Marijuana is currently the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States as people’s views toward its use have softened, and recreational use has become legal in more states across the country.
The growing decriminalization of marijuana is, in some ways, a good thing, as it means that more people struggling with health issues such as multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease can utilize its medicinal benefits.
Unfortunately, it also contributes to the potentially dangerous perception of marijuana as a safe drug that can be used without experiencing any negative effects. This idea that marijuana use carries no consequences is one reason why, aside from alcohol, marijuana is the most common substance found in the blood of drivers involved in car accidents.
Although marijuana does not have the same negative connotations or the same level of danger as drugs like opioids or amphetamines, there are still very real health risks that come with marijuana abuse.
And while the idea of being addicted to marijuana may seem unlikely, studies suggest that about 9 to 30 percent of those who use marijuana develop an addiction to it. According to a study published by JAMA Psychiatry, nearly three in 10 people who use marijuana may have some form of a marijuana use disorder, which encompasses addiction.
Among those seeking addiction treatment for marijuana use, it is typical for them to have unsuccessfully attempted to quit using more than half a dozen times.
Young adults and teenagers who use marijuana are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop a marijuana use disorder. And, as their brains are not yet finished fully developing, they are at high risk for potentially serious neurological problems and stunted brain development.
So how do you spot the signs of marijuana abuse in time to stop it from progressing to marijuana addiction?
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Marijuana, derived from the cannabis plant, is a psychoactive drug that can be smoked, vaporized, and ingested in the form of edibles. The active ingredient in marijuana that causes its mental and physical effects is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Whether it is smoked or eaten, marijuana works by having THC enter the brain and bind to what is known as the brain’s cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoids are neurotransmitters that are produced naturally by the brain. They are responsible for many key functions in the brain and body, including cognition, movement, emotion, and sensory perception.
The chemical composition of THC is extremely similar to a cannabinoid neurotransmitter called anandamide, which is used to activate the cannabinoid receptors, letting the brain know that it needs to produce more cannabinoids. So THC mimics anandamide, activating the receptors and stimulating them into overproduction, flooding the brain with cannabinoids. The THC then disrupts processes all over the brain, including:
The hippocampus controls short-term memory and the ability to learn new information. When marijuana interferes with the hippocampus, it impairs your ability to remember recent events and alters your perception of time.
The spinal cord is the main route for transmitting nerve signals between the brain and the body. Cannabinoids can act in a way that is similar to opioids and create blocks around the spinal cord to dull pain signals.
The basal ganglia are a part of the brain that controls unconscious muscle movements, which, when disrupted by marijuana, leads to slower reaction times and impaired movement.
The neocortex is responsible for processing complex thoughts and emotions. The excess of cannabinoids in the neocortex caused by marijuana use impairs judgment, slows down your thought process, and alters your sensory perception, including sight and hearing.
The nucleus accumbens is an area of the brain that is linked to pleasure, motivation, and reward. When the nucleus accumbens is activated, it releases a chemical called dopamine that creates feelings of pleasure and euphoria. THC cannabinoids create a huge spike in dopamine that is the defining feature of a marijuana high.
The hypothalamus influences our eating habits and, when activated by marijuana, significantly increases your appetite.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) still considers marijuana a Schedule I controlled substance, along with notoriously potent drugs like heroin, MDMA (3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine), and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). That designation means that, in the eyes of federal authorities, marijuana does not have an accepted medical use in the U.S., and it possesses “a high potential for abuse.”
This means that over time, even though they have not grown physically tolerant of marijuana’s effects, they will still find themselves requiring more of it to cope with anxiety or stress. They may also find that they increasingly are unable to get through daily tasks without using marijuana.
When someone stops using marijuana after a long period of heavy abuse, they will often experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability or moodiness, insomnia, restlessness or anxiety, boredom or feelings of listlessness, marijuana cravings, or not feeling hungry.
It is important to note the distinction between marijuana abuse and marijuana addiction. Recreational marijuana users are more likely to still maintain some level of control over how much and often they use. However, abuse can easily and quickly progress to addiction, at which point the pull of marijuana will be too strong for them to stop using or even moderate their usage.
There are a lot of fairly easy to identify behaviors and signs that point to marijuana abuse. However, because of the changes in public perception of marijuana use, seeing these signs of abuse for what they are can sometimes be difficult, even if you are the one who is misusing it.
Because of this, the signs of marijuana abuse will often be dismissed and go unrecognized until it has become a serious problem.
Being able to understand the early and more subtle signs of marijuana abuse can help stop a growing addiction in its tracks. Seeking proper addiction treatment during the early stages of abuse is especially important if the person abusing marijuana is a teenager and more vulnerable to the negative neurological effects of long-term marijuana abuse.
Some of the common signs of marijuana abuse include:
As an individual finds themselves becoming increasingly dependent on marijuana to the point where obtaining and using it has taken priority over almost everything else in their life, they will begin to exhibit more noticeably abnormal behavior.
These behaviors signal a progression from abuse to addiction as marijuana use becomes the motivating factor behind their decisions. Many of the behavioral signs of marijuana addiction are also consistent with substance use disorders in general and include:
Some of the mental and physical effects of long-term marijuana abuse can also act as signs of marijuana addiction, as these are indicative of heavy marijuana use over an extended period of time. Some of these signs of marijuana addiction include:
If the user in question is a teenager or younger, they will also likely exhibit brain development issues such as difficulty learning new information, severe memory problems, and impaired cognition in general.
If you have observed these signs of marijuana addiction in someone you care about or in your own behavior, the essential next step is seeking out professional treatment, starting with detox to flush the marijuana from your system and prevent any further potential psychological damage.
People who are ignorant of the dangers posed by marijuana abuse and addiction may not believe it is necessary to seek out marijuana addiction treatment. But, just like with any substance use disorder, without treatment to help address and understand the issues behind someone’s addiction and provide them with the tools they need to manage it, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to maintain sobriety for very long.
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Hasin, D. S., Saha, T. D., Kerridge, B. T., Goldstein, R. B., Chou, S. P., Zhang, H., . . . Grant, B. F. (2015, December). Prevalence of Marijuana Use Disorders in the United States Between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26502112
Healthline. (2018, September 17). The Effects of Marijuana on Your Body. from https://www.healthline.com/health/addiction/marijuana/effects-on-body#1
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Drugged Driving. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/drugged-driving
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Is marijuana addictive? from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive
WebMD. (n.d.). Marijuana Abuse & Addiction: Withdrawal Symptoms & Treatment Options. from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/marijuana-abuse