There’s a prevalent myth today that weed does not cause addiction. But extensive research results have debunked that and actually show that weed isn’t the ‘harmless’ drug that most people take it for.
It is estimated that in every 10 people who consume weed, 3 of them develop problematic use, which later leads to addiction. This number can also get higher, especially if a person began abusing weed as a teenager.
As marijuana slowly garners mainstream acceptance for both medical and recreational use, it’s time for a closer and deeper look at everything concerning its addiction, consequences to health, and how to break the chains of weed addiction.
What Type of Drug is Weed
Drugs are classified into 4 major categories depending on their properties and effects on the user;
- Depressants - also known as downers, are drugs that lower your brain function, for example, alcohol.
- Stimulants - these drugs are known as uppers because they increase your brain activity, alertness, and energy, for example, cocaine and meth.
- Hallucinogens are drugs with psychoactive agents that cause hallucinations and alter the user’s perception of reality, emotions, and thoughts. Examples include LSD and MDMA
- Opiates - these are drugs that are extracted from opium and that are used medically as powerful pain killers. They do create feelings of euphoria and are highly addictive—for example, heroin.
So, where does weed fall in the 4 categories above? Nowhere in particular.
Marijuana is a unique cannabinoid drug that doesn’t precisely fit into any single category above but exhibits the effects of almost all of them.
As a depressant, the THC in weed is known to slow brain action by interfering with the transmission of vital messages between the body and the brain. Like true depressants, it can cause drowsiness, sleepiness, relaxation, and short-term memory loss.
Weed affects people differently. This means that while some users may feel downing effects, others may experience a degree of stimulation that causes elevated mood, alertness, increased heartbeat, and paranoia (a false idea that involves suspicion).
Marijuana has also been found to cause several common effects with hallucinogens, including time distortion and altered sense of space, dry mouth, elevated heartbeat, anxiety, and altered motor skills. This explains why most organizations often refer to it as a hallucinogen.
What is marijuana addiction?
Weed addiction is a serious disorder that should be treated as a chronic disease. Addiction to the pot is when an individual experiences an intense and uncontrollable craving for it and has totally no control over how he/she uses it despite its negative consequences.
Addiction is the hallmark of cannabis use, and it’s often characterized by tolerance that leads to the need to have more of the drug to achieve the usual results.
Writing for Marijuana Anonymous, Marvin Sepalla, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, says that weed can be addictive just like alcohol or heroin.
The main reason why most sources argue that cannabis addiction isn’t possible is that unlike other forms of addiction, marijuana addiction isn’t so visible socially. The pain and struggle exist internally.
Addiction, Tolerance, and Dependence - what’s the difference
These 3 terms are often confused and wrongly used interchangeably in the topic of marijuana use disorders. So, let’s shed some light on them.
Tolerance means enduring or being able to take more of something before reaching the breakpoint. Among stoners, weed tolerance refers to a substance use disorder where an individual needs to take more THC to achieve their normal buzz.
Here is what happens
THC (the main psychoactive agent) binds to CB1 receptors when you take weed, making them have an abnormal increase in activity. This is what causes a High.
Over time and as you continue exposing your brain to THC, it fights back in a bid to normalize CB1 receptor activity and patterns. The brain achieves this by either reducing CB1 receptors available for THC to bind with or desensitizing them so that the impact of THC is dampened. As a result, for you to achieve the initial high, you have to consume more THC. This stage is called tolerance and does not mean that one is addicted to weed.
Excessive and long-term use of pot often leads to dependence, and this comes in conjunction with tolerance. This means that when you go off it, you experience withdrawal symptoms and discomforts.
Unlike most heavier drugs that exhibit life-threatening symptoms, including increased blood pressure, hallucinations, and seizures, common cannabis withdrawal symptoms are mild and include loss of appetite, insomnia, and irritability.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and several clinical studies state that these physiological signs of withdrawal often dissipate within 2 weeks or less after abstinence.
At this stage, one can get off the drug even without experiencing the withdrawal symptoms simply by stopping the drugs gradually.
Note: although pot dependence isn’t necessarily a diagnosis for addiction, the latter is often right around the corner.
How Marijuana Causes Addiction
Like any other addictive drug, marijuana causes addiction by altering how your brain responds to the reward system (pleasure center).
When you smoke weed, THC zips throughout your body, including the brain, where it causes the release of dopamine. This is a key chemical commonly referred to as the feel-good hormone due to its reputation to create euphoria and bliss feelings and which marijuana users recognize as a High.
With continued use of pot, THC causes the brain to release a host of chemicals that condition it to like a weed and crave it whenever the user tries to abstain.
This is a point of no return where the users find it very difficult to say no to weed even it is negatively affecting their lives, for instance, problems at work or school and troubled relationships.
Who can get addicted to weed and why
According to general statistics, every 1 in 10 marijuana users become addicted to weed. However, for those who begin taking weed in their teenage, this number could be as high as 1 in every 6.
Several studies, including this analysis published on the National Institutes of Health, have found a correlation between early use of pot and the likelihood of being addicted later in life. Interestingly, another study in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings notes that the risk of addiction is almost non-existent for users above 25.
There are a lot of factors that could increase the risk of marijuana addiction. There are other leading environmental factors to this disease in addition to early-onset use, sexual, emotional, stress, and physical trauma.
There isn’t a clear and succinct explanation of why people who start using pot in their teenage are at a higher risk of becoming addicted.
However, according to this study, it’s safe to argue that this may be because most adolescents who admit to struggling with marijuana use disorder seldom seek treatment early enough. Actually, many of those who do never self-refer but are actually forced by parents, school administration, or the juvenile system.
A research report cited in the above study notes that most of these adolescents are either ambivalent about quitting or don’t consider marijuana use as a problem severe enough to seek treatment.
Consequences/Effects of Marijuana Addiction
The brain takes the greatest impact on marijuana use. Weed mainly affects the parts with the highest concentration of CB1 receptors responsible for learning, memory, decision making, emotions, coordination, attention, and reaction time.
The effects can be either short-term or long-term and depend on the amount of THC in the pot and whether other drugs are taken in conjunction with weed.
- Impaired coordination
- Muscle spasms
- Problems controlling speech
- Impaired memory
- Psychosis- losing touch with the reality
- Brain development - the use of weed by expectant moms is suggested to cause problems with memory, attention, problem-solving skills, and behavior problems to the kids later in life.
Effects on Health
Consuming weed causes a sudden spike in blood pressure, coupled with an increased heart rate. This spike could last for up to 1 hour. But what’s more is that within this hour, the risk of developing heart attacks is 4.8 times higher.
Short-term marijuana use causes unpleasant thoughts, such as disorientation, anxiety, paranoia, and temporary psychosis. However, long-term use has been linked to worse mental disorders, including schizophrenia (seeing or hearing things that don’t exist), depression, and anxiety. Even worse, there are speculations that marijuana addiction does increase the likelihood of committing suicide among teens.
Effects on the lungs
The impact of weed on your lungs is heavily dependent on how you consume it. Most people prefer smoking it in the form of joints, pipes, bongs, and blunts. These methods involve filling the lungs with weed smoke where THC and other cannabinoids are absorbed into the bloodstream.
Like tobacco smoke, weed smoke also contains a wide array of toxins, irritants, and carcinogens. These substances harm the lungs and even destroy the upper lining of lung tissues, increasing an individual’s risk of acute coughs, bronchitis, and phlegm production.
Reduces bone density
Bone density refers to a measurement of the number of minerals in your bones. It is used to assess bone strength and health. People with low bone density are at a higher risk of sustaining, potentially serious fractures, and injuries.
Although the correlation between cannabis and bone density requires a deeper investigation, researchers have found that heavy weed smokers have twice the risk of fracturing bones than tobacco smokers.
In an attempt to fill in the gaps, some researchers suggest that this could be because prolonged use of weed affects blood flow. They argue that this is a problem that could lead to poor bone health and low density.
A common telltale for regular marijuana use, cottonmouth (or simply dry mouth), happens when THC binds to CB1 and CB2 receptors in the submandibular glands. These glands are located at the bottom of the mouth and are responsible for producing 75% of saliva.
When THC binds to these glands’ receptors, they block the receptors from receiving messages from the parasympathetic system, thereby leading to an acute reduction in saliva production.
Whether it’s a bother to you or not, a dry mouth isn’t fun. In severe conditions, it is accompanied by other symptoms, including;
- Stickiness in the mouth
- Frequent thirst
- Dry and raw tongue with a tingling sensation
- Cracked lips corners of the mouth
- Sore throat
- Trouble tasting and chewing
- Bad breath
- Dry nasal passages
Effects on the digestive system
While oral consumption of weed saves you from lung problems, it has digestive issues too. When taken orally, marijuana can cause nausea and vomiting, especially with higher usage. Besides, oral consumption of pot can lead to liver damage.
Weed is also known to cause an increase in appetite. Although this is viewed as a benefit for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and surgery treatments, it might be bad news if you are trying to lose some pounds.
What about cancer
Brain and lung cancer is a major threat and enough reason for a marijuana addict to worry. The good or bad news is that researchers haven’t found any solid evidence that links weed to increased cancer risk. But this risk is not eliminated.
Lots of studies show that marijuana has most of the cancer-causing chemicals that are found in tobacco, including;
- Reactive oxygen species
- Vinyl chlorides
Another important discovery around this subject is that the lungs of chronic weed smokers have been found to have changes that often signify potential cancer growth.
Affects learning and social skills
With research results showing that teens and young adults are at the highest risk of marijuana addiction, a couple of studies have been done on its social impacts both at school and workplaces- the findings aren’t appealing, to say the least.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that marijuana use and addiction have been linked with decreased motivation, which can significantly impact an individual’s performance at school and work. Besides, weed can negatively affect one’s social life and career status.
Key Statistics on Marijuana Use
How many people suffer from marijuana addiction?
According to 2016 results by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 24 million Americans reported being current weed users that year. Among them, near 4 million users suffered from marijuana addiction or significant marijuana-related complications.
What is the addiction rate on marijuana addiction?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 30% of regular users of marijuana may be suffering from marijuana use disorder. More data shows that 10%-30% of weed smokers develop a dependency, while 9% develop an addiction. However, the researchers state that these are mere estimates.
How common is marijuana addiction?
Well, here are the numbers. A 2010 survey report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that;
- 360,000 people were admitted for treatment for drug addiction. It was found out that marijuana was the major drug that they were abusing
- Of these, 28% (around 103,000) people were adolescents and young adults between 12 and 17 years old
- 43% were below 21 years
- Fast forward, the number of people who were addicted to weed had risen to 4 million
- Worth noting, these figures were obtained from publicly-funded facilities only. Factor in those who prefer private facilities and the majority who don’t report addiction or don’t view it as an issue yet, and the numbers could be much higher.
If you use pot and you’re wondering whether you might be addicted to it, the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 has important telltale signs that might help you out.
The DSM-5 (5 for the fifth edition) is an authoritative handbook that USA healthcare professionals use to diagnose drug use disorders.
This handbook has 11 signs. To be diagnosed with a marijuana use disorder, an individual needs to have exhibited at least 2 of these symptoms within a period of 12 months;
- Having problems in the main spheres of life – not meeting one’s usual performance standards at home, work, or school.
- Tolerance- having to use more of the drug to achieve initial results.
- Ignoring potential risks- going on with drug use regardless of the dangers that it portrays
- Disregarding any damage that roots from drug use
- Inability to stop- showing a lot of desire to quit and even attempting to reduce consumption without success
- Cravings- experiencing a powerful desire to use weed when you’ve not used it
- Loss of control- no longer being able to control the amount of weed that you take or taking it for a longer time than intended
- Social impairment – failing to attend important activities at work and school or even social or hobbies due to marijuana use.
- Giving disproportionate focus on marijuana resources and use
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using the drugs for a few days
- Continued use even as physical and psychological effects worsen.
How to Overcome Marijuana Addiction
The first and the most important step to breaking the chains of marijuana addiction is accepting that you are struggling with it.
Understand some key facts regarding quitting weed
What makes quitting marijuana use hard are the withdrawal symptoms that come with it. Therefore, understanding what to expect beforehand will give you an incredible oomph once you start on the journey.
Worth noting is that in a typical marijuana withdrawal timeline, most of the withdrawal symptoms will have faded away by week 3. However, this may vary from one person to the other, especially depending on the severity.
The good news, though, is that although uncomfortable, most of these problems are not life-threatening.
Confession is good for the soul, remember? Simply revealing to someone you really trust that you are struggling with marijuana addiction will be a huge relief for you. Confession also becomes more or less a foundation upon which you start regaining control of your normal life. Importantly, ask whoever you confess you to keep checking on you regularly and hold you accountable.
Quitting weed can be really hard, especially if you had developed an addiction to it. In most cases, people who try to do it alone don’t make it.
So, consider hiring the services of a professional. This could be a psychotherapist, social worker, counselor, or a community peer counselor with good experience in drug addiction.
Join a recovery group near you
There is nothing better than joining a group of former marijuana addicts who are on the road to recovery. Here, you’ll be able to share experiences, get support when you need it most, and also learn from those who’ve made it. Marijuana Anonymous has physical meeting points in 11 countries, including the USA, Canada, and Australia.
Offer your body and brain the support they need
Your body and brain will be making some drastic changes throughout this process until you recover completely. Here are a few tips to keep them in good shape;
- Consider eating a healthy diet with lots of vegetables and fruits.
- Stay hydrated always
- Stay active by exercising every day.
- Get a lot of sleep
- Remain positive and ‘congratulate yourself’ for every single day that you go clean
Where to get help for Marijuana Addiction
There are a lot of places of help for a person experiencing a marijuana use disorder. If you are in the US, give the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration a call on their national, free, and confidential helpline- 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
You could also speak to your doctor or local health facility. These specialists might recommend reliable help centers or support groups that will help.