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Article Summary

A Guide To Marijuana Addiction

Marijuana is the most commonly abused illegal drug in the United States - In 2019 alone 48.2 million people used this drug at least once. At the same time, marijuana is one of the most controversial of the illegal drugs, at the center of intense debates regarding its legalization and its potential benefits for some users.

Today, marijuana is becoming more widely accepted within the United States, with 37 states legalizing its medical use and 18 states legalizing its recreational use. However, despite its burgeoning popularity and legality, marijuana still has the same powerful, adverse effects on the brain and body as it did when it was entirely illegal, and for some users, can even lead to addiction.

Understanding Marijuana

Marijuana, the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis (hemp) plant, is referred to by a number of street names, including Mary Jane, ganja, bud, grass, pot, herb, and weed. Marijuana comes as both regular marijuana and the super concentrated sinsemilla marijuana, derived from unfertilized female cannabis plants.

This drug is available in a number of forms, primarily as water pipes (referred to as bongs), cigars with the inside of the cigar replaced with marijuana (referred to as blunts), and hand-rolled cigarettes (referred to as joints).

In addition, users commonly mix marijuana into a variety of foods (e.g. brownies, cookies, or candy) to create "edibles" that also deliver the marijuana high. A less common form of ingestion is to create tea out of the dried leaves and flowers.

One new approach to consuming marijuana is called dabbing. This approach consists of smoking resin extracted from the marijuana plant in the form of a liquid, a soft waxy material, or a solid. Dabbing delivers a super concentrated dose of marijuana to the user, making it one of the most dangerous forms of marijuana ingestion and often landing users in the emergency room with extreme symptoms, including psychosis.

Marijuana consists of a cornucopia of chemicals. One study identified almost 2,600 chemicals in the smoke from this plant, including 110 proven to be dangerous for human consumption. However, the driving force behind this drug's psychotropic effects is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which mimics a specific neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for pleasure, concentration, memory, and thought processes and also triggers the release of dopamine within the brain's reward system. This combination has a profound effect upon the user's mind and can lead to addiction over time.

Marijuana Uses

Marijuana is commonly referred to as a gateway drug, a term that refers to the increased likelihood that a marijuana user will transition to using other drugs. In marijuana's case, the drug of choice when users transitioned was alcohol, and the transition typically took place within 3 years from when the individual began using marijuana. Individuals most at risk of transferring from marijuana to another drug were those who used marijuana and alcohol together and youth under the age of 18.

It is thought that marijuana paves the way for additional drug use because the brain reduces the amount of dopamine it naturally produces over time in response to the flood of dopamine delivered by marijuana. This loss of sensitivity to dopamine may drive marijuana users to fill the pleasure void with other drugs. In addition, marijuana may play a role in cross-sensitization, which means that marijuana heightens the brain's response to other drugs, making it more rewarding to use those other drugs.

Recent Marijuana Use Statistics

  • 45 percent of individuals in the U.S. have used marijuana at least once.
  • 24 percent of high school seniors have used marijuana in the past year.
  • 35 million Americans use marijuana on a monthly basis.
  • There are about 50 percent more marijuana smokers than tobacco smokers.

Reasons for Use

Individuals choose to use marijuana for a number of reasons primarily associated with the intensely pleasurable sensations and medical relief this drug offers.

Social Use

The high from marijuana tends to create a sense of connection and wellbeing while also enhancing the positive feelings associated with many activities, from sex to playing sports. As a result, many users ingest marijuana before engaging in any number of social activities in order to enhance the pleasure they experience from these activities and in order to enhance their ability to socialize during time spent with others.

Medical Use

In addition, many individuals choose to use marijuana to help them manage certain medical conditions, including arthritis, cancer, Parkinson's disease, and anxiety. In these cases, marijuana is chosen for its pain-relieving, muscle-relaxing abilities and for its mood-enhancing high. Often, marijuana is used as a last resort after other methods of relief have failed, or in cases where other medical solutions are limited or non-existent.

Factors Contributing to Marijuana Use

Marijuana is widely used throughout the United States, regardless of this drug's legal status. However, certain factors are associated with an increased risk for use of this drug.

Illicit Drug Use

In particular, marijuana and other illicit drug use are closely linked. In one study, individuals were 5.4 percent more likely to have used marijuana if they had also used another illicit drug in the past year. Similar statistics appeared for those who had smoked within the past year and those diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder.

Serious Mental Illness

In addition, individuals who suffer from a serious mental illness are more likely to use marijuana, particularly if they are also impoverished. One study found that a strong link among serious mental illness, poverty, and marijuana usage.



Marijuana use is extremely prevalent among youth. In 2019, 37 percent of high school students in the United States reported having used marijuana at least once in their lifetime, while 22 percent reported having used it in the past month.

Marijuana Effects

Marijuana has multiple impacts upon the user's mind and body during the high. When smoked, this high sets in between 2 and 10 minutes from ingestion and lasts for up to 3 hours. When consumed through edibles, the high sets in within about 30 minutes to 1 hour and can last for many hours. The cannabis from the marijuana immediately travels throughout the bloodstream and into the brain, impacting multiple organs along the way.

Once in the brain, cannabis attaches to specific brain receptors associated with memory, pleasure, learning, thinking, concentration, and movement while simultaneously triggering the release of dopamine. As a result, the user experiences a pleasurable "high" that can include the following sensations:

  • Euphoria
  • Relaxation
  • Giggliness
  • Creativity
  • Hunger
  • Heightened sensitivity
  • Happiness

Users may also experience a negative high that includes the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Panic
  • Social withdrawal
  • Impulsivity

Marijuana is often advertised as carrying a low risk for dependence and addiction, and is often portrayed as offering a way to heighten one's enjoyment of life without experiencing the same overdose and health risks that are associated with many other illicit drugs.

However, the reality is that marijuana can create the same dependence and addictive qualities within users as do other drugs, because it triggers the reward system of the brain in the same way that other drugs do. Over time, the brain is overtaken by the marijuana, leading to a restructuring of the brain that makes it almost impossible for the addict to function without the presence of marijuana and that drives the addict to structure their lives around obtaining and using marijuana. At this point, the user is in the grip of a disease that requires professional support to overcome. In 2017, 4 million people suffered from this type of addiction.

In addition, an even larger percentage of users (About 30 percent) suffer from marijuana use disorder, which serves as a precursor to addiction. Characterized by symptoms such as using more marijuana than intended, being unable to stop using marijuana, using marijuan despite negative physical and social repercussions, and suffering from withdrawal symptoms, this disorder can significantly impair a person's ability to live their everyday life. Marijuana use disorder also requires professional rehab to help the user overcome their dependence on marijuana.

Marijuana Side Effects

In addition to marijuana's high, use of this drug can create many side effects, some short-term, and some long-term, that can significantly impact the user's life. Many of these side effects are related to marijuana's ability to bind to receptors in the brain responsible for thinking, coordination, and movement.

Short-Term Side Effects

The short-term side effects of marijuana most often occur during the high and fade soon after.

  • Altered sense of time
  • Altered senses
  • Mood changes
  • Impaired body movements
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Psychosis
  • Impaired memory
  • Difficulty thinking and problem solving
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Dreamlike sensations
  • Lung exposure to carcinogenic chemicals
  • Accidents

Because marijuana leads to distortions in the user's coordination, balance, thinking, problem-solving, and memory, this drug can make it unsafe for the user to drive, operate machinery, or work. When an user attempts any of these things while under the influence of marijuana, they run an increased risk of accidents that could harm both them and those around them.

The specific short-term effects of marijuana will depend in large part upon the amount and potency of the marijuana that is consumed. As a result, many users try to control the dose of marijuana they consume in order to achieve a pleasurable high without some of the negative side effects.

However, it can be easy to take a larger than intended dose of this drug, due to varying levels of potency and purity, especially when the marijuana is consumed as an edible. In some cases, ingestion of too much marijuana can lead to psychosis so severe that the user ends up in the hospital.

Long-Term Side Effects

When taken consistently over time, marijuana can be significant long-term effects on an user's mental and physical health.

Lung Damage

One marijuana cigarette can expose an user to the same amount of cancer-causing chemicals as up to 5 cigarettes. In addition, users tend to inhale more deeply and for longer than when ingesting cigarettes, leading to long-term breathing problems. These can include the following:

  • Consistent cough
  • Phlegm
  • Lung infections
  • Respiratory illnesses
  • Social Impacts

Because of marijuana's impacts on the brain, regular use of this drug can also have serious social impacts. Users may find themselves struggling to maintain relationships, hold down a job, or succeed in school, thanks to the mind-altering effects of this drug. In addition, some users may fail required drug tests for their jobs, sports participation, or applications, which can limit their chances of furthering their goals and achieving the life they desire.

Child Development

At least 20 percent of pregnant women use marijuana, and often with significantly negative effects on their children. Marijuana use during pregnancy has been show to affect the baby's developing brain and has been linked to the following impacts:

  • Low birth weight
  • Problems with attention and memory
  • Behavioral issues

THC is also present in breastmilk when the mother uses, and could impact her baby's brain when the child consumes her breast milk.

Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome

Long-term marijuana use can lead to cyclical and intense nausea and vomiting. These cycles can be so extreme that they lead to dehydration and hospital visits.

Here are some of the additional long-term impacts marijuana use can have on the individual:

  • Hallucinations and paranoia
  • Long-term problems with memory and problem-solving
  • Development of disorders such as schizophrenia
  • Mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression
  • Decrease in satisfaction with life and relationships
  • Cognitive impairment among teens
  • Increased risk of heart attack associated with the elevated heart rate caused by this drug

Marijuana Overdose

Many people believe that it is impossible to overdose on marijuana, and it is true that there are no recorded instances of death from marijuana overdose. However, taking too much marijuana can have other negative effects, including the following:

  • Intense psychosis
  • Anxiety
  • Shaking
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Dramatically increased risk of accidents, which can be fatal

Users must be particularly aware of how much they ingest through edibles. The dose of marijuana in an edible can vary significantly, and it can be easy to consume too much, particularly because the high does not begin until up to a hour after the edible is ingested.

In addition, the average potency of THC in marijuana, whether smoked or consumed, has increased dramatically in recent year. This means that users need to consume less to achieve their high, and may be more likely to accidentally consume too much and experience overdose symptoms.

If you or a loved one believe you have consumed too much marijuana, seek medical treatment immediately.

Marijuana Withdrawal

Marijuana does not create the same crash that users experience with other drugs such as meth or heroin. However, individuals who regularly use marijuana may begin to experience symptoms of withdrawal when the substance leaves their bodies.

In order to begin experiencing withdrawal, users typically need to consume marijuana daily for several months. The severity of withdrawal symptoms will depend primarily upon how much the individual has been ingesting and how long they have been using marijuana. The most common symptoms of withdrawal are the following:

  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nightmares
  • Depression
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Tremors

While marijuana withdrawal does not always require medical supervision to be completed successfully, participation in a detox program can prevent relapse. This program will provide the patient with the medical and emotional support needed to navigate withdrawal successfully, while minimizing the impacts of the withdrawal symptoms.

Signs And Symptoms Of Marijuana Abuse

Marijuana is less stigmatized and more popular than any other illicit drug and is legal in many states. As a result, marijuana users are less likely to hide their use than those who consume other drugs. However, there are certain signs you can watch for to know whether a loved one is using, or becoming addicted to, marijuana.

  • Difficulty holding a conversation
  • Increased appetite
  • Difficulty managing finances or staying out of legal trouble as they seek to finance their addiction
  • Paranoia
  • Loss of motivation or lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Drug paraphernalia
  • Uncontrollable laughing

Treatment For Marijuana Addiction

Individuals who suffer from marijuana use disorder or full-blown addiction need professional assistance to heal and move forward with a healthier life. Because addiction can restructure the brain's reward system and because marijuana in particular can influence an user's ability to think rationally and make wise decisions, rehab is often necessary to help them relearn a healthy way of thinking and living.

Professional treatment for heroin addiction can involve the following three steps: Detox, treatment, and aftercare.


Detox refers to the process of receiving professional support throughout the withdrawal process. While some individuals may be able to withdraw without detox, most addicts benefit from the support detox provides and are less likely to relapse if they have round-the-clock monitoring from medical professionals, medication to ease withdrawal symptoms, and a therapist to help them move to the next step of treatment.


After detox, the patient will typically move to some sort of rehab. For some patients, outpatient programs where they attend a certain number of times a week, is sufficient. For others, inpatient rehab is necessary. Residential rehab allows patients to live at the rehab facility while receiving intensive treatment in a structured environment.

Treatment, whether outpatient or inpatient, can consist of many different treatment approaches tailored to the patient's needs and based on the treatment center's approach to addiction treatment. Any of the following treatments may be used:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Individual counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Holistic treatment
  • Exercise and nutrition
  • Medication
  • And more
  • Aftercare

Once the patient is ready to return to their daily life, they will develop an aftercare plan with their therapist. This plan will help them to continue their recovery while transitioning to a more normal daily schedule. This plan can include any of the following:

  • A stay at a sober living facility
  • Outpatient rehab programs
  • Ongoing counseling
  • Ongoing medication
  • 12-step programs

Even though marijuana is legal in many states, its negative impacts can be extensive and severe. Those who suffer from dependence on this drug should seek out professional support in treating their disease and regaining freedom from addiction. With help, addiction can be managed, and a fulfilling life can be lived.


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