The existence of marijuana addiction is hotly debated. However, there’s plenty of scientific evidence to support the existence of marijuana addiction and dependence.
Unlike drugs like heroin or methamphetamines, not everyone who uses marijuana will become addicted — some people, however, can become hooked on the drug, with a long list of harmful side-effects as a result.
What are the signs of marijuana addiction? How do I identify if it’s happening to me or those around me? What can be done to support people addicted to marijuana? Does marijuana use really lead to more serious addictions to drugs?
We’ll explore all these topics and more.
A Primer on Marijuana
Marijuana is a plant. There are two species used as marijuana; Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. Both contain the psychoactive compound known as THC. This molecule is responsible for the psychoactive effects of the plant.
Most marijuana users smoke the plant, although it can also be made into edibles like cookies or brownies, and can be bought as an E-liquid or concentrate for vapes as well.
The effects of marijuana include:
- Visual disturbances
- Mood changes
- Lowered reaction times
- Lapses in memory
- Problems with coordination
- Hunger cravings
Other compounds in the plant have different effects. Some are useful for treating paranoia, insomnia, anxiety, and overeating. One of the main therapeutic agents in the plant is a compound called cannabidiol (CBD).
People using marijuana for the effects of CBD often form strong habits around the drug, and start to use it as a crutch for underlying conditions.
Without addressing these underlying conditions, marijuana is only going to serve as a temporary escape from symptoms. This is the main cause of marijuana addiction.
How Marijuana Works
The main psychoactive compound in marijuana — THC — works by stimulating a special set of receptors known as the cannabinoid receptors. There are two types of cannabinoid receptors found in the body.
CB1 cannabinoid receptors are mainly found in the brain and spinal cord. They are the main targets responsible for the marijuana high because they’re closely involved with neurotransmitter function. The primary neurotransmitter affected is serotonin.
Changes in serotonin levels cause unpredictable changes in perception. This neurotransmitter is also the target for psychoactive drugs like DMT, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and acid (LSD).
CB2 cannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body but are primarily concentrated in the immune and blood cells. They’re present in the thymus, which is where many of our immune and blood cells mature. They’re also found in the spleen, which is tasked with filtering worn our blood and immune cells from the blood to prepare them for recycling.
Although marijuana isn’t as addictive as other drugs like cocaine, heroin, or prescription painkillers, it can result in addiction nonetheless — often with serious side effects.
Addiction is characterized by the formation of tolerance, and dependence.
Although some people can use marijuana without becoming addicted, others find themselves hooked on the drug quite easily.
What makes some people addicted, and others not?
The answer to this question lies in the process of addiction and habit formation.
In the brain, we each have a special region of the brain known as the limbic system. This is our primal region of the brain. It’s responsible for controlling our natural instincts and desires — like eating, having sex, or reacting to danger via the fight or flight response.
It reinforces behaviors it perceives are good for us by activating something called the reward circuit. This circuit releases a hit of dopamine, which causes a short-lasting feeling of euphoria. It conditions higher regions of the brain to want to perform the same action over again.
In the history of human evolution, this was highly beneficial. It reinforces habits that increased our chances of survival and reproduction. In the modern era, although still useful, it can become our weakness.
Marijuana offers many beneficial effects, which can trigger the reward circuit to fire. For many people, marijuana temporarily relieves the perception of stress, anxiety, and insomnia. These beneficial effects on the body cause the reward circuit to fire.
We begin to form habits around the marijuana use.
With long-term habitual use of the drug, we begin to form a tolerance to it.
This means that the body stops responding to it in the same way, prompting us to consume more of it to produce the desired effects.
This is something that happens gradually with marijuana, over the course of several months of regular use.
Tolerance is the start of a serious marijuana addiction. With tolerance, comes another concept, called dependence.
As the body forms a tolerance to a drug, including marijuana, what’s actually happening in the body is that it’s changing metrics involved with homeostasis (balance) to offset the effects of the marijuana. The body does this in an attempt to remain within a very specific set of parameters.
The problem is that once we reach this point if we don’t take the drug for even just a few hours, we lose our ability to stay in balance.
Here’s what this looks like for marijuana tolerance:
- We become anxious
- We find it difficult to fall asleep
- We lose our ability to resist daily stressors
How Serious is Marijuana Addiction?
Compared to other drugs, marijuana addiction is far less severe, but can still produce debilitating side effects for those affected.
Most adults who seek help for marijuana addiction or dependence have more than 10 years of near-daily use .
Signs of Marijuana Addiction
Although marijuana addiction isn’t experienced by every user, there are some key signs to watch out for that indicate an addiction to marijuana.
1. Using Marijuana as a Crutch
This is one of the main signs of marijuana addiction.
This plant is very useful as a medicine if used correctly. This can also be said of other addictive drugs like morphine, Oxycontin, and antidepressants.
As with all addictive medicines, marijuana can be abused and used as a crutch for deeper rooted problems. When this happens, the user needs the drug to feel “normal”. It’s no longer serving them medicinally and is instead part of the problem.
If you know someone who is using marijuana to escape chronic (long-term) problems like anxiety, insomnia, or paranoia, they may have a problem with addiction.
2. Inability to Attent to Daily Responsibilities
- Adequate nutrition
- Social interaction
3. Tolerance Formation
As mentioned above, tolerance forms after using marijuana for long periods of time.
Marijuana changes our internal balance. Over time, the body tries to regain control over this balance by changing the body.
Processes tolerance formation affects may include:
- Changes in neurotransmitter production or release
- Changes in cannabinoid receptor function
- Changes in blood pressure or heart rate
- Changes in liver metabolic activity
- Changes in sleep circadian sleep cycles
When someone begins to form a tolerance to a drug like marijuana, it can begin to make them dependant on it. Without the drug, the body falls out of balance the other direction.
A simple example of this is how marijuana affects sleep.
Many users take the drug to help them sleep after a stressful day. It helps them avoid those long hours of laying awake with thoughts racing around the brain.
After several weeks or months of taking the marijuana to sleep, they decide to skip it one night.
That night they lay awake for hours and hours unable to sleep.
This is a direct result of dependence. With long-duration of use, we begin to need the marijuana to be able to sleep at all.
It’s no longer useful for particularly stressful nights, instead, we need it every day if we want a good nights sleep at all.
This is a problem.