, AIDS wasting or multiple sclerosis. Several states which don’t allow it have also recently introduced bills to make it legal, while well-known medical professionals and “TV doctors” have also begun to change their stance on it.
“We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States,” said CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “It doesn’t have a high potential for abuse and there are very legitimate medical applications…the science is there. This isn’t anecdotal.”9
There are others who believe the risk for addiction simply isn’t worth the potential benefits. “There isn’t an argument in the world that will change the fact that psychoactive substances produce emotionally crippled adults,” argues Dr. Howard Samuels, author of Alive Again. “We are living in a country where young people everywhere are actively seeking out new and creative ways to self-medicate. These are young people who are at a place where they should be learning how to process their emotions, not sublimate or suppress them.”10
- Australian Government Department of Health. (1994). The health and psychological consequences of cannabis use.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). DrugFacts: Is Marijuana Medicine?
- NIDA for Teens. (2015). Marijuana Withdrawal Is Real.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Is marijuana addictive?
- Healthline. (2014). Marijuana Addiction Is Rare, But Very Real.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). How does marijuana produce its effects?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What are marijuana’s long-term effects on the brain?
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). DrugFacts: Marijuana.
- CNN. (2013). Why I changed my mind on weed.
- Huffington Post. (2013). Legally Blind: Why I’m Against Legalizing Marijuana.