Over the past couple of years, that has been a lot of debate and conversation around the topic of marijuana. More specifically, whether or not legalization should take place for medicinal reasons.

These messages have created a lot of confusion around the addictive properties associated with marijuana. However, scientists are continuing to show how this seemingly “harmless” plant impacts the brain and, in turn, addictive behavioral patterns.

As more and more states continue to legalize marijuana, it is more important than ever before that we discuss the true implications of marijuana use, particularly among chronic users.

Debunking the Myth That Marijuana Is Not Addictive

Aside from alcohol, marijuana is the most popular and commonly used drug in the United States. As stated by researchers from the University of Notre Dame the proportion of users under the age of 18 has increased by a startling 67 percent since the 1960s. Considering adolescents are three times more likely to experience dependence in comparison to adults, there is great cause for concern.

Many experts believe that this sharp increase is due to the pro-marijuana messages that are often promoted in the media. These messages often portray marijuana in a positive light, driving the myth that marijuana is not addictive. However, the available research shows otherwise.

Before we address the supporting evidence, it’s imperative that you understand what “addiction” really means. Defined as the compulsive engagement in the use of a substance, addiction involves both a physical and psychological component. For example, heroin and other opiates can cause a rapid physical dependence, in addition to psychological cravings.

To define a substance as addictive, it must meet specific criteria. As outlined by the American Psychiatric Association and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the diagnosis of dependency is based on the following.

Please note: In order to receive the diagnosis of dependency, you must meet three of the criteria below within the same 12-month period.

  • Tolerance — Do you need more of the substance in order to experience the same effects?
  • Withdrawal symptoms — From increased irritability to loss of motivation, not all withdrawal symptoms present themselves as severe physical implications. If you discontinue using marijuana, do you experience any undesirable effects, mentally or physically?
  • Continued use despite adverse effects — Whether you experience relationship issues or problems with your career if you continue to use after adverse effects have become apparent, this is cause for concern.
  • Reduction in various activities due to marijuana use — This can include social, recreational, or occupational activities.
  • Withdrawing from loved ones in order to use — Perhaps you avoid hanging out with your family so that you can use marijuana? You may also stop taking part in hobbies you once enjoyed.
  • Taking larger amounts — If you have been increasing the amount of marijuana taken over a period of time without intention, this is a red flag.
  • Persistent desire — Do you crave marijuana and, in the past, have you unsuccessfully cut down usage?

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Marijuana IS Both Physically and Psychology Addictive

Despite what many people think, marijuana does cause symptoms of withdrawal. In fact, after you take your last dose, withdrawal symptoms can continue for approximately three weeks.

This is due to the amount of time it takes THC to leave your system, mainly due to the fact that THC is a fatty acid. This means that it is gradually released from your body’s fat stores, resulting in a lack of rapid, intense withdrawal symptoms — or at least a reduced awareness that withdrawal symptoms exist.

As stated in one key study published in BMC Psychiatry, some of the most common symptoms of marijuana withdrawal include, but are not limited to:

  • Increasing irritability and anger
  • Nervousness, which is a sign of distress
  • Insomnia or sleep difficulty, in addition to vivid, unpleasant dreams
  • Changes in appetite and/or weight loss
  • Restlessness, which is often a later onset symptom
  • Mood swings, particularly a depressed mood
  • Physical symptoms, including tremors, pain, sweating, headaches, and chills

When considering the core psychological withdrawal symptoms associated with marijuana, there is no denying that this substance meets the criteria for addiction.

However, the severity and prevalence of the above symptoms are highly dependent on the individual. While the vast majority of marijuana users can imbibe on occasion and, in turn, exhibit no addictive symptoms, others are more deeply affected — particularly those who are regular, chronic users.

Related: Marijuana Abuse — Effects, Signs & Symptoms

Overall, researchers believe that approximately 9 percent of people who start using marijuana at age 18 or older meet the criteria for dependence. Unfortunately, as stated above, for those who begin using marijuana when they are under 13, this number triples.

Marijuana Impacts the Brain’s Reward Center

Neuroscientists have been able to show that marijuana has a direct impact on your brain’s reward center. In a 2016 study published in Human Brain Mapping, the researchers found that chronic marijuana use disrupts the brain’s natural reward system — which is typically driven by an increase in dopamine levels.

In fact, the researchers concluded that these changes may act as a marker of transition from recreational use to problematic use.

The same is true when studying the impact that marijuana has on animal behavior. As reported by the California Society of Addiction Medicine, animal models have shown the impact of withdrawal in relation to cannabinoid addiction. When given THC on a daily basis for a week, followed by a cannabinoid blocker, the behavior of the animals significantly changed.

The cannabinoid blocker does not have an impact when given on its own. However, since the animals were primed by a week of THC administration, a discontinuation in cannabinoid activity resulted in symptoms such as increased aggressiveness, diarrhea, vomiting, sleep disruptions, and restless behavior.

Today, not only are we facing obstacles in regards to accessibility, but also potency. Based on confiscated samples, in 1990, the average THC content was around 3.8 percent. In 2014, the number skyrocketed to an average of 12.2 percent — with some samples exceeding 80 percent.

Why Do Some People Get Addicted While Others Do Not?

There have been many examples of people who are able to pick up marijuana and just as easily put it down. However, this is not the case for everyone.

Although experts believe that around 9 percent of marijuana users showcase a dependence, studies suggest that 30 percent of users display some level of marijuana use disorder. In 2015, that equated to approximately four million Americans. Of these individuals, 138,000 sought voluntary treatment.

The point is, marijuana is not going to disappear, and if you are someone who uses on a regular basis, it’s important to understand the risks involved — including the impact of your genetics.

While focusing on addiction, genes are a strong predictor. Numerous twin studies support this theory, showcasing the impact of biological differences in relation to you being more or less vulnerable to addiction.

For example, non-smokers are more likely to carry a protective allele of the CYP2A6 gene in comparison to smokers. This causes carriers to feel dizzy and nauseous when smoking. Of course, there isn’t one singular gene that influences addiction. This is why most experts believe that addiction results from a combination of environmental variables and inherited traits.

In summary: There is no denying that marijuana use can become highly problematic. However, only a select group of users (approximately 9 percent) will experience addiction as a result. Since each individual case is unique, it is also important to consider the possibility of co-morbid conditions.

For example, as reported in Scientific American, there are concerns that marijuana may trigger certain disorders in those who are vulnerable, including schizophrenia. That is why each situation may be handled on a case-by-case basis.

If you are a heavy marijuana user, it is important to ask yourself what role this substance plays in your life. Does it have priority over your occupation, friends, family, and daily activities? If so, it is important to consider your options. This is particularly critical if you have begun experimenting with other drugs.

If you would like more information on the potential implications of marijuana addiction, please contact us today.