Although many people don’t consider marijuana addictive, evidence suggests that using marijuana can become problematic for some people, and such use still carries certain risks. Someone who regularly uses marijuana takes a chance of developing a cannabis use disorder. Marijuana is also associated with both physical and mental health risks. With the rising potency of marijuana’s average concentration of its primary psychoactive component, these risks may be elevated for users.3
People who develop significant marijuana dependence may also experience troublesome withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit.
How Does Marijuana Use Affect The Brain?
By understanding the ways that using marijuana can affect a person’s brain, it will be easier to understand why it can be such a difficult drug to quit. Depending on the method by which a user consumes marijuana or other cannabis-related substances, they may experience the drug’s effects for different durations and at different intensities. Marijuana’s psychoactive components affect the brain through a series of chemical interactions. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary intoxicating chemical compound found in cannabis. THC is similar in chemical structure to naturally-occurring cannabinoids in the body, such as anandamide. This similarity allows THC to attach to the brain’s cannabinoid receptors and disrupt the endocannabinoid system’s normal functioning. THC also stimulates the release of larger-than-normal amounts of dopamine, which is partly responsible for its pleasurable high.4 THC affects a user’s brain in areas that control mood, memory, thinking, and concentration.4 Marijuana’s effects may be desirable for some people and include:5
- Feelings of sedation or relaxation.
- Distortions in sensory perception.
- Altered sense of time (e.g., subjectively slow passing of time).
THC’s effects on the brain don’t always produce pleasurable effects. Its disruption of the brain’s normal pathways of communication may sometimes lead to distressing effects such as:4
- Cognitive impairment.
- Diminished coordination and reaction time.
- Increased anxiety.
- Acute psychotic features, such as hallucinations and delusions.
(More common in lower doses). Despite the prevalent notion that marijuana is entirely safe or free of any addictive potential, there is certainly evidence to suggest otherwise.
Is Marijuana Addictive?
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) identifies marijuana as an addictive drug. With consistent use, people who consume weed may be at risk of developing a marijuana use disorder, or marijuana addiction. Physiological dependence, which develops as the brain and body adapt to weed, is a common feature associated with many instances of marijuana addiction.3 People who develop dependence on marijuana may, over time, begin to produce less of their own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters and become desensitized to the effects of them. Should this happen, a heavy marijuana user may experience withdrawal symptoms when they slow their cannabis consumption, or stop consumption altogether.
Cannabis withdrawal symptoms is one criteria used to make the diagnosis of a marijuana use disorder.6 When someone is dependent on marijuana, they may experience withdrawal when they attempt to quit or cut down on the consumption of the drug. One study by NIDA found that around 40% of teens who the journal considered dependent on marijuana experienced withdrawal symptoms when they stopped using.6 Acute marijuana withdrawal may give rise to unpleasant symptoms such as:7
- Depressed mood.
- Flu-like symptoms.
- Stomach pain.
- Changes in appetite.
Withdrawal is one of the most challenging parts of quitting marijuana. Someone with significant cannabis dependence may try to smoke weed to get rid of the unpleasant physical or emotional symptoms of withdrawal, derailing any recovery efforts. It’s common for people making attempts at decreasing or stopping their marijuana use to return to cannabis (or pick up another drug) because of the distress of withdrawal. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms generally peak in intensity around the third day of detoxification from the drug.6
Learning More About Marijuana Abuse Treatment
American Addiction Centers offers therapy to help those abusing marijuana gain the skills to cope with craving and avoid triggers. Therapy also helps improve on other skills, such as problem-solving and lifestyle management.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy.
- Contingency management
- Motivational enhancement therapy
One solution to the unpleasantness and potential unpredictability of withdrawal is to undergo the process with appropriate medical supervision. The support and care offered through professional rehabilitation may help people better manage the withdrawal period. Though presently there are no pharmacologic interventions specifically approved for treating cannabis dependence, observation, medications for certain symptom relief, and other supportive care measures can help make the withdrawal less of an ordeal and decrease the likelihood of relapse.