Currently, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, and all across the country, people’s views on marijuana are changing as recreational use becomes legal in more states.
Marijuana use in the United States is roughly three times higher than the global average, and as of 2015, more than 22 million Americans reported as having used marijuana within the past month.
And while legalization and decriminalization of marijuana mean more people can take advantage of its medicinal benefits, it also contributes to the dangerous perception of marijuana as a “safe” drug, especially when compared to substances like prescription opioids.
Unfortunately, legalizing marijuana does not change its chemistry or make it less addictive, but it does create a wider spread of misinformation and a greater likelihood of children and teenagers trying marijuana under the false impression that there will be no real consequences to doing so.
Marijuana may not have the same connotation or physical dangers of opioids, amphetamines, or other drugs, but there are still very real health risks associated with marijuana addiction. Just because people are not aware of these dangers does not make them any less of a threat to those who regularly engage in marijuana abuse.
What is Marijuana?
Marijuana is a psychoactive drug derived from the Cannabis plant and gets its mental and physical effects from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Marijuana can be smoked, vaporized, combined with food, and is commonly referred to as pot, weed, grass, dope, among others.
Marijuana has been used medicinally, recreationally, and spiritually for thousands of years, but only really became part of the mainstream conversation in the United States around the 1970s, when its recreational use became popularized and, within that same decade, was decriminalized in 11 states.
Although marijuana is recognized as having various medical uses, and in its specific medicinal form has been used to treat chronic pain, reduce nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing chemotherapy, and improve appetite, it is still classified by the DEA as a Schedule I substance. Schedule I drugs are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse and addiction and no currently accepted medical usage and are illegal to possess or manufacture.
However, at the state level, marijuana’s legality is more of a conflicting gray area, as it is classified as a Schedule II substance. While it’s legal for medicinal purposes in multiple states, it’s decriminalized and completely legal for recreational use in others.
Over the past few decades, researchers noticed a steady increase in the potency of confiscated samples of marijuana. In the early 90s, the average concentration of THC in a given sample was about 3.8 percent, whereas in 2014 it was nearly four times higher. This is a worrying trend, as it may indicate more serious consequences to heavy marijuana use today than in the past, especially for children and teens, whose brains are still developing and are at a greater risk for permanent neurological damage.
How Does Marijuana Work?
Whether it is smoked or eaten, marijuana’s active ingredient, THC, enters the brain and binds to what are known as cannabinoid receptors. Yes, the human body does, in fact, make its own cannabinoids, and one of them is a neurotransmitter known as anandamide. Anandamide activates the brain’s cannabinoid receptors, and THC mimics anandamide, stimulating the receptors into over-productivity and flooding numerous key parts of the brain with cannabinoids, including:
- The nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain dealing with motivation and reward as well as pleasure. This is where cannabinoids increase the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine to create the feelings of pleasure and euphoria that define a marijuana high.
- The hypothalamus, a section of the brain that influences eating habits, which is why one of the side effects of a marijuana high is a significant increase in appetite.
- The hippocampus, which is important for functions such as short-term memory and learning new information, which is why marijuana use interferes with someone’s ability to recall recent events and alters their perception and awareness of time.
- The basal ganglia, which is responsible for directing unconscious muscle movements, which is why another common effect of marijuana use is impaired coordination and motor skills as well as a slowed reaction time.
- The spinal cord, which is the main route of nerve signal transmissions between the body and brain. Cannabinoids can take up space in the spinal cord and create blocks against pain signals to create a numbing effect.
- The neocortex, which handles complex thinking and feeling and, when disrupted by the cannabinoids, leads to altered sensory perception, like sight and hearing, as well as impaired judgement and thought process.
Much like LSD or MDMA, while people do not generally become physically dependent on or tolerant to marijuana, it is more than possible to become psychologically dependent on the drug, requiring it more and more to cope with stress or anxiety or get through everyday tasks that did not previously require the use of marijuana.
Research has suggested that roughly nine to 30 percent of those who use marijuana will develop a marijuana use disorder. Children and teens under the age of 18 who use marijuana are four to seven times more likely than adults to develop a marijuana use disorder.
When stopping marijuana use after an extended period of heavy abuse, most users experience withdrawal symptoms that include cravings, irritability, boredom and restlessness, and insomnia and other sleep disturbances.
What are the Effects of Marijuana?
The short-term effects of marijuana will generally begin to manifest within less than 10 minutes of being smoked and between 30 minutes to an hour after being eaten and include:
- Dry mouth
- Red, glassy eyes
- Impaired motor skills
- Impaired memory and other cognitive processes
- Altered perception of time
- Altered sensory perception (colors, sounds, etc.)
- Elevated heart rate
When taken in high doses, other side effects that may appear include:
- Panic attacks
Many people may not be as aware of some of the more detrimental long-term effects of marijuana abuse, which include:
- Psychological dependence
- Respiratory problems, including chronic coughing
- A higher risk of developing lung infections
- Potentially permanent memory impairments
- Increased risk of stroke or heart attack, especially if the user has a pre-existing heart condition
In users who are teenagers or even younger, the long-term effects also include significant alterations in brain development, particularly memory, thinking, and the ability to learn new information.
What are the Signs of Marijuana Addiction?
Due to the growing change in public perception of marijuana and its use, spotting marijuana addiction symptoms can sometimes be somewhat difficult. However, there are many noticeable behaviors that serve as signals to substance abuse problems in general that are consistent with marijuana addiction.
When someone becomes dependent on marijuana, they prioritize its use over nearly everything else in their life, including responsibilities, family, and friends. As these are discarded in favor of marijuana, the signs of marijuana addiction will begin to grow more apparent.
Being able to spot some of the earlier and more subtle marijuana addiction symptoms can help to ensure that proper treatment is sought out before it becomes a long-term problem. This is especially crucial if the person suffering from marijuana addiction is under the age of 18 and therefore more vulnerable to the negative effects of long-term marijuana abuse.
Some of the common signs of marijuana addiction that indicate that someone is in need of help or treatment include:
- Missing valuables or money used to buy marijuana
- Attempting to rationalize marijuana abuse
- Lying about or otherwise hiding marijuana abuse
- Growing lack of attention to personal hygiene and appearance
- A need to use marijuana daily or several times a day
- Lack of interest in hobbies or activities
- Withdrawing socially in favor of marijuana use
- Noticeable decline in performance in school or at work
- Legal issues resulting from marijuana abuse
If you recognize these marijuana addiction symptoms in your own behavior or observed them in someone you care about, it is of the utmost importance that you seek professional treatment and the substance is flushed from their system via detoxification to prevent further psychological or physical damage.
What is Involved in Marijuana Addiction Treatment?
People who are ignorant of the dangers of marijuana abuse and the realities of marijuana addiction may not believe that marijuana addiction treatment is necessary. However, like any other substance use disorder, without treatment, tools, and skills for managing addiction that it provides, it is unlikely that someone will be able to prevent relapse for any significant length of time.
If it is deemed necessary, someone entering into marijuana addiction treatment may start with medical detoxification to flush the drug from their system. At this time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any medications specifically for the treatment of marijuana addiction, although there is active research in that area.
In the meantime, since insomnia and other sleep issues are among the most common marijuana withdrawal symptoms, medications to aid in easing these symptoms are being tested in clinical trials. Medications that have shown some success in treating this symptom include the sleep-aid Ambien, as well as an anti-epilepsy medication called Neurontin, and BuSpar, an anti-anxiety drug.
Residential treatment and outpatient programs will also use different addiction therapies and behavioral treatments when working with patients towards recovery. Some specific forms of behavioral therapy that have been found effective in marijuana addiction treatment include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Considered the “gold standard” of behavioral therapy, CBT attempts to teach people strategies to be able to identify and then correct their addictive behaviors, including not only drug use but also the behaviors that often co-occur with addiction, such as issues with self-control, impulsivity, and negative thought patterns.
- Motivational Interviewing: This form of therapy is intended to galvanize rapid, self-motivated change within people in recovery. One of the key aspects of motivational interviewing is an emphasis on positive reinforcement and on avoiding any form of shaming. The main goal is to mobilize someone into being open to change and actively engaged in their treatment.
- Contingency Management: Best described as a “cause and effect” form of therapy, contingency management is based on the idea of providing or removing tangible rewards depending on monitored behavior. If someone accomplishes their target behavior, the behavior is positively reinforced with the reward.
How Dangerous is Marijuana?
There has never been a reported fatal marijuana overdose, and because THC has such low toxicity, the odds of overdosing, in general, are minute at best. But this definitely does not mean that marijuana isn’t dangerous or that heavy marijuana abuse can’t lead to serious health consequences.
We’ve already mentioned the danger marijuana poses to children and teenagers specifically in terms of inhibiting key developments in the brain as well as their increased vulnerability in becoming dependent on marijuana. Pregnant women who abuse marijuana are much more likely to give birth to babies who are dangerously underweight and have an increased risk of developing neurological and behavioral problems.
If someone with schizophrenia uses marijuana, they are likely to experience a significant worsening of symptoms. Also, much like LSD, someone with latent schizophrenia or other mental disorders who is not yet exhibiting symptoms may be triggered by marijuana use, and are at high risk of potential psychosis.
People engaging in heavy marijuana abuse can also develop what’s known as Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome, which can cause regular episodes of severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration to the point of requiring emergency medical services.
Just because marijuana use is becoming more common does not mean that using it is suddenly safe or without repercussions. It is possible to become addicted to marijuana and to suffer the negative effects associated with regular marijuana abuse. Because of this, it is extremely important to be informed about the dangers of marijuana and that parents especially discuss these dangers with their children.
Marijuana Abuse Statistics
- As of 2015, roughly four million people in the United States met the necessary diagnostic criteria for an addiction to marijuana.
- For people checking into addiction treatment for marijuana, it is typical for them to have been using for 10 years or more and to have attempted quitting more than half a dozen times.
Drivers with marijuana in their systems are twice as likely to be involved in a fatal accident than sober drivers.