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Is Weed Addictive? Marijuana Use, Abuse, and Addiction

Marijuana addiction

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Marijuana—also called cannabis and weed—is the most commonly abused drug in the United States. Marijuana use is both recreational and medicinal. However, the legality of medicinal and recreational marijuana varies by state. Anyone considering using the drug needs to fully understand the risks, including marijuana addiction and marijuana’s effect on the body.

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Table of Contents

What Is Marijuana

Marijuana is a drug made from the cannabis plant. There are several different drugs which can be created from this plant. When made from the dried flowers, it is called pot (or one of the many other common weed names). The drug acts on the body by interacting with the cannabinoid receptors. Is marijuana a depressant? Yes, it depresses the central nervous system, which also enables addiction.
The standard marijuana definition does not include other drugs that can be made from the plant, such as hashish made from the resin. Depending on how the plant is processed and consumed, it can have a psychoactive effect on the individual using it–for example, CBD pills may have zero psychoactive effects while dabbing can have significant ones (see: signs of dabbing pot). This mind-altering reaction is caused by delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol—or THC. There are more than 500 chemicals in marijuana, approximately 100 of which are cannabinoids; it is unknown how many of these chemicals can contribute to addiction.
dried marijuana buds in a jarWhile most people understand that weed can cause a high in the person using it, as well as produce other effects that may or may not be positive in nature, few understand how cannabis causes these reactions. Marijuana symptoms are primarily caused by the way THC acts on the central nervous system. Because the chemical structure of THC closely mimics naturally occurring chemicals in the body—such as anandamide—the central nervous system is designed to receive THC with ease, leading to altered brain communication from the chemical messages sent between neurons.
The area where this reception of THC molecules occurs are the cannabinoid receptors located within neurons. When the THC attaches to these receptors, it activates them. Because the endocannabinoid system is crucial to the proper functioning of the nervous system, this action from THC causes profound effects, ranging from relaxation to hallucinations in the short-term and from impaired function to addiction in the long-term. Marijuana’s effect on the brain is powerful, and oftentimes in a negative way.

The History of Marijuana in the US

The history of marijuana in the U.S. is a complicated one. When was marijuana discovered? Outside the U.S., the oldest known record of cannabis cultivation dates back to 2727 B.C. Within the U.S., its use dates back to the colonial era. Use of weed as a drug began in the 19th century, during which time it was marketed as medicine, though advertisements tended to focus on recreational effects.
Use of the drug was unchecked until the early 20th century. The first legislation regulating weed came in 1906—the Pure Food and Drug Act. However, this law simply required companies to disclose the inclusion of cannabis in their products to customers. After the Mexican Revolution in 1910, large numbers of Mexican immigrants moved to the United States, bringing their approach to cannabis use with them. Rather than consuming it in drinks and tinctures, these immigrants tended to smoke the drug. Due to anti-Mexican sentiment, cannabis became seen as something dirty and even dangerous, leading states to begin prohibiting the cannabis plant starting in 1914.
At the federal level, use of cannabis—at least for medical purposes—remained legal until 1970. This is when the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act—now called Federal Controlled Substance Act—was passed. This law created the drug schedule system, where Schedule I drugs are considered the most dangerous in terms of addiction and death and are believed to be without a legitimate medical application, making them illegal across the board. Cannabis was classed as a Schedule I drug, and this has not changed in the decades since. This is perhaps the most significant event in the history of marijuana in the U.S.
The history of medical marijuana in the post-prohibition cannabis leaves and cbd medical oilera started in California in the early 1990s. At that time, the state legislature began considering medical cannabis laws, even passing bills legalizing its use. However, the governor vetoed them, preventing them from becoming law. Seeking to get around the governor’s veto power, activists worked to get a proposition on the ballot. In 1996, they succeeded, passing the Compassionate Use Act with 56 percent of California voters giving their approval.
Since then, numerous other states have enacted medical cannabis laws either through legislation or popular vote. Medical use is now legal in 33 states plus the District of Columbia, while recreational is legal in 10 states plus the District of Columbia. While there is a clear movement towards legalization, there are also many fighting against it, concerned that open access to cannabis could lead to marijuana use disorder and addiction. There is also a concern about marijuana abuse amongst teens. However, under even the most liberal laws currently in effect in the United States, kids smoking weed remains illegal.
Given that weed use—either medicinal or recreational—is lawful at the state level in certain jurisdictions, users often assume that they are safe from legal ramifications. However, since it remains illegal at the federal level, it is possible for users, distributors, and manufacturers to be arraigned, convicted, and jailed on federal charges. In other words, no matter what the state laws say, there is still a significant legal risk for all involved.

Debating the Medicinal Use of Cannabis

While acceptance of recreational weed is still relatively low across the United States, studies from Pew Research Center have found that more than 60 percent of Americans approve of medical uses for marijuana. However, most people form their opinion without doing independent research; they hear that medical cannabis helps some people and then decide it only makes sense to legalize it. Before forming an opinion, one should understand the marijuana pros and cons.

Pros of Medical Marijuana

  • In limited studies, cannabis has been found to be effective in treating or alleviating various physical ailments.
  • Certain marijuana strains are designed for medical use, meaning they are less psychoactive.
  • When compared to some traditional pharmaceuticals, the side effects of marijuana are milder, making it safer.
  • Marijuana oil makes it easier to consume the drug without THC.
  • Liquid marijuana tinctures allow patients to use the drug without the dangers of smoking.
  • Not all active ingredients in marijuana are psychoactive, and when isolated, allow for treatment without any high being produced and no known risk for addiction.
  • Marijuana prices are lower than many pharmaceuticals, allowing patients to afford treatment.

Cons of Medical Marijuana

  • Whenweed flour, buds, and seeds used on an on-going basis, marijuana dependence and addiction can develop.
  • Weed has been shown to impact short-term memory negatively.
  • If used in underage patients, it has the potential to degrade their cognitive ability.
  • Smoking pot can lead to lung cancer (see: does smoking weed cause cancer).
  • There is the question of how long does weed stay in your system and if using it can impact function in day-to-day life.
  • Pot is illegal at the federal level, leaving medical users open to federal charges.
  • Smoking weed while pregnant is dangerous to the fetus.
  • Marijuana withdrawal can occur when the drug is not used anymore.

Conditions Commonly Treated With Medical Marijuana

With medical cannabis, each state determines which medical conditions qualify for treatment. In the most restrictive states, it can only be used for certain types of epilepsy. In more liberal states, individuals can be prescribed marijuana for pain or sleep troubles. Some conditions commonly treated with medical cannabis include:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Spinal cord disease
  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Epilepsy
  • IBS
  • Insomnia
  • Migraines
  • Anxiety
  • Palliative care
  • ADD and ADHD
  • Anorexia
  • General pain disorders

It is important to note that studies regarding the effectiveness of weed in treating these conditions is limited. Because the classification of pot at the federal level indicates it has no medical purpose, studies on marijuana medical uses cannot receive federal funding. Thus, while marijuana for migraines or marijuana for sleep may be prescribed, it is not clear how effective the treatment will be, nor how likely it is that addiction will develop.

The Process for Obtaining Medical Marijuana

Before a patient can get marijuana for pain relief or another condition, they must obtain their medical marijuana card. The exact process varies by state, but most follow the same general format:

  1. Determine what condition will be treated by cannabis. For example, is the patient seeking marijuana for arthritis pain or is it for epilepsy?
  2. Gather medical records documenting the condition.
  3. Ask for a physician’s statement certifying that the condition is real and significant enough to be treated with medical cannabis.
  4. Obtain the documents needed to prove residency within the state.
  5. Submit all items to the state board that issues medical marijuana licenses.
  6. Once approved, update information as often as required by the state.

Cannabis and Recreational Use

When talking about the legalized recreational use of weed, it is assumed that these states have something of a constant 420 marijuana culture. In truth, recreational use of pot presents similar to drinking alcohol—most users regulate it to their free time, using it casually, while some become addicted, requiring something of a marijuana detox to get healthy.cannabis leaf on the USA map
At the moment, recreational cannabis is legal in ten states plus the District of Columbia. These ten states are:

  • Alaska
  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Nevada
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Michigan
  • Maine
  • Vermont
  • Massachusetts

Given that marijuana facts point to significant risks with use, it begs the question: why legalize recreational use? In the states where legalization is in place, the reasons are varied. Undoubtedly, a major reason for governments to endorse legalization is that they can then regulate it and collect tax revenue from the burgeoning industry. Other reasons include other harmful substances being legal, the potential health benefits of use for certain individuals, and cultural practices involving cannabis.

Of course, there have been efforts to legalize recreational pot that have failed. In states where such measures have not passed, reasons for preventing legalization have included potential health problems, the possibility of addiction, the effects of second-hand smoke, concerns regarding the morality of drug use, and the belief that cannabis is a gateway drug to more dangerous substances. It remains to be seen if there will be a significant culture shift regarding recreational use as there was with medical marijuana. However, given Canada’s recent legalization and the upcoming legalization in Mexico, it may be difficult for the United States to stem the tide.

Is Marijuana Addictive?

A question that arises often is: is marijuana addictive? It is common for cannabis proponents to claim that pot is not addictive at all. However, the truth is that while marijuana overdose is essentially unheard of, weed addiction is not.
Because addiction to weed is generally not as severe as addiction to harder drugs, it is not always labeled explicitly as addiction. Sometimes it is called cannabis dependence rather than addiction, or it is put under the umbrella term marijuana use disorder, which includes addiction in severe cases. However, it is possible to become physically addicted and psychologically addicted to cannabis.

Physical Addiction

Understanding physical addiction to marijuana requires understanding physical addiction in general. Physical addiction to any substance is characterized by at least one of three things: an inability to stop due to a physical compulsion to use, developing a tolerance to the drug, and experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms when stopping use. The most common symptom of addiction seen with cannabis use is tolerance, wherein the user must use weed more frequently or in larger or more concentrated amounts to achieve the same high.
There is a certain amount of controversy over the idea of marijuana addiction. It’s often argued that cannabis is not physically addictive at all, while others may argue that it is not an addiction but dependence that is the issue. However, the evidence makes it clear that the body does respond to the drug in a way that can drive continued use.
weed joint in handsMany misunderstand physical addiction to cannabis because they associate physical addiction with other drugs. Quitting weed may not produce the shakes, sweats, and hallucinations that come with stopping harder drugs, but the symptoms are still there. Marijuana withdrawal impacts the nervous system, as that is where the cannabinoid receptors are, meaning that is where weed has been acting on the body. Common symptoms of withdrawal from pot are irritability, anger, depression, sleep disturbance, and decreased appetite. The symptoms start as soon as 24 hours of last use and can remain for up to three weeks, with the greatest risk of weed relapse being in the first six days after stopping use.

Psychological Addiction

More common than physical addiction to weed is a psychological addiction. With psychological addiction, the use of the drug becomes central to the user’s thoughts and actions. They might organize their day around partaking in it, fret over getting access to it, or even treat it like a hobby, collecting related paraphernalia like marijuana pipes and bongs. That psychological addiction to cannabis is possible is evidenced throughout the United States, from stoner films to the head shops that dot cities across the country.
While there may not be physical symptoms, the idea of not using weed is distressing to someone with a psychological addiction, preventing them from quitting even if they believe that would be best for the health. It can also lead them to act in ways that are damaging to their social and familial relationships; for example, they might change social groups to be around others who use weed more often. Oftentimes, the psychologically addicted have trouble at work and school as well, struggling to show up, meet deadlines, and invest more mental energy into their work than their habit.
In many ways, psychological addiction can be more devastating for the addict and their loved ones than a physical addiction to cannabis. As such, cannabis rehabilitation programs often focus on this aspect.

Understanding Addiction Risk

Not every pot user is at high risk of developing an addiction. However, the possibility is always there. With that said, there are certain groups who are at a greater risk of becoming addicted to cannabis. These include:

  • Those taking large doses of the drug, as this builds tolerance
  • Those who use the drug habitually, as this also builds tolerance
  • Those with underlying mental disorders, as this sets them up for psychological dependence
  • Those who are underage, as taking the drug can alter the brain to not produce the correct chemicals on its own
  • Those with a family history of addiction, as this indicates genetic predisposal
  • Those with a lack of family involvement, as this indicates a lack of support

It is important that it is understood that no one is immune from the possibility of addiction. Not being part of the above-mentioned groups does not mean an individual cannot become addicted.

Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

Perhaps the greatest concernmarijuana as a gateway drug to pills and cocaine with weed is that it could be a gateway drug. A gateway drug is a substance that is believed to encourage the use of harder drugs by normalizing the act of getting high both physically and psychologically. According to numerous studies, users of harder drugs often started using drugs with cannabis.
However, it is not the only gateway drug. In fact, the use of nicotine is more common amongst users of hard drugs than cannabis. Alcohol is likewise associated with the use of harder drugs. In other words, what makes pot a gateway drug is not something unique to the plant itself, but rather the fact that it can alter the way a user thinks and feels. This then begs the question: should recreational weed become legal, will it become as associated with hard drug use as nicotine?

Getting Help With Marijuana Addiction

For individuals who use pot and wish to stop, going it alone may not be the best option. Instead, it is recommended that they seek assistance either through a drug rehabilitation facility or support groups. Rehabilitation facilities are best for those with severe addictions while support groups are good for those who just need that extra push. Narcotics Anonymous and Marijuana Anonymous are two groups that help those attempting to quit cannabis. Ultimately, the user must find the right place for them. There are numerous addiction treatment options available.

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Medically Reviewed By Michael Espelin APRN

About Author

Peter J. Grinspoon, MD

Dr. Peter Grinspoon is an experienced physician with long-term clinical practice experience. As a former analgesic addict, Dr. Grinspoon knows precisely how important it is to provide patients with effective treatment and support. Medical writing for him is the way to communicate with people and inform them about their health.


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