Although marijuana has plenty of medical potential, it can prove addictive for some users. While it’s likely that fewer users develop an addiction to weed than alcohol or tobacco, it can cause harmful outcomes when used improperly.
When it happens, the individual in question finds that the use of marijuana negatively affects their lives. Like any other addiction, it disrupts work, relationships, and daily activities. The user becomes unable to stop consuming the drug despite the damage it causes.
This article outlines how weed is addictive, who is most at risk, and what percentage of people are likely to be affected. It also offers advice on reducing the risk of developing an addiction to marijuana and seeking help if necessary.
Is Weed an Addiction?
The simple answer is that it can be. Estimates vary as to the number of people affected. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) claims that up to 30% of people that consume weed develop a Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD). This data is based on a study published in JAMA Psychiatry in 2015. However, the research took its findings from face-to-face interviews with American adults. As the drug remains federally illegal, the number of users is almost certainly far higher than assumed.
A study published in Alcohol Research & Health in 2000 suggests the number of marijuana users that develop CUD is 9%. In comparison, 23% of heroin users, 17% of cocaine users, and 15% of alcohol users become addicted to those substances.
A similar study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependency in 2011 suggested that 8.9% of cannabis users developed a dependence on the substance. This compared to 20.9% of cocaine users, 22.7% for alcohol users, and a remarkable 67.5% of nicotine users.
Concerningly, NIDA cited research suggesting that up to 17% of people who first use marijuana when aged 17 or younger develop CUD.
All available evidence suggests that marijuana is potentially addictive. However, tens of millions of people use weed responsibly and never become addicted. Why is this the case? What causes certain people to become addicted?
How Is Marijuana Addictive?
Like other potentially addictive drugs, cannabis impacts how our brains respond to a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. This chemical seems to support feelings of reward and motivation. When someone uses marijuana, it heightens the activation of dopamine in the brain, and the ensuing boost leads to an increase in pleasurable feelings.
However, when an individual uses the drug too often, it starts to impact dopamine production negatively. Eventually, it becomes necessary to use more marijuana to gain the pleasant feelings offered in the past. The process of chasing the dopamine sensation can lead to addiction and dependence.
When used too frequently, marijuana can negatively affect dopamine production, leading to an addictive habit.
A person’s journey towards addiction begins with dependence. This is the process of using a drug to help them cope with stressors. For example, the user finds that it can help with anxiety, depression, or insomnia at first. Eventually, it gets to the stage where they use the drug more regularly over a long period, thus heightening the risk of addiction.
These days, marijuana’s potency is significantly higher than in the past. A study from 2016 suggested that the average THC content of cannabis increased from 4% in 1995 to 12% in 2014. These days, strains with 20%+ THC are on sale at dispensaries in legal states. Even if CUD rates aren’t rising, the amount of THC consumed by people with the disorder is.
Who Is at Risk of Marijuana Addiction?
Research is ongoing, but there are a few likely factors. A person’s genetics is one of the strongest indicators.
Mental health is another major risk factor for any form of addiction. Drugs can have a positive effect at first. For instance, if you feel anxious, a few puffs of a joint or a glass of wine might alleviate the feeling temporarily.
However, the individual could start to use their drug of choice each time the anxiety returns. Eventually, they develop a tolerance and require more to get the same feeling as before. By now, dependence has become an addiction.
Can You Become Physically Dependent on Weed?
Once someone is addicted to marijuana, they cannot stop using the substance even though it interferes with various aspects of their lives. Such individuals also find that their THC tolerance is far higher than it once was.
After using any drug for long enough, the brain becomes resistant to the drug’s effects to keep itself protected. The next time the person uses the drug, the effects aren’t as strong. A 2014 study published in PNAS found a decreased response to dopamine in people who misuse marijuana. Their brains weren’t producing less dopamine but instead didn’t know what to do with the chemical.
By this stage, there are very clear physical signs of dependence. The person has urges for marijuana so strong that they’re willing to sacrifice other commitments to feed their habit. If they attempt to stop using the drug, or they can’t find a supply, their body shows a host of withdrawal symptoms, including:
- Trouble sleeping
Symptoms usually peak up to a week after using the substance and can last for up to two weeks.
Greater Danger in Teen Users
One of the biggest issues relates to younger marijuana users. The often-cited Dunedin Study followed 1,000 people in the New Zealand city for 25 years. The researchers compared the IQs of subjects from when they were 13 until the age of 38. They found that cannabis users had lower grades, higher rates of addiction, and a decrease of up to eight IQ points.
However, the study didn’t account for a history of mental illness, alcohol and tobacco use, or socioeconomic status.
Yet, the concern about cannabis use among adolescents is justified.
This is an issue picked up on in numerous better-controlled studies. A report published in JAMA in 2021 found that teenagers were more likely to become addicted to marijuana or prescription drugs within 12 months of the first use than young adults.
The researchers discovered that almost 11% of kids aged 12-17 developed CUDs. In young adults aged 18-25, the rate was 6.4%. The study found that teenagers were almost twice as likely to become addicted to opioids and over three times as likely to develop a stimulant addiction than young adults.
As brain development continues into an individual’s 20s, the relatively young age of drug initiation is a significant risk factor for addiction. Once again, the wide availability of high-THC products doesn’t help matters.
It is certainly food for thought when looking to give MMJ to minors. There is ample research that suggests CBD is a safer alternative for kids. It is perhaps worth investigating what top brands like Charlotte’s Web and PureKana have to offer. Broad-spectrum products contain no THC and are maybe the best option for children, although proponents of the entourage effect would say otherwise.
Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?
No. Yet, despite the huge amount of data to prove this, the myth is believed by many, including lawmakers trying to keep the substance prohibited. It is a suggestion that marijuana use is a ‘gateway’ to stronger drugs like heroin.
Dr. Robert L. Du Pont Jr. helped popularize the term ‘gateway drug’ in 1984 during President Reagan’s War on Drugs. Du Pont claimed that if young people didn’t use weed, they were unlikely to use other drugs.
Yet his utterances were little more than the classic fallacy that correlation equals causation. Marijuana is the most used illegal drug in the world. If the gateway theory were accurate, the number of users of illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine would be far higher. In reality, a huge percentage of marijuana users don’t use other illegal drugs.
Using Du Pont’s logic, sugar is a gateway to heroin use. Why? Most people who use heroin also consumed sugar as children.
People who use harder-to-find drugs like heroin in their lifetime are more likely to have tried marijuana, an easier-to-find substance, than someone who hasn’t tried any of these illegal drugs. Even NIDA acknowledged some of these points in its research. The Institute also outlined that a person’s social environment was more important when looking at risk factors for drug use.
What Does the Research Say About Marijuana Addiction?
There is ample scientific evidence to suggest that chronic and prolonged usage of marijuana can lead to physical dependence. A 2011 study published in Oxford University’s ILAR journal determined that: “Chronic exposure to [cannabis] produces physical dependence, and may contribute to drug maintenance in cannabis-dependent individuals.”
The research suggested that marijuana use can result in the body developing a physiological dependence on the presence of cannabinoids.
According to a 2010 article published by Stanford Medicine, the idea that cannabis can produce addiction and subsequent dependence is non-negotiable: “Among pharmacologists, the recognition that psychoactive drugs like marijuana can produce dependence is uncontroversial.”
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology investigated the addictive capacity of marijuana. The researchers were in no doubt that CUD is a problem that requires solving. They also highlighted an urgent need to conduct research that explains the neurobiological changes associated with CUD.
Research from NIDA suggested that in 2015, around four million Americans met the diagnostic criteria for cannabis use disorder.
How Do You Know If You Are Addicted to Weed?
Apart from having strong cravings for the substance, marijuana addiction is often characterized by losing interest in activities one used to enjoy. Rather than maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends, people addicted to marijuana will isolate themselves and focus on using the drug.
While marijuana use itself doesn’t reduce motivation in responsible users, those addicted to the substance may lose the drive to participate in daily activities or achieve goals. They begin to fall behind work or education and fail to fulfill their responsibilities.
Significantly increased tolerance to marijuana is another tell-tale sign, as is continuing to use the drug despite unwanted consequences. Over time, an individual with a marijuana addiction may have the following issues:
- Irritability (often for no apparent reason)
- Anxiousness or feeling worried
- Feeling lethargic or sluggish during the day
- Decreased appetite and weight loss
- Impaired motor skills
- Impaired memory
- Cognitive impairment
- Financial problems
What Can You Do to Decrease the Risk of Becoming Addicted to Marijuana?
If you’re concerned about developing a marijuana addiction, here are a few quick tips to reduce the risk:
- Immerse yourself in physical activity or hobbies
- Reduce your tolerance to THC
- Abstain from using weed for long periods
- Don’t use the substance as a ‘crutch’ during times when you’re feeling stressed or downbeat
- Decrease the amount of marijuana you use in each session
- Stop consuming strains with extremely high levels of THC and avoid cannabis concentrates
- Look for cannabis strains with a reasonable CBD to THC ratio
- Switch to non-intoxicating CBD; there are numerous trustworthy brands such as Premium Jane and Joy Organics that sell a wide range of products
If you already have a CUD, it is time to seek help as soon as you can. Talk about your issue with family and friends to formulate a treatment plan. Consider attending a rehabilitation program, and find out if there is a marijuana anonymous group near you. Other tips include:
- Throwing away your existing supply immediately
- Avoiding places, things, or people that could trigger marijuana use
- Begin exercising regularly to reduce addiction cravings
- Plan sober events where cannabis is banned
- Start setting goals
Final Thoughts: “Can You Get Addicted to Weed?”
The available scientific research suggests that marijuana addiction can happen in approximately 9% of users. People with a CUD can develop a physical dependence on the substance and suffer from withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it for a few days.
Organizations such as NIDA claim that up to 30% of cannabis users develop a dependence, though this is debatable.
Regardless of the true figure, you must be aware of the possibility of addiction when you begin using marijuana. If you find that you’re exhibiting symptoms of addiction, get help as soon as you can. There are treatment programs available on the NIDA website to help you overcome your issue.
Finally, the risk of addiction is almost doubled when someone first uses marijuana as a minor. Moreover, this leads to an increased risk of problems in later life. Therefore, we recommend that teenagers steer clear of the drug.