Tackling Addiction and Abuse of Marijuana

Marijuana is one of the most widely used and abused drugs in the country.

In fact, a survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that an astounding 52.7% of 18 to 25 year olds have tried marijuana in their lifetime, and almost 20% reported using it in the last month.

With widespread decriminalization and even full legalization of marijuana use occurring across the country, it's important to know just what marijuana addiction and abuse looks like.

This guide will take you through some of the basic information regarding marijuana abuse and addiction. It includes information on what marijuana is, how it affects the body, and what marijuana addiction looks like.

All drug information is provided by Medline Plus from the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institute of Drug Abuse from the National Institute of Health unless otherwise indicated.

Marijuana Addiction

What is Marijuana?

Marijuana use refers to the consumption of the dried hemp plant either by smoking, ingesting, or vaporizing. This plant contains a mind-altering compound known as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). It's to most commonly used illicit drug in the United States.

While marijuana has been utilized by humans for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years, the increasing recreational use has led to a rapid rise of marijuana potency. As such, the marijuana of today can be drastically different than the marijuana of 50 years ago, making studies on the effects of long-term use quite difficult.

Other Names for Marijuana

As one of the most commonly abused substances in the world, marijuana has a long list of street names. Here are just a few:

  • Weed
  • Grass
  • Pot
  • Mary Jane
  • Ganja
  • Dope
  • Reefer
  • Roach
  • Chronic
  • Herb

Marijuana cigarettes are sometimes referred to as blunts or joints and marijuana users may be called pot heads and dope heads.

You can find additional street names for marijuana as well as names for marijuana mixed with other substances here.

What Does Marijuana Do and How?

The effects of marijuana depend on the type ingested as well as the dosage. Many users report changes in mood, increased appetite, impaired bodily movements and memory, and an altered sense of time.

Marijuana produces these effects due to the structural similarities between THC and a chemical in the brain known as anandamide. When the brain is flooded with THC, it binds with cannabinoid receptors on our neurons in areas that affect pleasure, thinking, concentration, memory and more.

What is Marijuana Abuse/Addiction?

The terms "addiction" and "abuse" are pretty commonly mistaken to mean the same thing. However, it's important to note that while the two might be pretty closely related, they're actually describing two different things. For instance, just because someone abuses a drug doesn't mean that they are necessarily addicted to that substance. On the flip side, someone can become addicted to a drug without actually abusing it.

When talking about substance abuse then, it's important to realize the difference between these similar but separate concepts.

Abuse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is defined as either the use of an illegal substance or using legal drugs in an inappropriate way. What abuse comes down to, then, is using substances outside the confines of the law and your doctor's orders. For marijuana, the only way you can use it without abusing it is if you are using it medicinally according to your doctor's instructions or if you are in a state where it has been decriminalized.

Where addiction differs from abuse is when the use of the substance creates an actual change in the brain that makes it difficult to stop using. Some signs of this are changes in behavior, experiencing withdrawal symptoms, and being unable to control physical cravings for the drug. Just because you are not technically abusing a drug, however, doesn't mean you won't become addicted to it. Sometimes drugs are prescribed incorrectly and, as a result, can unknowingly cause addiction in patients who adhere to their doctor's orders.

Marijuana Use Disorder and Identifying a Disorder

While substance abuse disorders were historically classified as either "abuse" or "dependence," the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) which guides the diagnosis of all mental disorders has been updated. Now, rather than having two separate categories, "substance abuse" and "substance dependence" both fall under the single category, "substance use disorder."

The list below from NIDA provides eleven symptoms that the DSM-5 classifies as indicating a potential substance abuse disorder. Read through the descriptions below and see if your situation or that of a friend matches any of the scenarios. If more than two have occurred within 12 months, the DSM-5 considers it to be indicative of the disorder.

  • Marijuana is used for a longer amount of time or in larger doses than originally intended.
  • A regular desire to use more marijuana is present or efforts to cut back are unsuccessful.
  • Obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of marijuana takes up a great deal of the individual's time.
  • Persistent cravings for marijuana.
  • Failing to fulfill obligations at work, home, or school because of marijuana use.
  • Continuing to abuse marijuana despite its use causing damage to social relationships.
  • Abandoning activities (social, occupational, or recreational) that once held great importance due to marijuana abuse.
  • Using marijuana in situations that are physically endangering such as while driving.
  • Continuing to abuse marijuana despite knowing that it's continued use is causing physical and psychological problems.
  • Development of tolerance, demonstrated by needing higher amounts of marijuana to achieve the same effect or a diminished effect from continued use.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms or using more marijuana to avoid such symptoms.

Side Effects of Marijuana Abuse

Some of the lesser-known long term side effects of marijuana abuse may be more detrimental than you'd like to think. For instance, using marijuana during developmental years such as the early and late teens has been linked to reduced thinking, memory, and learning functions. It is important to note, though, that the science is still out on marijuana and there are also studies that show no correlation between marijuana use and development.

What is known about marijuana use, however, is that it can have a variety of physical impacts on long-term health. The smoke from marijuana inhalation, for example, is a known lung irritant and may cause problems including regular coughing and phlegm, a higher frequency of lung illnesses, and more lung infections.

Marijuana can also cause a jump in heart rate, possibly creating a risk factor for other cardiovascular malfunctions like heart attack. It can also cause low birth weight and developmental problems in a child if a pregnant mother uses marijuana.

The long-term mental effects of marijuana should also be a cause for concern as they may include temporary hallucinations, temporary paranoia, and worsening symptoms in schizophrenics.

What's more, the recent discovery and classification of what's known as Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome, which involves severe abdominal pain and violent vomiting and is brought on by chronic marijuana use, shows that much more research needs to be done on the true effects of this substance.

What to Do If Someone You Know Is Abusing Marijuana

One thing that's incredibly important to remember when you are confronting a friend or family member about their marijuana abuse is that addiction is a disease. The structures of an addict's brain are physically altered to increase drug seeking behaviors. As such, it may be difficult to reason with them and they may become defensive.

Try giving them the DSM-5 test listed above. Sometimes it just takes is seeing the signs written in front of them for someone to recognize their addiction. If they still remain unconvinced or refuse to take the test, try to get them to go to a professional physician. Hearing from an authority in the area that they actually have a problem could be all they need to start seeking treatment.

Marijuana Withdrawal

A common misconception is that marijuana is not addictive. While the true physical addictive properties of marijuana are still being evaluated, the mentally addictive properties may be just as cumbersome as physical ones.

Addiction is determined based on the pattern of behaviors, not just the physical effects of withdrawal.

As such, if your marijuana use is characterized by an inability to stop consuming the drug or the symptoms listed by the DSM-5 above, you may still be addicted.

When compared to other substance abuse problems like alcoholism or an addiction to opioids, the withdrawal symptoms for marijuana are relatively tame. Some of these symptoms are grouchiness, decreased appetite, cravings, anxiety and sleeplessness.

These symptoms have been reported to increase in intensity depending on how long an individual has been using marijuana regularly and to what degree.

Conclusion and Additional Resources for Families and Friends

While marijuana use may be gaining acceptance from both citizens and law enforcement officials across the country, it's essential to recognize that extensive marijuana use can still lead to abuse and addiction.

That's why it's crucial to equip yourself with knowledge about what marijuana abuse and addiction looks like and how to get the help you need to treat it.

The resources listed below can point you to additional information that may help you and your loved ones cope with a marijuana use disorder.

  • MedlinePlus - With information provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, this site is a comprehensive collection of drug facts, statistics, and other resources.
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) - The NIDA is a substance abuse focused extension of the National Institute of Health and contains numerous resources and publications on many different substance use disorders.
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - This agency founded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contains information on both mental disorders and substance use disorders.
  • How to Confront and Addict in Your Life - An especially helpful article on how to help someone you care about face their substance use disorder and get treatment.